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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

up vote 11 down vote accepted

An answer is in some of the text you elided:

20 And the LORD said: 'Verily, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and, verily, their sin is exceeding grievous. 21 I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto Me; and if not, I will know.'

Then the men leave -- the number is unspecified here, but only two arrive in Sodom -- and Avraham addresses God about this plan. If God were speaking to himself (as he probably was in the earlier passage where he tries to figure out whether to bring Avraham in on this plan), then Avraham has no way to know what's coming. So God must have spoken to Avraham, making his identity evident in the process. Since only two messengers go to Sodom, a plain reading of the text is that God is speaking through the third.

Note that the text tells us earlier than this that God is there; the tetragramaton is used in the discussion about Sarah's forthcoming pregnancy. But it's not clear that Avraham knows yet -- he might or might not.

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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I like how you distinguish what the author knows and what Abraham knows. Very good focus. –  Frank Luke May 1 '13 at 15:39

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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