Question: "Who were the three men who visited Abraham in Genesis 18?"
Answer: Abraham was visited by three men one day; the men turned out to be unusual guests, to say the least, and the visit was life-changing for Abraham and Sarah. Genesis 18:1–2 says, “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.” Abraham showed immediate hospitality to the three men, inviting them to rest under a tree and preparing a big meal for them (verses 3–8).
During their visit with Abraham, the three men warned him that God’s judgment was about to fall upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20–21; 19:12–13). They also promised that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, would have a baby by the same time next year (Genesis 18:10).
Some have suggested that all three of these “men” were angelic beings who appeared to Abraham in the form of men. However, Genesis 18:1 says that it was “the LORD” (Yahweh) who appeared to Abraham. It is the LORD who speaks in verses 13, 20, 26, and 33. Abraham stands “before the LORD” in verse 22. So, one of the three “men” must have been God Almighty taking on the appearance of a man. We call such an appearance a “theophany.” When Jesus appears in His pre-incarnate body in the Old Testament, we call it a “Christophany.” Whether God’s appearance to Abraham in Mamre was a theophany or a Christophany, we don’t know. But it does seem clear from the context that one of the visitors was God Himself (Genesis 18:22) and the other two were the angels who later visited Sodom and spoke to Lot (Genesis 19:1).
Abraham’s response to the appearance of the three men also suggests that he instinctively knew that he was in the presence of God. A typical response to visitors in that culture was to rise and wait for them to approach the home. But Abraham ran to meet them and “bowed low to the ground,” a prostrate posture reserved for royalty or deity.
Abraham was well acquainted with the LORD and would have instantly recognized Him, because the Lord had spoken and/or appeared to him many times before. Those appearances include the following occasions:
• when God first called him (Genesis 12:1–3)
• when Abraham parted ways with Lot (Genesis 13:14–17)
• possibly when he met Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18–20)
• when God made a covenant with him (Genesis 15)
• when God restated His covenant (Genesis 17)
These three visitors whom Abraham entertained were heavenly, and Abraham and Sarah were in the company of God Himself. The story teaches us that God is aware of what is happening on earth, and He is involved. God can even visit or send His heavenly messengers to help fulfill His plans. We may not always realize whom we are speaking with, so we should treat everyone as though they were on special assignment from God. Hebrews 13:2 reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”