44. Genesis 18:22-33

III. A. 3. a) continued

ii) Abraham Prays for Sodom (Genesis 18:22-33)

God was setting Abraham up. He had walked by Abraham’s tent solely for the purpose of engaging Abraham and Sarah in conversation. If He had only intended to go to Sodom, there were a lot of other roads He could have taken, or He could have taken no road at all. What He wanted was to re-emphasize to Abraham that He was serious about giving Sarah a child and to give him a specific time table; no more of just hanging out for a decade. But He had another purpose: He was there to make Abraham a part of His work; in modern terms, the Covenant had given Abraham a seat on the board of directors of God’s program for world domination. He wanted to bring Abraham up to speed on the next big thing that was happening.

I wonder if it is not always the reason God shares information with us, to make us into intercessors. After all, what does it mean to be an intercessor? Doesn’t it really mean that we become counselors to God, advisors on policy and procedure? Doesn’t it really mean that God listens to us express our opinions on His business and then modifies His plans to a greater or lesser extent in response to us? And why would God listen to our opinions, as filled with ignorance and disreputable motives as they are? How could our opinions be other than foolish? Perhaps He listens to our foolish opinions in order to train us to have less foolish opinions. Perhaps He modifies His plans according to our foolish advice to show us the difference between wisdom and folly. Even listening to our foolish advice, He can still bring it all off in the end, He is that strong. Intercession is on the job training to run the universe.

So far as there are records, no other city since the Flood has been singled out for destruction like Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim (that these other cities were included in the destruction, see Deuteronomy 29:23). Are we to think that these were the most wicked cities that have ever existed? No, for later the Scripture will compare even Israel to Sodom. But if other cities have been as wicked as Sodom, why were these cities alone punished in such a dramatic fashion? Why did God do this thing, as if it were the standard way He intended to deal with wicked cities, and then never do it again? Or did He do such a thing again occasionally throughout history? Was the destruction of Knossos, for example, or Pompeii, the same kind of thing?

Well, no. When God does something, He is not always setting precedents for His future standard operating procedures. We are in the habit of assuming that if God chose to do something once then He will always do that same thing in response to the same situation. If another wicked city like Sodom arose then surely God would also rain fire and sulfur on it as He did on Sodom, we suppose. If He didn’t do the same thing next time, then it would seem unfair for Him to spare other wicked cities after condemning Sodom. And it would bother us that we couldn’t count on God to be more predictable. However, the rest of Scripture suggests that God does not care if we think He is fair or not. In fact, He rather disdains our concept of fairness as being a form of self-centeredness in disguise. And it is hopeless to want Him to be predictable.

God’s purpose in the biblical record was not to set precedents for future judgment, like our concept of common Law and judicial precedent. His purpose with Sodom, as it was with all the other events in Genesis, was to communicate, to reveal. But if we think that the purpose of Sodom’s destruction was to reveal to us how He intended to destroy evil, then we are wrong. Certainly the destruction of Sodom does reveal how God feels about certain kinds of evil, though He had made the same point more dramatically with the Flood. Still, we might think, it had been a long time since the Flood; perhaps people were forgetting the wrath of God and were getting morally lax and needed a little reminder of how angry God could get? The opposite is the case. The primary point that the destruction of Sodom was to communicate would come later when even Israel was pronounced to be like Sodom, namely that we are all in the same condition as Sodom. Sodom is a picture of what the world looks like to God. It was the same crowd demanding the crucifixion of the Messiah, metaphorically, as the crowd demanding the angels be given to them. According to the Messiah, Capernaum in His own day was in worse shape than Sodom had been. From God’s viewpoint, the destruction carried out against Sodom could be carried out against us, and carried out justly and “fairly”.

