Abraham’s Tent: Welcoming the Stranger as our Neighbor

By: Katie Stever, intern at Niagara Foundation

How do we go from being two strangers passing on the sidewalk downtown to two neighbors having conversation in one’s living room?

In her chapter “Biblical, Ethical and Hermeneutical Reflections on Narrative Hospitality” from Richard Kearney and James Taylor’s Hosting the Stranger: Between Religions, Marianne Moyaert discusses the significance of the hospitality shown by Abraham at Mamre in Genesis 18:1-33.

Moyaert examines the narrative and concludes that while Abraham was not in the best physical condition, it was peak summer temperatures, and God was standing right in front of him, he chose the path of hospitality by taking care of three people whom he had never met before and would probably never see again. One might think that when God shows up on your doorstep, you drop everything and give every ounce of your attention to God.

Versions of the story of Abraham at Mamre can be found in each Abrahamic sacred text. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Qur’an, and the Christian Bible, there are three common themes in regards to this story: the presence of God, the offering of a meal, and hospitality.

In both Hebrew Scripture and the Christian Bible, there are translations of the texts in which God appears before Abraham as the Lord in some, and as a number of Messengers in human guise in others (Genesis 18:1-14). Quranic texts share the story that Messengers of Allah  – Angels in human form – approach Abraham and his wife Sarah (Surat adh-Dhariyat: 51: 24-30). The presentation of the Messengers in the Qur’an is a significant distinction between the Hebrew and Christian texts. Nonetheless, God is present in each sacred text’s variation of the story.

As an offering of good neighborliness, Abraham offers his visitors something to eat. In the instance of the Messengers, Abraham was not aware that they were sent by the Lord and had not encountered them before. However, without hesitation, Abraham maintained superior moral values and welcomed the visitors into his home and offered them refreshments as a motion of graciousness. While there are deliberations throughout each Abrahamic tradition as to whether God, or the Messengers, ate or not, Abraham’s offering of a meal can be a interpreted as a sign of welcoming for the guests.

While he may not have physically interacted with God, Abraham did as God would have wanted. God made no complaint about Abraham’s seemingly odd priorities by hosting the strangers in his home because he was simply building relationship with another of God’s creation.

It is in this example of hospitality towards others — of embracing and welcoming the differences of someone whom we may or may not have met before — that we are able to transform relationships into a community. It is in this human interconnectedness that Moyaert states that we find hope. In order to find commonalities with others, we must first let go of what is familiar to ourselves and embrace what is not-yet-familiar.

We must have hope that in our relationships, we can build a better community.

Why didn’t God express any concern over Abraham’s decision? Moyaert argues that when we welcome the stranger, we also welcome God. God would rather have us put the needs of others first instead of the needs of God. God waits, more patiently than we could imagine, as we do good works, as well as when we do not. Abraham did what he was supposed to do and showed compassion toward three strangers.

These examples of care for humanity illustrated in the story discussed by Moyaert are exactly what it takes to go from being strangers to neighbors and friends.

The events occurring around Abraham’s Tent not only form an important value-laden narrative within sacred sources, but also inspire an initiative Niagara Foundation has in place to build community. The goal is to connect people: to go from strangers on the sidewalk, to friends and neighbors.

What better way to connect people than with food and conversation? With this simple, yet powerful idea, Niagara invites our friends in the Chicago community to host and attend Abraham’s Tent meals. By being together at one table with our stories, our questions, and more importantly, our open hearts and minds, we are able to form a community that lifts up, honors and learns from our differences.

If you are interested in either hosting or attending an Abraham’s Tent dinner, please click here.

The views and opinions expressed on The Falls are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Niagara Foundation, its staff, other authors, members, partners, or sponsors.