The Ambiguous Ishmael

– Ishmael and Hagar –

The important differences of interpretation of Ishmael’s role in the transmission of the Abrahamic inheritance, according to Judaism and Islam, focused in particular on the question of the identity of the son of Abraham who was taken to the sacrifice on Mount Moriah. For the Jews, it is unquestionably Isaac, as Genesis indicates. Muslims claim that it was Ishmael. However, the Koran does not name the son chosen for the sacrifice. In fact, Sura 36 indirectly suggests that this son was Isaac, contrary to later reinterpretations of later Islamic traditions.

It may be that, contrary to the historical importance of this controversy, this is not really an essential question, since Ishmael appears as a sort of inverted double of Isaac, and the linked destinies of these two half-brothers seem to compose (together) an allegorical and even anagogical figure – that of the ‘Sacrificed’, a figure of man ‘sacrificed’ in the service of a divine project that is entirely beyond him.

The conflict between the divine project and human views appears immediately when one compares the relatively banal and natural circumstances of the conception of Abram’s child (resulting from his desire to ensure his descent ii, a desire favored by his wife Sarai), with the particularly improbable and exceptional circumstances of the conception of the child of Abraham and Sarah.

One can then sense the tragic nature of the destiny of Ishmael, the first-born (and beloved) son of Abraham, but whose ‘legitimacy’ cannot be compared to that of his half-brother, born thirteen years later. But in what way is it Ishmael’s ‘fault’ that he was not ‘chosen’ as the son of Abraham to embody the Covenant? Was he ‘chosen’ only to embody the arbitrary dispossession of a mysterious ‘filiation’, of a nature other than genetic, in order to signify to the multitudes of generations to come a certain aspect of the divine mystery?

This leads us to reflect on the respective roles of the two mothers (Hagar and Sarah) in the correlated destiny of Ishmael and Isaac, and invites us to deepen the analysis of the personalities of the two mothers in order to get a better idea of those of the two sons.

The figure of Ishmael is both tragic and ambiguous. I will attempt here to trace its contours by citing a few ‘features’ both for and against, by seeking to raise a part of the mystery, and to penetrate the ambiguity of the paradigm of election, which can mean that « the election of some implies the setting aside of others », or on the contrary, that « election is not a rejection of the other ».iii

Elements Against Ishmael :

a) Ishmael, a young man, « plays » with Isaac, a barely weaned child, provoking the wrath of Sarah. This key scene is reported in Genesis 21:9: « Sarah saw the son of Hagar mocked him (Isaac). » The Hebrew word מְצַחֵק lends itself to several interpretations. It comes from the root צָחַק, in the verbal form Piel. The meanings of the verb seem at first glance relatively insignificant:

Qal :To laugh, rto ejoice. As in : Gen 18,12 « Sara laughs (secretly) ». Gen 21:6 « Whoever hears of it will rejoice with me.

Piël : To play, to joke, to laugh. As in Gen 19:14 « But it seemed that he was joking, that he said it in jest. » Ex 32:6 « They stood up to play, or to dance ». Judge 16:25 « That he might play, or sing, before them ». Gen 26:8 « Isaac played or joked with his wife. Gen 39:14 « To play with us, to insult us ».

However, Rashi’s meanings of the word in the context of Gen 21:9 are much more serious: ‘idolatry’, ‘immorality’, and even ‘murder’. « Ridicule: this is idolatry. Thus, ‘they rose up to have fun’ (Ex 32:6). Another explanation: This is immorality. Thus ‘for my own amusement’ (Gen 39:17). Another explanation: this is murder. So ‘let these young men stand up and enjoy themselves before us’ (2 Sam 2:14). Ishmael was arguing with Isaac about the inheritance. I am the elder, he said, and I will take double share. They went out into the field and Ishmael took his bow and shot arrows at him. Just as in: he who plays the foolish game of brandons and arrows, and says: but I am having fun! (Prov 26:18-19).»

Rashi’s judgment is extremely derogatory and accusatory. The accusation of ‘immorality’ is a veiled euphemism for ‘pedophilia’ (Isaac is a young child). And all this derived from a special interpretation of the single word tsaḥaq, – the very word that gave Isaac his name… Yet this word comes up strangely often in the context that interests us. Four important biblical characters ‘laugh’ (from the verb tsaḥaq), in Genesis: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael – except Hagar, who never laughs, but cries. Abraham laughs (or smiles) at the news that he is going to be a father, Sarah laughs inwardly, mocking her old husband, Isaac laughs while wrestling and caressing his wife Rebecca (vi), but only Ishmael, who also laughs while playing, is seriously accused by Rashi of the nature of this laughter, and of this ‘game’.

b) According to the commentators (Berechit Rabbah), Ishmael boasted to Isaac that he had the courage to voluntarily accept circumcision at the age of thirteen, whereas Isaac underwent it passively at the age of eight days.

c) Genesis states that Ishmael is a ‘primrose’, a misanthropic loner, an ‘archer’ who ‘lives in the wilderness’ and who ‘lays his hand on all’.

d) In Gen 17:20 it says that Ishmael « will beget twelve princes. « But Rashi, on this point, asserts that Ishmael in fact only begat ‘clouds’, relying on the Midrash which interprets the word נְשִׂיאִים (nessi’im) as meaning ‘clouds’ and ‘wind’. The word nessi’im can indeed mean either ‘princes’ or ‘clouds’, according to the dictionary (vii). But Rashi, for his own reason, chooses the pejorative meaning, whereas it is God Himself who pronounces this word after having blessed Ishmael.

Elements in Favor of Ishmael:

a) Ishmael suffers several times the effects of Sarah’s hatred and the consequences of Abraham’s injustice (or cowardice), who does not defend him, passively obeys Sarah and remorselessly favors his younger son. This has not escaped the attention of some commentators. Ramban (the Nahmanides) said about sending Hagar and Ishmael back to the desert: « Our mother Sarai was guilty of doing so and Abram of having tolerated it ». On the other hand, Rashi says nothing about this sensitive subject.

Yet Abraham loves and cares for his son Ishmael, but probably not enough to resist the pressures, preferring the younger, in deeds. You don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to guess the deep psychological problems Ishmael is experiencing about not being the ‘preferred’, the ‘chosen’ (by God) to take on the inheritance and the Covenant, – although he is nevertheless ‘loved’ by his father Abraham, – just as Esau, Isaac’s eldest son and beloved, was later robbed of his inheritance (and blessing) by Jacob, because of his mother Rebekah, and despite Isaac’s clearly expressed will.

