#40. Concerning the promise of Isaac’s birth, is Abraham visited by a vision of Yahweh as El Shaddai OR by three men, one of whom is Yahweh? (Gen 17:15-22 vs Gen 18:1-15)


Both Genesis 17:15-22 and Genesis 18:1-15 narrate the promise of Isaac’s birth, yet each one does so in drastically different manners. Let us first look at the version found in Genesis 18.

1And Yahweh appeared to him at the oaks of Mamre. And he was sitting at the tent entrance in the heat of the day, 2and he raised his eyes and saw, and here were three men standing over him… 8And he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared and placed them in front of them, and he was standing over them under the tree and they ate. 9And they said to him “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “Here in the tent.” 10And he said, “I shall come back to you at the time of life and, behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.” (18:1-10)

Some of the features of this text, which we have also seen elsewhere, include this narrator’s use of the name Yahweh along with his anthropomorphic depiction of the deity. Of course later biblical traditions will suppress such anthropomorphism (see below), but this author apparently had no problems with it. Yahweh comes as a “man”; he walks, talks, and finally even eats with Abraham. It is probably safe to assume that narratively speaking Abraham doesn’t immediately recognize the “man” as Yahweh until later in the event (see v. 27). Furthermore, the whole episode is set in the typical ancient custom of giving hospitality to a stranger, and prompts the reciprocal gift given by Yahweh—the promise of the birth of Abraham’s heir, Isaac. Since this episode immediately follows Hagar’s expulsion we assume that this son, of whom the promise of Sarah’s future birth speaks, will inherit the covenant made to Abraham and his seed. Yet we should also note that the text leaves this implicit. This version was penned by the Yahwist.

We have discussed elsewhere how the later Priestly writer modified his Yahwist source by composing a whole new narrative (#24). If we ask why the Priestly writer felt obliged to craft a new and different story of Isaac’s birth, the response that we might receive is that here too the Priestly writer adds or emphasizes latent themes not explicitly stated in the Yahwist account, and places greater emphasis on theological tenets dear to himself or the priestly guild he represented.

First, Yahweh does not come to Abraham as a “man” nor in any manner for that matter. Rather he “appears” to Abraham and not as Yahweh (for Yahweh does not reveal himself in the Priestly text until Moses (#11)), but as El Shaddai. “And Abram was ninety and nine years old, and Yahweh appeared to Abram and said to him: ‘I am El Shaddai’” (17:1). Interest in dates is another characteristic feature of P. So basically in P’s modified version, Yahweh’s anthropomorphism is completely suppressed.

Second, the Priestly writer introduces the theme of a name change at this pinnacle point in the narrative (17:5). Only in P is there a name change from Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah.1 In fact, this is the god’s first intervention with Abraham in the Priestly source.

Third, as we saw in P’s rewriting of the covenantal promise of the land (#28), here too the theme of an eternal covenant with Isaac is emphasized and brought to the fore. The Priestly writer also adds a blessing for Ishmael, namely that he too shall become the father of twelve tribes, and invokes the Priestly blessing “be fruitful and multiply” (17:20). The passage further specifies that whereas God blesses Ishmael, he nonetheless establishes his covenant with Isaac. This is made explicit here and clearer than it was presented in the Yahwist text.

And lastly the Priestly text narrates a scene completely absent in his Yahwist source, namely that of the circumcision of the whole household of Abraham, ratifying as it were, the covenant established between God and Abraham and his seed.

If the Priestly writer was indeed composing his text at a later period in time, to an exilic audience, and to address the concerns and needs of this community, and he envisioned the new narration as replacing the older Yahwist version, then it is only due to a literary irony that a later redactor sought to preserve them both, thus leaving behind the very contradictions that we have been examining.


  1. Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, 56.

5 thoughts on “#40. Concerning the promise of Isaac’s birth, is Abraham visited by a vision of Yahweh as El Shaddai OR by three men, one of whom is Yahweh? (Gen 17:15-22 vs Gen 18:1-15)

  1. “But nonetheless, we could agree that the beach itself was a composite of different sands.”
    Yes, there seems to be more than a little evidence for the hypothesis, when one looks at all the places that need to be smoothed over in order to treat the book as God’s word. One thing I’ve read on your site which was new to me was the notion that the original writers of the Hebrew Scriptures didn’t even start out intending to produce a large, coherent work from Genesis to Malachi, but rather that different works have been patched together, regardless of the original authors’ intents. I hadn’t fully grasped that when I skimmed over the documentary hypothesis in the past.

    This goes a long way towards explaining to a newbie like me why the Bible could have contradictions — because, if it was written by a single group with a single agenda, even over a long time, then they should have had much less trouble making things agree. And then we could expect that there ought to be some solid answers on how to reconcile apparent contradictions. But, on the other hand, if the original authors, say J and P, had never intended to have their work presented side by side… suddenly it explains a lot!

    I will add Carr’s book to my wishlist, I’m sure it will be helpful as I try to think about the Bible in a new way.

  2. Surely when you said “It is probably safe to assume that narratively speaking Abraham doesn’t immediately recognize the “man” as Yahweh until later in the event (see v. 27)”, you were referring to Ch. 18‘s v. 27, where Abraham says, “Please, here I have taken it upon myself to speak to YHWH, whereas I am dust and ashes”? My point was that my Bible also puts the divine name at 18:3 when Abraham first runs to meet the three men and wants to “find favor” in YHWH’s eyes.

