17The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’ 20Then the Lord said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.’
Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous 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?’ 26And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’
27Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And he said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ 29Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ 30Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ 31He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ 32Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’
In reading and commenting on this particular passage, I think we sometimes get off the track a little, thinking that this is an example of Abraham negotiating with God, that he is changing God’s mind. That would present us with a pretty frightening idea of God as someone who can be persuaded, influenced by flawed and fallen humanity. That would be terrifying indeed. But, I don’t see evidence of that here at all. Rather, I see this as a passage in which God is instructing us, intentionally trying to teach us how to be in community with Him and with one another. God is teaching us to be transparent with one another by means of a very transparent narrative. It behooves us to look at it closely.
Let us remember that this story takes place relatively early in God’s relationship with Abraham. They are learning how to be with one another, the way we do when the patterns of friendships are forming. And God is aware that he is teaching Abraham, who will teach everyone who follows him, how to be in a relationship with God.
17The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?
God could very easily have just done what he was going to do with Sodom. He did not need to consult Abraham or give him advance warning. He can just say, “This is what I am doing,” that would be vastly easier, I should think. Why open the floor to discussion?
19No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’
Aha! So that he may instruct Abraham in how to “keep the way of the Lord” in order to bring Abraham the great joy of relationship with God and so that Abraham in turn, can teach all of us who follow and wish to partake of that joy. So God is telling us – quite transparently, I think – “here is how you should act to me and by extension to one another.”
The next line begins with the word u·iamr “And He said.” As a result of his reasoning in the sentence above, He makes the gesture to Abraham. He opens himself to Abraham deliberately. Importantly, He explains what He is going to do and it isn’t destroy Sodom. He is going to go down and look things over and see what is needed. This is why I think the hullaballoo about Abraham negotiating with God is in error, God has not made up His mind, and Abraham did not change it. God did, however, admit Abraham to the wholeness of His experience. This, I think, is the first lesson of how to be in loving relationship: opening up to sharing in the experience: transparency.
It’s not an easy thing. The person to whom you open may be critical, may ridicule or demean what you have shown them. Or he may question you incessantly about it, which is what Abraham does.
Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
Note that Abraham never implies that he intends to change God’s mind. He only wishes to understand what God is doing? He operates from a position of humility and love, thus: “I know you are just and righteous” and “I know that I can’t possibly understand it all” so help me understand. Despite the inherent chutzpah of the act, Abraham is trying to understand God: what is the minimum number? Where is the line where your wrath becomes mercy? Abraham never says the Hebrew equivalent of “Let’s make a deal” and God never says the Biblical equivalent of “Oy! You’re right, Abraham! I’ll change my mind.” Abraham is asking: “Let me understand you” and God is answering “Yes, you are welcome to ask and to try to understand and I for my part, will try to remain open to you and let you come in and understand me.”
The next part of the lesson is in how Abraham responds:
27Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.
Humility is the essential ingredient in entering into relationship: “I cannot know, I do not know, therefore I ask, explain to me.” Humility, you may know, means “from the earth” or for our purposes, from the ground up. There is also present in this humility, a presumption of love.
25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous 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?’
That is, we have no earlier baggage that causes us to suspect one another. I believe you to be a good and honest person, I know you do not mean to be unfair - let me understand you. I know you are a good person - let me understand how this happened. I love you and I know if you let me in, I will find inside you even more to love.
This, I believe is residue from an earlier broken relationship (Gen 8:9): we are our brother’s keepers. You see none of us really thinks we are bad or evil inside, we think, “If only they knew my real motivation, they would not judge me harshly” or something like it. Here is the chance, indeed the obligation, to open oneself to the understanding of your brother – and to expect to be met with loving kindness. Empathy emerges from understanding.
Implicit in this description is the implication that we should be able to question God. It is important to remember that to question is not the same thing as to doubt. I believe questions are elemental to faith. We know God is great and trustworthy and ultimately good, and so we pursue an understanding of God with that certainty in mind, knowing that we will find that in the end. We do this because we love our God with all our hearts and all our minds. We must engage critical faculties to understand God – a famous theologian once said (roughly) “God did not bless me with intellectual powers and then expect me not to use them.” Indeed, in this passage, God seems to be calling on Abraham to use them. And there is a tradition of questioning God in our Scripture. Rachel, laments the death of her children (Jer 31:15) and God is called to account for what had transpired. And so we are called upon to ask and, like Abraham in this passage, to keep on asking.
It is not, you see, God's job to explain God to us. It is our job to pursue an understanding of God. If we wish to know God we must use our faculties and we must ask and ask and ask questions, down the last minutia, until we are at risk of getting on God's very last nerve. That is what Abraham does here and guess what? God is patient with him, God answers every question. God does not jump ahead and answer more than Abraham asks, God never snaps at Abraham for being persistent in his pursuit. In order for Abraham to lead his people into an understanding of God, he must ask and ask and ask. And here we see that God will answer and answer and answer. This, I believe, is the next step in the lesson on relationship: patience.
When our loved ones want to probe us, we must be willing to answer the questions that are asked, patiently, lovingly. Because in so doing we open ourselves to understanding, to empathy and to love. We must be guided by God’s gesture of openness to us. For if we are not, we risk being mysterious, unpredictable and ultimately alone.
And when we want to ask the questions of someone else, to be able to understand and therefore to love them, we must keep asking the questions. We must risk irritation, redundancy, nagging, boring and being nosey. However, we must be lead by Abraham's example as well: we must operate from a position of love.
It is a terrifying prospect for all involved: to expose one's self, to open oneself to questioning; and also to question a loved one and risk rejection. It is frightening to be vulnerable, it is frightening to be questioned, it is frightening to ask to be admitted into someone's heart. It takes courage to be in relationship, with God or our fellow human being. But it is, it seems to me, that courageous vulnerability is what God wants from us.
But here is my post script, as well. I said in the outset that this passage occurs early in the relationship of Abraham and God. They learn to be in relationship with one another and their transparency and willingness to be vulnerable to one another leads them to an almost ideal intimacy. But what then? Later in their relationship, God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son – the Akeda, the binding of Isaac (Gen 22). In that text, Abraham does not ask anything of God. He does as he is explicitly commanded – the polar opposite of this passage.
Perhaps Abraham participates willingly I the binding of Isaac because of this earlier experience with God. Perhaps God has the emotional currency with Abraham to be able to ask anything of him without question. We could argue that the kind of transparency we learn in this passage enables us to endure trials like the Akeda in our lives and relationships.
And yet that does not satisfy me. Because of the relationship of Abraham and God after the Akeda. Never again does God speak directly to Abraham. Never again does Abraham speak to God. Can it be that in that moment -God by not opening up to Abraham and Abraham by not seeking transparency with God - they lost hold of the divine intimacy that they knew at Sodom? I can’t help but wonder if Abraham had raised his voice at the Akeda, as he does here at Sodom, would his relationship with God have ended differently?