Genesis 18—read this Shabbat—presents the cherished, apparently simple story of Abraham and Sarah’s model greeting of guests. They welcome strangers into their home, feed them lavishly, and then the story ends happily, as the strangers turn out to be angels bearing the sweet prophecy that Abraham and Sarah will finally have a child together. It is as if the couple’s reward for their generous hospitality is this news; to say it slightly differently, perhaps the appearance of the strangers was a test. Having passed, Abraham and Sarah are found worthy of a child.
Astute readers of Genesis, however, may be puzzled. Why are angels dispatched to deliver to Abraham and Sarah “news” which is not news at all, and which was in fact a (or the) central focus of the previous chapter?
God said to Abraham, “Sarai, your wife, do not call her ‘Sarai,’ for ‘Sarah’ is now her name. I bless her and I grant you a son through her; I shall bless her, she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall issue from her. Abraham fell on his face and laughed… God said, “Indeed, Sarah, your wife, will bear you a child, and you shall call him ‘Isaac,’ and I shall uphold My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him… My covenant I shall uphold with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year” (Genesis 17:15-21).
Read Eitan Mayer’s compelling exploration of this puzzling question in his “No News is Bad News: Beneath the Surface of Genesis 18” (TRADITION, Fall 2021).