Hospitality, Power, and Sacrifice: Reading the Bible’s Little Lambs

Rembrandt van Rijn: Abraham Entertaining the Angels

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13.2, NRSV). Hospitality was an enormously important ritual in the ancient world. Because traveling was dangerous, ancient Mediterranean societies often attempted to incentivize protecting strangers by honoring those who practiced hospitality. In ancient Greece–since at least the time of Homer–we read “all strangers and beggars are from Zeus” (Od. 14.57-58). Being known as a good host could benefit your status, but violating that hospitality might benefit you in a different way…

Hospitality required one to love their neighbor as themselves, extending friendship or a temporary family bond to strangers. It could and often did cost you–food, water, safety. Thus, seeing whether people would act appropriately–especially towards those who could not protect themselves from predation–was a revelation of one’s character, and stories about just this are common to the Bible and ancient Mediterranean more generally. A sample of the more famous hospitality scenes from the Bible would include Abraham and the angels (Gen 18), the angels at Sodom (Gen 19), the Levite and Concubine at Gibeah (Jgs 19), and many others (one short list included additionally Luke 7.44; Mat 22.1–14; Mark 2.15–22; Luke 19.1–10; Rom 15.7; 1 Tim 3.2; John 2.9; 3.9; Heb 13.2!). These scenes often feature similar elements (although hospitality scenes in Homer are slightly different!):

  • The host promises provision and protection (Gen 24.19, 32; 43.24; Jgs 19.21)
  • The host provides water for drinking and cleansing (Gen 24.14; Jgs 4.19; Gen 18.4; 19.2; 24.32; Jgs 19.21; 1 Sam 24.41; John 13.5; 1 Tim 5.10)
  • The host provides for eating (Gen 18.4; 19.3; 24.33; 43.16; Exd 2.19–20)
  • The host offers for the guests to stay the night, under his protection (Gen 19.2–3; Jgs 19.6–20)

By telling these stories according to a type scene (as we’ve talked about before), the storyteller helps align texts and helps the hearers better recognize differences, especially when speaking to the core concepts at play in hospitality scenes: honor, shame, and sacrifice. Let’s look at two obviously connected versions of this, and then another–more tenuous–connection and then consider what hospitality has to do with power.

Abraham’s hospitality to God and his angels in Genesis 18 is one of the most famous hospitality scenes in the Bible.

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared and set it before them, and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

Gen 18.1–8 (NRSV)

You can see that this fits the stereotypical hospitality scene we identified above, but Abraham does not merely provide the bare minimums of bread and water, but–figuratively and literally!–kills the fatted calf to feed his guests. Abraham, then, acts exemplary host. Lot, however…

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” But he urged them strongly, so they turned aside to him and entered his house, and he made them a meal and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house, and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.”

Gen 19.1–9 (NRSV)

Notice the differences? Abraham rushed to provide a feast: freshly made bread, water for washing, milk and curds, and even a fatted calf (18.6–8). Lot’s provision is meagre in comparison: a meal of unleavened bread alone (matzah), the quick and hasty meal of those rushing to leave (cf. Exd 12.8). Lot provides hospitality, but only the bare minimum necessary to fulfil the letter of the law, and he does so while in the gate where he can be “seen by men” (cf. Mat 6.1; 23.5).

But the questions of hospitality don’t end there. Remember, hospitality was created to protect strangers, and it is clear that in Sodom strangers needed protection. The inhabitants of Sodom were not merely wicked, they were particularly wicked in that they violated the rite of hospitality by taking advantage of strangers rather than providing to the needy:

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Ezk 16.48–50 (NRSV)

Still, Lot’s honor was at stake if he could not protect “those who have come under the protection of my roof” (19.8), thus he attempts to dissuade the men of Sodom from violating his reputation as a host, even so far as offering up his two daughters to be raped by this gang. And here we come to another intertextual link I’d like to make, one more tenuous than that present between Gen 18–19, but this too has to do with a story of hospitality:

“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare and drink from his cup and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” 

2 Sam 12.1–4 (NRSV)

This story comes from the Prophet Nathan’s accusation of David’s rape of Bathsheba. But do you notice how Nathan portrays this violation? He places it in the context of hospitality: a rich man receives a visitor and wants to be seen as a gracious host. He wants to gain the honor and status that comes from being seen as such. But he is unwilling to sacrifice his own little lamb, thus he uses his power to abuse the poor man and take his little lamb which was like a daughter. And, of course, we know that the actual background of this legal fiction: David’s rape of Bathsheba.

A comparison of these three episodes reveals something pretty awful about how many in the ancient world saw their power, prestige, and those for whom they were supposed to protect and provide.

Lot cared so much for his reputation as a host that he was willing to offer up his daughters to maintain it (Gen 19.6–8), but too little for the roles associated duties to offer up a fatted calf (19.3; cf. 18.6–8).

Nathan’s parable tells a similar story about a powerful man who also cares much for his reputation as a host (2 Sam 12.4a), but not enough to sacrifice a fatted calf. Yet, he still steals another’s little lamb (12.4b).

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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