We are continuing with our summer worship series, Face to Face: Divine Encounters. Today’s encounter is with Abraham. It is when Abraham hosted three unexpected visitors then had a discussion about justice and fairness with God regarding the fate of the town of Sodom.
I found this narrative very interesting. Part of the reason is that when I read the actual text it said something very different from what I had always heard about this passage. The title of what I heard could have been “Abraham Admonishes a Vengeful God to Be Merciful.” It reminds me of the people who basically think that there are two different Gods represented in the Bible, the gracious, loving, forgiving God of the New Testament, and the angry, punishing, smiting God of the Old Testament. For the record, there is one God, the same God is described in the Old and New Testament. Since that is the case, it is worth our time to consider what we see God say and do in the Old Testament in light of the grace and mercy that we observe in God in the New Testament.
In the contemporary common interpretation of today’s text, the presumption is that God and his angelic assistants are on their way to destroy Sodom when they stop off at Abraham’s house for a little lunch along the way. Abraham realizes this as his guests are departing and persuades God into considering sparing Sodom if any innocent people are found there.
I think, a lot of how many have seen this passage has to do with the tone of voice that they heard it (either out loud or in their heads). As we look at the text, I ask you to consider an alternative perspective. Rather than an outraged Abraham chastising God, think of Abraham as an inquiring student confronting his own presumptions of how justice should be enacted, and working it out with God as a patient teacher.
However, first we are going to see the hospitality that Abraham offers these unexpected travelers. That will be a contrast to the terrorizing reception the angels get from the people of Sodom.
We are starting at the beginning of Genesis 18
Genesis 18:1-2, 16-33 NIV
18:1 The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
[At this point, Abraham basically demands that these travelers stop for rest, food, and refreshment. He has Sarah and his servants prepare a feast for their guests in a demonstration of wonderful hospitality. After the meal one of the guests tells Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son when this guest … who is God … returns in a year. The last time God told Abraham this, he had a hard time believing it because he and Sarah were so old. This time we discover that Sarah’s reaction is the same.
Now that the after dinner conversation is over, and Abraham’s guests get up to continue their journey, and we pick up the Scripture at verse 16.]
16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare [forgive] the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”
He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”
30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”
He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”
He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
See what a difference tone can make. When the passage is read like that, it almost sounds like Jesus is teaching someone in the Gospels, such as the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus is leading her and prompting her to think in a whole new way. It is so profound that she has to run back to town to share her realization that Jesus may be the Messiah. (John 4: 1-29) In our passage from Genesis, you can see God using a similar pattern with Abraham.
You know what made me look at this passage with new eyes? Verses 17, 18 and 19:
17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
We are hearing God’s internal dialogue. He wants Abraham to know and learn what God considers right and just, not just for himself, but so that he can teach his children, and ultimately the nation will be able “to keep the way of the Lord.”
Next, there is a presumption by many that God has told Abraham what he plans to do. However, when God explains his purpose to Abraham in verse 21, God leaves the question open. God says, “I will go down and see if what [the people of Sodom] have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not (emphasis mine), I will know.” As far as Abraham knows, a determination has not been made yet.
Then, it is almost as if God is allowing Abraham to be his counselor or adviser. Allowing Abraham to work out what is right and just. Clearly, Abraham thinks that what is going on in Sodom is as bad as the cries God has been receiving. His nephew Lot lives there, so Abraham has probably already heard it from him. Abraham has an idea of what justice would look like for the perpetrators of the evil that goes on there.
He knows that at least one righteous family lives there. In this case “righteous” does not mean living a perfect life, but rather that they are not participating in the evil that has caused this massive outcry to the Lord. He knows that the punishment to bring justice for these people deserves to be severe, but what if there are other innocents in addition to Lot and his family? So he asks a question based on these presumptions, and therefore we are at risk of making those same presumptions.
Abraham asks, “Would you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city?…” Certainly you Lord, whom I have trusted to lead me to this strange land, who has made awesome promises to me how the whole world will be blessed by my future family, you could not do something like that. You have taught me what is right as I have made many mistakes. Surely, what you will do will be right like that.
Without hesitation God agrees that if fifty righteous people are found the city will be spared.
Abraham knows what justice requires. He keeps coming back to God with the idea that the city ought to be destroyed, but he clearly has a problem with the idea of innocents also being destroyed in the process. The destruction might be just, but is it right?
