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When the three men walk past Avraham's tent, he runs out to bring them in and feeds them (expressions of Mid-Eastern hospitality). Does he know (think, guess?) at any point that they are not men but angels? Should he (or Sarah) have known and if so, how? Was it that they knew Sarah's name and confirmed a prophecy of a child that he was already aware of?

The commentators point out that these were specific angels for a specific purpose, but nothing I have found mentions whether, when and how, Avraham (and or Sarah) knew whether these were angels or men.

  • Would it be a valid answer to cite sources that they actually weren’t angels?
    – Alex
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 14:40
  • @Alex it would be valid, but it would lead to other questions ;)
    – rosends
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 14:45
  • Ralbag says they were three of the prophets of that time, possibly including Shem and Ever.
    – Alex
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 15:08
  • Isn't there some rishonim who said it was a dream?
    – kouty
    Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 4:23
  • Rashi says Avraham thought they were men...you didn't see that?
    – robev
    Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 9:14

4 Answers 4


The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 50:2 notes that although Avraham ordinarily possessed the ability to discern angels, this time round they appeared as men, and to Lot who was not accustomed to seeing them, they appeared as angels

אָמַר רַבִּי תַּנְחוּמָא אָמַר רַבִּי לֵוִי אַבְרָהָם שֶׁהָיָה כֹּחוֹ יָפֶה נִדְמוּ לוֹ בִּדְמוּת אֲנָשִׁים, אֲבָל לוֹט עַל יְדֵי שֶׁהָיָה כֹּחוֹ רַע נִדְמוּ לוֹ בִּדְמוּת מַלְאָכִים.

Rabbi Tanchuma said in the name of Rabbi Levi - Avraham, who had the beautiful strength (of normally seeing angels), their form appeared as men, but Lot who lacked this strength, their form appeared as angels.

In addition, the Sifrei in Devarim 38:5 writes:

אברהם, גדול העולם, שימש מלאכי השרת וכסבור שהם ערביים עובדי ע"ז, שנאמר (בראשית י״ח:ב׳) "וישא עיניו וירא"

Avraham, the greatest man on earth, served angels who he thought were idol-worshipping Arabs, as it says: "And he lifted up his eyes, and he saw".

  • So Avraham didn't know? Why would he then take what they said about having a child seriously?
    – rosends
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 16:33
  • Good question - I can only think out loud; possibly because he was a man of faith and saw them of shlichim of Hashem even if he didn't recognise them as angels?
    – Dov
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 16:47
  • Hashem, himself, then takes Sarah to task for not believing the statement of 3 random strangers whom she had no reason to think were more than just 3 random strangers making a weird comment about her.
    – rosends
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 17:05
  • 1
    Yes I definitely hear your point! Especially as she had a greater degree of nevuah. However, this is not the first time, despite having a stronger level of prophecy that she goes 'unawares'. The same can be said about the Akeidah - why did she die upon hearing the news if she should conceivably have known that Yitzchok was alive. I think the difference was possibly Avraham's sense of 'emunah peshuta' - that he was always looking for messages in everything as signs from Hashem.
    – Dov
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 17:19
  • 1
    @rosends see the Ramban. He explains why Sarah should respond positively to the wild predictions of Arab Idol worshippers
    – robev
    Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 9:13

According to the Or HaChaim Abraham did know they were angels.

Abraham realised that they were angels because the bearing of an angel cannot be disguised. We know this already from the wife of Manoach (Judges 13,2). If that lady realised that she faced an angel, someone of Abraham's stature would certainly be aware of the presence of an angel. After all, Abraham had already encountered angels previously. The word וירא a second time merely confirmed Abraham's original impression seeing that he had been healed and was able to run towards them. An angel has long-distance vision and inasmuch as the cure he performs is of a spiritual nature, he does not need to be physically close to the patient. As soon as Abraham felt cured, he bowed down to the angel in gratitude to G'd.


If so, why did he prepare food for them?

He also told them to take פת לחם, a reference to the inner meanings of Torah, something he alluded to when speaking about their לבכם, inner organs. He invited the angels to enjoy the inner aspects of Torah. [This is not so strange-sounding, seeing angels had never been given the Torah. Ed.] The reason he did not merely say פת but פת לחם, was a hint that this bread had inner properties, i.e. its numerical value being 78, or three times the numerical value (26) of the four-lettered Holy Name. This was an allusion to eternal life, i.e. past, present and future.


כי על כן עברתם על עבדכם, "for this is why you have come by your servant." These words were intended to silence the argument that once Abraham had recognised that his visitors were angels he should not have offered to give them human food. Although we explained that Abraham alluded to the spiritual nourishment the angels were to enjoy, this did not mean that we are to ignore the plain meaning of the verse. Terrestrial food also contains spiritually valuable ingredients as we know from Proverbs 13,25: "the righteous man eats to satisfy his soul." Abraham said to the angels that the reason they appeared in the guise of human beings was in order for them to partake of his food seeing that the spiritual content of that food also assumed the forms of the terrestrial world. The angels responded saying כן, yes, that Abraham was quite correct. They added that he should proceed as he had intended, i.e. to let them enjoy the spiritual content of the food.


