Commentary on Genesis 18:20-32
Whenever we think about or talk about God, there is a wonderful tension between certainty and mystery.
On the one hand we know God because we have God’s own revelation. We draw on the witness of scripture. We experience God at work in our own world and in our own lives. We use our reason and ecclesiastical traditions to develop frameworks for understanding who God is and how God can be expected to behave and act.
But on the other hand, at some level, God remains mysterious. This gets expressed in pithy expressions that warn against putting God in a box or forgetting the distinction between the Creator and the creatures. If God is God, and we are humans, how can we ultimately understand God’s nature and God’s ways? Scripture itself confronts us with those messy texts where God acts in ways that cannot be rationally explained away.
Moreover, we have those life experiences of God allowing — or causing — things to happen that defy our understanding of a good or powerful God. Particularly in those cases, the clash between certainty (God is good, God is powerful) and mystery (why do bad things happen?) can be painful.1 Abraham, however, seems to gracefully balance that tension, and for that reason Abraham in this text is such a wonderful model how to approach God.
This lectionary selection begins with God’s statement about Sodom and Gomorrah, but would have been well served to start in verse 17, with God’s question to God’s self. Not only is it rare — and important! — to read God’s internal dialogue, but as God muses about Abraham, God explains that Abraham has been chosen (literally, “known”) so that his descendants will keep God’s way to do justice and righteousness (18:19). Those theme of justice and righteousness becomes an important reason why Abraham intercedes the way he does.
Abraham understands God as one who will act justly and righteously, and that understanding emboldens Abraham to pray the way he does. Still, one of the benefits of the lectionary selection beginning with verse 20 is how it illustrates that prayer can start with God’s words, and not only need to begin with human initiative. The gospel lectionary this week from Luke includes Luke’s introduction of the Lord’s Prayer, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. This text is another, albeit different, example of how to pray.
We notice that this section of the text does not go into the specific details of Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin. In fact, Genesis 19 is not included in the Revised Common Lectionary, nor is Ezekiel 16, where verse 49 details Sodom’s sin as arrogance, an abundance of food and ease without care of the poor and needy. What this text does say, in generalities, is that their sin is very heavy, and the outcry against them has come to God (18:20).
When the three men leave, Abraham is still standing before the Lord. He draws near, and asks if God will destroy the righteous with the wicked (18:23). The Hebrew interrogative with the particle ha’ap can either be translated as “indeed,” or “really,” either one suggesting that Abraham is incredulous at this possibility. Will God really do such a thing? Indeed, could God do such a thing?
In verse 24, Abraham repeats that, and then in verse 25 he uses another exclamation, halilah, often translated as “far be it,” or “never.” These minor words of Abraham point to the way that Abraham understands God to operate within a certain framework, that God would surely not destroy righteous or refuse to forgive. Abraham’s question in 18:25 is based on this, “Shall not the judge of all the earth act justly?”
The mystery is preserved, however, in the fact that Abraham asks this of God as a question and does not state this as a bald fact. Additionally, in verse 24 Abraham uses the particle ‘ûlay, translated as “perhaps.” Perhaps there will be a certain number of righteous people in the city. Perhaps God will be merciful. That same word occurs in Jonah 1:6 when the sailors say in the middle of the storm, “Perhaps God will take notice of us, and we will not die.” “Perhaps” can express hope, or it can express fear or doubt. It does not express certainty.
Another example of the tension between certainty and mystery is in God’s own word, “if,” repeated in verse 26 (“if I find fifty”), verse 28 (“if I find forty-five”) and verse 30 (“if I find thirty”).2 Could it be that God genuinely does not know how many righteous people are in the city? If so, that would call into question God’s omniscience. Or, does God know that there are less than ten righteous in the city, and merely go along with Abraham’s attempt at bargaining for some other reason?
If so, that would suggest that Abraham’s conversation with God has no effect whatsoever on God, and God is less than honest in how God speaks to him. Neither possibility is terribly satisfying, and this aspect of the passage illustrates how it may be better to stay in that space between what we can say with certainty about God, and what remains mysterious.
But the repetition of the particle, ‘abur, “for the sake of,” affirms that God is a God who acts for the sake of, on behalf of others. This word occurs in verses 26, 29, and 32, when God says that God will not destroy (or, “I will not do it”) for the sake of the forty, the twenty or the ten righteous. Based on God’s own words, we can say with certainty that God does not operate in a vacuum but out of concern and care for the sake of the righteous.
- Abraham’s language in 18:27, that he is but “dust and ashes” calls to mind Job 42:6, when Job is comforted concerning his humanity, his state of “dust and ashes.”
- Interestingly, God does not say “if” regarding the numbers forty, twenty, or ten.