God lets Abraham work through this process, each time agreeing with Abraham’s proposition. He doesn’t resist in any way. It reminds me of when a teacher is encouraging a student to reason out a challenging problem. The teacher doesn’t jump right in and provide the answer. The teacher sees that her student is headed in the right direction, nods her head, and says, “Go on…” or “Keep going…”
Notice what God does not say. As Abraham keeps asking would you do it with 50, 45, 40, and so on, and God agrees. Sure, if I find 30, 20, 10, I will not destroy the city. He never says the words “at least,” or something like that. If I find at least 50, at least 40, at least 10. Abraham could have started with 10, and God could have said, Yes, for the sake of 10, I will spare the city, and if there is less than that, I will escort them out before anything bad happens.
Examples abound all through the Bible of God’s requirement of justice, but also his mercy. The book of Jonah is about how the prophet is sent to Ninevah to warn them that they will be destroyed in 40 days. Their response? The whole city repented all the way up to the king, and God spared the city (Jonah 3:4b-10). The whole reason that Jonah resisted going to Ninevah (an enemy to the Israelites) was his knowledge of God’s mercy. He complains to God, “For I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness. One who relents from doing harm” (4:2b). After this God counsels Jonah about the importance of saving all of the innocent lives in Ninevah (4:11).
In Ezekiel, God tells the prophet, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ez 18:32).
But, God does require justice. We see it in the Mosaic Law:
17 Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. 18 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.
19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:17-22)
The prophets admonished the Northern and Southern Israelite kingdoms for their failure to give justice and mercy to those at risk. The prophet Amos says to the Northern Kingdom:
6bThey sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
7a They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed. (Amos 2:6b-7a)
We see it in Jesus’ instructions to take care of the poor and the needy.
37b ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40)
Of course, the most dramatic balance of justice and mercy came through Jesus Christ. We all deserve divine punishment from the white lies we tell to keep things pleasant or keep the peace to hurting people whether intentionally or unintentionally. Our selfishness. The ways that we don’t love our neighbors and ignore God. Justice says that we should be punished, but through mercy Jesus took all of that on himself to save us from it.
Through all of this, we can see how important justice is for God. There is this balance of justice and mercy as in integral part of God’s character. And, we go back to today primary text. Did anyone else find it interesting that Abraham stopped at 10 righteous people? Why didn’t he count down to one? If I was the one righteous person, I’d want to be acknowledged as worthy of saving.
Some say that the pattern had been set. The point had been made. By the time God agreed to save the city for the sake of 10 righteous people, Abraham no longer had to worry about a lessor number that might be there. He was confident that God would take care of them. That’s reasonable, especially if you interpret the passage as Abraham convincing God to be merciful.
However, Terence Fretheim suggests an idea that I find very interesting. Even in an area filled with wicked people, righteous people in their midst can have a positive effect on the whole community. Eventually, they may have enough influence to actually turn that community in a positive direction, but there must be a critical mass. There is a minimum number of people that are necessary to have this positive effect. It doesn’t mean that you need at least 10 people. (There’s that “at least” again.) It is representative of a smaller number but more than one or two.
This presents another idea. Have you ever thought that you saw a place so filled with evil and wickedness that you wonder why God doesn’t exact his justice and just end it once and for all? Like the apocalyptic writers I will use an ancient city as an example, so as not to malign any “righteous” people that may live in any modern place I could name. Why didn’t God just end Babylon or Ancient Rome? They eventually fell to invaders, but that’s not the same thing. When we see evil, we want justice. We want retribution, but then we see the wicked continue to prosper and others continuing to be oppressed. What if the whole reason is to spare the righteous that may be there?
It can be easier to identify when it looks like punishment has been delivered, but it’s much harder to tell the reason why when punishment doesn’t come. Then our attitudes can be more like Jonah’s. God I knew you would be merciful. It’s not fair … to me!
And that’s God’s lesson to Abraham. Allowing Abraham to work out the balance between justice and mercy, justice and what it right. It seems so wonderful that God is going through this process to prepare Abraham for the role God selected him for. And, he did it in a way that Abraham basically had to figure it out for himself with a few nudges and the example that he has had in God. That’s what God does with us too.
God works with us through his Holy Spirit to shape us to teach us the way that we need to learn to prepare us for what he calls us to do. Sometimes we have to go through the lesson multiple times. I hate when that happens. Abraham had to go through many things before he finally learned to trust God completely. God teaches us in so many ways, through his word, the Bible, through other people, through events and seasons in our lives. Eventually, we become the persons that God created us to be. All because the daily divine encounters with God that we get to experience throughout our lives.
Glory to God! Amen!