Notes on Genesis (vi)
‘So he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood before him…’ (Gen 18:2)
While we are told that God appeared to Abraham as he was sitting at the oak of Mamre (18:1), it turns out that the patriarch saw three men, but in addressing his visitor(s) he persistently uses the singular term ‘Lord’. After some discussion , ‘the men’ head for Sodom but ‘the Lord’ remains for further talk with Abraham; in the evening ‘the two angels’ (angeloi, perhaps ‘messengers’) arrive in Sodom. Not surprisingly, the identity of those entertained by Abraham and Sarah has been understood in different ways.
Already in the New Testament, a mention of hospitality (philoxenia) to angels recalls that provided by Abraham, although the author may have that of Lot in mind (Heb 13:2, cf Gen 19). The early author Eusebius describes a picture of the scene in which the middle one of the three visitors was better and greater in honour, signifying that he was the Lord and Saviour. Later in the fourth century Didymos the Blind suggests a third possibility: ‘Then the Son and the Holy Spirit were called “angel” at the oak of Mamre, when the glorious Trinity was seen by Abraham to announce to him things unknown.’ Augustine also takes this passage in a Trinitarian way, but without the precision of Didymos: ‘Since indeed three men are seen, and none of them is said to be greater than the others in either form, age or power, why should we not here recognise the equality of the Trinity visibly intimated through the visible creature, and one and the same substance in three persons?’ A developing tradition of Trinitarian interpretation culminates in that provided visually by Andrei Rublev in his famous icon, the Troitsa. The interplay between the Three and the role played by the angel representing the Spirit in this icon reflect developments in the way the Church understands the action of this Person of the Trinity.
There is a vast amount to learn about such matters in the amazingly rich study, from which some of the material above has been drawn, of Gabriel Bunge, The Rublev Trinity (2007; since this book was published Fr Gabriel has joined the Church.) From his learned and sensitive work a general principle emerges: the interpretation of passages such as this is ongoing, and becomes richer over time. Orthodox can be awkward about the notion of development within tradition, but Fr Gabriel provides an excellent example of how this can occur.