(b) Ishmael is the son of « an Egyptian handmaid » (Genesis 16:1), but in reality she, Hagar, according to Rashi, is the daughter of the Pharaoh: « Hagar was the daughter of the Pharaoh. When he saw the miracles of which Sarai was the object, he said: Better for my daughter to be the servant in such a house than the mistress in another house. » (Commentary of Genesis 16:1 by Rashi)

One can undoubtedly understand the frustrations of a young man, first-born of Abraham and grandson of the Pharaoh, in front of the bullying inflicted by Sarah.

c) Moreover, Ishmael is subjected throughout his childhood and adolescence to a form of disdain that is truly undeserved. Indeed, Hagar was legally married, by the will of Sarah, and by the desire of Abraham to leave his fortune to an heir of his flesh, and this after the legal deadline of ten years of observation of Sarah’s sterility had elapsed. Ishmael is therefore legally and legitimately the first-born son of Abraham, and of his second wife. But he does not have the actual status, as Sarah jealously watches over him.

d) Ishmael is thrown out twice in the desert, once when his mother is pregnant with him (in theory), and another time when he is seventeen years old (being 13 years old at the time of Isaac’s birth + 4 years corresponding to Isaac’s weaning). In both cases, his mother Hagar had proven encounters with angels, which testifies to a very high spiritual status, which she did not fail to give to her son. Examples of women in the Hebrew Bible having had a divine vision are extremely rare. To my knowledge, in fact, there are none, except for Hagar, who had divine visions on several occasions. Rashi notes of Gen 16:13: « She [Hagar] expresses surprise. Could I have thought that even here in the desert I would see God’s messengers after seeing them in the house of Abraham where I was accustomed to seeing them? The proof that she was accustomed to seeing angels is that Manoë when he first saw the angel said, « Surely we will die » (Jug 13:27). Hagar saw angels four times and was not the least bit afraid. »

But to this, we can add that Hagar is even more remarkable because she is the only person in all the Scriptures who stands out for having given not only one but two new names to God: אֵל רֳאִי , El Ro’ï, « God of Vision »viii , and חַי רֹאִי , Ḥaï Ro’ï, the « Living One of Vision »(ix). She also gave a name to the nearby well, the well of the « Living One of My Vision »: בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי , B’ér la-Ḥaï Ro’ï. x

It is also near this well that Isaac will come to settle, after Abraham’s death, – and especially after God has finally blessed him, which Abraham had always refused to do (xii). One can imagine that Isaac had then, at last, understood the depth of the events which had taken place in this place, and with which he had, in spite of himself, been associated.

In stark contrast to Hagar, Sarah also had a divine vision, albeit a very brief one, when she participated in a conversation between Abraham and God. But God ignored Sarah, addressing Abraham directly, asking him for an explanation of Sarah’s behavior, rather than addressing her (xiii). She intervened in an attempt to justify her behavior because « she was afraid, » but God rebuked her curtly: « No, you laughed.

Making her case worse, she herself later reproached Ishmael for having laughed too, and drove him out for that reason.

e) Ishmael, after these events, remained in the presence of God. According to Genesis 21:20, « God was with this child, and he grew up (…) and became an archer. « Curiously, Rashi does not comment on the fact that « God was with this child. On the other hand, about « he became an archer », Rashi notes proudly: « He was a robber… ».

f) In the desire to see Ishmael die, Sarah twice casts spells on him (the ‘evil eye’), according to Rashi. The first time, to make the child carried by Hagar die, and to provoke his abortionxv, and the second time to make him sick, even though he was hunted with his mother in the desert, thus forcing him to drink much and to consume quickly the meager water resources.

g) At the time of his circumcision, Ishmael is thirteen years old and he obeys Abraham without difficulty (whereas he could have refused, according to Rashi, the latter counts to his advantage). Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael (Gen 16:16). Rashi comments: « This is written in praise of Ishmael. Ishmael will therefore be thirteen years old when he is circumcised, and he will not object. »

h) Ishmael is blessed by God during Abraham’s lifetime, whereas Isaac is blessed by God only after Abraham’s death (who refused to bless him, knowing that he was to beget Esau, according to Rashi).xvi

i) Ishmael, in spite of all the liabilities of his tormented life, was reconciled with Isaac, before the latter married Rebekah. Indeed, when his fiancée Rebekah arrives, Isaac has just returned from a visitexvii to the Well of the Living of My Vision, near which Hagar and Ishmael lived.

Moreover, his father Abraham ended up « regularizing the situation » with his mother Hagar, since he married her after Sarah’s death. Indeed, according to Rashi, « Qeturah is Hagar. Thus, for the second time, Ishmael is « legitimized », which makes it all the more remarkable that he gives precedence to his younger brother at Abraham’s funeral.

(j) Ishmael lets Isaac take the precellence at the burial of their father Abraham, as we know from Gen 25:9: « [Abraham] was buried by Isaac and Ishmael, his sons. « The preferential order of the names testifies to this.

k) The verse Gen 25:17 gives a final positive indication about Ishmael: « The number of years of Ishmael’s life was one hundred thirty-seven years. He expired and died. « Rashi comments on the expression « he expired » in this highly significant way: « This term is used only in connection with the righteous. »

Let’s now conclude.

On the one hand, Islam, which claims to be a ‘purer’, more ‘native’ religion, and in which the figure of Abraham represents a paradigm, that of the ‘Muslim’ entirely ‘submitted’ to the will of God, – recognizes in Isaac and Ishmael two ‘prophets’.

On the other hand, Ishmael is certainly not recognized as a ‘prophet’ in Israel.

These two characters, intimately linked by their destiny (sons of the same father, and what a father!, but not of the same mother), are also, curiously, figures of the ‘sacrifice’, although in different ways, and which need to be interpreted.

The sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah ended with the intervention of an angel, just as the imminent death of Ishmael in the desert near a hidden spring ended after the intervention of an angel.

It seems to me that a revision of the trial once held against Ishmael, at the instigation of Sarah, and sanctioned by his undeserved rejection outside the camp of Abraham, and the case againt Ishmael should be re-opened.

