Genesis 18:16-18:33 Debating God

death of Sodom… An odd question… staged for Abraham’s benefit… negotiating with God … to instruct Abraham… relational… interpretative framework for understanding God… postmodern commentary…

Genesis 18:16-18:33

And the men rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way.

After the laughter of the previous section, we now enter a very somber passage on the death of Sodom (C@dom, burning). One wonders why God combined two apparently unrelated errands with one visit. Perhaps we shall see.

And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do;

An odd question for Yahweh (Y@hovah) to ask Himself. His rationale is even more surprising:

Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?

Somehow Abraham’s (‘Abraham) destiny gives him the right, or perhaps obligation, to know. And that is somehow tied with blessing (barak) the nations (gowy).

For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.

Hmm, here it seems to imply that the reason God decides to tell him is that a) He knows (yada`) him, b) it will instruct (tsavah ) his children (ben ) in justice (ts@daqah ), and c) that all this somehow relates to bringing about (bow’) the promises He had spoken (dabar).

Regardless, God decides to tell him:

And the LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.

I suppose one might read this as a confession of non-omniscience, but the whole thing feels rather staged for Abraham’s benefit. It also fits in with the way God usually describes His behavior, at least in the Old Testament: that He hears the cries (tsa`aqah) of those who suffer, and turns His face towards them. Interestingly, both ‘come’ (bow’) and ‘know’ (yada’) are words used to describe God’s relation with Abraham — not sure why, though it seems to imply some sort of parallel.

And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?

Well, if God’s goal is to get a reaction from Abraham, He succeeds. Abraham’s question about the righteous (tsaddiyq ) and the wicked (rasha`) is one I suspect I will ask many times as we go through the Old Testament. How bad does one have to be before experiencing divine judgment? Does everyone who suffers deserve to? Does God care about collateral damage?

Then follows the arguably unique, if rather macabre, spectacle of Abraham negotiating with God for the life of a city:

Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that [are] therein?

One wonders whether Abraham is trying to convince God not to destroy (caphah) the city (`iyr), or just reassuring himself that God would not do it lightly. The next verse might seem to imply the latter:

That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

Yahweh goes along with Abraham, and promises to forgive (nasa’) the whole place (maqowm) for the sake of fifty (chamishsiym). This scene is repeated with 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally 10:

And he said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy [it] for ten’s sake.

So, what is going on here? My best guess is that God’s primary purpose, as stated above, is to instruct Abraham in the nature of justice, especially justice among the nations. From that perspective, God’s primary concern is relational: He knows Abraham, and He wants Abraham to know Him. He wants to answer Abraham’s questions, and help Abraham develop an interpretative framework for understanding God’s violent and apparently callous actions.

Hmm. Well, that interpretation would make Abraham’s dialogue a success, in that it made him more comfortable with what God was going to do. However, if the purpose was for Abraham to successfully intercede for the city, he very much failed, as we’ll soon see. Does that make God unjust, to destroy an entire city because one man (Abraham) lacks faith? Hmm, sounds like Abraham’s question. On the other hand, maybe Abraham was being wise — if there really are so few righteous left, maybe the city really did deserve to die.

Perhaps the two interpretations are not so dissonant after all. Maybe, we need the humility to accept that there are certain situations so bad we (in our human limitation) are just not able to redeem them, and we need to resort to the cleansing power of destruction. If there were ten righteous, then that would give Abraham (and God) something to work with to hope for the city’s redemption. But if things really are worse than that, maybe Abraham has to accept that at this point in time there’s nothing more to be hoped for, except that Sodom’s evil influence on the region be ended.



God, teach me to know you. Grant me the wisdom to understand your purpose and character, the courage to confront you when your actions appear contrary to your character, and the humility to know when to submit to your mystery. Teach me the meaning of your justice for the nations, that I may align my purposes with yours, and redeem as much as I possibly can.


It occurred to me recently that what I am doing — albeit in a very unscholarly and often superficial way — is writing a sort of postmodern commentary. That is, rather than coming up with a definitive statement of what the text means, I am trying to highlight what it might mean, as well as my personal thoughts, and explicitly invite the reader to decide whether to agree with me; and provide them with access (via hyperlinks) to the same documents I used, and (via introspection) the same internal debates I used to evaluate them.

Again, these scribblings of mine are little more than a stream-of-consciousness devotional; a real commentary, even a post-modern one, should be more thoroughly researched, carefully written, and actively edited. Still, it is gratifying to be able to place what I am doing within a larger context; I usually start doing something just because it seems worthwhile, and only later find words to describe what I’ve done, and discover how it relates to past precedents. For example, in Googling for other uses of “postmodern commentary” I realize my transformational perspective on Scripture is strikingly similar to what has been called Wesleyan hermeneutics. I barely know what that means, and it possible we may diverge strongly on secondary points, but the humility and results-oriented attitude I’ve seen so far appear very congruent with my personal convictions in this regard.