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 18:12)

Following are a number of back-translations as well as a sample translation for translators of Genesis 18:12:

  • Kankanaey: “So she laughed in her mind saying, ‘Is it indeed-the-case that (RQ implying of course not) it-will-be-possible for me to experience the happiness of giving-birth? Because I already an old-woman for-sure, and my spouse is also an old-man.'” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Newari: “So Sarah laughed in [her] heart and thought — ‘I have already become an old woman, and my husband has also become an old man. Will I now still be able to have this pleasure?'” (Source: Newari Back Translation)
  • Hiligaynon: “Sara laughed at herself and thought, ‘In my old age do I perhaps still have-a-desire to-sleep with my husband who is also old so-that we (excl.) can-have-a-child?'” (Source: Hiligaynon Back Translation)
  • English: “So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, ‘My body is worn out, and my husband is old. So how can I have the pleasure of having a child?'” (Source: Translation for Translators)

Translation commentary on Genesis 18:12

So Sarah laughed to herself: both Revised Standard Version and Good News Translation use So to mark this clause as a consequence of overhearing that she would have a son. The narrator allows the reader to know the innermost thoughts of Sarah at this point. Sarah’s laughter is more audible than she suspects, as becomes clear in the next verse. Laughed is not an expression of amusement here, but a laughter of disbelief, of doubt about what the visitor has said about her having a son. Laughing at someone’s statement because it is incredible suggests a degree of scorn or mockery. It is Sarah’s disbelief and scorn that causes the speaker to ask Abraham why she laughed in the next verse. See also the comments on 17.17.

Saying: the question Sarah asks is to herself, and it may be more appropriate to say “asked herself” or “thought to herself.” The question she then puts to herself is rhetorical.

After I have grown old: this is not a future state but present, so Good News Translation says “Now that I am old….” Grown old translates a word used in Deut 8.4 to refer to clothing that wears out and falls to pieces, and to bones that have dried up in Psa 32.3 (New International Version “my bones wasted away”). See also Psa 102.26; Isa 50.9. In some languages it may be good to bring this out in translation, as in “After I am worn out” (New International Version) and “old and worn out” (Good News Translation).

My husband translates Hebrew ʾadoni “my lord,” a polite form of reference as well as address. This is a variant form of the word used in verse 2 by Abraham to address (one of) the visitors. Is old renders the normal term for an elderly person. In this context it implies that he, too, is too old to have children.

Shall I have pleasure?: the way Good News Translation expresses this thought is technically correct: “Can I still enjoy sex?” The Hebrew term refers to sensual pleasure. However, such a direct rendering may be offensive in some languages. Accordingly it may be necessary to say this more indirectly; for example, “Will I still want to sleep with him?” “Will I like going to bed with him?” “Will I still like to lie down with him?” “How can I be happy when I sleep with my man?” “How can Abraham make me happy when we-two sleep together?”

In some languages an answer must be given to this question: “Certainly not,” “Of course not,” “I can’t.” Others may prefer to express the question as a negative statement; for example, “Now that I am worn out and my husband is old, I certainly cannot enjoy lying down with him,” or “That old man can’t make me find a baby: I’m a very old woman.” In some translations a literal rendering of pleasure or a vague avoidance of its sexual reference leads the reader to understand the meaning as the pleasure of having a child, which is not what the text says. (For instance, New International Version “this pleasure” relates directly back to “childbearing” in the previous verse.)

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 .