    Anyway, I understand what you mean about the individual sources’ styles being recognizable. I can see it. But it’s really all very new to me, as when I first learned about the documentary hypothesis, I still thought of the Bible as a book with a single author and was not impressed with the spaghetti-like results (as seen here) coming from the JEPD approach. My mind is trained to be reductive and wants to reject this complexity.

    Nevertheless, I continue to read through and am still chewing on many of the items you’ve listed. You’ll probably find less argument from me as time goes on and I read more of your contradictions. Truly, I want to believe the theory, as it does explain many things, such as the strangely anthropomorphized YHWH of Genesis 3 and 18. But I also want to not blindly follow any more ‘sayings of men’ as I did in the past, so when I read a phrase like “verified hypothesis”, it makes me naturally curious to see concrete proof of this verification, like ancient scrolls that just contain the P passages, or something of that nature.

    Otherwise all I can do is flash back to English classes in school, where we would find 10 different interpretations of the same assigned reading when asked to analyze it symbolically. Without a statement of intent from the author, none of us could say we had the right reading, so it all seemed to be of limited value. That being said, I may be won over by a preponderance of evidence once I’ve considered, say, a few hundred of these contradictions :-) Please don’t hear any of this as criticism, but rather the skepticism of someone who is once bitten, twice shy. Thanks for your work on this site!

    1. You got me on the chapter 18; I don’t know why I was thinking 17.

      Indeed, you should be skeptical about “the claim of man”—the need to see the hypothesis verified is essential. It sounds like you have the erudition and desire for this stuff. I would recommend Carr’s book where the text does indeed become the starting point. See what you think of it. I’ve often tried to express the JEDP through an analogy. Imagine we came across a beach, and that on closer examination we noticed that this beach had coarser sand here, less coarse sand there, and that there were even color variations associated with the coarser sand, which seemed to appear on different places on the beach. And similar features of this sand, and others, were repeatedly found in other specific places along the beach. Our logical conclusion would be that the sands that came to make up this beach came from different locations or were formed at different times. Conjecturing where a particular grain came from and how it came to be mixed with these other grains in this particular fashion would be a more speculative endeavor. But nonetheless, we could agree that the beach itself was a composite of different sands.

  3. Interesting, this seems like a clear case of dueling histories. It would certainly be odd for a single writer to have God tell Abraham he would have a son, then to have God show up again “afterward” and tell Abraham the same thing.

    Of course, Sarah’s present only on the second occasion, so if one treats the two accounts as a linear timeline, then the one could give it the following reading. First, Yahweh says in Ch. 17 that Abraham will have a child at a future time, and provides a covenant for the unborn child and an inheritance for Ishmael. Next, in Ch. 18, God reaffirms to Abraham (and informs Sarah) that the child is coming in one year. Now that he’s given the couple this more specific information, God walks a distance with Abraham and they speak about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. So one *could* interpret this second account as being a later visit with a distinct purpose from the first, hypothetically.

    Also, I’m curious what you have to say about the famous name changes in Ch. 17. I thought Abram and Sarai were older variants of Abraham and Sarah, but then why would the renaming take place in Ch. 17, if it is the newer account, and then the new names be used in the older story in Ch. 18? I suppose someone simply could have changed the names after Ch. 17 to smooth things over.

    P.S.: In my NWT, in 18:3, Abraham calls his visitor “Jehovah”, which would mean that he recognized his visitor(s) right away, not in verse 27. Now, most Bibles put “Lord” there, but since most Bibles have a redacted holy name, I can’t tell if the original Hebrew was YHWH or a title like Adonai.

    1. KW, thanks for your contribution,

      Wait to we get to Deuteronomy (Fall 2013?). There we will spot some pretty clear examples of rewriting “history” and authenticating it by presenting a Moses who is seemingly renarrating the past, but in fact is creating a whole new “history” and in so doing contradicting the very same “history” now preserved in passages in Exodus and Numbers, which were the Deuteronomist’s sources!

      As many of my colleagues have pointed out, once we have a new text–the redacted JEPD text–this new narrative opens up the door to new interpretive questions (and solutions, such as the one you attempt in your other comment) that the individual authors of these sources never dreamed of, one of which is the modern reader’s desire to “interpret away” (i.e., harmonize) the variant textual traditions by looking for a solution in the redacted JEDP text – none of which most readers are familiar with anyhow.

      Granted, some of the contradictions here may be tenuous, but it’s hard to continually start with the redacted JEP text for example and analysis it so as to reveal the variant textual traditions that were stitched together. Often it’s just easier to start from the verified hypothesis, now fact, that the biblical text is composite, and identify what each source is doing. Also, what’s often missing here is the consistency element. So here in this passage we may find use of “El Shaddai,” a non-anthropomorphic image of the deity, emphasis on the eternal covenant, “be fruitful and multiply,” focus on Abraham, etc. But if we stepped back we would see that these very same features repeatedly show up in what has come to be labeled as the Priestly source. I’ve often mention David Carr’s work, Reading the Fractures of Genesis. One of the best books I’ve read that starts from the text and specifically shows how the text’s own “fractures and seams,” vocabularies, styles, word-choice, theology, etc. lead to and support the conclusion of multiple authorship and texts. It’s textual analysis at its best.

      I follow Friedman on the Abram to Abraham name change as being exclusive to P. Check his argument there. And alas, 18:3 comes after 17:27.

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