That He did not repeat the fire and brimstone treatment for evil shows that this is not His general plan for destroying evil. As usual, God’s revelatory deeds were incomplete and intended for more elaboration in the future. The treatment of Sodom was a dramatic demonstration to show how He felt about certain kinds of evil, but the lack of other such dramatic demonstrations shows us equally that He has other and better plans for dealing with wickedness in general. Sodom is frequently used as a metaphor for hell, with the fire and brimstone and sudden torment; but if Sodom is a metaphor for hell, then it would indicate that hell has no part in God’s long-term plans. It was a one-time response to evil, a response whose purpose was completely fulfilled in that one occurrence, and which God never intended to repeat on a regular basis, if ever.

Then why was Sodom so singled out? Or have there been other disasters through history that were similar judgments from God? Tsunamis, earthquakes, Knossos, Sri Lanka? I think Sodom was singled out because of its proximity to the chosen bearer of the revelation, the bearer of the Covenant. God had plotted it out: that Lot settled in Sodom which established a connection between Abraham and Sodom which made Abraham break his non-political-involvement policy to rescue Sodom and Lot, and which set the stage for the intercession for Sodom. God could have used many other cities, but Sodom was handy. The real purpose in the destruction of Sodom was Abraham’s intercession and what it revealed.

Other disasters through history were simply not God’s judging evil; they were just disasters that came about through the course of cause and effect, with no particular punishment in view. This is not to say that God did not work out His purposes in those disasters; of course He did. I am just saying that God did not plan those disasters – volcanoes, earthquakes, or tsunamis – as punishments. Punishing wickedness is not what He is about in the world; revealing Himself is what He is about. The destruction of cities like Knossos, though they may have been deserved from a certain viewpoint, did not convey revelation, and they did not receive the intercession from God’s people. Therefore those disasters were not part of God’s purpose in that same way.

In the end, Abraham’s intercession for Sodom was unsuccessful in that it did not result in the sparing of the city. But from God’s viewpoint, Abraham’s intercession for Sodom accomplished its primary purposes: God revealed to us all something of how He thinks about the role of good and evil in the world, and we children of Abraham learned that we can intercede before God, that we can intercede in a rather daring way, and not be either guilty or ignored, that we can speak and be heard by God. For though Sodom was destroyed in the end, God very clearly and deliberately agreed to all of Abraham’s requests. And even though Sodom was not saved by his intercession, the real object of Abraham’s concern, his nephew, was rescued. God knew Abraham’s real concern even though he did not verbalize it explicitly, and answered his heart’s desire very specifically. This example of intercession was intended to encourage all of us who share the faith of Abraham to think along certain lines about intercession. Considering how God reacted to his requests, what more could we dare to ask? Considering how God reacted to his requests, why do we ask for so little?

The main reason He listened to Abraham and listens to, even solicits, our opinions, is that He was serious when He made the Covenant. The Covenant relationship to God is not a pretense at relationship; it is the real thing. He knew when He made the Covenant what kind of family He was committing Himself to; and He was not like the husband-with-the-hidden-agenda who waits until after the wedding and then springs a whole list of requirements on his unsuspecting wife. He had committed Himself to Abraham and it was Abraham with whom He shared His secrets and to whom He listened. That is what covenants are all about. This dialogue between Abraham and God about Sodom is absolutely unparalleled in ancient literature. It puts all the ancient myths to shame.

Abraham’s argument with God is interesting for its reasoning, and a lot of revelation is hidden in the way God reacted to the logic of Abraham’s argument. He argued with God on the basis of God’s justice and character. This was the first time Abraham had given any sign that he was beginning to catch on to God’s global authority. Unlike other deities of Mesopotamia, which were imagined as having local or specialized authority only, Abraham was now arguing with God on the basis of God’s global authority. 18:25 says, “Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” This deeper understanding of God’s character must have grown out of Abraham reflecting on his experiences, his experience with the pharaoh, his experience with Melchizedek, his experience with Abimelech, his experience with simply waiting for God to act, as well as reflection on the oral tradition that we now have in the first few chapters of Genesis. Nonetheless, this was a major spiritual breakthrough. Not many of us would have gotten so far on so little. It is this understanding of God as the Judge of the world, as the just Judge of the world, that God was trying to elicit from Abraham by sharing His intentions toward Sodom. God revealed to Abraham His character and His power, not by declaring it directly, but by bringing it out from the inside of Abraham.

