By Timothy S. Wilkinson
In the 18th chapter of Genesis, Abraham is encamped at the Big Trees of Mamre, near the city of Hebron. Hebron is famous for its vineyards, pomegranates, figs, apricots, olives, apples, and nuts; the wells and springs that surround the city keep the area remarkably green for how close it is to the desert region known as the Negeb.
It is during the hottest part of the day that Abraham sees two men approaching his camp. In a striking example of ancient hospitality, the 99 year old man runs across the sandy soil, bows down before the two men, and offers them a cup of water. This humble offer is, in reality, a symbolic gesture that is filled with meaning. The proffered cup means that Abraham is vowing to take the visitors to his table, provide for their needs, and give them protection and comfort.
The next verses in the chapter illustrate how Israelites from Abraham’s time, and for centuries thereafter, fulfilled this vow. The elderly patriarch has a young bull slaughtered, butchered, and roasted; he has his wife make 20-some quarts of flour into fresh bread. This is served to the travelers along with milk and butter while Abraham stands over them, the perfect host.
The event foreshadows attitudes about hospitality that became an integral part of ancient Israelite culture. From the time that the nation settled in the Promised Land, hospitality was guaranteed to any traveler. When one reached a city, all he needed to do was wait near the gate; within a few minutes, a resident would approach. After bowing and kissing once on each cheek, the resident would ask the visitor to come and stay with him in his home. The exchange might go something like this:
“May you have peace! Please, my lord, do my humble household the honor of being our guest for the night.”
“May peace be upon you! Your kindness overwhelms me, but I am not worthy to stay with you. Let me, instead, find a place here, at the gate.”
“No, my lord! I would die of shame! It is impossible for me to allow you to sleep unattended, or to go your way without some food and rest! Please, I beg you—come back to my home and have a drink of water.”
“As you say—I shall go with you for a drink of water. But then I must be on my way.”
The host would lead his guest back to his home. There, the host’s family would care for any animals the guest had, and the guest would be seated in the courtyard of the family home. Family members or servants would come forward with the promised cup of water. While the guest was drinking it, the host family would remove his sandals, wash his feet, and rub them with olive oil. They would begin to prepare a meal for him (while he protested) and, after it was ready, they would guide him to the family table.
In the early years of Israel’s history, this “table” was a circle of leather with holes punched around its edges. A rope was threaded through these holes, which allowed the “table” to be gathered like a pouch and hung from the ceiling when not in use. For the guest it would be laid on the floor and the family would sit, cross-legged or laying on one side, around it. The host’s wife would place the main course in its center: a pot of beans, lentils, grain, or something similar. (Meat would not be served except on special occasions). Bread was then distributed around the table. The host would tear a piece from his bread (called a “sop”), dip it into the communal pot, and offer it to the guest. That was the signal for the meal to begin.
After eating, the group might recite poetry, listen to or play music, dance, tell stories, or share gossip. This would continue until late into the night—for anyone to leave the table early was considered an insult.
Before the visitor left the home the next day, the host might once again kiss him on each cheek and say, “Now there is salt between us.” The phrase reminded the guest of the inviolable bond that was created by two people who shared a meal. The Bible calls it “a covenant of salt,” and the Hebrew word for “covenant” refers to a sacred vow. David wrote, in the famous 23rd Psalm, that God had ‘prepared for him a table in the presence of his enemies.’ This referred to the fact that even if the man across the table from you was your sworn enemy, while you sat at the table together you treated him as a friend. To break the sanctity of the table was the gravest of sins.