It seems indispensable, and not unrelated to the present state of the world, to repair the injustice that was once done to Ishmael.


i Qur’an 36:101-113: « So we gave him the good news of a lonely boy. Then when he was old enough to go with him, [Abraham] said, « O my son, I see myself in a dream, immolating you. See what you think of it. He said, « O my dear father, do as you are commanded: you will find me, if it pleases God, among those who endure. And when they both came together and he threw him on his forehead, behold, We called him « Abraham »! You have confirmed the vision. This is how We reward those who do good. Verily that was the manifest trial. And We ransomed him with a bountiful sacrifice. And We perpetuated his name in posterity: « Peace be upon Abraham. Thus do We reward those who do good, for he was of Our believing servants. And We gave him the good news of Isaac as a prophet of the righteous among the righteous. And We blessed him and Isaac. »

This account seems to indicate indirectly that the (unnamed) son who was taken to the place of the sacrifice is, in fact, Isaac, since Isaac’s name is mentioned twice, in verses 112 and 113, immediately after verses 101-106, which describe the scene of the sacrifice, – whereas the name Ishmael, on the other hand, is not mentioned at all on this occasion. Moreover, God seems to want to reward Isaac for his attitude of faith by announcing on this same occasion his future role as a prophet, which the Qur’an never does about Ishmael.

ii Gen 15, 2-4. Let us note that the divine promise immediately instils a certain ambiguity: « But behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This man shall not inherit you, but he who comes out of your loins shall be your heir. If Eliezer [« this one, » to whom the verse refers] is clearly excluded from the inheritance, the word of God does not decide a priori between the children to come, Ishmael and Isaac.

iiiCourse of Moïse Mouton. 7 December 2019

ivTranslation of the French Rabbinate, adapted to Rachi’s commentary. Fondation S. et O. Lévy. Paris, 1988

« v » Hagar raised her voice, and she cried. (Gen 21:16)

viGn 26.8. Rachi comments: « Isaac says to himself, ‘Now I don’t have to worry anymore because nothing has been done to him so far. And he was no longer on guard. Abimelec looked – he saw them together. »

viiHebrew-French Dictionary by Sander and Trenel, Paris 1859

viiiGn 16.13

ixGn 16, 14: Rachi notes that « the word Ro’ï is punctuated Qamets qaton, because it is a noun. He is the God of vision. He sees the humiliation of the humiliated. »

xGn 16, 14

xi Gn 25.11

xiiiGn 18.13

xivGn 18.15

xvRachi comments on Gen 16:5 as follows: « Sarai looked upon Agar’s pregnancy with a bad eye and she had an abortion. That is why the angel said to Hagar, « You are about to conceive » (Gen 16:11). Now she was already pregnant and the angel tells her that she will be pregnant. This proves that the first pregnancy was not successful. »

xviRachi explains that « Abraham was afraid to bless Isaac because he saw that his son would give birth to Esau. »

xviiGn 24, 62

The God named « I, I, Him »

« Old Rabbi. Rembrandt »

The Jews, fierce defenders of the monotheistic idea, are also the faithful guardians of texts in which appear, on several occasions, what could be called ‘verbal trinities’, or ‘triple names’ of God, such as: « YHVH Elohenou YHVH » (Deut 6:4), « Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh » (Ex 3:14), or « Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh « , expressed as a triple attribute of YHVH (Is 6:3).

The Zohar commented upon the first of these three-part names, « YHVH Elohenou YHVH », making a link with the « divine secret » embedded in the first sentence of the Torah: « Until now, this has been the secret of ‘YHVH Elohim YHVH’. These three names correspond to the divine secret contained in the verse ‘In the beginning created Elohim’. Thus, the expression ‘In the beginning’ is an ancient secret, namely: Wisdom (Hokhmah) is called ‘Beginning’. The word ‘created’ also alludes to a hidden secret, from which everything develops. » (Zohar 1:15b).

One could conclude that the One God does not therefore exclude a ‘Trinitarian’ phenomenology of His essential nature, which may be expressed in the words that designate Him, or in the names by which He calls Himself….

Among the strangest ‘triplets’ of divine names that the One God uses to name Himself is the expression, « I, I, Him », first mentioned by Moses (Deut 32:39), then repeated several times by Isaiah (Is 43:10; Is 43:25; Is 51:12; Is 52:6).

In Hebrew: אֲנִי אֲנִי הוּא ani ani hu’, « I, I, Him ».

These three pronouns are preceded by an invitation from God to ‘see’ who He is:

רְאוּ עַתָּה, כִּי אֲנִי הוּא

reou ‘attah, ki ani ani hu’.

Literally: « See now that: I, I, Him ».

This sentence is immediately followed by a reaffirmation of God’s singularity:

וְאֵין אֱלֹהִים, עִמָּדִי

v’éin elohim ‘imadi

« And there is no god (elohim) with Me ».

Throughout history, translators have endeavored to interpret this succession of three personal pronouns with various solutions.

The Septuagint chose to translate (in Greek) this triplet as a simple affirmation by God of his existence (ego eimi, « I am »), and transformed the original doubling of the personal pronoun in the first person singular (ani ani, « I I ») into a repetition of the initial imperative of the verb ‘to see’, which is used only once in the original text:

ἴδετε ἴδετε ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι

idete, idete, oti ego eimi

« See, see, that I am ».

On the other hand, the third person singular pronoun disappears from the Greek translation.

The second part of the verse gives :

καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν θεὸς πλὴν ἐμοῦ-

kai ouk estin theos plén emou.

« and there is no God but Me. »

In the translation of the French Rabbinate adapted to Rashi’s commentary, one reads:

« See now, it is Me, I, I am Him, no god beside Me! »

We see that « ani ani hu’ » is translated as « It is Me, I, I am Him ».

Rashi comments on this verse as follows:

« SEE NOW. Understand by the chastisement with which I have struck you and no one could save you, and by the salvation I will grant you and no one can stop Me. – IT IS ME, I, I AM HIM. I to lower and I to raise. – NO GOD, BESIDE ME. Rises up against Me to oppose Me. עִמָּדִי: My equal, My fellow man. » i

Let’s try to comment on Rashi’s comment.

Rashi sees two « I’s » in God, an « I » that lowers and an « I » that raises.

The ‘I’ that lowers seems to be found in the statement ‘It is Me’.

The ‘I’ that raises is the ‘I’ as understood in the formula ‘I am Him’.

Rashi distinguishes between a first ani, who is the ‘I’ who lowers and punishes, and a second ani who is an I’ who ‘raises’ and who is also a hu’, a ‘Him’, that is to say an ‘Other’ than ‘I’.

We infer that Rashi clearly supports the idea that there are two « I’s » in God, one of which is also a « Him », or that there are two « I’s » and one « Him » in Him…

As for the formula v’éin elohim ‘imadi (‘no god beside Me’, or ‘no god with Me’), Rashi understands it as meaning : ‘no god [who is my equal] is against me’.

Let us note that Rashi’s interpretation does not exclude a priori that God has an equal or similar God ‘with him’ or ‘beside him’, but that it only means that God does not have a God [similar or equal] ‘against him’.

In the translation of the so-called « Rabbinate Bible » (1899), the three pronouns are rendered in such a way as to affirm the emphasis on God’s solitary existence:

« Recognize now that I am God, I alone, and there is no God (Elohim) beside me! » ii

In this translation, note that the personal pronoun in the 3rd person singular (hu’) has completely disappeared. There is, however, a repeated affirmation of God’s ‘loneliness’ (‘I alone’, and ‘no God beside me’).

