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 18:15)

Following are a number of back-translations as well as a sample translation for translators of Genesis 18:15:

  • Kankanaey: “Whereupon Sara denied it because she was-afraid (empathy particle), and she said, ‘No really, I didn’t laugh.’ ‘You (sing.) certainly-did laugh,’ said God in reply.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Newari: “Sarah was afraid, and she said — ‘No, I did not laugh.'” (Source: Newari Back Translation)
  • Hiligaynon: “Sara was-afraid, therefore she lied. She said, ‘I did- not -laugh!’ But the LORD said, ‘You surely did-laugh.'” (Source: Hiligaynon Back Translation)
  • English: “Then Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, ‘I did not laugh.’ But Yahweh said, ‘Don’t deny it! You did laugh.'” (Source: Translation for Translators)

Translation commentary on Genesis 18:15

But Sarah denied: Sarah, who has heard the LORD’s speech in the previous verse, appears now to recognize that she is being confronted by God’s messenger, and so she is afraid. Note that Good News Translation begins this verse with “Because Sarah was afraid….” Denied here means that she claimed she did not laugh, which contradicts what the LORD says. In some languages it will be necessary to say something like “Sarah said it was not true that she laughed,” or “Sarah said, ‘No, I did not laugh.’ ” One translation says “Sarah was afraid, and because of this she wanted to hide what she had done; so she said….” A number of translations make it clear that what Sarah said was not true; for example, “Sarah was frightened so much that she told a lie: she said ‘I never laughed.’ ”

He said follows the Hebrew. He refers to the LORD, and translators may find it clearer to use the title rather than the pronoun here. What the LORD says to Sarah contradicts her denial, and so the contrast may need to be marked clearly. Biblia Dios Habla Hoy says “But the Lord answered her….” Note that Revised Standard Version No, but you did laugh has been revised in New Revised Standard Version to make a clearer contradiction of Sarah’s denial: “Oh yes, you did laugh.” In some translations other words are used to emphasize the contradiction; for example, “Truly you did laugh,” “It’s true that you laughed.”

Translators should be aware that different languages have different ways of expressing contradiction or negation in contexts like this. In particular the words “yes” and “no” relate to different things. In some languages they indicate whether what the previous speaker said was true or not; so the LORD would say to Sarah, “No, your statement is not true.” In English and many other languages “yes” and “no” refer to the content of what the previous speaker denied; in these languages the LORD would say to Sarah “Yes, you laughed.” It is important for translators to follow their normal way of expressing contradiction rather than to make a literal translation from some other language. And the usual ways of highlighting a contradiction will also be appropriate here.

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 .