Abraham, Hospitality Man

(This article is based on a message given at the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregation’s annual conference in 2006.)

On the Jewish calendar, today is Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath before the 9th of Av. On Shabbat Chazon, it is traditional to reflect on the reasons for the destruction of the two Temples. Why were they destroyed? While various explanations are given in Scripture and tradition, it is notable that tradition traces the Second Temple’s destruction back to a single occasion in which a host did not properly extend hospitality to a guest.

We are told in the Talmud, b. Git. 55-56, about a certain man who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. The man held a great banquet, and told his servant to invite Kamtza as well as the leading rabbis of Jerusalem. The servant made a terrible mistake and invited Bar Kamtza instead. At the banquet, when the host saw his enemy instead of his friend, he became upset and demanded that the guest leave. Bar Kamtza pleaded with the host not to throw him out and even offered to pay for the cost of his meal. But the host refused. Bar Kamtza offered to pay half of the expenses of the banquet. But again, the host refused. Finally, Bar Kamtza offered to pay for the whole banquet, at which point the host grabbed Bar Kamtza and threw him out of the house. Shaking the dust off of his feet, Bar Kamtza was embarrassed and upset, and from that day he sought revenge not only against his host, but the whole city of Jerusalem, since Jerusalem’s rabbis did nothing to prevent his disgrace. Bar Kamtza gained a hearing with the Roman emperor and convinced him that the Jews of Jerusalem were conspiring against Rome. Shortly thereafter, the emperor decided to destroy Jerusalem. According to the Talmud, Jerusalem’s devastation goes back to the lack of hospitality extended to Bar Kamtza.

Whether this story is reliable or not, it brings to the forefront the subject of hospitality on this day of Shabbat Chazon . As a side note, it is also thought provoking to consider that the Brit Chadashah similarly explains the destruction of the Second Temple as the result of a lack of hospitality. As Yeshua approached Jerusalem, he wept over it and said:

Indeed, the days will come upon you when your enemies will set up siege-works against you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation .’ (Luke 19:43-44)

When the Ben HaElohim (the Son of God) came to our doorstep, when the fullness of God in bodily form visited us, our leaders did not welcome him but treated him like Bar Kamtza. Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed because we as a people did not recognize the time of our visitation from God. Our leaders in Jerusalem did not welcome Yeshua with the words Baruch ha-ba b’shem Adonai (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord). Hospitality is all about welcoming.

But is hospitality relevant to our movement today? Is there a reason (other than the fact that it is Shabbat Chazon) to talk about hospitality? I am going to do my best to persuade you that the subject of hospitality is extremely relevant to our community. But hospitality is a huge subject. How shall we proceed? We could discuss the importance of members of Messianic synagogues regularly extending hospitality to one another, so that we are involved in each other’s lives throughout the week and not only at the Sabbath morning service. We could discuss the importance of Messianic Jews welcoming Gentile believers who are drawn to Messianic synagogues. We could discuss the universal rule of hospitality-that guests should adapt to the way of their host-and how this applies to visitors of Messianic synagogues. Should not visitors view themselves as guests and adapt to the customs and etiquette of our communities? But I dare say that the universal rule of hospitality is not so universal in 21stcentury America. We are often placed in the awkward position of having to teach visitors how to be respectful guests in our communities. And sometimes we have to teach our members how to be respectful hosts. Hospitality is an ethic that is fundamental to the character, shape, and calling of our community.

In order to limit our discussion, I would like to speak about Abraham, hospitality man, and the importance of Abraham’s example of hospitality for kiruv (outreach) in our movement. During my three years in England, I studied ancient Jewish literature to better understand the historical and literary context of the Brit Chadashah. Rather than reading aimlessly, I read with certain themes in mind. One of these themes was the person of Abraham. What did these early Jewish sources have to say about Abraham? While Abraham was praised for many and various things, it was striking to see how united these texts were in emphasizing one particular characteristic of Abraham above the rest. Abraham was hospitality man. Genesis 18:1-8 says:

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little 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.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate (NRSV).

Based on the story of Gen 18, Abraham became known in the ancient world as a man of magnanimous hospitality. What did our people of long ago see in Gen 18? Did they see more than we see?

I would like to make three observations about Abraham’s offer of hospitality in Gen 18. First, he was 99 or100 years old. Second, he was still recovering from an extremely painful surgical operation- circumcision-which he had performed on himself. Chapter 17 ends with the mention of Abraham’s circumcision. Immediately thereafter we are told of Abraham’s hospitality. When we follow the chronology of Gen 17-21, chapter 18 appears to take place very soon after the surgery. It is possible that only days or weeks had passed. Abraham was probably not in the best shape to entertain guests. And finally, third, it was a very hot day. Yet despite his age, his physical condition and the heat, Abraham ran to these strangers, whom he presumably thought were idolaters. There is no evidence that Abraham knew that the “three men” were the Lord and two angels (and Heb 13:2 may very well suggest that he did not). In all likelihood, Abraham thought that they were foreigners, outsiders, people he did not know. Yet Abraham offered them hospitality. He washed their feet and prepared a feast for them. This says a great deal about Abraham.

