The Hebrew that is translated as “bow to the ground” or similar in English is translated in Kwere as “bowing knees and face touching the ground.” (Pioneer Bible Translators, project-specific translation notes in Paratext)
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 )
Following are a number of back-translations as well as a sample translation for translators of Genesis 18:2:
- Kankanaey: “When he looked-up then, why (surprise/new development particle) there were three men standing a short-distance-away. He hurried to go meet (them) and knelt face-down and said,” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
- Newari: “When Abraham looked up he saw three men standing before him. He quickly got up and went to meet them. And bending down, he fell prostrate at their feet.” (Source: Newari Back Translation)
- Hiligaynon: “While he was looking around, he saw three men who were-standing ahead. He then stood-up and hurried to-meet them. He knelt-down to them as/in respect” (Source: Hiligaynon Back Translation)
- English: “Abraham looked up and was surprised to see three men standing near him. Actually, one was Yahweh, and the other two were angels. When he saw them, he ran to meet them. He prostrated himself with his face on the ground to show respect,” (Source: Translation for Translators)
He lifted up his eyes and looked: this event may constitute the main clause, following the setting given in verse 1 if Good News Translation is used as a model. Lifted up his eyes is a Hebrew idiom that has been retained in formal translations like Revised Standard Version (see its use in 13.10, 14). Note, however, that New Revised Standard Version, with Good News Translation and many others, says “he looked up.” In some languages it is important to give the direction of looking; so we may say, as one translation does, “He looked toward the road and saw….”
And behold, three men stood in front of him: behold is as in 1.31. The narrator does not explain how the three men came. They are mysteriously and suddenly in Abraham’s presence. This is the narrator’s way of suggesting to the reader who they are. For a similar appearance before Joshua, see Josh 5.13. In some languages it may be necessary or desirable to fill in what the Hebrew text does not say directly here, that “Abraham did not see them coming, but [suddenly] they were there, standing….”
Nearly all the translations consulted speak of three “men” or “visitors.” 19.1 speaks of two of them as “angels” or “messengers,” and so it is understood that one of the visitors is Yahweh, the LORD. Some translators make this clear at the beginning of the story. Throughout chapter 18 the narrator always uses “the LORD” in reference to God. Abraham, on the other hand, addresses God as ʾadonai, which is translated “Lord” by Revised Standard Version, Good News Translation. In other words, the narrator knows that the visitor is Yahweh, while Abraham is not clearly given this information, and so he addresses the visitor with the equivalent of “sir,” which can be understood also as a reference to God.
Translations vary considerably in the handling of in front of. Bible en français courant says “not far from him,” New Revised Standard Version and New Jerusalem Bible “near him,” New International Version “nearby,” Good News Translation “standing there,” Revised English Bible “over against him,” Moffatt “before him,” Speiser “beside him.” We can assume that the visitors are close by, but in the next sentence Abraham runs to meet them. Therefore the distance indicated by the term used here should be consistent with Abraham’s next action.
When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them: the narrator does not hesitate to picture the ninety-nine-year-old Abraham dashing off to greet his visitors. The word translated ran is used of animals as well as people. This act sets in motion the events of Middle Eastern hospitality that follow, and it contrasts significantly with the stillness of the opening setting. The action of running is not so important in this context as the haste or urgency that it represents. So Speiser translates “rushed from,” New International Version and Revised English Bible “hurried from.” In some translations the urgency is expressed by saying “When he saw them, immediately he got up and….”
From the tent door repeats the thought of Gen 18.1. Note that Good News Translation does not repeat these words but says only “ran out.” Meet them means to go where the strangers are in order to receive or welcome them. This may be expressed in some languages as “… he ran to them and said ‘Good day’ to them.”
And bowed himself to the earth: this statement describes Abraham as greeting the strangers by bowing down on the ground before them. The gesture is similar to that mentioned in 17.3, 17, but as the next verse shows, its purpose is to respect or recognize the superior rank of the visitors, not to worship them. It is “the Eastern mode of respectful salutation” (Driver). See also 33.3; 42.6; Ruth 2.10.
In languages in which such a greeting gesture is unknown, it may be necessary to say, for example, “Abraham bowed himself to the ground to show that he accepted them,” “he bowed right down as a sign of respect…,” or “he knelt and touched his forehead to the ground to welcome them.”
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 .