Pastoral Hospitalities Genesis 18

Genesis 18

There is, perhaps, no chapter of Genesis which brings so vividly before us the actual circumstances of patriarchal life, as the eighteenth. One might muse over it for hours with untiring interest, and volumes might be written upon the text which it offers.

The aged patriarch is sitting in his tent door in the heat of the day. There, while shaded from the sun by the tree beneath which his tent is pitched, he may receive refreshment from the air, that may at such time be in motion. He is absorbed in thought. His eyes are fixed upon the ground, as he muses probably on the destinies of his race, on God’s covenant with him, and on the qualities which his son Ishmael, by this time a grown-up boy, begins to develop. Suddenly he is aware that three strangers—wayfaring men—have approached near to him unobserved. He starts from his seat, and hastens to meet them. He bows himself very low before the one who seems to be the chief among them; he asks no questions, but presses upon them the hospitalities of his tent. They accept them as freely as they are offered. They seat themselves beneath the tree; and while water is brought to refresh their travel-stained feet, the patriarch hastens to tell  his wife to bake bread upon the hearth; then he speeds to the herd, and singles forth the fatted calf. With his own hand he prepares the feast—with his own hand he sets it before them; and, as becomes his place, he stands by them under the tree, ready to minister to their wants, while they do eat his butter, his milk, his bread, and his meat.

How beautiful this hospitality—how grandly courteous this demeanor! It strikes us the more strongly from the difference of our own usages. A man of the existing pastoral tribes, or even of the rural districts of the East, would simply see the truthfulness of the picture, and would recognize usages in all respects similar to his own.

In every Arabian encampment, the sheikh or chief regards it as at once his privilege and his duty to entertain strangers. All who come are freely received, usually in a tent set apart for the purpose. Luxuries are never indulged in except on some festivals, or on the arrival of a stranger; and it is only on such occasions that animal food is ever eaten, even by the possessors of numerous flocks and herds. Nor is it every stranger that is treated with animal food. For a common guest bread is baked, and served up with the ayesh (or flour made up with sour milk and boiled), which forms the standing daily fare of the people. If the guest be of some consideration, coffee is prepared for him, and behatta (or bread with melted butter). It is only for a person of some apparent rank that a kid or a lamb is killed. When this occurs, the lamb is boiled with burgoul (a sort of malted corn) and milk, and served up in a large wooden dish, around the edge of which the meat is placed. As there is no means of obtaining a joint of meat but by slaughtering an animal, the whole of which must be consumed, the people of the camp get what the strangers do not eat, and, therefore, fare the better for such visits. We thus see how it is always in Scripture, that the lamb, the kid, or fatted calf, is killed for the entertainment of strangers—or on any occasion of high rejoicing.

It should be remarked that no questions are asked; but after the stranger has dwelt in the tent three days and four  hours, he is expected to state his name, his tribe, and his business; and if his stay appears likely to be prolonged, he is reasonably expected to take part in the duties of the camp. It was thus that Jacob in the first month of his stay with Laban, which he certainly did not mean to be of such long duration as it proved, was enabled to evince the importance and value of his services in all the duties of those who have flocks and herds. Gen_29:14-15.

As to the washing of the feet of the travellers, we know not that this custom exists in the desert, where water is scarce and precious—nor, perhaps, did it exist there even in patriarchal times. But it is still found where water is plentiful. In India it is considered a necessary part of hospitality to wash the feet and ankles of the weary traveller, and this service is usually performed by servants. Even in Palestine this interesting custom is not extinct. Thus, when Dr. Robinson and his party arrived at Ramleh, they repaired to the abode of a wealthy Arab, whose second son, in the absence of his father, did the honors of the place. Soon after they had arrived, “Our youthful host proposed, in the genuine style of ancient oriental hospitality, that a servant should wash our feet. This took me by surprise, as I was not aware that the custom still existed here. Nor does it indeed towards foreigners, though quite common among the natives. We gladly accepted the proposal, both for the refreshment and the scriptural illustration. A female Arabian slave accordingly brought water, which she poured upon our feet over a large shallow basin of tinned copper; kneeling before us, and rubbing our feet with her hands, and wiping them with a napkin. It was among the gratifying minor incidents of our whole journey.” It seems to us that the comparative decay of the custom arises from the fact that travellers now seldom journey on foot, but ride on horses or camels. Where foot travelling is still usual, so is the washing of feet.

Nothing that has been used at one meal is kept for another in the East, but no more is prepared than the meal or the day requires. The climate would not indeed allow this. Hence,  although larger quantities are prepared for a family of consideration than the family can consume, the remains are forthwith eaten up in the household or camp, or given to the needy. Thus it is that there is always new preparation, even to the baking of bread, when a friend or stranger arrives; and hence the coming of a stranger, considerable enough to have slaughtered for him an animal, especially if a sheep or camel (for Arabs have no oxen), is a most acceptable matter to the camp, however burdensome to the sheikh. But the sheikh himself is glad to show his hospitality on any proper occasion. A reputation for hospitality is scarcely inferior to that of military prowess in the East. It gives influence and distinction; and Arabian chiefs have on this account been known to perform such acts of prodigal hospitality as excite our astonishment. Such facts evince the diffusion of this quality among a people; for very few will care thus to waste their own substance, unless they know that there are others who will do the same. Yet this hospitality is scarcely reckoned as a virtue in the East, so much as the want of it is regarded as a vice, if not a crime.

The reader is probably a little astonished to see the great and wealthy Abraham so forward in doing himself what so many of his slaves might as well have done, and that with her own hands Sarah bakes the cakes upon the hearth. But so it is now. A Bedouin sheikh, who may be the master of five hundred horses, does not disdain to saddle and bridle his own, or to give him his feed of barley and chopped straw. In his tent the wife makes the coffee, bakes the bread, and superintends the dressing of the victuals; while his daughters and kinswomen wash the clothes, spin and weave the wool, and go with pitchers on their heads, and veils on their faces, to draw water from the fountain.

We are apt to ascribe much of the peculiar respectfulness of Abraham, to his perception of the high quality of his guests. But there is no sign that he did perceive it, until it was made known by themselves; and all the marks of obeisance and respect are such as are still common in the East  Even the deference shown by him in standing by while his guests partook of his food, without presuming to take part with them, has been more than once witnessed by ourselves in eastern lands. We have noticed instances in which; when the host was a man of rank and consequence, he has brought in, with his own hands, some principal dish, and remained standing, or in attendance, during the whole meal, directing the operations of the servants in removing and in laying on. It is rude to take notice of this, or to press him to share the meal, because, although he may comply, it lays him under a kind of necessity of committing what he feels to be an indecorum. No one can, however, take him for a servant; the deference of the real servants to him—the authority with which he directs their proceedings—the manner in which the guests receive his attentions—and the tone in which they speak to him, clearly enough indicate who he is. Although painful to the feelings of Europeans, when it first comes under their notice, it is a beautiful and significant act of humility and deference, most gracefully becoming in an Oriental. With ourselves, in so different a mould are our habits cast, it would be difficult to prevent a similar usage from becoming ridiculous, although we apprehend that something analogous might be produced from among our old customs.