> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

The Inadvertent Trial of Sodom

Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )


The Parasha begins in a peculiar way:

(1) God appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. (2) He lifted up his eyes and looked, and saw that three men stood opposite him. When he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the earth, (3) and said, “My lords, if I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass by your servant. (4) Now let a little water be fetched, wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. (5) I will get a morsel of bread so you can refresh your heart. After that be on your way, for this is surely why you have passed by your servant.” They said, “Very well, do as you have said.”

There are two oddities in the text. The first is the lack of identity of the subject; Avraham is not mentioned by name, and is alluded to by pronouns only. The Hebrew equivalent of “him” and “he” are used, but the normal convention of naming the protagonist at the start of the section, at the very least, is not followed.

The second point is more curious than the first: The text informs us of an awesome event, but appears to gloss over it entirely. God appears to him (obviously, to Avraham), yet the content of the visit seems strangely absent or perhaps not immediately clear. Instead of elaborating on this Divine communication, the text moves on without missing a beat, focusing on the other guests who arrive and receive the full attention of their host, Avraham. At face value it seems quite strange that God could “arrive,” that God could appear to Avraham, and yet no content is imparted.

Both of these textual anomalies are resolved if we see this new chapter, this parasha, as a continuation of the previous episode, in which Avraham is clearly the subject. The preceding parasha ends with the change Avram’s name to Avraham, and the commandment of circumcision.

(1) When Avram was ninety-nine years old, Hashem appeared to Avram and said to him, "I am El Shaddai. Walk before me and be faultless. (2) I will set My covenant between Me and you and will multiply you exceedingly." (3) Avram threw himself on his face and the Almighty spoke to him, saying, (4) "As for Me, here is My covenant with you: You will be the father of a multitude of nations. (5) No longer will you be called by the name Avram, but your name will be Avraham, because I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (6) I will make you exceedingly fruitful; I will make you into nations and kings will come forth from you. … (24) Avraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. (25) And his son, Yishmael, was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. (26) On that very day both Avraham and his son Yishmael, were circumcised. (27) And all the men of his house, those born in the house, and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

Linking this section with the verses that follow – the visitation by God and by the three guests – Rashi resolves the textual challenges: Vayera begins precisely where Lech Lecha ends; Avraham is the subject of the narrative, and because he has just undergone a painful medical procedure God appears to him, visits him during his convalescence. There is no need to mention the protagonist by name because the narrative continues seamlessly, nor is there a need to describe the content of the revelation, because the visit itself was the objective.

In this vein, Rashi makes various comments on this verse, all of which refer or relate to circumcision:

AND THE ETERNAL APPEARED UNTO HIM to visit the sick. R. Hama the son of Hanina said: it was the third day after his circumcision and the Holy One, blessed be He, came and enquired after the state of his health (Bava Metzia 86b)

BY THE OAKS OF MAMRÉ – It was he (Mamre) who advised him (Avraham) regarding the circumcision and therefore He revealed himself to him in his (Mamre’s) territory (Bereishit Rabbah 42:8).

Literally, WAS SITTING – The word is written ישב (without the ו) and therefore may he translated “”he sat”: He wished to rise, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, Sit and I will stand. You shall form an example to your descendants – that I, in time to come, will stand in the assembly of the judges while they will sit, as it is said, (Psalms 82:1) “God standeth in the assembly of the judges” (Bereishit Rabbah 48:7)

AT THE TENT-DOOR – that he might see whether anyone passed by, and invite him into the house.

IN THE HEAT OF THE DAY – The Holy One, blessed be He, brought the sun out of its sheath that he might not be troubled by travellers, and when He perceived that he was grieved that no travellers came He brought to him angels in the form of men (Bava Metzia 86b). Rashi Bereishit 18:1

The episode described in the verses that follow, Rashi explains, took place in the plains of Mamre – because Mamre advised Avraham to perform the circumcision. As a result, Avraham is in pain and God visits him, fulfilling the mitzva of visiting the sick. God finds Avraham in a state of distress because no travelers are out that day due to the unusual heat – which was engineered by God in order to facilitate Avraham’s recuperation with some much-needed rest.

