How do you deal with an angel who looks like a man? What if even God looks like a man?
Sometimes in the Torah God speaks directly to a human being. Sometimes God speaks through an intermediary, a malakh = messenger, emissary. (The Hebrew word malakh is often translated as “angel” in English, although it bears little resemblance to an angel in our popular culture.)
A messenger/malakh of God can manifest as a voice “from the heavens” (to Hagar and Abraham), and as someone who looks like a man (to Abraham, Lot, Hagar, Jacob, and probably Joseph). In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And it appeared”), men who are really divine messengers appear first to Abraham, then to his nephew Lot.
God appeared to him [Abraham] at the great trees of Mamre; he himself was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day. He lifted his eyes and saw–hey!–three men were standing over him. He saw, and he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them, and he bowed to the ground. He said: Please, Adonai, if I find favor in your eyes, please don’t pass by your servant. (Genesis 18:1-3)
Adonai (אֲדֺנָי) = my lords; My Lord (a name of God).
Abraham’s words are ambiguous. By saying “my lords” to three strange men, he is treating them as people of high rank. Does he do this because he is a polite host? Or does he know he is actually addressing God and a pair of God’s messengers?
He rushes around, preparing a delicious meal for the three “men”. He recruits his wife Sarah to bake cakes, and his teenage boy (either a slave, or his son Ishmael, who is 13) to slaughter a tender calf. The three men eat, or appear to eat. Then one of them declares that Abraham’s wife Sarah will have a baby. Inside the tent, Sarah laughs; she is 89 years old.
Then God said to Abraham: Why is it that Sarah laughed? … Is it too extraordinary a thing, from God? (Genesis 18:13-14)
Abraham expresses no surprise that now God is talking to him, though the three “men” are still present.
And the men got up from there, and they looked down on the face of Sodom, and Abraham was walking with them to send them off. And God said: … Because the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their wrongdoing is very heavy, I will go down … (Genesis 18:16-21)
But it is the “men” who go down to Sodom, while Abraham argues with God.
The men turned their faces away from there and they went to Sodom, when Abraham was still standing before God. (Genesis 18:22)
After Abraham convinces God to refrain from destroying Sodom if there are even ten righteous people in the city,
God left as [God] finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place. And the two malakhim came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom, and Lot saw, and he got up to greet them, and he bowed to them, face to the ground. (Genesis 18:33-19:1)
malakhim (מַלְאָכִים) = messengers, emissaries. (Plural of malakh.)
Lot bows to the ground before the men just like his uncle Abraham. He begs them to come home with him for the night. Like Abraham, Lot calls the men adonai, which could mean either “my lords” (men of rank) or “My Lord” (God). Lot prepares a drinking-feast for the two messengers, with matzah he bakes himself. Unlike Abraham, he does not ask his wife or his children to participate in welcoming the guests. That night, all the men of Sodom surround Lot’s house.
And they called to Lot and they said to him: Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, and we will “know” them. (Genesis 19:5)
The men of Sodom do not see divine messengers, only strangers who can be degraded through rape. Lot steps out, closing the door behind himself, and asks the men of Sodom not to do evil. Then he says:
Hey, please, I have two daughters who have not known a man. I will bring them out to you, please, and do to them what is good in your eyes. Only don’t do a thing to the men of God … (Genesis 19:10)
Does Lot think his two guests are prophets, and therefore “men of God”? Or does he know they are malakhim, God’s emissaries?
The last thing the men of Sodom see, before they are blinded by a dazzling light, is the “men” stretching out their hands and pulling Lot back into the house. The two “men” urge Lot to collect his married daughters and their families, so they can all flee together before disaster strikes. Now their words make it clear that they are God’s instruments, not ordinary men.
For we are destroying this place, because the outcry is great before God, and God sent us to destroy it. (Genesis 19:13)
But Lot cannot persuade his sons-in-law to flee. When he returns to his house, the two “messengers” urge Lot to leave at once with his wife and his two unmarried daughters. Lot hesitates, so the “men” grasp all four people by their hands and pull them out of the city. Once Lot, his wife, and his two daughters are out of range, it is “God” who rains sulfur and fire on Sodom.
Both Abraham and Lot recognize the strangers as messengers of God. What strikes me is that Abraham not only recognizes God, but also recognizes the importance of his own wife and boy. By telling them to help prepare the banquet, he is acknowledging that they, too, have a stake in this visit from the divine. He speaks to everyone: his own family, the three strange men, and God.
Lot, on the other hand, speaks only to God’s messengers and the men of Sodom. He prepares drink and matzah for the divine messengers without saying a word to his wife or his daughters. When he faces the men of Sodom outside his house, he shuts the door to protect God’s messengers, but he offers his daughters to the mob.
Lot reminds me of people I have met who act as if their relationship with God is more important than their relationships with human beings. Abraham, at the beginning of this Torah portion, is a model of someone who lives comfortably with both humans and God, who speaks to everyone, respects everyone, and is generous with everyone. He loses his balance later in his life; but at that moment, in the grove of Mamre, he values both God and human beings.
Whether we recognize God’s messengers or not, may we all become more like Abraham in Mamre, and less like Lot in Sodom.