This translation by the French Rabbinate raises several questions.

Why has the expression ani hu’, « I Him », been translated by a periphrase (« it is I who am God, I alone »), introducing the words « God », « am » and « alone », not present in the original, while obliterating the pronoun hu’, « He »?

On the other hand, there is the question of the meaning of the 2nd part of the verse: if there is « no Elohim » beside God, then how to interpret the numerous biblical verses which precisely associate, side by side, YHVH and Elohim?

How can we understand, for example, the fact that in the second chapter of Genesis we find the expression יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים , YHVH Elohim, on numerous occasions, if, as Deuteronomy states, that there is no Elohim « beside » YHVH?

Some elements of clarity may be gained from Isaiah’s use of the same curious expression.

Is 43,10 : כִּי-אֲנִי הוּא ki ani hu’, ‘that I Him’

Is 43, 11: אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי, יְהוָה anokhi anokhi YHVH, ‘I, I, YHVH’

Is 43, 25: אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא anokhi anokhi hu’, ‘I, I, Him’

Is 51,12 : אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא anokhi anokhi hu‘, ‘I, I, Him’

Is 52,6 : כִּי-אֲנִי-הוּא הַמְדַבֵּר הִנֵּנִי ki ani hu’ hamdaber hinnéni, ‘that I, He, I speak, there’, sometimes translated as ‘that I who speak, I am there’.

In the light of these various verses, the personal pronoun hu’, ‘He’ can be interpreted as playing the role of a relative pronoun, ‘Him’.

But why should this personal pronoun in the 3rd person singular, hu’, « He », this pronoun which God calls Himself, somehow descend from a grammatical level, and become a relative pronoun, simply to comply with the requirement of grammatical clarity ?

In this context, it is necessary to preserve the difficulty and face it head on.

God, through the voice of Moses and Isaiah, calls Himself « I I He ».

What lesson can we get out of it?

First we can see the idea that God carries within His intrinsic unity a kind of hidden Trinity, here translated grammatically by a double « I » followed by a « He ».

Another interpretation, could be to read ‘I I He’ as the equivalent of the Trinity ‘Father Son Spirit’.

One could also understand, considering that the verb to be is implicitly contained in the personal pronouns ani and hu’, in accordance with Hebrew grammar: « I, [I am] an ‘I’ [who is] a ‘Him’ « .

In this reading, God defines Himself as an I whose essence is to be an Other I, or an Him.

As confirmed by His name revealed to Moses « Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh » (Ex 3:14), God is an I that is always in the process of becoming, according to the grammatical use of the imperfect in Ehyeh, ‘I will be’.

One learns from that that God is always in potentia. He always is the One who will be Other than who He is.

Never static. Always alive and becoming. The One who is the Other.

I know : that sounds pretty unacceptable for the general theological opinion.

But grammatically, this interpretation stands up.

More importantly, it is faithful to the letter of the Torah.


iThe Pentateuch, accompanied by Rachi’s commentary. Volume V. Deuteronomy. Translated by Joseph Bloch, Israël Salzer, Elie Munk, Ernest Gugenheim. Ed. S. and O. Foundation. Lévy. Paris, 1991, p. 227

iiDt 32, 39

Anything May Yet Happen

Sometimes inaction or a wait-and-see attitude pays off. For example, it is written: « Moses and the Ark of the Covenant did not move ». Standing still in the middle of the camp was the best thing to do. Tactical caution was called for. Those who rushed to the top of the mountain were soon « cut to pieces » by the Amalekite and the Canaanite.

Far from the factual, from common sense, Philo proposes two unexpected ways of interpreting this verse: « Either the wise man does not separate himself from virtue, or virtue ignores movement, and the good man changes it.”i

Philo’s method is known. He always looks for the allegorical meaning in words, the hidden movement towards symbolic heights. Phrases seem to move, taking on a higher meaning as they pass by.

By this upward movement, the sentence mimics the non-movement (permanence) of virtue, it embodies the non-change (immutability) of the good man.

Philo explains: « The breath of God joins only one category of men, those who strip themselves of all that is in the becoming, of the innermost veil, of the envelope of opinion »ii.

The future is not in the becoming. Nor in opinion.

Aaron speaks, he is skilful with words; Moses remains in silence, he strips himself of any words. With a few words, the biblical sentence makes the silent and immobile contemplation of Moses heard.

This is a general lesson. Thought must free itself from everything that clutters it, make itself « naked ».

When Moses leaves the camp, he will pitch his tent on the mountain. He goes out of the world. That is to say, he establishes himself firmly on his own judgment, so that he can enter the “dark cloud”, the invisible region. He will need this inner immutability in order to face the mysteries, and to bear witness to them afterwards.

Moses is not only an initiate. He is the hierophant of mystical knowledge, a tutor of divine truths, which are neither of heaven nor earth.

There are men who are from the earth, others are from heaven, but others go even further. Those of the earth seek material pleasures and cherish the body. Those from heaven are the artists, the scientists and the humanists.

And then there are those who, like Moses or other Prophets, are not satisfied with the Kingdom of the universe, and are not satisfied with being citizens of the world. They neglect all the senses. They emigrate. They choose the exodus to the Land of immortal and immaterial ideas. They believe that the Earth is not the future of mankind. Neither are the Heavens. Does man have a future, by the way? Isn’t man essentially transitory, fleeting, ephemeral?

Didn’t God say that He wanted to « blot out man”?

“The Lord regretted having created man on earth, and he grieved within himself. And the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth, every man and beast and crawling creature and bird of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them’.”iii

The Lord « regretted » and then « grieved ».

How can God regret what He has done? Is He not supremely wise? Could He not foresee in His foreknowledge what would become of His creation?

And why these two verbs, « to regret » and « to grieve », in succession? Pleonasm? Unnecessary repetition?

Maybe the first verb translates the clarity of the notion, the second conveys the depth of the reflection. One is thinking at rest, the other is thinking on the move. These are two powers of the mind. They allow us to contemplate creatures as they are, but also as being able to become other than they are.

Rashi comments on this verse.

“ ‘He regretted having created’. The Midrach translates: God took solace in the fact that at least He had created man ON EARTH. If He had created him in heaven, he would have led the worlds above in his rebellion. ‘And He grieved in His heart’. The Targum Onkelos translates: Man (subject of the verb) became an object of suffering in the heart of God. It came to God’s mind to inflict punishment on him. Another explanation of the first verb VA-YINA’HEM: ‘he regretted’. In God’s mind, mercy gave way to justice. He wondered: what to do with the man He had created on earth? The verb נחם always means in the Bible: to ask oneself what to do. It means: ‘What is the right thing to do?’ God is not a man to regret (Num 23,19) « .

