Genesis 18:16-33 Bargaining with God

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Immediately following the announcement visit with Sarah and Abraham, the visitors/angels look toward Sodom. This is our first indication that they have any interest in that city. Following this is a divine soliloquy musing on whether Abraham should be informed of what is about to happen, without any definition yet of what is about to happen. God begins with a wonderful description of Abraham, who is described as “blessed to be a blessing.” He is the “father of all nations.” He will lead his descendants to righteousness. For these reasons, God decides in the affirmative. Surely, it is a mark of great privilege to be privy to the secrets of the divine. As the father of all nations, it is important for him to have information concerning those nations. But the information could also be seen as a test, as a means of determining Abraham’s moral stature. As such, this whole dialogue can be viewed as engineered by God and aimed at Abraham. But not all scholars see it this way.

Some scholars want to argue that this passage is an indictment on God—that Abraham stands before God as His theological teacher, raising questions that He may not have previously considered, persuading Him to consider alternatives. And that God, in fact, does learn from this encounter. These ideas stem from a very anthropomorphic view of God. We have no trouble hearing that God is the sole creator of life, resulting in a very miraculous human baby. But in accepting that end of the spectrum, do we not also have to consider the other end, and concede that God can also be the destroyer of life, even human lives? And if God is going to destroy a whole city, He will presumably kill the good with the bad. This is hard to hear, and raises some very hard questions.

But we have to ask the right questions. It is not helpful to ask how God could do that, if one doesn't believe that God did. If one holds a higher view of God, a spiritual view of God, then anthropomorphic scenes are bound to cause difficulties. On the other hand, we don't want to dismiss the passage or ignore it either. It is relevant to the story about Abraham and Sarah, and it may even have some relevance for us. For example, if we hold that this event is part of a larger story about man’s relationship to God, then let’s look at it with that point in mind. Abraham is still in the time in-between. So far he only has received a promise from God; fulfillment is yet to come. So what does this story have to do with Abraham's relationship to God?

God begins by lamenting about the great cry that has come from Sodom and Gomorrah. It is an outcry, an anguished cry of the oppressed—the agonized plea of a victim, crying out for help. It calls for a soul-stirring response. The sins of the citizens—their immorality can no longer go unnoticed. Once God hears this cry, he has to respond. He must investigate whether it really is as bad as it seems. He never really says that He intends to destroy these evil cities, but the reputation of Sodom seems to be so well known that Abraham simply takes for granted that if He were to check it out, destruction would be the result. His conversation, then, proceeds from this assumption.

So the dialogue contrasts the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, who are the worst of the worst, with Abraham, who is a good and righteous man. Abraham epitomizes the just man, chosen by God to speak on behalf of humanity. His concern, which springs from compassion, is contrasted with the depravity and cruelty of the Sodomites. The story confronts the worst in humanity with the best in one man. There are no shades of gray in this one; everything is black and white.

At this point, two of the mysterious men go on down to Sodom, while Abraham and the Lord continue their conversation. Abraham speaks first. This is the fourth time he has knowingly spoken to God. In the other instances, the issue has always been his personal concern. Now he speaks for others; he is concerned for their personal welfare. He does not quietly say, “Thy will be done.” He asks whether God will destroy the righteous along with the wicked. The question bursts forth from his commitment to humanity. He presumes that if one is considering the whole of a city, there will be at least some righteous people in it. By phrasing it this way, he acknowledges that there is sin there, and, most interestingly, he does not specifically plead for Lot and his family. His concern is bigger; it involves justice for all. He presumes that God is just, benevolent, and omnipotent. And he is striving to understand. It is right for him to do this because he is just. He is capable of understanding, of perceiving right and wrong, of having a meaningful conversation.

Therefore, he raises the issue three times. Each one is phrased a bit stronger than the previous one. He asks, “Would you destroy the righteous with the wicked? Far be it from you to slay the righteous with the wicked. Far be it from you to treat the righteous as the wicked.” Even human judges are expected to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. Surely, God, as Judge of all the earth will do right! Nor does Abraham rest with this argument. He also asks that the wicked majority be forgiven because of the righteous few. The implication of this is to move his appeal for divine justice to a call for divine mercy. He implies that it will be worse to condemn an innocent person to death than it will be to allow several guilty to go free. We don't know how big the city of Sodom is at that time, but he asks if fifty innocents are found within the city, will the Lord still wipe it off the face of the earth; will He not forgive the whole city for the fifty?

To this direct question, the Lord responds, “Yes.” If He finds fifty innocents, He will forgive the whole city. But Abraham doesn't stop there. He continues, “What if the number is five short of fifty, will you ruin it?” Again, the Lord responds, “No, if I find only forty-five, I shall spare the whole city.” Four more times this exchange is repeated in increments of ten, until the number stands at ten. The Lord responds, that He will not ruin it for the sake of ten innocent men. At this point, they stop discussing the matter.

What has been happening here? Is Abraham teaching God a higher morality? And why stop at ten? Why not continue to the logical conclusion of one or even none? Let's look at it closely.

Abraham starts off in this conversation confident and strong, while ending hesitantly and meekly. Some suggest that Abraham goes as far as he thinks he can go, ending with the number ten. He doesn't want to push his luck, perhaps. On the other hand, this is not a monologue; it’s a dialogue. But God’s participation in this conversation is subdued, almost passive. Over against the portrait of Abraham, who is a courageous, bold, and perhaps somewhat fearful participant, God remains in the shadows. His colorless answers merely grant Abraham’s every request. Still, God remains patient and present throughout. It is true that He does not encourage him, but He does not reprimand him either. In so doing, He allows the discussion to continue. In the process, Abraham is given the opportunity to develop his moral stand. The human initiative for justice isn’t to be just a momentary outburst. Rather, it has to be a sustained thought, pursued with persistence. In the end, Abraham settles for ten.

This interchange, then, is more than the first Biblical example of intercessory prayer. It is more than a repetitive dialogue, even noting that the repetition itself gives it weight and significance. And it is more than a scene taken from oriental life, which illustrates the bargaining ritual that produces the terms of a deal. It is a test of Abraham’s moral commitment, of his moral stature, and of his willingness to strive for a deeper understanding. These are necessary prerequisites for the man who will become a great and powerful nation, who will bring blessing to all the other nations, and who will direct his descendants to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. This is a very important moment in the story of Abraham.