1 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” 7 And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10 The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.” – Genesis 18:1-15 ESV
This next encounter between God and Abraham took place not long after Abraham had been given a new name from God, as well as instructions to institute the rite of circumcision. Abraham had also received a divine confirmation that Sarah, his wife, would bear him a son, and God had been very specific about the timing.
“I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” – Genesis 17:21 ESV
When God made this commitment to Abraham, Sarah had been nowhere in sight. And there seems to be no indication that Abraham ever shared this good news with his barren wife. In fact, when Abraham had heard this promise from God, he had laughed to himself in disbelief.
“How could I become a father at the age of 100?” he thought. “And how can Sarah have a baby when she is ninety years old?” – Genesis 17:17 NLT
But rather than punish Abraham for his doubt and disbelief, God simply restated His intentions for Sarah to give birth to a son, and He even provided a name for this miracle baby: Isaac. Yet, not long after Abraham received God’s promise of an heir, and after he and the male members of his household had healed from their circumcisions, God visited him again.
Abraham was still living in the region of Hebron, by the oaks of Mamre. This was the spot where he had settled after he and his nephew Lot had parted ways (Genesis 13:14-18). On that occasion, Abraham had attempted to settle a dispute between himself and Lot by allowing his nephew to choose any of the land of Canaan for himself. As a result, Lot had chosen the well-watered Jordan Valley. But despite Abraham’s generous offer to Lot, God had assured him that all the land would be his.
“Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession.” – Genesis 13:14-15 NLT
In gratitude, Abraham had built an altar, so that he might call on the name of Yahweh. And this very spot would be where Abraham received yet another divine visit and further confirmation concerning God’s intentions to provide him an heir through Sarah.
This time, God appears to Abraham in the form of a theophany, a visible manifestation of His presence, but in human form. As Abraham sat by the door of his tent, he looked up and saw three men in the distance. Due to the isolated nature of his location, visitors would have been a few and far between. And there must have been something that led Abraham to believe that these men were dignitaries of some kind. It is difficult to assess whether Abraham immediately understood this to be a divine manifestation or whether he assumed these to be three men of importance passing through his land. But either way, Abraham went out of his way to welcome them and offer them food and shelter.
“My lord,” he said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while. Rest in the shade of this tree while water is brought to wash your feet. And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.” – Genesis 18:3-5 NLT
What makes this passage so fascinating is the way the conversation is recorded by Moses. It is clear that there are three men. And as Abraham converses with them, it appears as if all three speak in unison. When Abraham offered to provide them with water and food, the text reads, “So they said, ‘Do as you have said’” (Genesis 18:5 ESV). A few verses later, Moses records another question that seems to come from all three men: “They said to him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife’” (Genesis 18:9 ESV). And yet, in the very next verse, Moses records a statement that he attributes to the Lord.
The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” – Genesis 18:9 ESV
It seems that this trio of visitors was made up of the Angel of the Lord and two other angelic beings. There are many who believe this Angel of the Lord was actually a Christophany, a manifestation of the pre-incarnate Christ. But there is no way to prove this with any certainty. But Moses seems to be indicating that all three of these visitors spoke on behalf of God and had full authority to act as His agents. At what point Abraham discerned their divine status is difficult to ascertain.
After greeting his guests and offering them his hospitality, Abraham entered his tent and ordered Sarah to prepare food. Then he instructed one of his servants to slaughter and cook a calf. When the food was ready, Abraham served his guests but did not join them. He treated them with utmost dignity and honor, refusing even to recline at the table with them. But as he stood nearby watching them eat, Abraham was probably a bit surprised when they asked the whereabouts of Sarah. He must have been shocked that these strangers knew his wife’s name. But he simply replied that she was in the tent. At this point, Abraham heard those very familiar words, “I will return to you about this time next year, and your wife, Sarah, will have a son!” (Genesis 18:10 ESV). It was probably at this point that Abraham recognized the divine nature of his visitors. Those were the very same words God had spoken to him just days earlier.
So, why was God making a special point to reiterate this promise yet again? The rest of the verse provides the answer.
Sarah was listening to this conversation from the tent. – Genesis 18:10 NLT
Sarah was eavesdropping. Her curiosity had gotten the best of her and she couldn’t resist the temptation to hear what was going on between her husband and these three visiting dignitaries. But what she overheard left her incredulous. She had no idea who these men were, but she found the content of their news to be not only highly improbably but totally impossible. And Moses records why.
Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. – Genesis 18:11 NLT
It seems apparent that Abraham had not shared with Sarah the previous promise he had received from God. Perhaps he knew her well enough to know that she would not take the news well. For Sarah, who had waited decades to experience the joy of childbirth, any promise that she might finally bear a son would ring hollow and be nothing more than another painful reminder of her helpless and hopeless condition. So, when she heard the words spoken outside the folds of her tent, she mirrored the response of her own husband. She treated this too-good-to-be-true news with disbelief and scorn.
“How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?” – Genesis 18:12 NLT
Sarah was 90-years-old and her body was well beyond the point of being able to conceive a child. Over the years, she and Abraham had faithfully attempted to get pregnant, but with no success. It was painfully clear that she was barren and incapable of ever having a child. That was the reason behind her decision to give her maidservant to Abraham as a surrogate or stand-in. She had hoped that this might be an acceptable workaround to God’s seemingly failed promise to provide Abraham with an heir.
But here was God restating His commitment to do things His way – despite Sarah’s well-reasoned doubts and the seemingly impossible odds that were stacked against her and Abraham. They were old, but God was powerful. The outlook looked grim, but God was great. The prospect of Sarah becoming pregnant appeared impossible, “but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV). And that is exactly what God communicated to Sarah as she hid behind the folds of her tent and cowered behind fears and doubts of her heart.
Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Why did she say, ‘Can an old woman like me have a baby?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord.” – Genesis 18:13-14 NLT
Notice that the Lord addressed Abraham and not Sarah. God had overheard her response, but He addressed His question to her husband. It is almost as if God was holding Abraham responsible for his wife’s incredulity and insolence. He had failed to pass on God’s earlier promise and had left his wife struggling with doubt and disbelief. Abraham’s confidence in God’s word had not been strong enough to convince him to tackle his wife’s lingering apprehension and uncertainty.
Like Adam, who stood by and watched his wife succumb to the temptation of the serpent in the garden, Abraham had allowed his wife to wallow in her pity and self-doubt. Rather than encouraging her to trust in the faithfulness of God, he had withheld the promise of God, and her resentment and refusal to believe withered like her womb. Her faith had become as impotent as her body. She had allowed her doubts to turn to disbelief and her disbelief, if left unchecked, would eventually turn to disobedience. And God was holding Abraham, her husband, responsible.
Sarah, still believing that she was hidden from view within the confines of her tent, denied the accusation that she had laughed. She refused to acknowledge her doubt and disbelief. But the all-knowing, all-seeing God refuted her claim and declared, “No, but you did laugh” (Genesis 18:15 ESV). God knew and He understood. He was well aware of Sarah’s physical disability and fully cognizant of the paralyzing disbelief it had produced. Her infertility had produced incredulity. But God wanted her to know that neither her barrenness nor her disbelief would prove too difficult for Him to overcome.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.