The dictionary says that the verb נחם means: « to repent, to change one’s feelings, to allow oneself to be bent, to have pity, to forgive ». These nuances of meaning do not apply indifferently to man or to God.

It can apply to the point of view of man, but probably not to the point of view of God, when it is a question of « repenting », « regretting », « changing one’s feelings ». But it can be applied from God’s point of view, if we translate this word as « to have mercy », « to forgive », « to allow oneself to be bent ».

The nuance proposed by Rashi, « to ask oneself what to do », opens up still other paths, which (tellingly) are not quoted in the dictionary, and which are turned towards the future, towards the unforeseen.

Virtue ignores movement, and the good man ignores change, Philo said two thousand years ago. And, a little less than a thousand years ago, Rashi said that God himself could « change his feelings » and « ask himself what to do ».

There is no end to surprises, yet to come. Anything is possible, definitely. Anything may yet happen.

iPhilo. De Gigantibus. 1,48

iiPhilo. De Gigantibus. 1,53

iiiGen 6, 6-7

Why did YHVH Attack Moses, Seeking to Kill him?

“The LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me’. So He let him alone. Then she said: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision’.”i

This text is off-putting, disjointed, enigmatic and raises many questions.

For example, is Zipporah addressing her son or her husband when she pronounces these words: « You are for me a bridegroom of blood »? Both interpretations are possible, and both have been defended by learned commentators.

According to some, Zipporah has just circumcised her son and she calls him « blood husband » because he is bleeding.

According to others, Moses neglected to circumcise his child, which is why God « attacked him » and « sought to kill him”. When Moses was close to death, Zipporah called him « blood husband, » because she had saved him with her son’s blood.

The first interpretation is preferred by the majority of commentators. But it poses a problem. One could ask whether Zipporah is operating a kind of symbolic incest. The mother calls her son twice: « blood husband » and « blood husband because of circumcision ». There would undoubtedly be there, for psychoanalysis, a form of symmetry with the true husband, Moses, who made Zipporah bleed « because of » her defloration.

Moses tore Zipporah’s hymen, as a husband of flesh. Zipporah cut off Eliezer’s foreskin, as a « husband of blood ». A symbolic parallel, heavy with analytical consequences, but also a saving act. Just after Zipporah cut off the foreskin, YHVH released Moses, and it is then that Zipporah clarified: « A husband of blood because of circumcision. »

But why would Zipporah feel the need to « touch » the feet of her son Eliezer with her foreskin?

The second interpretation is perhaps deeper. Zipporah saves her husband’s life by circumcising her son Eliezer in a hurry, while YHVH (or his angel) is about to kill Moses. Then she touches « his feet » with her foreskin. Whose feet? In the second interpretation, they are the « feet » of Moses, and it is to him that she addresses herself. But why the “feet”? Why touch the feet of Moses with his son’s foreskin?

In biblical Hebrew, “feet” are a metaphor often used to signify sex, as in Isaiah 7:20: « He shall shave the head and the hair of the feet ». Zipporah touched the sex of Moses with his son’s foreskin and said to him: « You are a blood husband to me », because it was also his blood that flowed, with the blood of his son. Circumcision is the figure of a new marriage, not with the son (which would be incest), but with Moses, and this in a symbolic sense, the sense of the Covenant, which is physically concluded in the blood of both spouses, as they are united by the blood of Eliezer.

In other words, Zipporah saved the life of Moses (who was uncircumcised) by simulating his circumcision. She touches the sex of Moses with the foreskin of her son, who has just been circumcised, and thus appeases the divine wrath, which was twofold: because the father and the son had not yet been circumcised.

At that very moment, YHVH « let him [Moses] alone ». This translation does not render the richness of the original Hebrew word. The verb used, rafah, has as its first meaning « to heal »; in a second sense, it means « to decline, to weaken, to desist, to release ». Healing is a weakening of the disease. It is worth noting this double meaning. YHVH « releases » Moses, « desists » from him, and thus He « heals » him. He « heals » Moses of his capital fault, and he also « heals » the child who is bleeding, and who might have died as a result of the operation, carried out with a stone in the middle of the desert, without much hygiene, and in an emergency.

There is yet another angle to this story.

Rachi comments: « He deserved to die because of this negligence. A Baraïta teaches us: Rabbi Yosef said: God forbid, Moses was not guilty of negligence. But he thought, « Shall I circumcise the child and set off? Will the child be in danger for three days? Shall I circumcise the child and wait three days? Yet the Holy One Blessed be He, who commanded me: Go, return to Egypt. Why then should he deserve death? Because he had first taken care of his bed at the stage instead of circumcising him without delay. The Talmud in the Nedarim Treaty (32a) says that the angel took the form of a snake, and swallowed him starting from the head to the hips, then rejected him and swallowed him again starting from the feet to the place in question. That’s how Zipporah understood that it was because of the circumcision. »

Rashi presents Moses in the throes of procrastination. Which of God’s commandments should be obeyed first: that of returning to Egypt, or that of circumcising his son? He falls into the fault when he does not immediately take care of the circumcision. But the Nedarim Treaty goes further. It evokes Moses swallowed by a snake. The snake starts at the head and stops at the hips (at the sex), then spits him out and starts again by swallowing him, starting by the feet.

Let’s try our own interpretation.

One can speculate that this « snake » metaphorically represents disease. Moses, uncircumcised, may have been the victim of a genital infection, which resulted in high fevers, with pain extending to the sex. Then, after a remission, the infection would start again from the « feet » (the sex). The kind of fellatio performed by the « snake » is a rather crude metaphor, but « biblical » after all. In any case, the Talmudists thought about it allusively, and felt that this was how Zipporah understood what she had to do.

But if Moses had a genital infection, why did Zipporah operate on her son’s sex rather than on Moses’?

As an unrepentant rationalist, I shall attempt a medical explanation.

Zipporah touched her husband’s sex with her son’s bloody foreskin. The son’s blood contained antibodies, which cured Moses’ genital infection.

