Torah Portion Vayera
Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
2 Kings 4:1-37
This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.
In Vayera, Abraham is tasked by YHWH with keeping the way of YHWH by doing righteousness and justice. Righteousness and justice was understood in the ancient Near Eastern world as taking care of the poor and oppressed. Abraham demonstrates such a heart in this Torah portion by providing for weary travelers and by standing up for the potential righteous persons in the cities about to be destroyed.
Shalom! This is the fourth portion in the Haftarah cycle where we will be discussing the miracle of the oil and the miracle of resurrection done through the prophet Elisha. This year we will be spending approximately one hour on each of the Haftarah portions and investigating them from their historical setting and their ancient Near Eastern context as well as making connections back to the Torah Portion. I pray that you will enjoy these teachings!
In Vayera, we see a contrast between the hospitality, righteousness, and justice of Abraham and Lot and the lack thereof of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. This theme of lack of hospitality, righteousness, and justice is found throughout Scripture as a major failure of the nation of Israel. Yeshua comes to create a righteous remnant who will fulfill the Father's requirement of righteousness and justice!
The Value of Hospitality
Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
Most readers and commentators of this Torah portion like to focus on the promise of the child, the sexual sins of Sodom, Lot and his daughters, and of course the story of the binding of Isaac. Yet the story begins on a different note, something that we may believe is just background information; the hospitality of Abraham towards three strangers. In our culture, if a stranger came to town, we would direct them towards the nearest or cheapest hotel. If they were too poor, we may direct them to a homeless shelter or perhaps even give them a little bit of money so that they could stay in a hotel. Very few of us would ask someone we did not know to come into our homes, let alone bow down to them, wash their feet, and provide them with a very expensive meal. Yet this is exactly what Abraham, the model of faithfulness, did when confronted with such a situation. The text gives no indication that Abraham recognized them as being God Himself or having been sent from God, although Abraham discovers these facts later. So why would Abraham be willing to put himself and his wife at risk by opening up his home to strangers? Hospitality was a very important value in the ancient Near East as well as in the Scriptures. The fact that you had the resources to host others in need showed your power and thus your honor. So our story begins by telling us in the language of the ancient world that Abraham was a very honorable man. Maybe if we understood a little bit more about the manner in which hospitality was carried out, we could gain a better understanding of what is going on in this Torah portion!
When a stranger crosses the boundary into one’s home, there is a need for a boundary ritual. This is accomplished through the washing of feet that we see in the account of Abraham, with Lot in Genesis 19:2, as well as when Jacob meets Laban in Genesis 24:32. Once this ritual is complete the visitor goes from being a stranger to being a guest. As a guest in the community, the outsider lacks any social status and so he/she becomes the client, the host being the patron. This new status places obligations upon the relationship between the host and the guest; the guest must not offend the host and the host must protect the guest at all costs. A host to failing to protect his guest would result in a great loss of honor and community status for that host. The host also must not insult the guest and must act to preserve the guest’s honor. The guest has the duty to honor the host, to not usurp the host’s authority, to not give commands to the guest’s dependents, to not make demands of the host, and to not refuse what food is offered to them. If the rules are properly followed, the guest will leave publicly spreading praise of the host, especially to those who sent the guest. However if the rules are not followed, public rebuke will follow (see 3 John 9-11).
Abraham’s hospitality results not only in the promise of a son to be heir to the covenantal promises, but also in a very important revelation about YHWH’s plan for bringing about all that He had promised to Abraham. Reading Genesis 18:19 in reverse order of statements, “in order that YHWH may bring upon Abraham that which He spoke about him”, i.e. the covenantal promises, “[Abraham] must command his children and his household after him to guard the Way of YHWH by doing righteousness and justice”, this is why “I [YHWH] have chosen [Abraham]”. Righteousness and justice (Hebrew tsedaqah u’mishpat) was a phrase that was well known in the ancient Near Eastern world; it meant taking care of the poor and oppressed people who were victimized by the wealthy elite, freeing them from that oppression. This is what is labeled as “the Way of YHWH” and is what is required for the descendants of Abraham to guard and perform in order to realize the covenantal promises. What is interesting is that Sodom stands as the antitype of Abraham in our Torah portion. Abraham is charged with doing tsedaqah (צדקה “righteousness”) and Sodom is accused of committing great sin through tse’aqah (צעקה “an outcry”). Just changing one Hebrew letter causes righteousness to turn into an outcry from oppression. We must be careful to guard against actions which we think are righteous but actually cause the oppression of others.