In the midst of this circumcision-focused commentary, Rashi adds an additional comment that seems unrelated: Avraham was sitting at the opening of his tent; although he wanted to stand, God instructed him to remain seated – as would his descendants in future generations: When sitting in judgement, judges will sit while God will stand in the courtroom. This comment seems like a non-sequitur, and we are at a loss as to how it fits in to the larger theme of visiting the sick or circumcision.

Rashbam’s understanding of these verses differs considerably: In contrast to Rashi’s reading, Rashbam1 understands that the revelation, described in Verse 1, consists of the events described in Verse 2 and thereafter. In other words, the arrival of the three visitors, and their message of Sarah’s impending pregnancy and the birth of Yitzchak, were the content imparted to Avraham when God appeared to him:

And the Eternal appeared to him – How? In the three men who came to him, for they were angels. In many instances, when an angel2 appears, it is referred to as Shechina (God’s Presence), as it says ‘for My name is within him;’ a person’s agent is like the person himself. Similarly, ‘an angel of God appeared to [Moshe] in the midst of the burning bush,’ and then it says, ‘God appeared, for [Moshe] had turned to look.’ Rashbam Bereishit 18:1

In a nutshell, Rashbam explains that the three men who visit and deliver a message are the revelation described in the first verse. In Rashi’s portrayal, God had come to visit and found Avraham depressed and pining for visitors in order to perform hesed. God therefore sends three emissaries – and stands on the sideline (as it were), allowing Avraham the space to attend to the visitors. This scenario may be supported by God’s response to Sarah’s incredulous laughter upon hearing that she will bear a child:

(12) Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have grown old will I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (13) God said to Avraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Will I really bear a child, yet I am old?’ (14) Is anything too hard for God? At the set time I will return to you, when the season comes round, and Sarah will have a son.” (15) Then Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.” Bereishit 18:12-15

God, who has been patiently waiting on the sidelines, enters the narrative to question Sarah’s response.3

The entire episode remains unclear. If God is waiting on the sidelines, only to “reappear,” are we to imagine that a visit by God was not satisfying enough for Avraham? Was he so hyper-focused on his own need to perform acts of kindness, of hesed, that a visit by the Almighty Himself was unappreciated?

The next verse makes the question even more pointed: In what may appear to be a bit of literary foreshadowing, Avraham’s guests prepare to take their leave and they take a long, hard look at the city of Sodom:

The men arose from there and turned their gaze toward Sodom, and Avraham walked with them to escort them. Bereishit 18:16

Sodom is apparently their next destination, and Avraham starts them on their journey (ostensibly leaving his original “guest,” God Himself, waiting for him back in the tent). It is at this point that God addresses Avraham and negotiations regarding Sodom commence.

Before continuing the narrative, let us revisit the first of our textual anomalies: the use of pronouns to replace the protagonist’s name. In retrospect, the fact that Avraham’s name is not mentioned creates some drama, particularly when we consider this chapter a continuation of the previous one. The message of the previous chapter was not only the impending birth of Yitzchak; a mitzvah was given – circumcision – and a covenant was forged. But there was one more point: Avram and Sarai were given new names. What is the significance of this change? Are these the same people? Have they undergone some type of “rebirth” or conversion?4 If the change of their names reflects some deeper change, how does it manifest itself? Later in the Torah, Yaakov will be given a new name, but his original name is never lost; his dual names reflect a dual reality. The name Yaakov lives on, referring to the private persona, while the name Yisrael refers to patriarch of the emerging nation. Here, when only pronouns are used so soon after the new names are conferred, we are forced to consider whether Avraham continues to be Avram, whether Sarah is still Sarai.

