Vayera – how does God appear in the world – and how do we manage God’s appearance in the world?

At the end of last week’s sidra, Abraham, Ishmael and all of the men in his household were circumcised as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. Abraham’s implicit trust in God has led him to leave his homeland, together with his wife and household. He has made covenants with God, each time with the promise/blessing that he will have descendants and land.

They left Haran and arrived in Canaan and within six verses we have another divine encounter: “Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, untilעַ֖ד אֵל֣וֹן מוֹרֶ֑ה – the oak trees of Moreh, while the Canaanite was still in the land.     

And God appeared to Abram  וַיֵּרָ֤א יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־   אַבְרָ֔ם   and said “to your seed I will give this land” and he built there an altar to God who had appeared to him  הַנִּרְאֶ֥ה אֵלָֽיו

After this Abram went to the mountain to the east of Beit El and encamped there, and built an altar to God and called on God’s name, before moving onwards to the south.

The nature of Abraham’s “call”, his acceptance of God and his willingness to do as commanded has sometimes meant that Abraham is seen as the ultimate “man of faith”. After all he is willing to remove himself from homeland and family, to travel to an unknown destination, to offer both his sons to God’s desires and his existential aloneness is mitigated by the covenant with God. Yet Abraham is also held up to us as a role model – he is the first Ivri, one who crosses boundaries; he is Avraham Avinu – our father and founder; he is the embodiment of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, modelling openness and welcoming hospitality to all.

We are not privy to the origins of Abraham’s extraordinary faith – the first we know is that God tells him to go and he goes. But early in parashat Lech Lecha God appears to Abram by some oak trees, and now here in parashat Vayera we have the same thing.  Sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day, Abraham is sheltering and looking outwards. He is, once again, by some oak trees וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א this time those of Mamre, when God appears to him. The same language, the same setting, with only minor differences. Abraham has a revelation, once more seeing God amongst the trees.

There is debate among the traditional commentators whether Abraham has one or two revelations at this point. Is the introductory verse telling us that God appears to Abraham just that, a sort of headline for what is to follow, as Maimonides posited? Or is it a revelation in and of itself as Rashi and others thought, and in that case, just what can be learned from it? For Abraham sees not God, but three ‘men’, and his response is not to build an altar or set out a ritual covenant, but to rush out to welcome them in, and to provide a meal for them. And the next verse gives us even more room for ambiguity, for when Abraham speaks he says:

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַֽעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ

“Adonai (either “God” or “My lords”) If I have found favour in your sight, please do not pass by your servant”

Is he speaking to the men to invite them in for a rest, a wash and a meal? Or is he speaking to God and saying “wait please, while I offer hospitality to these men, and then I will have time to pay attention to you”?

I must say, I used to love the first interpretation the most: – the idea that we know that God was in these men but Abraham did not, yet still he responded to their needs with honour and dignity. From this it is easy to understand the importance of seeing past the surface of the people we meet, to draw the lesson that everyone has a spark of God within them, everyone is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and so we have a duty to relate to them, to care for them. The three men, hot and dusty and hungry and thirsty would have been a drain on the resources of their host, but Abraham did not hesitate to give them food and drink and comfort.

I still love that interpretation of the text, but I have come to appreciate the second one more. What if God reveals himself to Abraham, but immediately after this there is a pressing need to care for human beings, and Abraham finds himself saying to God – “can you wait please, there is something more important to do than listen to you right now?”

The something more important is, of course, the hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of the stranger and carer for the traveller that Abraham is so famous for. And the spiritual high, the encounter with the divine is of  lesser importance than the practical obligation to behave well towards others.

I like the idea that Abraham is less the paradigmatic man of perfect faith in the sense of his doing everything God tells him almost entirely without protest, and more the practical human being who responds viscerally to visceral need. I wonder if this instinctive act to help the travellers in the desert is the same instinct that causes him to later challenge God when the second revelation happens – the information that the whole of the city of Sdom will be destroyed, the righteous alongside the corrupt.  And I wonder what happened to that instinct after this episode.

For it seems to me that Abraham somehow loses his religious edge as he becomes a more patriarchal figure, and he becomes institutionally religious rather than instinctively so. No longer does he tell God to wait, nor does he argue with God when God asks the unaskable. He concurs. It is a terrible and repeated mistake, and by accepting God’s decrees he appears to lose his relationships with both his sons, with Hagar and with Sarah.

Abraham is indeed a role model for us, but maybe that should be modelling not uncritical religious faith and practise, but challenging it and inserting ourselves into the narratives. It would, I recognise, take some faith to ask God to wait while we do more important things in the world, but I have the feeling it would not be unwelcome.

Whenever I read the narratives of Abraham and Sarah, I am frustrated and made uncomfortable both by what is explicit in the text – the treatment of Hagar and Ishmael excluded from the family, the treatment of Sarah when she is bargained for Abraham’s freedom and of Isaac bound as a sacrifice to a demanding and testing God etc; and also by what is not explicit in the text – how does God talk to Abraham, what does Abraham see and experience…. I mistrust the certainty that seems built in to the narratives, the pain that is ignored – and I wonder how these stories can be a model for us – how can we recognise God’s presence in the world?

Abraham meets God twice by oak trees – large trees that cast shadows with canopies that play with the light coming through them. In each case the appearance of God could be understood to be just that – an appearance, or a vision, or a revelation. Abraham’s response in the first instance is to build an altar to mark the spot, but then to move some distance away and build a second altar from which to call on God. In the second instance no altar is necessary, no calling on God’s name and hoping for encounter – Abraham knows now what is important, he has his priorities straight – taking care of people in need trumps any vision or revelation, it outranks a personal encounter with divinity, all of that can wait – the work we do in the world to make it better is the critical work of being human and in the image of God.

I am not suggesting that prayer or contemplation or listening out for God’s voice in the world are not important – far from it. Any way in which we can ground ourselves in the relationship we have with the creator is important, it will nourish us and develop us and challenge us to be our best selves. But to make that the goal is to miss the point. Religion and ritual exist in order to keep us aware of what is important, though often they appear to exists only in order to perpetuate their own structures. Once a religion becomes an institution its focus changes to survival and regular challenges and reformations are needed to stop it crystallising.  The institutions may talk the talk but they walk the walk less readily.

So the idea of Abraham, the patriarch and founder of monotheistic religion, asking God to please wait while he gets on with caring for travellers is an important idea to keep hold of. We serve God best when we serve God’s creation, we cannot do God’s work if we turn our backs on God’s creatures in order to have a more spiritual focus.