Quite a rational solution. Yet it was a (rather irrational) angel who suggested it to Zipporah…

iEx. 4, 24-26

Seeing God and Dying

Maimonides often uses words in a double sense, – positive and negative, real and metaphorical, tool and weapon. In a passage dedicated to the different ways of ‘seeing’ God, he thus questioned the meaning of the verse: ‘And they saw God, and ate and drank’ (Ex. 24:11):

« It has been said: ‘And Moses hid his face, because he feared to look to God’ (Ex. 3:6), – where we must also consider what the literal meaning indicates; namely, that he was afraid to look at the shining light (of the burning bush), – not that the eyes could perceive the divinity [that it be exalted and exalted above all imperfection!]. Moses deserved praise for this, and the Most High poured out his goodness and favor upon him so much that in the following it could be said of him: ‘And he beholds the figure of God’ (Num. 12:8); for the doctors say that this was a reward for having first ‘hidden his face so as not to look toward God’ (Berakhot 7a). But as for « the chosen ones among the children of Israel » (Ex. 24:11), they acted hastily, giving free rein to their thoughts; they perceived (the divinity) but in an imperfect way. Therefore it is said of them: ‘And they saw the God of Israel, and under his feet, etc.’ (ibid. v. 10), and it was not enough to simply say, ‘And they saw the God of Israel’, for the whole sentence is intended only to criticize their vision, not to describe how they saw. Thus, all that was done was to criticize the form in which they had perceived (God) and which was tainted with corporeality, which was the necessary result of the haste they had put into it before they had perfected themselves. (…) When the ‘chosen among the children of Israel’ made false steps in their perception, their actions were also disturbed thereby, and they inclined towards bodily things by the vice of their perception; therefore the Scripture says: ‘And they saw God, and ate and drank’ (Ex. 24:11) ».i

Maimonides does not deny that the ‘chosen among the children of Israel’ saw God. But he asserts that this vision was tainted by ‘corporeality’, by the discreet metonymy that occurs in counterpoint. Would men who had just ‘seen God’ begin, without transition, to ‘eat and drink’?

Maimonides is not interested in what the ‘chosen among the children of Israel’ could ‘see’ or ‘not see’. He does not seek to criticize their claim to have ‘seen’. He is only interested in the fact that they ‘saw, ate and drank’ in the same movement, which implies a form of homogeneity, integration, analogy, between three very different actions. ‘Eating’ and ‘drinking’ cast a retrospective shadow over ‘seeing’ in this context. Maimonides does not deny the ‘seeing’, he merely devalues it, materializing it, trivializing it, laminating it.

There are other possible criticisms, much more radical.

In his commentary on the same verses, Rashi says: « They have looked and they have contemplated, and for this they have deserved mortal punishment. » He adds that the Holy One, Blessed be He, waited for the day of the dedication of the Tabernacle, and then a fire from the Lord burned them and devoured them at the end of the camp.

In an additional commentary to this commentary by Rashi (in the 1987 edition edited by E. Munk), we read: « They sought to be able to glimpse at least a quick glance at the Godhead, in a sort of hidden glimpse of the Godhead. »

Was it a deep contemplation or a quick glimpse? It doesn’t matter. The same punishment awaits those who have even cast a glance at this transcendental phenomenon: death by lightning strikes, – not on the spot [so as not to spoil the reception of the Torah, says Maimonides], but a little later, after the feast of the Tabernacle, and out of sight of the people, at the end of the camp. A true execution, coldly prepared, in the Mossad style, if I dare say so.

But, if it was a question for God to give a good lesson to his people, why not strike those guilty of ‘vision’ in front of everyone, to better strike the minds?

We need to go deeper into this question.

What was the greatest fault of the « chosen among the children of Israel »? To have « seen » the Divinity? Or to have « seen » it by stealth? Or to have « seen » it, – and then to have « eaten and drunk » it?

The answer varies according to the comments, as can be judged from Maimonides and Rashi.

We know that Moses himself, and several ‘chosen ones among the sons of Israel’ were able to ‘see’ God and not die on the spot. This is an important point. It is said in the Torah that one cannot see God without dying. So it is still possible, it seems, to see the Divinity and to survive, at least for a while.

If we put aside the case of Moses, we learn that the other « seers » were punished a little later. One can always imagine that those who had glimpsed the Divinity (supposing that they had indeed been able to look at it in secret, – which Maimonides denies, but which Rashi acknowledges), the ‘seers’ could have been saved, if they had prayed, or if they had meditated on their vision, wondering why they had only seen the « feet » of the Divinity.

Or should they have just avoided ‘eating and drinking’ right after they ‘saw’?

Or should they have repented instead, having given in to the understandable desire to take a look at such an extraordinary phenomenon as a « shining light »?

What can we learn from this? We learn that ‘seeing God’ does not necessarily imply ‘dying’, despite the warnings of the Torah.

It is ‘seeing God’, then ‘eating and drinking’, that implies dying.

iMaïmonides. Guide of the Perplexed. III. §5, pp.37-38. Ed. Verdier. 1979

The sudden rapture of Enoch


It was very brutal, very sudden. « Enoch walked with God, and then he was no more, for God took him away. »i A real trick. The construction of the sentence is straightforward, without nuance. If we translate word for word: « Enoch walked with God (in the text: ‘to the Gods’: et-ha-Elohim,  אֶתהָאֱלֹהִים ), then, ‘nothing more of him, vé-éïnénou, וְאֵינֶנּוּ ‘, because God (Elohim) took him away (or: seized him), ki-laqa oto Elohim  כִּילָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים

The expression used to render the key moment of Enoch’s disappearance (‘nothing more of him’ – éïnénou) evokes a kind of nothingness, an ‘absence’ instantaneously substituting for the ‘presence’ of Enoch, for his walking in ‘presence of God’, during three centuries.

Rachi comments as follows: « Enoch was a righteous man, but weak in conscience and easy to turn to evil. So God hastened to take him out of this world before his time. That is why the text expresses itself differently when it speaks of his death, and says: AND HE WAS NO LONGER in this world to complete his years. »

Therefore, Rashi does not believe that Enoch was taken up to Heaven in the manner of Elijah, like in a ‘rapture’. According to Rashi it is only a metaphor, a vigorous one admittedly, but which only translates the death of a « just », who was also a little « weak ».

I find that Rashi’s commentary falls rather short of the text.

Why demean Enoch by calling him a « weak man and easy to incite to evil »? Enoch is a « just » man. This is no small thing. Moreover, « he walks with God ». This is not a sign of weakness. Secondly, why does Rashi say that God « hastened to take him out of this world before his time, » when Enoch had already been walking with God ( וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ, אֶתהָאֱלֹהִים ) for three hundred yearsii?

If we add the years that Enoch lived before giving birth to Methuselah, Enoch lived a total of three hundred and sixty five yearsiiiThat is a long time before God decided to “hasten”...