The significance of Avraham’s new name is articulated by God: Avram is to be “the father of many nations”- but this seems quite ironic. At the moment God informs him that he will have a single heir, a son who will be named Yitzchak and that his son Yishmael is “out of the picture,” we cannot help but wonder how or why the name Avraham – father of many nations – is suitable

(1) When Avram was ninety-nine years old, God appeared to Avram, and said to him, “I am I am El Shaddai. Walk before me and be blameless. (2) I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” (3) Avram fell on his face. The Almighty spoke to him, saying,(4) “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you. You will be the father of a multitude of nations. (5) Neither will your name any more be called Avram, but your name will be Avraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (6) I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you. Kings will come out of you. (7) I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your descendants after you. (8) I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land where you are traveling, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession. I will be their God.” (9) God said to Avraham, “As for you, you will keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. (10) This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised. (11) You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin. It will be a token of the covenant between Me and you. (12) He who is eight days old will be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he who is born in the house, or bought with money from any foreigner who is not of your descendants. (13) He who is born in your house, and he who is bought with your money, must be circumcised. My covenant will be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. (14) The uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people. He has broken My covenant.” (15) God said to Avraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but her name will be Sarah. (16) I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. Yes, I will bless her, and she will be a mother of nations. Kings of peoples will come from her.” Bereishit 17:1-15

Perhaps we can go so far as to say that while Avram fathered Yishmael, Avraham will have a son, Yitzchak, and only a son of Avraham and Sarah is a real son. This would explain the concern that Avraham immediately expresses regarding the status and stature of Yishamel:

(18) Avraham said to God, “Oh that Yishmael might live before you!” (19) God said, “No, but Sarah, your wife, will bear you a son. You shall call his name Yitzchak. I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. (20) As for Yishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He will become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. (21) But My covenant I establish with Yitzchak, whom Sarah will bear to you at this set time next year.” Bereishit 17:18-21

This distinction leaps out of the dialogue leading up to the Akeidah (the ‘binding of Yitzchak’) later in the parasha, when God demonstrably calls Avraham by name – by that very particular name:

(1) It happened after these things, that God tested Avraham, and said to him, “Avraham!” He said, “Here I am.” (2) He said, “Now take your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there for an olah offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” (3) Avraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took his two young men with him, and Yitzchak his son. He split the wood for the olah offering, and rose up, and went to the place of which The Almighty had told him. Bereishit 22:1-3

Avraham had but one son – Yitzchak. Moreover, according to the Midrash, Yishmael was there – but he is not referred to not as a son but as one of Avraham’s “young men.”

His two young men – Yishmael and Eliezer. Rashi Bereishit 22:3

Yishmael and Eliezer, each in their own way a potential heir of Avraham, are now seen to be mere pretenders, ‘extras’ in the unfolding drama; a third candidate for surrogate son or heir, Lot, had left the stage long ago, choosing Sodom over the tent of Avraham – even though Sodom was already an infamously wicked city when Lot made his terrible choice:

(11) So Lot chose the Plain of the Jordan for himself. Lot traveled east, and they separated themselves the one from the other. (12) Abram lived in the land of Canaan, and Lot lived in the cities of the plain, and moved his tent as far as Sodom. (13) Now the people of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinners against God. Bereishit 13:11-13

How was the evil, the wickedness of Sodom, manifest? While some commentaries attribute every possible sin to the people of Sodom,5 the prophet Yechezkel is very specific: He accuses them of maltreatment of the poor and the weak.6

Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy. Yechezkel 16:49

With this value judgment, offered by God via the prophet, a question emerges: If Sodom was already considered spiritually dysfunctional in the 13th chapter of Bereishit, why does God only heed the cry now (in chapter 18)? What has changed? Why is the time now ripe for Sodom’s destruction?

This question brings us back to the point in the text where we paused: Avraham’s visitors look toward Sodom and take their leave, and God, quite remarkably, tells us what He is thinking.

(17) God said, “Will I hide from Avraham what I do, (18) since Avraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him? (19) For I have known him, that he will command his children and his household after him, that they will keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice such that God will bring on Avraham that which He has spoken of him.” (20) God said, “The cry of Sodom and Amorrah is great, and their sin is very grievous.” Bereishit 18:17-20

The question that has troubled so many philosophers is answered in the text itself: Why is Avraham chosen? Because he will command his children to follow the path of God and perform acts of charity and justice. Avraham’s name was changed because he was destined to be “the father of many nations,” a change that can take place only through Yitzchak. Avraham can assume his role as the father of many nations – the role that is his destiny, the role that is reflected in the name God gave him in the previous chapter – with the birth of his one true heir, Yitzchak. This is the start of a nation that will be dedicated to decency and justice.

