Genesis 18:1‒15 is both strange and powerful. Strange because it is one of those places in the Hebrew Scriptures that bears witness to the presence of other pre-monotheistic religious traditions in the stories that constitute the foundation of our Judeo-Christian narrative. I had a colleague in the Religion Department at Bishop’s University years ago who described the Hebrew Scriptures as “memories of memories.” His idea was that these texts gathered up in writing a compendium of myths and tales that had been circulating in different forms across many cultures around the Mediterranean for perhaps two or three thousand years.
The sense of this gathering up is most evident in the talk about three visitors. They are all, apparently, divine. For a while, they speak as a group (“They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’”). By the end of the passage, that chorus has resolved into the single voice of the Hebrew God we all grew up with. There is a cottage industry of scholarship on these kinds of traces and the editorial decisions of the original compilers who accommodate or exclude them. At a minimum, we’re left with the impression that our version of the story—starring Abraham and Sarah—is one instance of a template that may well have been filled out in other cultures with different Gods and different characters. And if that’s the case—if what we’re confronting is a kind of story, a kind of myth, that had been circulating in many forms for many centuries—we’re brought more or less immediately to the question of how we might take it as true.
But the story is also powerful. It is the tale of the origin of a generativity in the literal sense, of a fertility, out of which the entirety of our religious tradition is born. It’s difficult to think of a more significant dad in the entire history of the world than Abraham. In Genesis 18:1–15, we learn how that indispensable and biologically unlikely fatherhood came to be. So, to be more precise with respect to the question of truth that I raised just now: What the story of the three divine visitors to Abraham’s tent sets before us is an account of the origin of human generativity, of the human capacity to conceive and bring things to birth—even things as mighty and significant as nations. How can we make sense of this account?
I would begin, here, by pointing out that three-fifths of the text (verses 1–9) are taken up with the description of how Abraham welcomes the strangers who come to his tent door. He prays them to linger with him, brings them water and fresh-baked bread, asks Sarah and the servant to prepare an elaborate meal and serves it to them under the shade of the tree in his yard. He is the very model of hospitality. This is more evidence of the gathering up I talked about with respect to the plurality of gods a few moments ago. In the ancient texts and artifacts of virtually all European cultures, you see the value of hospitality. It is a central theme of Homer’s Odyssey as well, for example, where the band of travellers under Odysseus’ command are welcomed in various ports on the way home. Hospitality, in the ancient world, was a mark of dignity, of cultural maturity. And it was woven into the consciousness of communities as a frontline responsibility.
The final two-fifths of our passage (verses 10–15) are taken up with the response to Abraham’s hospitality. God—now compressed into a single voice—tells Abraham that he and Sarah will bear a son. We know, of course, that that son is Isaac, that one of Isaac’s sons will be Jacob, and that from Jacob’s line will flow all the tribes of Israel. So that what God is really saying is: Abraham—you and Sarah will generate nations! The fertility of your old age will generate the future population of Israel!
The presentation of this scene is worthy of a playwright. Sarah overhears the conversation from behind the tent door. She finds it preposterous. She and Abraham coupling like kids in old age! And she laughs to herself. God doesn’t take kindly to it. In the penultimate verse of our reading, he asks, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Sarah, of course, is frightened and denies laughing. But God’s in no mood to let her off the hook. Strange, as I said, and powerful.
Let me conclude by drawing from this little drama four lessons.
First, and arguably most important: Generativity in the literal sense, fertility, is here the reward of hospitality. The point of the story is to connect these two things. If and when we cultivate the habit of welcoming strangers, of welcoming and caring for all creation, we find ourselves suddenly capable of conceiving relationships, social and political movements, maybe even institutions we couldn’t dream of otherwise. This is the insight we need to carry into our exploration of the possibility of becoming a welcoming and invitational church. From welcome and hospitality flows institutional life and depth and meaning. If The United Church of Canada is to have a future, if we are to dream of creating anything for ourselves and generations to come, we must begin, as Father Abraham did, with the gesture of hospitality.
Second, and following logically from this: Without hospitality there will be no generativity. At the heart of the discourse of the right-wing populism that has been in the news in North America virtually every day since 2015, there is a kind of paranoia about strangers who might come to the tent door. “What if they’re rapists and terrorists?” the rhetoric goes. “We need to wall them out!” But imagine if Father Abraham had taken that attitude and chased his visitors away. He would have missed his rendez-vous with divinity! He and Sarah would have declined and died, childless, in old age. We too—as a church, as a culture—face that prospect. There is no fertility in a community of worship, or in a nation, that has disavowed hospitality. The price of closing the door on others in need—whoever they are and wherever they come from—is our own capacity to endure beyond the present generation.
Third, and again drawing a consequence nested in the central relationship: Hospitality dies not only at the hands of those who neglect it but also at the hands of those who abuse it. Here I have in mind a phrase from the land acknowledgement some communities of faith say at the beginning of their services: “We acknowledge the continuing injustice.” What has emerged clearly for us in recent decades—late, but better late than never—is that our settler culture in Canada and the U.S. has abused the hospitality of our Indigenous siblings to the point of cultural genocide. This isn’t exactly the same thing as building walls and banning immigrants. But it invokes exactly the same retribution. In abusing the hospitality of others we destroy the generativity of our own cultures and institutions. We end up choking on our own greenhouse gases, seeing our own homes destroyed by the floods and wildfires triggered by industry-driven climate change. Father Abraham would be ashamed of us! We’ve abused the hospitality of the original stewards of this land to the point of shattering it. But—without hospitality there will be no generativity!
Finally, there is the incident with Sarah. She hears God’s promise of a son to Abraham—and laughs. In dramatic terms, it’s completely understandable. She is, according to the wider story, in her mid-90s. Presented, at that age, with the prospect of bearing and raising a child, you’ve got to laugh or cry. God isn’t happy. He takes her mirth as a kind of skepticism about his own power.
I can’t help seeing in the current state of the United Church an analogy to this strange ending. In 2025 we’ll be 100 years old. Like Sarah, we’re feeling our age. Our heyday seems long past. The idea that we, as an institution, might generate something of even modest significance, let alone nations or lasting institutions, seems highly unlikely. But that is only because the neglect and abuse of human hospitality we see all around us tempts us to forget that we live every moment from birth to death in the blessing of divine hospitality. This is God’s world. And as long as we live explicitly in that welcome, anything is possible! As we sit in our modest congregations now, we mustn’t laugh—even or especially “to ourselves.” In the light and power of divine hospitality, spiritual generativity is always just around the corner. We can still touch and help those suffering from cancer on Hope Sunday. We can still reach out to those struggling with mental health, delivering the message that they are not alone. We can still bridge into the wider community and address its needs. We can still welcome the LGTBQIA+ community as an affirming congregation. We can still lift our voices to the glory of God every Sunday, transforming the world via the power of music. Because we stand as human beings on the foundation of divine hospitality, the possibility of spiritual generativity is with us unto the end of days. Amen.
—Jamie Crooks is a professor of philosophy at Bishop’s University and a lay leader at Lennoxville United Church, Lennoxville, Quebec.
The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.