A thousand years before Rashi, Philo of Alexandria had proposed a completely different interpretation. « Enoch was pleasing to God, and ‘they could not find him’ (Gen. 5:24). Where would one have looked to find this Good? What seas would one have crossed? On what islands, on what continents? Among the Barbarians, or among the Greeks? Aren’t there not even today initiates in the mysteries of philosophy who say that wisdom is without existence, since the wise man does not exist either? So it is said that ‘he could not be found’, that way of being which was pleasing to God, in the sense that while it exists well, it is hidden from view, and that it is hidden from us where it is, since it is also said that God took it away ».iv

Philo goes from the figure of Enoch to that of Good. Where to find the Good? Where to find Wisdom? Just because we can’t find them, doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly disappeared, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Philo sees in the text an incitement to take flight towards high ideas. Probably an influence of Pythagoras and Plato. A form of encounter, the spirit of Israel and that of Greece.

After Philo and Rashi, what can we still see in this passage of Genesis?

The name Enoch (חֲנוֹךְ ) gives a clue. It means « the initiate », « the one who is dedicated ». The word anukah has the same root. Long before it meant the feast of the same name, which commemorates the victories of the Maccabees, this word had the generic meaning of « inauguration », of « dedication »: the dedication of the altar (Num. 7:11) or the inauguration of the temple (Ps. 30:1).

Enoch was a living « dedication ». He had « dedicated » himself to God. He was a “walking” sacrifice (like Isaac, walking to the place of his sacrifice).

Enoch had given his own life as a sacrifice. God was pleased with him, and God walked « with him ». Then, one day, suddenly, God took him away.

Why that day, precisely, and not before or after?

I think that Enoch was taken away on the day he was 365 years old. He had spent 65 years until he became the father of Methuselah, and 300 more years of walking in the presence of God. A life of 365 years, that is, a year of years.v

A « year of years » is a good metaphor to signify the perfection of time accomplished, the sum of the life of a righteous man.

But why was Enoch ‘suddenly’ no longer seen?

When God takes hold of a soul, it is not done in a picosecond or a femtosecond or even as one might say, ‘immediately’.

It is done in a time without time, infinitely short in the beginning, and infinitely long, immediately afterwards.

i Gen. 5, 24

ii Gen. 5,22

iiiGen. 5, 21-23

iv Mutatione Nominum, 34-38

vGen. 5, 21-23

Counting the Visions of Haggar

Haggar, Sara’s servant, conceived – at Sara’s request – a son with Abraham. Haggar was then expelled into the desert by Sara who resented bitterness from her triumphant pregnancy.
The name « Haggar » means « emigration ». Pregnant and on the run, she met an angel near a well in the desert. It was not her first encounter with an angel.
According to Rashi, Haggar had already seen angels four times in Abraham’s dwelling. He also points out that « she had never had the slightest fear of them », because « she was used to seeing them ».
Haggar’s meeting with the angel near the well gave rise to a curious scene. There was a mysterious encounter between Haggar and the Lord, implying at least two successive, different, « visions ».
She proclaimed the name of the Lord [YHVH] who had spoken to her: ‘You are the God [EL] of my vision [Roÿ], because, she said, did I not see, right here, after I saw?’ That is why the well was called ‘Beer-la-Haÿ-Roÿ[the ‘Well of the Living One of My Vision’]; it is located between Kadesh and Bered.”i
It is said that Haggar « proclaimed the name of the Lord [YHVH]« , but in fact she did not pronounce this very name, YHVH, which is, as we know, unpronounceable. She used instead a new metaphor that she had just coined: « El Roÿ » (literally ‘God of my Vision’).
She thus gave a (pronouncable) name to the (unspeakable) vision she just had.
From the name given to the well, that was conserved by the tradition, we infer that, a little while after having ‘called the Lord’, Haggar called the Lord a second time with yet another name: « Haÿ Roÿ » (‘The Living One of My Vision’). It is this second name that she used to name the well.
Haggar coined two different names, just as she had two successive visions.
In the text of Genesis, Haggar used the word « vision » twice and the expression « I saw » also twice.
She revealed that she had another vision ‘after she saw’: « Didn’t I see, right here, after I saw? ».
The first name she gave to the Lord is very original. She is the only person in the whole Bible who uses this name: « El Roÿ » (‘God of My Vision’).
The second name is even more original: « Haÿ Roÿ » (‘the Living One of My Vision’).
Here is a servant girl expelled away in the desert by her mistress. She then has two visions, and she invents two new names for God!
The name she gives to the second vision is « The Living One ». This vision is indeed very alive, it is « living », it does not disappear like a dream, it lives deeply in her soul, as the child moves in her womb.
The text, taken literally, indicates that Haggar had two successive visions. But Rashi takes the analysis further, in his commentary on Gen 16, 9:
« THE ANGEL OF THE LORD SAID TO HIM. For every saying, another angel had been sent to her. This is why for each saying, the word AN ANGEL OF THE LORD [ מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה ] is repeated.»
Then according to Rashi, fourangels of the Lord’ spoke with Haggar, who therefore had four visions corresponding to four different angels.

If we add the four other visions that she already had in Abraham’s dwelling, also according to Rashi, Haggar had at least eight visions in her life.

I say ‘at least’, because around twenty years later, Haggar had yet another spiritual encounter: an angel called her from the heaven, when she was in danger of dying after having been expelled, once more, from Abraham’s dwelling, as reported in Gen 21,17.
The last angel who spoke to Haggar, near the Well of the Living One of My Vision’, had said :
« You shall bear a son, you shall call him Ishmael, because God has heard your affliction. »ii
Ishmael can indeed be translated as « God has heard ».
Haggar saw a vision and heard a divine voice, and God also « heard » Haggar. But why doesn’t the text say that God « saw » her affliction?
Here is a possible interpretation: in fact God does « hear » and « see » Haggar, but He does not “see” her separately from her unborn son. He « sees » the mother together with her son, the former pregnant with the latter, and He « sees » no immediate reason for affliction. Rather, God « sees » in her the vigorous thrust of a life yet to come, growing in her womb as a seed, and her future joy.
Haggar’s affliction has nothing to do with her pregnancy, it has everything to do with the humiliation imposed on her by Sara. It is this humiliation that God « heard ».
But then, why did the angel who spoke the second time say to her: « Go back to your mistress and humiliate yourself under her hand.” ?
Why does God, who « heard » Haggar’s affliction and humiliation, ask her to return to Abraham’s dwelling, for a further life of humiliation?
God reserves great glory for the afflicted, the humble, the humiliated. And as a price for a life of humiliation, Haggar « saw » the Most High, the Almighty, at least eight times. Many more times than Sara, it seems.

iGn 16, 13-14

ii Gen. 16, 11

The Tango of Abraham.


Three men met Abraham at noon in the plains of Mamre, in Genesis chapter 18. But only two angels met Lot, later that same evening in Sodom.

Why three men at noon, then two angels in the evening?