God tells Avraham about the outrage in Sodom. Avraham-the-father-of-many- nations takes up the proverbial gauntlet and takes on the role of defense attorney7 in the trial of Sodom, attempting to defend the indefensible.

Prima facie, Avraham’s seamless segue into this role seems strange and counterintuitive; the people of Sodom are the antithesis of everything Avraham stands for. Nonetheless, Avraham argues on their behalf, insisting that the doomed cities must contain some good.

In retrospect, this brings God’s visit to Avraham’s tent into clear focus: this must have been the point from the outset. The reason God appeared to Avraham was to conduct the trial of Sodom, which may explain Rashi’s seemingly disconnected reference to judges in a trial. Yet Avraham’s valiant defense should give us pause: Is it possible that Avraham’s arguments for Sodom tell us far more about Avraham and his righteousness than they tell us about Sodom itself? If the roles were reversed, would the king of Sodom have argued to save Avraham? Could the arguments presented by Avraham have served to highlight the chasm between the wickedness of Sodom and the righteousness of Avraham? With each round of negotiation, Avraham’s arguments make the guilt of Sodom more and more obvious.

This insight unlocks the entire chapter: The first section of the parasha, whether we were aware of it or not, was also about the trial of Sodom; we might say that it was “Exhibit A.”

God appears to Avraham; the trial is about to begin. Three visitors arrive, and Avraham treats them like royalty, like angels who have come to visit from heaven; he spares no cost or effort to make them feel welcome and valued. Avraham’s tent is open for business, and this is “business as usual.” The message these guests bear is that there will be continuity. A child will be born, precisely because this enterprise is investment-worthy, because these people will teach their children kindness and decency. This couple deserves a child; their legacy, the “business” they have built – kindness, charity, justice – must continue.

In stark contrast stand the people of Sodom; in the words of Yechezkel, these people do not stretch out their hand to those in need. The poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised are left to die in Sodom; there is no mercy, and not a tear is shed.

When the angels arrive in Sodom they witness firsthand the deplorable moral state of the city, and the trial of Sodom continues – but this is ‘Exhibit B.’ The first piece of evidence introduced at the trial was the extraordinary kindness of Avraham and Sarah. The juxtaposition is not a coincidence: The behavior of Sodom seems even more pale in comparison to the reception of these guests in Avraham’s tent. It is the shining example of how things should be that damns Sodom to destruction, and the fate of the city is sealed. Avraham will have an heir, whereas there is no justification for the continued existence of Sodom.

The overriding theme of the narrative, then, concerns Avraham becoming the father of many nations. Nations that follow Avraham’s lead will be uplifted by his moral guidance and enlightened by his teachings; those that do not will be damned for failing to adhere to those teachings and for falling so short of the benchmark of decency set by Avraham.

Ironically, while Avraham’s words argued for Sodom to be saved, Avraham’s deeds inadvertently sealed their fate. They had chosen misanthropy and moral decay, despite the opportunity to follow Avraham’s lead.8 Their time was up; Avraham’s was just beginning.

  1. See Rambam, Guide to the Perplexed 2:42, who gives a similar explanation; according to the Rambam the entire episode was a vision. This position is severely attacked by Ramban (Bereishit 18:1). Also see the comments of Ralbag on Bereishit 19:37.

  2. Note that in chapter 18 the visitors are described as “people” in contrast to chapter 19 where the visitors are described as malachim – angels. The Ralbag opines that the people visiting were prophets.

  3. According to the Rashbam, God was never an active participant in the narrative.

  4. See Reshimot Shiurim (Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik) Yevomot 45b for discussion of this issue.

  5. See Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:3; Targum Pseudo-Yonatan Bereishit 13:13; various commentaries to

    Bereishit 13:13, including Rashi, Radak, Baal Haturim, Haamek Davar.

  6. See Hizkuni and Ibn Ezra ad loc.:

  7. See Rashi 18:33.

    AND THE LORD WENT AWAY – As soon as the counsel for the defense had nothing more to say the Judge took his departure.

  8. See the events described in Chapter 14.

Related Posts

1 2 3 2,888

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram