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 18:3)

Following are a number of back-translations as well as a sample translation for translators of Genesis 18:3:

  • Kankanaey: “‘Sirs, have-the-patience indeed to please stop-by this house of ours (excl.), because here I am to serve you.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Newari: “And he said, ‘Favor [me], my lord, do not go on without stopping at the place of your servant.” (Source: Newari Back Translation)
  • Hiligaynon: “and said, ‘Lord, if possible, you (sing.) stop-by for-awhile here with us (excl.).” (Source: Hiligaynon Back Translation)
  • English: “and said to one of them, ‘Sir, if you are pleased with me, stay here for a little while.” (Source: Translation for Translators)

addressing God

Translators of different languages have found different ways with what kind of formality God is addressed. The first example is from a language where God is always addressed distinctly formal whereas the second is one where the opposite choice was made.

Click or tap here to see the rest of this insight

Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.

As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theological judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.

In these verses, in which humans address God, the informal, familiar pronoun is used that communicates closeness.

Voinov notes that “in the Tuvan Bible, God is only addressed with the informal pronoun. No exceptions. An interesting thing about this is that I’ve heard new Tuvan believers praying with the formal form to God until they are corrected by other Christians who tell them that God is close to us so we should address him with the informal pronoun. As a result, the informal pronoun is the only one that is used in praying to God among the Tuvan church.”

In Gbaya, “a superior, whether father, uncle, or older brother, mother, aunt, or older sister, president, governor, or chief, is never addressed in the singular unless the speaker intends a deliberate insult. When addressing the superior face to face, the second person plural pronoun ɛ́nɛ́ or ‘you (pl.)’ is used, similar to the French usage of vous.

Accordingly, the translators of the current version of the Gbaya Bible chose to use the plural ɛ́nɛ́ to address God. There are a few exceptions. In Psalms 86:8, 97:9, and 138:1, God is addressed alongside other “gods,” and here the third person pronoun o is used to avoid confusion about who is being addressed. In several New Testament passages (Matthew 21:23, 26:68, 27:40, Mark 11:28, Luke 20:2, 23:37, as well as in Jesus’ interaction with Pilate and Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well) the less courteous form for Jesus is used to indicate ignorance of his position or mocking (source Philip Noss).

In Dutch and Western Frisian translations, however, God is always addressed with the formal pronoun.

Translation commentary on Genesis 18:3

My lord translates Hebrew ʾadonai, which, as it is written, refers to God. This is supported by the ancient versions. It is highly unlikely, however, that Abraham would offer food to God, or that from this first meeting he would assume that one of the three is the LORD. The reader, but not Abraham, has been told of the appearance of the LORD in Gen 18.1. Much more probable than “the Lord” here is the respectful term of address, “lord” or “lords,” meaning “sirs.” In the rest of verse 3 there are three second person singular pronoun forms in the Hebrew. The use of lord or “sir” fits with these singular forms, but assumes that Abraham has chosen to address one of the three. If he addresses all three, the singular forms must be changed to plural. English grammar does not distinguish singular and plural in these forms. Bible en français courant, which prefers the singular, avoids an address form by saying “He said to one of them, ‘I beg you [singular] ….’ ” Some translations give “LORD” as an alternative. This is probably not necessary.

If I have found favor in your sight: Abraham’s expression is one of extreme politeness spoken to strangers and means “if you consider me worthy,” something that was spoken to a person of high rank. See also 19.19; 32.5; 33.8, 10, 15. Your is singular in Hebrew. Good News Translation “I am here to serve you” does not express the degree of polite humility of this statement. Abraham is giving his visitors a basis for accepting his invitation. Speiser translates “If I may beg of you this favor….”

In translation it is more important to make this a natural expression of humble courtesy than to reproduce its literal content. In some languages such politeness is expressed figuratively; for example, “if you have seen good in my heart…” or “if there has been good upon my head….” Two examples of natural greetings in this context are “You-three, it’s very good that you have come to my place. Please don’t go on…” and “Headmen, I would like for you to come to my house. Don’t go past….”

Do not pass by your servant: Abraham uses your servant as a humble reference to himself. The whole request may be rendered “do not go on your way without spending time at my place.” The Hebrew is literally “do not depart from near your servant.” We may also say “do not go further without accepting my hospitality” or “please remain for a while and be my guests.”

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 .