Thursday, April 27, 2006

Genesis 18:16-33


Abraham Barters With God for the Souls of Sodom
Or
How to Argue With God and Come Out Ahead



Am I proposing that Abraham really came out ahead in this discussion? Did Abraham “win” this debate with God concerning the potential deliverance of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah? Not hardly, but what I would like to proffer forth is the idea that, because God was so convinced of Abraham’s righteousness and faith, Abraham was allowed to bargain, haggle, and negotiate with God. Abraham and God held an intense discussion regarding who would live, who would die, and how Abraham wanted God to save everyone.

“Abraham does not doubt the existence of God’s justice; he only asks its extent and limitations. The important thing is that he asks altogether and that God does not reject his question out of hand. The Bible thereby makes clear that man may, with impunity, question the behavior of God. Like Abraham, man need not surrender his own sense of justice; he remains free to accept or reject the divine judgment – although he will have to submit to it in the end. Man is not reduced to a moral automaton; his spiritual freedom is preserved.” (Plaut, p133)

Now, I was raised in a church culture that very much believed that only those people who are absolutely snow-white pure in their righteousness and faithfulness will be allowed to talk directly to God. God would listen only to those people who toed the appropriate set of lines, followed all of the rules, never sinned, always believed, and lived seemingly perfect lives. And the sad thing is that similar beliefs aren’t confined to the denomination in which I grew up. Many different wings of a variety of denominations (and non-denominations) propagate such unhealthy lines of thinking, whether through “health & wealth” teaching or through isolationist and overly-exclusionist doctrines of salvation.

However, Abraham’s own lack of belief and ill-timed actions in many circumstances (see Genesis 16) should allay any truth in such claims. God visited Abraham and Sarah several times over the course of their lives, because Abraham, ultimately, had faith in God, not because he did everything right, all of the time. Am I giving license to sin? Am I letting Abraham and Sarah off the hook for what they did and did no do? Not really, but what I am attempting to do is present the grand story of the founding family of the Jews as an example of how anyone can communicate with God, if they believe that God is there and that God does listen.

Reading through verses 16-21, we see Abraham following God and the two angelic beings on their way down to Sodom, as the three visitors began to discuss amongst themselves whether or not Abraham would be told the details of the soon-coming events. God reiterates the promises that have been given to Abraham and Sarah, while stating plainly that Abraham, because of his status in the world (and in God’s eyes), has a right to know what’s about to happen. And what’s about to happen is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their great sin against God, the status of which God’s two fellow travelers are going to ascertain.

“There is a combination of anthropomorphism (God being given humanlike qualities) and theodicy (explanation of divine action) in this story and in the Tower of Babel episode (Gen 11). In both cases, to demonstrate divine justice and fairness, God ‘comes down’ to investigate a situation before taking action.” (Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas; p50)

However, while it not explicitly mentioned in the text, it does seem that Abraham is quite aware of what’s being discussed between the three men. (Berlin and Brettler, p40) Thus, it seems that, contrary to everything you’ve heard about a highly vengeful Old Testament God, it might not be true at all. God allows Abraham to hear the conversation he had with the two men, God is sending those two men give the cities one last look-through, and God quite readily listens to Abraham’s pleadings for the souls and lives of the people of Sodom. (Plaut, p133) Thus, even with a city whose social and religious transgressions were as well documented as Sodom’s, God feels like there might be something (or someone) redeemable about it and their sister city of Gomorrah, a task that God allows Abraham to take part in (Berlin and Brettler, p40).

“Haggling is a part of all Middle Eastern business transactions. In this case, however, Abraham’s determination of the exact number of righteous persons needed to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah provides a repeated demonstration of God’s just actions. A just God will not destroy the righteous without warning or investigation. Even the unrighteous, in this early period, can be spared for the sake of the righteous. On the other hand, justice is not served by overlooking wickedness. The discussion of the number of righteous people may concern not whether they can balance the wickedness of the rest, but whether, given time, they might be able to exert a reforming influence.” (Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas; p50)

What follows is one of the most curious conversations between a human and God ever recorded in a religious text. Compare Job’s talks with God to Abraham’s – they are quite different in that Job talks to God as any confused and bewildered believer might when faced with hardship and trial. He begins by speaking reverently to God (Job 1 & 2), rails against God (Job 31), hears God chastise him (Job 38-41), and returns again to his reverence at the end of the book (Job 42). Throughout this chapter, Abraham and God, on the other hand, debate the future of the two cities as nearly equals. Now, Abraham doesn’t believe that he’s equal to God – his tone and verbiage explicates the fact that he knows that he is talking to God, and not another human being. (Berlin and Brettler, p40) However, it is quite evident that Abraham has no problem telling God exactly what he is feeling, what he is thinking, and what he thinks God should and should not do.

“Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25, ESV)

Verse 25, in many ways, is the fulcrum of the whole conversation, for, by appealing to God’s own sense of justice and mercy, Abraham is seeking to save the whole of Sodom on behalf of the few righteous inhabitants who are still inside the city. Abraham is fully aware that the city has transgressed mightily against God, and deserves their punishment, but hopes to make God see that the righteous people inside the city don’t deserve punishment. (Plaut, p133) Furthermore, by looking at verse 27, Abraham continues with the debate, but does so by stating blatantly that God really doesn’t have to listen to Abraham, since Abraham is “but dust and blood” (ESV), though he employs such self-deprecation in an effort to not have God ignore the pleadings of a mere human. (Alter, p82) Over and over again, Abraham hopes to see the salvation of the righteous in Sodom, no matter whether or not it’s merely his nephew, Lot, and his family or whoever it might be inside that city.

From there, Abraham begins to barter with God concerning the souls and salvation of the city of Sodom and Gomorrah, working God down from the initial 50 in verse 24-26, down to 10 in verse 32. He does so slowly, with precise increments, knowing that there would be no other way to “talk down God” in terms of how many righteous people it would take for God to spare the two cities. God doesn’t respond to Abraham with counter-offers, just with a brief acknowledgement that the current offer being made by Abraham will suffice to avert the destruction of the two cities. God and man are embroiled in a classic bartering conversation, a scene straight out of any Middle Easter bazaar or flea market transaction across the American South. (Alter, p82) However, the whittling-away undertaken by Abraham concludes at 10, since “Abraham realizes he dare not go any lower than ten, the minimal administrative unit for communal organization in later Israelite life.” (Alter, p83) To further supplement the reasoning by Abraham’s cessation at 10 people, another source states, “They [the rabbis] set ten as the minimal number for communal worship.” (Plaut, p133)

In general, the whole interaction, I feel, was quite a brave and noble proposition for a human to undertake, since most of us only argue with God over our own selfish desires and personal sin natures. Now, one could argue that Abraham is just looking out for Lot and his family, even though they are never mentioned in this discussion, since Abraham has rescued Lot from a grave and deadly situation in the past (Genesis 14). However, taking Abraham’s words of reverence and respect towards God into account, it would seem he is fully aware that God knows of Lot’s status as citizen of Sodom. So, to believe that Abraham was acting selfishly would be to denigrate the character of Abraham and the lengths that Abraham would go to in order to secure the deliverance of the entire city.

However, throughout all of this, God knows that there are only 4 righteous people in all of Sodom and Gomorrah – Lot, his wife, and their two daughters. One then begins to wonder why God allowed Abraham to continually petition God’s decision to destroy the cities if God knew that Abraham could never go low enough to actually save the cities. If Abraham would never go below 10 people, and there were only 4 righteous people, what was the purpose to God listening to Abraham? Couldn’t God have said, “Listen up, Abe, old buddy. I’ve promised you many things – a child, your status as the father of a great nation, your presence and wealth throughout this region. But there’s just no point in arguing with me here – there are only 4 decent people in those 2 cities, not enough righteous to ever hope to prevent Me from punishing the rest of them. I’ll find a way to save Lot and his family, but there’s not much else you can do here. Go home and make a baby with Sarah.”

And I don’t type that to be facetious or irreverent, but who hasn’t thought this when reading/studying this passage? But when I think through this whole discussion here between Abraham and God, I can’t help but wonder what God’s point is, what God’s hoping to teach Abraham and any future readers/hearers of this story. And then it hits me – God desires to communicate with us, purely and simply. God wants humanity to talk to their Creator, not out of selfish desires, but out of love – love for God and love for their fellow human. Abraham’s haggling with God is a wonderful example of this, as Abraham is looking out for others, and doing so while respecting, reverencing, and loving the all-knowing and just God that he serves faithfully. Does this mean that God was being insensitive to the righteous people who were in Sodom? Not at all – why else would the Lord’s two fellow travelers be going into Sodom if not to save Lot and Lot’s family from the city’s impending doom?

Thus, this passage loses its status as one that gives license to only the purest and most faithful to communicate with God and gives rise to a belief that anyone who has a righteous request can come to God with their appeal. It is not the petitioner who has to be righteous, but the petition. We are made righteous through faith, just as Abraham was made, and not because we have done certain acts and abstained from others. God desired to listen to Abraham because Abraham’s request was worthy of being heard, as it showed forth Abraham’s character – a character full of mercy, justice, and love for those same attributes in his God. Thus, we, as heirs and adherents to the faith of Abraham, can offer up similar supplications to God, behaving not as if we are some type of political lobbyist petitioning the Congress, but admitting our incompetence and “dustiness” to our Saviour, knowing that God wants to hear us talk and loves it when we think about someone besides our own selves.

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