This week’s Torah portion goes from Genesis 18-22 and is titled Vayeira (or as they pronounce it in ancient Hebrew, “Wayeira”). I’m particularly excited about this one because I see a lot of things whenever I read it, and not surprisingly, there’s a very strong theme of “seeing” that runs through the text as well.
So I want to begin by addressing the idea that no one can see God (Exodus 33:20, John 1:18). People who don’t believe in the concept of the Trinity, such as Jews, Muslims and Christian unitarians often use it to refute the teaching that Jesus, being a human being, was God; but American speaker and apologist Dr. Michael Brown gives an excellent response to this in his book, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus Vol. 2: Theological Objections, which is well worth reading.
The original text is over 10,000 words long so I’m just going to quote the most relevant parts to begin with (namely that which actually pertain to our Torah portion):
Genesis 18:1–2 says, “The Lord [Hebrew, YHWH] appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him” (NJPSV).
Who were the three men? Some Christian teachers, quite naturally, have suggested that the three men represented the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but this cannot work for a number of reasons. First, it would mean that Abraham actually saw God the Father, something that would be contrary to Scripture; second, the Bible—Old Testament or New Testament—never pictures God as three separate people; third, as we will see, the context is against this trinitarian reading, since it is only one of the three “men” who is addressed as Lord.
To be faithful to the Scriptures, we must say that the Lord, with two angels, appeared to Abraham, and all three appeared as human beings who spoke, ate, and drank with Abraham and Sarah.
The Scripture tells us that the Lord appeared to Abraham, then it says that Abraham saw three men by his tent, then it identifies one of those three as the Lord, who holds a conversation with Abraham and Sarah. The Bible then says that Abraham walked with the men as they went on their way to Sodom, that the Lord then informed Abraham of his intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, that the men (i.e., the other two men) continued on to Sodom while Abraham stayed and talked with the Lord, and that when they were done, the Lord left and Abraham went home, and that two angels then arrived in Sodom. I’ll say it again: One of those three men was YHWH, the Lord.
The awesome and exciting thing about this text is that it explicitly tells us that Abraham and Sarah talked with the Lord, that he appeared in human form to them, dusty feet and all (see Gen. 18:4), and that he even sat down and ate their food. Yet all the while he remained God in heaven!
The fact is, Genesis 18 clearly and indisputably teaches that God can come to earth in human form for a period of time if he so desires. And if he could do this for a few hours, in temporary human form, he could do this for a few years, in permanent human form. This is what theologians call the incarnation, God coming down to earth as a man in the person of his Son. And it is only when we recognize the Son—the exact representation of God, and yet God himself—that we can explain how God remained the Lord in heaven while also appearing as the Lord on earth in Genesis 18.
If John simply wrote, “God became a human being,” that would have given a false impression, leading one to think that the Lord was no longer filling the universe or reigning in heaven, having abandoned his throne to take up residence here. Instead, John tells us that it was the divine Word that became a human being, and through the Word we know God personally.
We pointed to the important expression in John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The Greek verb for “made his dwelling” literally means “lived in a tent,” and to carry out the imagery here, we could say that God pitched his tent among us and temporarily settled in our midst through Jesus the Messiah.
So just as God “pitched his tent” in the midst of his people Israel through the Tabernacle and Temple—while remaining God in heaven and filling the universe with his presence—so he pitched his tent among us through his Son—while remaining God in heaven and filling the universe with his presence. As one Catholic scholar put it, Jesus is the replacement of the ancient Tabernacle.
This is the ultimate answer to the question of the Talmudic rabbis, Jewish philosophers, and medieval mystics as to how Almighty God could dwell in our midst: He came to us through his Word, Yeshua the Son of God. In a very real sense, God was in his Temple, and in a very real sense, God was in his Son. The glory of God filled them both, and the glory of God was manifested in both.
So the next time someone says to you, “God is not a man, so Jesus cannot be God,” you have a sound answer to give: “Of course, God is not a man. But can he reveal himself in and through a man? Can he temporarily pitch his tent among us? Can his fullness dwell in a virgin-born human? The scriptural answer is yes.”
– Excerpted from Brown, M. L. (2000). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 2: Theological objections (14–37). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Thus even though John wrote, “No one has seen God at any time,” he also clarified directly: “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” This is why he repeatedly said concerning Jesus:
“We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)
While no one may see the Father and live, His Son – also called the Word of God in Scripture – makes Him known to us. To see Jesus, therefore, is to see the Father (John 14:9, 12:45, 8:19).
Now for those who’re interested in reading Dr. Brown’s full argument to better understand this whole topic, I’ve decided to provide just that section of the book here. But I ask of those who read it: please, do proper referencing if you want to quote any part of the text, and please, buy the book if you want to read more.
But getting back to the Torah, all this is still only half the picture: if we go to the last chapter in Vayeira, we see that the portion comes full circle – whereas YHWH informed Abraham in Genesis 18 that his promised child with Sarah would finally be born in a year’s time, He was now asking him to sacrifice that precious miracle son as a burnt offering in Genesis 22.