One interpretation by Philo of Alexandria is worth mentioning,

« When the three had appeared, why did the Scripture say, « The two angels came to Sodom in the evening »? (Gen. 19,1). Three appear to Abraham and at noon, but to Lot, two and in the evening. Scripture makes known the difference in the profound sense that there is between the perfect being and the one who progresses, namely the perfect has the impression of a triad, of full nature, continuous, with nothing missing, without emptiness, entirely perfect, but this [not-so-perfect] one has the impression of a dyad that has separation, void and emptiness. One welcomed the Father who is in the middle and is served by the first two powers, while the other welcomed the serving powers without the Father, because he was too weak to see and understand the middle one, king of powers. One is illuminated by a very bright light, the noon light, without shadow, while the other is illuminated by a changing light, at the limits of night and day, because evening has been shared as an intermediate space: it is neither the end of the day nor the beginning of the night.»i

Philo’s interpretation (« The three angels are the Father, served by the first two powers ») is rather embarrassing from the point of view of a strictly monotheistic position, such as that generally professed by Judaism.

On the other hand, it is compatible, at least metaphorically, with the Trinitarian interpretation of Christianity. Philo was born in 25 BC, and lived in Alexandria, then in a state of turmoil, open to neo-Pythagorean and neo-Platonic ideas, and other influences, from Chaldea or Persia.

More than a thousand years after Philo of Alexandria, the famous Rashi of Troyes provided a very different explanation for these variations.

Regarding Gen 18,2, Rashi comments: « AND THERE ARE THREE MEN. God sent angels in human form. One to announce the good news about Sara. One to destroy Sodom. One to heal Abraham. Because the same messenger does not accomplish two missions at the same time. »

Regarding Gen 19,1, Rashi notes: « BOTH. One to destroy Sodom and one to save Lot. It was the latter who had come to heal Abraham. The third one who had come to tell Sara about the birth of her son, once his mission was fulfilled, left. – THE ANGELS. Before (Gen 18,2) they are called MEN. When the Shekhina was with them, they were called men. Another explanation: previously, with Abraham, whose strength was great and who was used to angels as much as to men, they were called men. While with Lot they are called angels. »

There is a common point between Philo and Rashi; they agree that Abraham was perfect, strong, and that Lot was weak. They both deduce from this that seeing the Shekhina among men is a sign of strength, and seeing angels (in the absence of the Shekhina?) is a sign of weakness.

Other questions then arise.

Why did the angel who had announced the next birth of a son to Abraham and Sarah go away once his mission was accomplished, leaving his two companions to continue to Sodom and Gomorrah?

In other words, why was the angel responsible for destroying Sodom and Gomorrah present at Mamre’s meeting, when it was a matter of announcing a birth, and according to Rashi, completing Abraham’s healing?

Was the presence of the exterminating angel necessary in order to listen to Abraham’s arguments in favour of the inhabitants of the two cities threatened with destruction?

Abraham argued at length to intercede on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18, 23-33). Was this plea addressed to the exterminating angel, to the third « man » present in Mamre?

However, this exterminating angel is also called by the proper name of God (YHVH). This is how the text calls him during his exchanges with Abraham.

Let’s summarize.

On one side there are three men, in charge of three different missions (a birth announcement, a healing and an extermination). These three men are in fact three angels, but in reality they are all together one and the same God, named YHVH several times in the Genesis text. YHVH expresses itself in the 1st person singular, as being the Lord, the Eternal YHVH.

The three men speak successively, the first to announce the coming birth, the second to speak to himself, in a way as an aside (« Shall I hide from Abraham what I am going to do? » Gen. 18:17), and the third to discuss the next extermination with Abraham.

Then Lord YHVH « goes away », when he has finished speaking with Abraham (Gen. 18:33). Immediately afterwards (Gen. 19:1), « The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening ».

It seems that the following conclusions can be drawn from this.

God was present, as Shekhina, among the three men visiting Abraham, in Mamre, and then all along the road to the gates of Sodom. Then God departs, and there are only the two angels left, one to exterminate the cities, the other to save Lot and his family. God left just before the extermination.

This chapter of Genesis reports exchanges of words between God, Abraham, and even Sarah, but also a whole body language, a ballet of movements, running, prostrations, steps, standing.

It is interesting to analyze this staging, the scenography of the movements of God and Abraham during this day.

Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, he looked up, and « he saw three men standing beside him; as soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them and bowed down to the ground.  » (Gen. 18:2)

How is it that Abraham runs to men who « stood by him »?

This must be seen as a spiritual meaning. Abraham sits and sees three men standing. They are close to him, but he, Abraham, is far from them. So he has to get up, to get up to their level, and he has to start running, to get closer to them, as much as they have already approached him.

All this is not to be understood on a material, physical level, but on a spiritual, metaphysical level.

Then Abraham « hurries to the tent » (18:6). Then « he ran to the flock » (18:7). Shortly afterwards, when they ate, « he stood up » (18:8). Then, « having risen, the men departed from there and came in sight of Sodom. Abraham walked with them to bring them back. » (18, 16). There follows a kind of soliloquy of God. Finally, the team finished its march: « The men left from there and went to Sodom. YHVH was still standing before Abraham. » (18, 22)

Before Sodom, there is a long exchange between God and Abraham, who tries to intercede on behalf of the inhabitants of the city, in the name of the « righteous » who are within it. Then God goes away. And Abraham returned home (18:33).

Immediately after the two angels enter Sodom (19:1).

In these few lines, Abraham sits, then runs to men, to his tent, to the flock, to his tent again, stands up, walks to Sodom, stops, leaves, arrives in front of Sodom, talks with God, sees God go away, and returns home.

How can we explain all these movements by an old man who has just been circumcised, and who is struggling to recover from his wound?

The simple description of physical movements does not seem to be a sufficient explanation. Rather, they indicate a spiritual dynamic. All these movements reflect Abraham’s inner agitation.

A key to understanding is found in verse 18:3: « Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, then do not pass before your servant. »

Abraham is agitated and runs a lot, so that God « does not pass » before him.

Abraham runs because he wants the Lord to stop.

What can we conclude from this?

First, that the divine can take three “figures”: the figure of the One (YHVH), the figure of the Three (« the three men »), and the figure of the Two (« the two angels »).

Then, this text teaches us that the movements of the body are metaphors of the movements of the soul. It’s like tango. It takes two to dance or to talk to each other. Three men plus Abraham make four. But when God and Abraham talk to each other, they are two. And their attitudes, their positions, are linked, as in a dance. Their movements are correlated.

Abraham gets up, runs, prostrates himself, runs again, etc., so that God will stop, stand still, and stay with him…

There is here a lesson (of spiritual tango) to be learned…

i Philo. Quaestiones in Genesium, Livre IV, 30