A number of legends arose in the ancient Jewish world about Abraham’s magnanimous hospitality. It is important for our movement, the Messianic Jewish community, to know about these legends. True or false, they reflect the mindset of our people for millennia. Why is Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent in Gen 18? Was it a cool place? Was he looking for someone? The Midrash builds on this ambiguity in Scripture and attempts to fill in the missing pieces. I mention this because it is important that we are able to make the distinction in our minds between what the text of Scripture says and what the Midrash adds as explanation. Scripture says that Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent. The Midrash adds that Abraham was sitting there because he was looking for strangers to welcome into his home. According to the Midrash, Abraham had the four sides of his tent open to the four winds of the earth-north, south, east and west-so that guests could enter his home from any direction (Gen Rab 48.7). Is this not a beautiful and inspiring picture of hospitality?

Throughout rabbinic literature, Abraham is described as reaching out to strangers through his open-handed hospitality and converting them to the worship of the one true God. Targum Neofiti on Gen 21:33 states:

And Abraham planted an orchard in Beersheba and within it gave food to the passersby. And it came about that while eating and drinking they would seek to give Abraham the price of what they had eaten and drunk and he would say to them: “You are eating from him who said and the world was.” And they would not move from there until he would convert them, and would teach them to give praise to the Lord of the world.

In Rabbinic literature, there are dozens of texts like this that portray Abraham as actively and passively drawing strangers to the one true God through his lifestyle of hospitality. I believe there is an important lesson here for our community.

Think about it. How can we best enter into conversations with our people about the creator of the universe, Yeshua his Son and the Scriptures of Israel? There is no better place than over the table. This is natural. It is Jewish. It is part of the tradition of our people to eat with guests on the Sabbath and to talk about the Holy One, the Lord of hosts, and his word. It is said that a Passover Seder is not a true Seder if guests are not present. For the rabbis, the table was an altar at which prayers, blessings, tears, praises, and guests were all present. The Spanish commentator, Rabbenu Bechaye (who lived between the years 1265-1340), wrote that it was the custom of pious Jews in France to have their coffins made out of the wood of their dining room tables. Eating together is now so important in the modern Jewish community that a new term has been coined-“Gastronomic Judaism.”

The Messianic Jewish community should be known for its magnanimous hospitality. The Sabbath is a marvelous weekly time to invite strangers and acquaintances into our homes, people we meet at the synagogue, at work, at school, at the gym, in our neighborhoods (perhaps even our next door neighbors!). Think of the fruit that would result if most of the people in our congregations, with wisdom, invited strangers and acquaintances into their homes regularly! Through eating together, we enter into the lives of others and others enter into our lives. There is no substitute for this kind of communication. My friend Wayne Coppins and I ate together regularly in my college dining hall. By the end of three years, Wayne could finish my sentences because he knew me so well. Eating together is a mutually transformative experience. And since Yeshua is part of our lives, when people get to know us they get to know Yeshua. He is part of the package. There is no better way for people to see the genuineness of God’s involvement in our lives and the difference that Yeshua’s death and resurrection life makes. Let us all consider how we might move forward in developing a lifestyle of hospitality, of eating together with strangers and acquaintances, both in our homes and in our congregations.

It is notable that the besorot (the Gospels) describe Yeshua as eating with many different types of people-including those who did not want to open the door to God in their lives-sinners-and those who considered themselves the doorkeepers-Pharisees. By eating with them, Yeshua entered into their lives and many in turn entered into his life. Let us become more like Yeshua in this regard. In a recent dissertation on 1 Cor 9:19-23, it is argued that as Yeshua became all things to all people through eating with ordinary Jews, Pharisees and Jewish sinners, Paul became “all things to all people” through eating with ordinary Jews, strict Jews and Gentile sinners.

Our community can learn from Scripture and Jewish tradition about hospitality-oriented outreach. On this day of Shabbat Chazon, when it is appropriate to reflect on the importance of hospitality, let us rise to the occasion and take hold of the vision to become a movement known for its hospitality toward those who do not know the Messiah. The Jewish tradition of Abraham extending hospitality to strangers, bringing idolaters into his tent and teaching them how to call on the name of the Lord, the one true God, is a vivid and inspiring model that can transform the way that we do outreach as a movement. We need to become more like “Abraham, Hospitality Man.” He was 99 or 100 years old. He was recovering from a circumcision. And it was a very hot day. But he ran to welcome strangers into his home. We are sons and daughters of Abraham when we do likewise.


David J. Rudolph is director of the Hebrew Language Program at Ets Chayim School (a Messianic Jewish elementary and secondary day school) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Cambridge University (UK) and previously served as the leader of Shulchan Adonai Messianic Synagogue in Annapolis, Maryland. He is also chair of the UMJC Theology Committee.