God lives forever. My time on this earth is short. The Bible reveals what he had done in the past and his plans for the future. What about today? It’s highly unlikely that Jesus will return within our lifetime to establish his kingdom on the earth. The Jews have not rebuilt the temple. The antichrist has not desecrated it, nor yet demanded that the world worship him as a god. Many prophecies about the Last Days are yet to be fulfilled. Furthermore, we can’t live in the past or the future. Will God tell us what he’s doing today? He will if you are a friend.
“Then the men rose from there and looked toward Sodom, and Abraham went with them to send them on the way. And the Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?’” (Genesis 18:16-17, NKJ)
Allow me to rephrase God’s question this way: Should God hide what he is doing today from a man or woman of faith who will bless others? God would say, “No.” God is willing to tell those who will become a great and mighty nation that will bless others what he is doing today. Everyone “in Christ” is God’s new creation. We, both Jew and Gentile, are the new nation God promised Abraham he would become.
Matthew Henry’s Commentary says, “Those who by faith live a life of communion with God cannot but know more of his mind…. They have a better insight than others into what is present and a better foresight of what is to come.” And that aptly describes Abraham. He not only had foresight; he had insight about “today.”
To understand the nature of Abraham’s encounter with God about current events, we need to examine the story in Genesis 18:1-8 in the light of social customs. Manners and Customs of the Bible say this text offers a “beautiful illustration of oriental hospitality:” To our western minds it appears Abraham was doing something special when he saw his guest, ran to them and bowed. A little research reveals a different picture.
Abraham did no more than was expected. It was customary to make all resources available for the entertainment of guest, but it was not always to be regarded as an unselfish act. In many cases, payment was expected from the traveler who had been entertained. I don’t know that Abraham was looking for remuneration, but it wasn’t uncommon in such circumstances to receive it.
Now let’s examine more closely what transpired between Abraham and his guests. First of all…
“When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the ground and said My Lord, if I have found favor in Your sight, do not pass on by Your servant” (Genesis 18:2, NKJ)
History tells us that Oriental people do not like eating alone. Even in our day it’s not uncommon in the Orient and the Mid-East to see tent dwellers eating by the doors of their tents so they can invite strangers to join them if they should pass by. An Oriental proverb says, “Every stranger is an invited guest.” Even an enemy who accepts hospitality in the Orient remains safe from harm and is treated the same as a friend. Orientals simply believe that God sent anyone who becomes one’s guest. This helps us understand why Abraham became a man in a hurry when he saw the men. In this case, God himself visited him.
Abraham’s bowing to the ground wasn’t necessarily an act of worship. In his culture and way of life, it was customary to bow when requesting a favor. Abraham asked for the favor of being these visitors’ host. So according to the ways of his time, he fell on his knees and then inclined his body till he touched the ground with his head. Then he kissed the lower part of the visitors’ clothing and feet and perhaps even the dust at their feet. But again, this wasn’t worship on Abraham’s part, only his way of asking his visitors for a favor.
How far the Eastern mind is from the West! I can’t recall one time I’ve asked a favor of a friend that would benefit him or her, not me. We’re accustomed to asking favors of people that benefit ourselves. By contrast, Abraham desired a specific, threefold favor for his guests: that they would rest under the tree, so he could bring water to wash their feet, and give them bread to refresh their hearts. When they agreed to do Abraham this favor, he hurried into the tent and told Sarah, “Quickly, make some bread!” Then he ran to the herd and commanded a young man, “Quickly, prepare a calf!”
“So he took butter and milk and the calf which he had prepared and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree as they ate” (18:8).
According to Oriental customs, one of the first things you do for a guest is offer him a drink of water, as a way of saying, “We’re friends.” Abraham asked to bring water, but not for drinking. He specifically offered his guests water to wash their feet. Considering the significance of drinking water in that part of the world, this passage produced some questions.
Why does the Bible record Abraham bringing butter, milk and meat on this hot day but not water to drink? My Western mind says, “The butter was to put on the bread Sarah baked, the milk was to drink, and a little meat rounded out the meal.” More research reveals that what Abraham brought them “Leben,” a substance similar to sour milk curds, made by pouring milk and yeast into a dish and covering it with a warm cloth. The curds were ready to eat after setting for a day. Abraham didn’t have refrigeration to store milk, so they made products from milk that had a longer shelf life. Today’s Arabs are still fond of Leben. They say it makes a sick man well. But I do find it peculiar that Scripture doesn’t indicate or record Abraham bringing his guests some water on this hot day.
“And I will bring a morsel of bread that you may refresh your hearts. After that you may pass by, inasmuch as you have come to your servant” (18:5).
When hospitality was offered it was customary to stay as long as three days. Yet this entire visit took place under the tree, and Abraham made it known to his visitors that they could leave right after they ate. He never invited them into his home.
When the time came for a guest to depart, the host usually made every effort to delay the departure. He would beg his guest to stay for one more meal, or to wait until the following day before leaving. (You can see an example in Judges 19 of this custom being played out.) Yet nothing in this passage indicates that Abraham tried to prolong his guests’ stay. To the contrary, he let them know they were free to leave.
I think we can understand Abraham’s actions in this light: By the time Abraham drew close enough to bow and talk to these visitors, he must have realized they were divine beings. He offered himself as a servant, not as an equal. It wasn’t that he was being rude, as much as that he didn’t consider himself worthy of intimate friendship with guests of their stature. In the East, sharing food constitutes a very special act of hospitality, far more so than here in the West. Sharing food was a way to make a covenant of peace. So, Abraham probably didn’t count himself worthy to be a friend of a guest as noble as the Lord; but he definitely desired peace with God. I think we can assume that Abraham’s actions leaned more toward an expression of humility on his part.
“Then the men rose from there and looked toward Sodom and Abraham went with them to send them on the way” (18:16).
Again, the customs of the day dictated that for a host to walk with his guests when they were leaving might only be done when the host desired to show his guests special honor. Sometimes such an “honor walk” might last for as long as an hour, and come to an end after the guests urged the host that he needn’t go any further with them.
All told, then, once we understand the customs of Abraham’s day and regard his words and actions in their light, we can assess his attitude toward the Lord as one of great respect without familiarity. Abraham desired peace with God and willingly honored God by submitting himself as a servant, without daring to venture into actions that would presume the intimacy of a friend.
I’ll be the first to admit that some of this is speculation on my part. We can’t necessarily rule out these possibilities just because they’re not given explicitly in this passage, but I’m sure of one thing. The Lord treated Abraham like a friend. Jesus said to his disciples,
“No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15, NKJ)
The Lord doesn’t see us the way we often see ourselves. Where I see a servant, he sees a friend. In this text, we don’t find God calling Abraham his friend, but he definitely treated Abraham like a friend.
The Bible says, “If you want to make a friend, you must be friendly” — and God practices what he preaches!