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At the start of the story in Genesis 18, Abraham does not seem to know who the three men are:

Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.”—Genesis 18:2-5 (NJPS)

(Abraham seems to recognize the men as important somehow as he treats them as honored guests, but it's not clear he considers any of them as God Himself.)

When the two angels have left for Sodom, Abraham seems to have identified the third as the Lord:

Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”—Genesis 18:23-25 (NJPS)

What tipped Abraham off?

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This is also the chapter with one of the Tanakh's funniest lines: Sarah lied, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was frightened. But He replied, “You did laugh.” – Jon Ericson Jan 31 '12 at 0:51

2 Answers 2

No one has commented on the section of Scripture between Gen 18:2-5 and Gen 18:23-25. There is a whole dialog where the "visitor" specifically asks after Sarah, (verse did He know her name?) The "visitor" reaffirms the promise Abraham had received directly from the Lord that He, the Lord, would grant Abraham a son (verse 14), that He would return within a year to make good on it (verse 10, 14) which the Lord Himself makes good on (Gen 21:1). In addition, the "visitor" hears Sarah's laugh "within herself" meaning inaudible to Abraham, and relays an edited version of her inner thoughts to Abraham (verses 12-15) which causes fear in Sarah. This visitor displays exceedingly intimate knowledge of Abraham and Sarah and the promise that had been given by the Lord Himself. How could Abraham not recognize the Lord at this point?

In regard to the comment on no one being able to see the face of Yahweh and live, I would like to recall the following verses:

Exodus 33:11a "So the LORD spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend..."

Gen 16:13, "Then she [Hagar] called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, 'You are a God who sees”; for she said, “Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?”

Jdg 13:20 "For it came about when the flame went up from the altar toward heaven, that the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame of the altar. When Manoah and his wife saw this, they fell on their faces to the ground. Now the angel of the LORD did not appear to Manoah or his wife again. Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the LORD. So Manoah said to his wife, “We will surely die, for we have seen God.”

There are a number of instances when people have declared they have seen the Lord and lived. The text may call these manifestations the Angel of the Lord, but the people confess an understanding that they were in the presence of the Lord.

The struggle to reconcile the seeming conflict between a God that could not be seen with a God who spoke personally with people is what drove the translators of the Jewish targums to substitute an alternate persona they called the "Word of the Lord" in places where the text indicates the Lord appeared in a physical form. This alteration in the targums is evidence that early scholars recognized there were times when the Lord appeared physically in Scripture and people lived through the encounter.

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Your interpretation that one of the men is "the Lord" is completely unnatural. It is not the intended reading, and it is not the reading of any theology I know of. Yahweh appears to Abraham in a different mode than the men appearing to Abraham, although they are connected. There is no implication that one of the angels is Yahweh, as a man cannot see Yahweh's face etc.

The angels are being greeted with middle-eastern hospitality--- they are wayfarers and they are treated as honored guests. They all leave, and then Abraham has his dialog with God regarding Sodom. The dialog is not person to person, but more like an internal monologue.

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