Lot, like Abraham, also offers hospitality to strangers and we can gain a much better understanding of what actually occurred that night in Sodom by examining the text through the cultural eyes. First, let’s examine what sort of sinful actions were causing the outcry in Sodom. Many of us focus on the demand for homosexual intercourse with the strangers in Genesis 19:5 but, while this is certainly a sin, it is not what the Scriptures view as the main issue. Ezekiel 16:49 illuminates the issue for us, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, satisfaction of food, and restful security, yet she did not assist the oppressed and the needy.” Ezekiel tells us that even though the men of Sodom had been blessed with everything they wanted, they refused to do righteousness and justice to the widow, the poor, the orphan, and the stranger and so they were destroyed. So who was a stranger in Sodom? Certainly the two messengers were strangers, but notice that in Genesis 19:9, the men of Sodom state that Lot is a stranger but is trying to act like a judge. The real issue going on is that the men of Sodom hate Lot; they see him as trying to usurp his social status by hosting outsiders who will then praise him for his hospitality and thus elevate his honor. In an honor and shame culture, honor is a limited commodity which means that if Lot receives honor, the other men of the city lose honor (they did not host the strangers). This concept of limited honor is very important to understand the agonistic nature of the ancient cultures. An example from the Apostolic Scripture of limited honor is when John the immerse states that he must decrease so that Yeshua may increase (John 3:30).
With all of this in mind, let’s examine the events in the first part of Genesis 19. Lot sees two strangers coming through the gates of Sodom and, being an honorable and righteous man, he greets them and offers them hospitality. Once the two strangers agree, Lot becomes their patron and they his clients. This challenges the honor of the men of Sodom who did not provide assistance to the strangers and so they band together to put this outsider, Lot, in his place. They challenge Lot with what would be the greatest assault on his own honor, the rape of his guest. In honor and shame cultures, male homosexuality is not about sexual gratification, it is about domination. The one being penetrated is completely degraded and shamed and loses his honor. If Lot would have allowed his guests to have been raped, Lot would have lost all of his honor. Faced with an impossible decision, Lot responds with an offer that would still result in some of his honor being lost, his own virgin daughters. This would have been devastating, but he was willing to accept loss in order to maintain the hospitality protocol with the two strangers because, “they have come under the shadow of my roof” (Genesis 19:8). Notice that the two messengers (“angels”) are silent during this whole interaction. Why did they not immediately speak up and tell Lot that they could protect themselves since we see that they were more than capable? They actually do not say anything, they simply pulled Lot back inside and struck the men outside with blindness. Had the two messengers told Lot that they could protect themselves or had they asked him to protect them, it would have violated his honor as their host, thus they only act when things get completely out of hand. Because the protocol of hospitality was followed, showing Lot to be an honorable man, the two messenger rescue him from the oppression of the men of Sodom and from Sodom’s impending destruction.
The writer of Hebrews finishes his letter by extorting the believers, “Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” If we as believers in Yeshua are grafted in to Israel (Romans 11) and are now Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:29), then our mandate is to guard the Way of YHWH by doing righteousness and justice; to alleviate oppression in this world. Are we willing to show hospitality by inviting strangers into our homes and providing them with food, protection, and status in the community?
 For more in depth information on hospitality, see “Hospitality” in Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Pilch & Malina ed., pp 115-118.
 Hebrews 13:1-2, New American Standard Bible
For more information on righteousness and justice
- Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East.
- The Weightier Matters of Torah video series by Ryan White
- The Gospel of the Suffering Servant video series by Ryan White
Malina & Pilch, Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, MA: 1998).
Please log in to your premium account to view the audio and video content