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 18:5)

Following are a number of back-translations as well as a sample translation for translators of Genesis 18:5:

  • Kankanaey: “I will also go cook what you will eat so that you will have something-to-strengthen you on the path-you-will-take a-little-later. Because I am-made-very-happy by your coming here.’ ‘Yes please (agreement particle),’ they said.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Newari: “You have honored me by visiting my place. I will bring bread. Please eat and recover from [being] tired. Then go slowly.'” (Source: Newari Back Translation)
  • Hiligaynon: “I will- also -get food for you (pl.) so-that you will-have strength for your journey. I am happy/pleased to-serve you (pl.) while you (pl.) are here with us (excl.).’ And they answered, ‘Okay, do as you have-said.'” (Source: Hiligaynon Back Translation)
  • English: “Since you have come here to me, allow me to bring you some food so that you can feel refreshed before you leave.’ Yahweh replied, ‘All right, do as you have said.'” (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.

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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 18:5

While I fetch a morsel of bread: while in English associates this clause with the invitation to rest as events that happen at the same time. However, other translations prefer a future here; for example, Good News Translation “I will also bring…,” Bible en français courant “I will serve you….” Fetch translates the verb rendered “bring” in verse 4, and suggests going away for the purpose of bringing something back.

A morsel of bread: the Hebrew expression means “a bit of bread” but follows the same use of understatement as in Gen 18.4. Neither Abraham nor his guests expect him to return with only a few small bits of bread. He means that he will go and get some food. Many languages use this same type of understatement in relation to food. However, if the literal expression will not be recognized in the manner Abraham intends, it is better to say, for example, “some food,” or “something for you to eat.” For similar uses of morsel of bread, see 1 Sam 2.36; 1 Kgs 17.11; Pro 28.21.

That you may refresh yourselves is literally “you [plural] will sustain your hearts.” The sense is “recover your strength,” “become strong again,” or as Good News Translation says, “it will give you strength.” In many languages there may be natural and idiomatic ways of talking about this feature of food, and they may be used here. For example, one translation has “… some food to make you feel good when you start your journey again.”

And after that you may pass on: that is, “so that you can continue your journey” or “so that you can go on your way.”

Since you have come to your servant: this clause may be understood as a confirmation of the previous invitation; that is, Abraham invites the men to accept his hospitality of water and food and rest, since they have come to his camp. In this sense we may translate “since you have come to my camp” or “now that you are here at my place.” This clause may be more natural, however, if it is used as the opening of the verse. Biblia Dios Habla Hoy gives an example: “Now that you have come by where your servant lives, I will bring you something to eat….” New English Bible, Revised English Bible take the clause to modify the word journey: “Afterwards you may continue the journey which has brought you my way.” Good News Translation makes it a separate sentence: “You have honored me by coming to my home, so let me serve you.” All of these are satisfactory models.

In cultures where there is a strong obligation of hospitality, it may not be necessary to explain everything for the readers. For example, one translation says this: “You have come to my camp. This [serving you] is my job.”

The three visitors accept Abraham’s invitation, which Revised Standard Version renders “Do as you have said. Good News Translation has adapted the reply to Abraham’s style by translating “Thank you; we accept.” The Hebrew word ken that is used here can mean “right” or “good,” and in fact it has the meaning “Yes” in modern Hebrew. Speiser, Revised English Bible, New International Version all render this as “Very well, ….” Some examples of what different translations say are “That’s good. Do as you have said”; “Thank you very much. We will be very happy to do that”; “Very well, go ahead.”

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 .