Like Stanley Spencer before him, the English artist Roger Wagner has a gift for seeing the Bible in everyday life. When Jesus walks on water, it is on the River Thames, beneath the shadow of the Battersea Power Station in London. And Golgotha is defined not by a hill, but Didcot Parkway’s mammoth cooling towers in Oxfordshire. In fact, power lines—physically and metaphorically—run throughout Wagner’s work. When he first imagines Genesis 18, Wagner sets Abraham and the angels at the edge of a wheat field in his native Suffolk. The scene is far from bucolic, though. In the background, the hulking facade of the Sizewell nuclear power station glows eerily, reminding us of its toxic contents. In the artist’s words, this is ‘a picnic on the edge of doom’. In the biblical text, the angels are agents of destruction, on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah. In Wagner’s image they look more like potential victims, pleasantly chatting while a man-made catastrophe looms.
Sixteen years later, Wagner painted another image of Genesis 18. This time he found inspiration during his travels through the Middle East. According to Wagner, the picture ‘grew directly out of the experience of Bedouin hospitality’ in a desert encampment. And yet there is still an ominous edge to this composition. The nuclear power plant is replaced by the belching smokestacks of a cement factory, which he observed during a trip through Syria. Here too, there is little suggestion that the assembled angels are on a mission of vengeance. With humanity content to execute itself under a cloud of sulphur, who needs angels to supply the fire and brimstone? If human destruction lies on the horizon, however, hope remains in the foreground. Abraham’s winged visitors remind us of our own better angels. In the end, what is most divine in this picture is Abraham’s generosity: his boundless concern for strangers.
18 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, 3and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.” 7And Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds, and milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10The Lord said, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
16 Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? 19No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” 20Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorʹrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know.”
22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom; but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23Then Abraham drew near, and said, “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” 26And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27Abraham answered, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Wilt thou destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29Again he spoke to him, and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31He said, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.