In this, we see an acceleration in God’s communication with Abraham concerning His promises to him. Whereas He spoke only 5 times over a period of 24 years in Lekh L’kha, Genesis 17-18 tells us that He visited Abraham twice in the same year to assure him that the birth of his covenant offspring was at hand. And in chapter 22, He speaks to Abraham for the 7th and last time on the matter – indicating that Abraham’s faith in His promises, which had made him righteous in God’s eyes (Genesis 15:6), was now going to be perfected.
There’re many things I could say about Genesis 22, but I want to focus on verses 9-14 in particular:
Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”
So he said, “Here I am.”
And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place, The-Lord-Will-Provide; as it is said to this day, “In the Mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
Now the first thing I want to note is that the phrase which is usually rendered “The-Lord-Will-Provide” is יְהוָה יִרְאֶה (YHWH Yir’eh), but it doesn’t actually mean “the Lord will provide.” I don’t know why Abraham has traditionally been presented as naming the place thus (nor have I been able to find out), but this is not what’s written in the Hebrew. The verse actually says:
וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא יְהוָה יִרְאֶה
אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם בְּהַר יְהוָה יֵרָאֶה
“And Abraham called the name of that place ‘YHWH Yir’eh’ (The-Lord-Will-See) as it is said to this day, ‘In the mountain YHWH yeira’eh (the Lord will be seen).'”
Different, isn’t it? The word יִרְאֶה (yir’eh) comes from the root רָאָה (ra’ah, meaning “he saw”), and is written in active future tense, while יֵרָאֶה (yeira’eh) comes from the same, but is in the passive future tense. Both these words have nothing to do with provision… though one could argue, perhaps, that the text might be taken to mean “God will see to it.” But literally, this is not what it says; and to my mind, the verse suffers from the English translation because if you read it the way it was originally written, it can actually radically deepen your understanding of the passage. Here’s why.
In the Scripture, the Angel of the Lord is strongly linked to Isaac’s advent as the promised son – it was the Angel of the Lord who visited Abraham and told him that the child would be born soon (2048 years after creation, to be exact), and it was He who stopped Abraham from sacrificing the youth once he grew up. When He did so, Abraham looked and saw a ram, which he offered as a burnt offering instead of his son (which, incidentally, I believe is a pictorial complement to God’s command in Exodus 12:8-9 that the Passover lamb be roasted in fire – it’s a prophetic picture of the appointed sacrifice being given over to the fire of the wrath of God).
The Angel of the Lord, of course, was the pre-incarnate Jesus – the Word of God who first visited Abraham in temporary human form in Genesis 18, and then came to earth in a more permanent incarnation roughly 2000 years later… upon which He said to the Jews in John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.”
But here’s the question: when did Abraham ever see Jesus’ day?
Well, I contend it was on that fateful afternoon in the mountain of Moriah, when he looked up and saw the ram caught in the thicket (with its head tangled in a crown of thorns, as it were) – a providential substitute from God to be given in place of his son. I believe that when he took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering, Abraham was also given a vision of the Messiah, and an understanding of what He would do for all humanity as his very own descendant in the future… and that’s why he rejoiced.
I believe it’s also why he named the place “The-Lord-Will-See”, because he knew that one day, on that very mountain, YHWH would see the sacrifice which He provided for Himself – the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8) – AND He would also be seen, in person, offering Himself up as a burnt offering for the sins of the world.
This is why Jesus said to the Jews, immediately after talking about Abraham seeing His day, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” He had been there from the beginning – covenanting with Abraham and showing him what He would do in gracious and outrageously generous confidence, as recorded in Genesis 22:15-18:
Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said: “By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son—blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”
And He was there at the end, hanging from the cross Himself, crying out, “It is finished” – lifted up for all the world to see.
Thus Vayeira is bookended by the theme of vision: YHWH is the God who sees, and the God who is seen. This is why the Scriptures say:
“For who has despised the day of small things? For these seven rejoice to see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. They are the eyes of the Lord, which scan to and fro throughout the whole earth.” (Zechariah 4:10)
“And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” (Revelation 5:6)
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him,
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and might,
The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:1-2)
According to these verses, nothing is hidden from the sight of God – 7 eyes denotes perfect vision, while 7 spirits describes the totality, completeness and sufficiency of the Spirit of God. Moreover, the equation of these 7 eyes with 7 spirits shows that God’s “seeing” is active and palpable: there is nowhere in the earth where He (or His Spirit) is not witness (and ultimately, judge) to the affairs of the world; and no place where His truth cannot be perceived, in turn, by those who seek to see – for the Spirit encompasses wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. … And the fullness of all this dwells, ultimately, in Yeshua the Messiah, the Branch of Jesse and Lamb of God that possesses the 7 eyes and spirits – who first witnessed the word of God to Abraham as the Angel of the Lord, and will then see God’s promises through as author and finisher of our faith – the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.
… Now you see what I mean when I said I see a lot of things when I read this portion. :)
To conclude, I’d like to share a couple blog posts I’ve done that touch on some other things that’re in this portion. First, some thoughts on Lot offering to sacrifice his daughters to the men of Sodom, in How to read the Bible: an introduction; and a lesson derived from Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom: The problem of evil.
Next portion, we’ll look at the burial of Abraham and Sarah. Have a blessed week everyone…