And why would Sarah (on a higher level of spiritual awareness) have laughed when they made their pronouncement of pregnancy?

That's actually another question altogether...did Sarah know they were angels?

ושרה שומעת, and Sarah was listening. On the one hand the verse indicates that what Sarah heard was a message intended for her by a heavenly messenger, the messenger himself standing behind her. Nonetheless I have seen a Midrash according to which the angel was disciplined for not addressing Sarah directly with the message, preferring to deliver it to Abraham. Angels are punished for inadvertently committed disobedience or minor deviations from the instructions they receive.


It appears Sarah would not be able to decipher they were actually angels since it says she was listening. There isn't an indication that she ever saw these particular angels like Abraham. Perhaps she wouldn't have laughed had the angel properly fulfilled it's mission. Although that is only an application of the text and not a direct source.

  • If so, why did he prepare food for them? And why would Sarah (on a higher level of spiritual awareness) have laughed when they made their pronouncement of pregnancy?
    – rosends
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 11:23

Ramban (18:15):

"And Sarah denied, saying: I am astonished with the righteous prophetess [Sarah]. How could she contradict that which God had said to the prophet and also disbelieve the words of the angels of God? And it seems to me [literally, in my my eyes] that these angels who look like people came to Avraham, and he in his wisdom recognized them [as angels]. And he [one angel] gave the good news that "I will [surely] return to you and Sarah will have a son", and Sarah heard and she did not know they were angels from on high as with the wife of Manoach (Judges 13:6), and perhaps she did not see them at all. "She laughed inside her" - With derision like "the sitter in the heavens will laugh, God will mock them" (Psalms 2:4), because laughter in joy is with the mouth "then our mouths will be filled with laughter" (ibid 126:2). But laughter in the heart is not said with reference to joy. And the Holy One Blessed be He, accused her to Avraham, why should the thing [literally "spoken word"] be impossible in her eyes, and it would be fitting [literally "seemly"] that she believe or say "Amen, let God do so." And behold Avraham said to her, "Why did you laugh, is anything beyond God?" and did not explain to her that God had revealed her secret to him. And she for fear of Avraham denied [it] for she thought Avraham recognized it in her face or because she was silent and did not offer praise and thanks about the thing and was not happy. And he said to her "no, rather you laughed" at which time she understood that it was said to him so, and so she was silent and did not respond any word to him. And it is fitting that we say further that Avraham did not reveal to her that which was said to him before (see above, 17:19) "but Sarah your wife is bearing you a son." Perhaps he was waiting until until God would send her the good news on the next day, for he knew that the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7) or because of his great alacrity in commandments he was preoccupied with his circumcision and that of a vast multidude of those in his house and after that in his weakness he sat by the entrance of the tent and the angels came before he had told her anything".


{Vayeirah 18:3](https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8213/showrashi/true#v3) translates this as

And he said, "My lords, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant.

Rashi says

And he said, “My lords, if only I have, etc.”: To the chief one he said this, and he called them all lords, and to the chief one he said, “Please do not pass by,” because if he would not pass by, his companions would stay with him. According to this version, it (אֲדֹנָי) is profane (Shev. 35b) (i.e., it does not refer to God). Another explanation: It (אֲדֹנָי) is holy, and he was telling the Holy One, blessed be He, to wait for him until he would run and bring in the wayfarers. And although this [“Do not pass by”] is written after “and ran toward them,” the statement [to God, “do not pass by”] preceded it. It is customary for the verses to speak in this manner, as I explained in reference to (above 6:3) “Let My spirit not quarrel forever concerning man” [the decree that God would wait 120 years before bringing the Flood] which was written after (5:32): “And Noah begot.” But it is impossible to say otherwise than that the decree preceded the birth [of Japheth] by 120 years. And the two interpretations [of אֲדֹנָי as being profane and holy in this context] are in Genesis Rabbah.

Thus we see at this time he thought that they were men. Since he treated them as men, he would at most have thought that they were mortal prophets of Hashem sent as messengers. He would not have realized this until they actually promised that Yitzchak would be born. It appears however that he (and Sarah) took it as a blessing by guests until Hashem actually confirmed it. The way that they left appears to be the way of people so that Avraham and Sarah still thought that they were human beings.

  • But if Sarah was a greater Navi than Avraham then shouldn't she have known something? And if they made a prophecy which confirmed what Avraha, had been told, why would that mean they are angels?
    – rosends
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 16:35
  • A navi no matter how great is only told what they need to be told. Sarah had not been told about Yitzchak until now. The malachim had appeared to Avraham (and Sarah) as normal human beings. Thus they did not know that it was a prophecy until Hashem confirmed it. Hashem wanted this occur in that way. @rosends Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 18:54
  • so why would Hashem question Sarah's response?
    – rosends
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 19:40
  • There are several answers as to why Sarah laughed, good and bad. One that she laughed in joy other because she could not believe it. However, Hashem said that Sarah had denied having laughed and that was what was wrong. Rav Hirsch said that she was afraid of having insulted the guest by laughing. Hashem said that even if she had laughed in joy ad the news she should not have denied it. @rosends Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 22:59
  • 1
    According to some of the meforshim she should have said Amen even though she thought that they were human beings. @rosends Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 19:28

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