Genesis 18:1 -- Now the LORD appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks/terebinths of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day.
This passage always leaves me with questions--what is a terebinth? Just how big was the tree? Why does Abraham bow to the strangers? How does he recognize the LORD--by their clothes, their bearing, their wings?
I imagine a grove tucked into a wide, spare landscape. Scrub brush, dirt, and dry rocks. Sun hot, air heavy, you lower your head and let the afternoon pass. You scan apace from your tent door. Shadows out past the terebinths. Figures flicker in the distance, unannounced. You squint, blink, wipe your eyes. Guests are coming. You do not let them come. You run to meet them at the trees. Jowels shake, belly bounces, you are old and bounding. They walk steady on. You're thighs tremble, ankles cracking. You're close enough to see them smiling. Yes, these are guests. These one two three. They have come to me. Your clothes fall to the ground, a lump with your body, and for a time you pant and pause. "Do not pass your servant by."
The hot road will dry where you held your forehead.
The scene of this meal has been a favorite for artists, most notably in Orthodox iconography. Rubalev's icon is perhaps the most famous. Note the slender tree, the mountain that could be a wave, the half-calf's head on the table. Something holy in this meal. Chagall's rendition is vivid as usual. His tree seems a burning bush. I love his stately strangers' faces.
According to some, the trees were the site of a Canaanite cultic shrine (read: ancient tree-huggers?). But here, a pagan site, holy strangers come. And near these trees outside the tent, barren Sarah conceives enough to laugh, a suppressed chuckle. Out of earshot might it expand and rise from chortle, cackle, guffaw, to tears in her eyes?
We get the joke, though. Because while one of the strangers quotes Sarah saying, "Shall I indeed bear, when I am so old?" we know she actually wondered, "After I have become old shall I have pleasure, my lord being also?"
Yes, Sarah, pleasure is where babies come from!