Abraham was legendary for his hospitality, as evidenced by his treatment of three strangers, one of whom turned out to be God–
(Gen. 18:1-5 ESV) And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5 while I bring a morsel of 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.”
Although Abraham addresses the leader of the group as “lord,” he does not yet know that he is addressing God incarnate.
His guests are identified as men, for that is how Abraham first perceived them. His failure to notice their approach is an indication that they were heavenly messengers. Abraham, however, became aware of their true identity only gradually. Excitedly he ran to meet them. On reaching them he bowed low to the ground in deference. His bowing and addressing the leader as my lord show that he took these visitors to be nobility. While such an address was proper protocol, the narrative allows Abraham to be more correct than he realized at first.
John E. Hartley, Genesis, eds. W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 177–178.
The extravagance of Abraham’s hospitality is evident even to the Western reader. What we usually miss is that Abraham prepared a meal with three seahs of flour — 20 quarts! Plus an entire calf! There was no way these three men could eat so much food.
The rabbis point out that in the preceding verses Abraham had just been circumcised. Moses does not specify how much time passed, but if Abraham was still on the mend from his circumcision, running to meet the strangers was a very painful exercise.
In fact, while Abraham took his hospitality to an extreme, offering food, water, and rest to total strangers was typical behavior in that culture — and it’s still true among the Bedouins. A family will skip meals to feed a perfect stranger.
This is part of the reason that Sodom is condemned in scripture — their mistreatment of sojourners. It’s not just that sojourners in a city should not be subjected to threats of homosexual rape — it’s the contrast between this crime and the expected treatment of travelers.
The sin of Sodom, then, is heinous moral and social corruption, an arrogant disregard of basic human rights, a cynical insensitivity to the sufferings of others. The prophet Jeremiah identified Sodom with adultery, false dealing, and the encouragement of evildoers—all without any feelings of contrition (23:14)—while Ezekiel sums up the situation as follows in 16:49: “Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy. In their haughtiness, they committed abomination before Me; and so I removed them.…” The indictment of Sodom lies entirely in the moral realm; there is no hint of cultic offense, no whisper of idolatry. As with the Flood story, the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative assumes the existence of a universal moral law that God expects all humankind to follow. The idea that there is an inextricable connection between the social and moral behavior of a people and its ultimate fate is one of the pillars upon which the entire biblical interpretation of history stands.
Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 132.
Sodom is condemned for, among other things, its lack of hospitality — which is startling to the Western reader. And the NT teaches the same lesson —
(Rom. 12:13 ESV) 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
(Heb. 13:2 ESV) 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
The Hebrews passage is an obvious reference to Gen 18.
Perhaps the most winsome of all reflections on hospitality by early Christian writers is found in Heb 13:2 where believers are urged to receive strangers graciously on the ground that “thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Clearly the allusion is to Abraham’s enthusiastic reception of the three heavenly messengers. But Jesus too may come as a stranger. Matthew, Luke, and John all make this point (Matt 25:31–46; Luke 24:13–35; John 20:11ff.; 21:1–14). And so does the author of Revelation when he records the words of the Risen One to the church in Laodicea: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; of any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (3:20). The context indicates that this meal with Jesus, like many of those narrated in the gospels, will be one of repentance and reconciliation.
John Koenig, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 1992, 3, 301.
In short, in our culture, we think of “hospitality” in terms of inviting a visitor at church — a member of our own denomination and likely the same race and social class — out to lunch at a restaurant. The biblical concept is much bigger. It’s about care for strangers — sojourners — who are in true need.
In ancient times, there were few inns or the like, and so travelers would enter the city gates and prepare to spend the night in the square — hoping a kind resident would invite them to spend the night and prepare a meal for them. To us, this would be unthinkable — dangerous and irresponsible.
As a child, I recall my parents often having visiting preachers and missionaries spend the night (or the week!) at our house. In our small town, the local motels weren’t nice, and there were few restaurants in the 1950s and early 1960s. Home cooking was genuinely much better than eating out — and safer. In those days, we worried about food poisoning at restaurants for very good reason. (The health standards have changed dramatically since those days.)
Nowadays, it’s considered rude to expect the visiting speaker to stay in someone’s house. He needs “down” time, and restaurant food and local hotels are generally excellent — often better than home.
In fact, we increasingly find it difficult to find couples who will host small group meetings, because cleaning and cooking for guests is time consuming and expensive — and we are all so very busy. Church members increasingly prefer to meet at a restaurant or the church building.
The same trend is true for showers. More and more we find only a few members willing to host baby and wedding showers. It’s not uncommon to have church members who’ve never hosted another family from their own congregation in their own home — much less a stranger.
But showing hospitality is considered the essence of church leadership by Paul —
(1 Tim. 3:2 ESV) Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach …
(Tit. 1:7-8 ESV) 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.
And a widow is not to be supported by the church unless she’s been hospitable —
(1 Tim. 5:9-10 ESV) 9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.
And this is all “hospitality” as defined by First Century standards — at least.
The “hospitality” of today, by which is meant the entertainment of friends or relatives, hardly comes within the Biblical use of the term as denoting a special virtue.
Burton Scott Easton, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915).