So much of our understanding, of God or of anything else, is only there in a ghostlike sense (a Holy Ghostlike sense, if you will) until we say it out loud and make it incarnate, as it were, in our words. Many times I discover what I am thinking by listening to myself speak; it truly is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. Abraham discovered in his intercession that he understood some things about God that perhaps he had not fully realized he understood until that moment. A really good teacher is always looking for ways to elicit the truth from the student without providing it for him, to get him to discover the truth on his own without simply giving it to him. In this way the student comes to understand the truth far more deeply and internally than he would otherwise have done. God is a very good teacher. He begets the truth in us. He knows us and we bring forth the fruit of revelation, which is truth, and then we realize that we know Him in a new way.

In considering Abraham’s intercession for Sodom it is important to notice how powerful grace is. God was willing to spare a whole city of wicked people for the sake of ten whom He accepted. Even when the ten were not found, He nonetheless rescued the one Abraham was primarily concerned for, even compelling that one to be saved against his will. God would also have spared the family of that one man, his daughters and even his betrothed sons-in-law (who were, after all, men of Sodom), for Abraham’s sake. Just as Ishmael was blessed because Abraham was his father, 19:29 says, “Thus it came about, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot lived.” So Lot was spared because of Abraham’s love for him.

It is worth speculating on whether Abraham could have bargained God down to one righteous person rather than ten. And if he had argued God down to one person out of the whole city, would the city then have been spared? These are speculative questions and so they are questions that can’t be answered with authority. However they are also, like most speculative questions, diagnostic. The answers you are inclined to give to these questions can show you how well you understand God’s character and will and grace. As an example, so that you can hone your diagnostic skills on me, I will give you my answers. To me it seems clear that God would have spared the whole city for the sake of one righteous man, but that there would have been no righteous man found there, and the end of the story would have been the same as it was. This is not to find fault with Lot. As men go, Lot was a good one, and clearly shared his uncle’s spiritual discernment. He was, after all, an heir along with Abraham of the oral tradition of revelation dating back to the beginning; he had all the advantages of background and upbringing that Abraham had. But there is no one who is righteous enough to save even himself, much less anyone else.

Abraham’s intercession was misguided in that it was optimistic. He thought when God accepted ten righteous men as sufficient to spare the city that surely God could find that many. On the other hand, Abraham’s intercession was misguided in that it was pessimistic. He stopped at ten not only because he thought that would get him what he wanted, but also because he was not sure he could push God further. How many of us would spare a whole city of Nazis in order to spare Mother Teresa? Human nature is more concerned with making sure the bad guys get punished than making sure the good guys get rescued. Abraham was too optimistic about the goodness of people and too pessimistic about the goodness of God, as are we all.

It is striking how God’s approach to His enemies is different from man’s approach. God was willing to let hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wicked men walk around free just in order to spare ten who were innocent. But that was not the attitude of American leaders toward the bombing of Iraq, for example. None of our leaders seriously doubted that innocent Iraqi’s would be killed in any bombing, simply due to the nature of the weapons involved; and there was no doubt that the “collateral damage” would be more than ten. Yet did we ever consider letting the wicked in Iraq simply go free for the sake of the innocent? Clearly either the argument about justice would not weigh heavily with our leaders (or with most American citizens) or else we are using a different meaning for the word “justice” than the Scripture does. For us, justice is largely a negative term meaning that the wicked get what is coming to them; but to God justice is something positive: that the innocent are not harmed, that the helpless are rescued from the ruthless. For the sake of delivering the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator who had killed thousands of innocent Iraqis we were willing to step into his place and kill those thousands ourselves. Men fight evil by becoming the evil they fight; it is the way of the world.

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