The beginning of this Parsha describes Avraham’s interaction with three men who are referred to as ‘Malachim’, a word that is commonly translated as ‘angels’, or messengers of
It is difficult to describe this encounter in terms of a normal prophetic experience during which the prophet is either asleep or in some other semi-conscious state. Here, Avraham was clearly fully awake. They also end up interacting with Lot in Sodom and it is clear that Lot was not a prophet like Avraham.
In order to explain this unusual interaction, Abarbanel notes that the commentators fall into two categories. Ibn Ezra and Ralbag are among those who say that the Malachim were actual men sent by
Abarbanel strongly objects to the first explanation. At that point in time Avraham was the world’s sole prophet. If there were others on his level, why weren’t they commanded in the mitzvah of brit
mila as well? Additionally, one of the men said to Avraham, “I will return to you”. If he was a human prophet he would have said, “And
Abarbanel also has difficulty with the second possibility, that they were spiritual entities somehow given human form and substance. Where did this material come from? Was it created out of nothing, like the original universe, or from some other primordial substance, like Adam, the first man? What happens to this substance when these spiritual entities divest themselves of their material shells? Wouldn’t we be able to find this material lying around somewhere? Abarbanel also dismisses the idea that these spiritual entities were composed of some ethereal element that could condense into human form and then return to its previous ethereal state. Whether they were actual physical bodies or some sort of condensed matter, everyone should have been able to see them, which clearly was not the case. Abarbanel proves his point from the story of Elisha in Melachim II (6:17) and Daniel (10:7). In both of these narratives the prophets Elisha and Daniel were able to see a Malach when others could not.
As a result of these questions Abarbanel has a radically different understanding of the nature of these Malachim. Whether we are referring to the narratives of Avraham and Lot or Elisha and Daniel, all of them perceived ‘men’ who did not really exist at all. What they saw was not a result of the delirium which sometimes accompanies serious illnesses like malaria. Rather,
(Translator’s footnote: From a contemporary psychiatric perspective, it is well known that there are many examples of physically healthy, functioning and highly intelligent individuals who hallucinate people, objects, sounds and even interactions that exist only in their minds. They are not the result of delirium brought on by physical disease.)