The story of Avraham and the angels has generated a lot of controversy among the Rishonim. The discussion centers round Rambam’s famous statement that this is a report of a prophetic vision rather than a real life occurrence. Rambam in MN 2:42 as usual, is a little cryptic and I will try to flesh him out. After explaining that whenever the presence of an angel is mentioned in the text in any part of the story, it must be a prophetic vision, Rambam brings the following example:
“This important principle was adopted by one of our Sages, one of the greatest among them, R. Hiya the Great (Bereshit Raba, xlviii.), in the exposition of the Scriptural passage commencing, "And the Lord appeared unto him in the plain of Mamre" (Gen. Xviii.). The general statement that the Lord appeared to Avraham is followed by the description in what manner that appearance of the Lord took place. Avraham at first saw three men and ran whereupon they spoke and were spoken to. R. Hiya, the author of this allegorical explanation, says of Avraham’s words, "My Lord, if now I have found grace in thy sight, do not, I pray thee, pass from thy servant," were spoken by him in a prophetic vision to one of the men; he says in fact that Avraham addressed these words to the greatest of these men. Note this well, for it is one of the great mysteries [of the Law].”
Rambam reads the scriptural text as follows –
א וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְהוָה, בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא; וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח-הָאֹהֶל, כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם.
1 And the LORD appeared unto him by the plains of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.
This verse is an introduction stating that Avraham, sitting in the heat of the day got lost in thought and experienced a prophetic vision. It must be a vision, as God is not physical and can only be “seen” in the mind’s eyes. The rest of the story is a description of that vision. Thus, when Avraham speaks, his mind sees him as speaking and when the “angels” speak, it is Avraham’s mind that hears them speak. In other words, Avraham was contemplating how HKBH runs the world and during that cogitation, he became aware of the imminent destruction of Sdom. Rambam brings an interesting proof to his position.
ג וַיֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ--אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.
3 and said: 'My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant.
This verse is the subject of a Halachik discussion in Massechet Shevuot 35b that revolves around who we understand is: אֲדֹנָי - “my lord”. One way of understanding is that as Avraham was contemplating some aspect of HKBH, he moved away to thinking about more mundane matters, such as his childlessness. He therefore, in his vision, begged God forgiveness for being distracted and promised to return soon to the subject at hand. According to this interpretation, אֲדֹנָי is the name of God and therefore has certain Halachik requisites when written in a Sefer Torah. The other way of interpreting it is that Avraham was talking to the “angels” in his vision begging them not to bypass him. According to this understanding, the word אֲדֹנָיis translated “my lord” and has no special requirements when written. This interpretation however is problematic. The word אֲדֹנָיis singular as is the rest of the sentence while there were three “angels”. Rav Hiya addresses it and explains that Avraham spoke to the greatest among them. The way Rambam quotes Rav Hiya, where is the proof that the men were angels and therefore Avraham was having a prophetic vision? Furthermore, what caused Rambam’s excitement and why did he see in this apparently innocuous statement one of the “great mysteries of the Law”?
Rav Hiya’s comment is preserved in Midrash Raba Breishit 48:3 (Theodor- Albeck Edition page 486) –
ויאמר אדני אם נא מצאתי חן תני ר' חייא:
לגדול שבהן אמר: זה מיכאל.
The Midrash adds two crucial words זה מיכאל – namely the angel Michael - which Rambam omitted. These kinds of omissions are quite common in Rambam who expects us to check his sources and fill in the blanks. Although there could be a deeper reason, I believe this to be a didactic method where Rambam sees his role as a teacher who prods his students to think. What is however the meaning of “greatest” among them? How did Avraham know who was the “greatest? The Gemara in Yoma 37a says that the middle person is the leader by convention. But I believe there is much more to this.
In MN2:6 Rambam explains that angels are a general description of the various forces and concepts that regulate our existence. Among other things –
“Rather do all these texts state plainly that all this – including the various parts of that which exists and even the creation of the limbs of animals as they are – has been brought about by the intermediation of the angels. …that God has placed in the sperm a formative power which produces and shapes the limbs, and that this power is called "angel," or that all forms derive from the act of the Active Intellect, and that the latter is the angel, the Prince of the World, frequently mentioned by our Sages…”
In other words, the laws and forces of nature that are responsible for the existence of the physical world are at times, referred to as “angel”. This particular “angel” responsible for physical existence and its continuity, is referred to by the rabbis as The “Prince of the World”. Interestingly Rav Kafih refers us in his notes to Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer chapter 27 where the “Prince of the World” is identified with the angel Michael.
Putting all these pieces together, we get the following picture. Avraham was sitting in contemplation thinking about God and trying to apprehend Him through His creations – our world. As he was considering the forces of nature that cause things to exist and observing natural phenomena, he came to realize that an impending cataclysmic disaster was about to happen nearby, in Sdom. He arrived at that conclusion in a flash of revelation which came in the form of a vision where the forces took on the form of the three “angels”. Interpreting the vision, Avraham understood that the middle one represented the “greatest” of the three, namely “Michael the Prince of the World” who represents the natural laws and forces responsible for nature. The vision had a little side theme where Avraham’s conviction that he was about to have a son with Sarah, was reinforced. As Abravanel explains Rambam, the rest of the story including the part of Lot’s escape and his wife turning into a heap of salt, are all part of the vision. Avraham realized the magnitude of the upcoming event and struggled with how to understand God’s justice in light of such general disasters that sweep up the evil and the righteous. The vision that Lot unlike the rest of the town, though reluctantly, will finally realize that escape was the only solution, is I understand an answer to that question. If one is sufficiently attuned to one’s surroundings and can overcome their greed, laziness and paralysis that cloud man’s objectivity, many times he can predict and foresee these natural disasters. If ten people in town are righteous, in other words, able to foresee and accept the impending disaster, they might convince the whole town to escape. Unfortunately, in his vision, Avraham saw that only Lot would have the necessary prescience. The vision comes to an end and the disaster unfolds.
כז וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם, בַּבֹּקֶר: אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם--אֲשֶׁר-עָמַד שָׁם, אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה.
27 And Avraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the LORD.
כח וַיַּשְׁקֵף, עַל-פְּנֵי סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה, וְעַל-כָּל-פְּנֵי, אֶרֶץ הַכִּכָּר; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה עָלָה קִיטֹר הָאָרֶץ, כְּקִיטֹר, הַכִּבְשָׁן.
28 And he looked out toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the Plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the land went up as the smoke of a furnace.
Reading the story in this manner there is no question that all this was a vision. Furthermore, it teaches deep and important lessons about the meaning of Divine Providence, man’s role in it, God’s justice, righteousness and man’s freedom to act responsibly or irresponsibly. The text becomes a treatise on philosophical issues of great importance and relevance to our religious thought and practice.