Three Men visit Abraham (icon)

Following is a Russian Orthodox icon of the Three Men visiting Abraham which are depicted as the Trinity by Andrei Rublev (c. 1360 – c. 1430). The icon was likely painted between 1400 and 1410 (it is today located in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow).


Michael Stevens (in: The Word on Fire Bible, Vol 1, 2020, p. 118f.) comments on this icon:

“This depiction of the three persons of the Trinity is considered to be one of the finest works ever produced in the ancient tradition of Eastern iconography. Its creator, Andrei Rublev, is widely considered to be the greatest iconographer of all time, and this is one of the few panels of his that has been verified beyond doubt as his original work. Within this panel is contained a world of theological insight—a complex network of symbolism that is easily overlooked without careful study.

“Rublev’s representation of the Trinity is strikingly different from the typical Western Christians visualization of the Trinity, with God the Father as an elderly man, God the Son as a young man, and God the Holy Spirit as a dove. Here the artist uses the image of three conversing angelic figures to illustrate the relationship of the persons of the Trinity. The figures are drawn directly from Genesis 18, wherein three mysterious angelic figures visit the house of Abraham and receive his hospitality. While this biblical account from the Old Testament was written long before the Christian doctrine of the Trinity was understood, it has been interpreted as a Trinitarian foreshadowing by many of the Church Fathers. Flowing from this interpretation, Rublev gives us many clues that the three figures in his icon are not meant to represent mere angels, but are in fact the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

“The Father is shown on the left. His outer garment appears to shimmer elusively in the light, somewhere between gold and violet. This symbolizes his incorporeal (immaterial) nature, as well as his majesty over creation. Under this is a robe of blue, symbolizing his divinity. Across from him, the Son and the Holy Spirit bow their heads in acknowledgment that the Father is the unbegotten source of the Trinitarian processions.

“Christ sits in the middle and wears two contrasting garments — one an earthy red, and the other blue. The red represents Christ’s human nature and ministry on earth as well as his blood poured out for sinners. Like the Father’s inner robe, the blue portion of Christ’s clothing also signifies his divinity. The two garments’ colors are harmonious and pithily capture the two natures of Jesus. Finally, the gold stripe on Christ’s shoulder symbolizes his sharing in the kingship of God the Father.

“The Holy Spirit also wears the same divine blue as the others showing his nature as God- but outside he wears a robe of lush green, representing his role in the creation of the world. This harkens back to Genesis, where we are told that the Spirit ‘swept over the face of the waters’ (Gen. 1:2) before the creation of the universe and living things.

“The three persons are arranged inside a perfect circle, which symbolizes their Trinitarian oneness and perfection. The circle also helps to guide the viewer’s eye around the painting, creating a focal point in the space between the conversing figures.

“The Father and the Son’s wings overlap one another, signifying their familial relationship.

“The three primary background elements are borrowed from the biblical story of the angels’ visit to Abraham’s house, and each symbolizes a person of the Trinity. The house of Abraham behind God the Father represents his patriarchal authority by linking him to the character of Abraham, who was the father of the Hebrew people. The tree behind God the Son represents the cross of Jesus and new life offered by his Resurrection. The mountain behind the Holy Spirit (faintly seen) represents the soul’s journey to holiness, which is possible only through his divine power.”

Orthodox Icons are not drawings or creations of imagination. They are in fact writings of things not of this world. Icons can represent our Lord Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints. They can also represent the Holy Trinity, Angels, the Heavenly hosts, and even events. Orthodox icons, unlike Western pictures, change the perspective and form of the image so that it is not naturalistic. This is done so that we can look beyond appearances of the world, and instead look to the spiritual truth of the holy person or event. (Source )

complete verse (Genesis 18:10)

Following are a number of back-translations as well as a sample translation for translators of Genesis 18:10:

  • Kankanaey: “Then one of them who was God said [identity of God made explicit from v. 22], ‘When nine months go (by), I will show my power to you (pl.), and that’s when- your (sing.) spouse -will-give-girth to a male child of yours (pl.).’ During his-saying that, why there was Sara behind him at the doorway of the tent listening.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Newari: “Then the LORD said — ‘One year from now [lit.: later] at this time I will come back here. By that time your wife Sarah will already have a child.’ Sarah was listening, sitting behind him in the door of the tent.” (Source: Newari Back Translation)
  • Hiligaynon: “One of the visitors said, ‘Surely I will-return here next year about this time also, and your wife Sara will- now -have a son.’ Sara actually/(surprise particle) was-listening there at the door-way/entrance of the tent just behind Abraham.” (Source: Hiligaynon Back Translation)
  • English: “Then the leader of the group said, ‘I will return to you about this time/in the springtime next year, and to your amazement, your wife Sarah will have an infant son.’ It happened that Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind the one who was speaking.” (Source: Translation for Translators)

Translation commentary on Genesis 18:10

The LORD said: this translates the Hebrew “he said.” Revised Standard Version (but not New Revised Standard Version) has chosen to refer to Yahweh, as the text has in Gen 18.1. The same is followed by New International Version, Traduction œcuménique de la Bible, Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch, Moffatt. Some versions retain “he,” and others translate “one of them” (New Revised Standard Version, Good News Translation, Bible en français courant, Biblia Dios Habla Hoy, Revised English Bible). Still other versions replace the pronoun with a noun. For example, New English Bible has “the stranger,” and New Jerusalem Bible “his guest.” Speiser, who understands that one of the three is now acting as spokesman for the group, translates “Then one said.” In some languages translators feel that it is necessary to make clear both that the speaker is the LORD and that he is one of the three visitors. So they say, for instance, “One of those men was the LORD, and he said…” or “One of those three was the LORD, and he spoke to Abraham.”

I will surely return to you in the spring: return means to come back to the same place, that is, to Abraham’s camp. Some translations focus on seeing Abraham (and Sarah) again; for example, “I will come to see you-two again.” Spring translates Hebrew “at the time of life” or “at about life’s interval.” This expression is used elsewhere only in verse 14 and 2 Kgs 4.16, 17, and seems to refer to the term of pregnancy. Accordingly Good News Translation translates “nine months from now….” It may also mean “at this time next year,” or it may refer to “the return of the spring of the year.” Suggestions for translation include “next year,” “nine months from now,” “next spring,” “about this time next year,” “this month next year.”

Sarah your wife shall have a son: the Hebrew for have a son is literally “behold a son to Sarah”; this does not refer to giving birth but to having a child with her.

Sarah was listening at the tent door: Sarah’s listening to the men’s conversation is necessary in the unfolding of this episode, since her reaction (laughter) is an important part of the story. Sarah is at the entrance of the tent but is careful to remain hidden. Behind him is understood by the Septuagint to mean that the tent or tent entrance was behind the speaker. The Hebrew, on the other hand, seems to mean that Sarah was behind the tent entrance. Revised Standard Version, Good News Translation, and others favor the former. Bible en français courant, Biblia Dios Habla Hoy, Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch take behind him to mean “behind Abraham.” There is no certain way of excluding one or the other of these interpretations; but the point is not really important for the story.

Quoted with permission from Reyburn, William D. and Fry, Euan McG. A Handbook on Genesis. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1997. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .