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Abraham Blesses His Neighbors, Part 2 (Genesis 18:16–33)

“If one day God does not punish NYC for its wickedness, he will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah” – John E. Herbst.

My Dad lived his whole life in New York City, never wanting to move anywhere else. And as a proud “Noo Yawkuh” myself, I can’t disagree with his statement above. As much as I love NYC, I won’t deny that it had a lot of wickedness when I was growing up, and it has a lot of evil today.

Almost all American Christians know of places and organizations near us that reek of evil. These may be neighborhoods, businesses, government organizations, or social groups that seem to embrace wickedness. How does God expect Christians to respond? We find an excellent answer in one of my favorite Old Testament passages, Genesis 18:16–33.

This is my third consecutive post about Abraham’s efforts to honor God’s call. While the New Testament celebrates his faith, in Genesis Abraham struggles with many ups and downs (maybe like us today?) Genesis 12–25 casts Abraham as a model for devotion to calling, and only much less as a model of faith. So when we read these chapters we do well to think about how God wants us to fulfill our call.

Genesis 18 begins with the visit of three men, who turn out to be God and two angels, to Abraham and Sarah, giving the good news that Sarah will soon become pregnant. Sarah laughs as she expresses doubt, but God stays in a good mood, so that 18:1–15 is warm and happy.

In 18:16, however, things get serious, as the visitors turn their attention to Sodom. Verses 17–19 give fascinating insight into God’s inner thoughts. God plans to evaluate and, if necessary, punish Sodom; but he is debating whether to tell Abraham.

Commentators sometimes suggest that God is “obligated” to tell Abraham his plans. This is Abraham’s turf, so God needs to tell Abraham what he’s planning to do.

The idea that God “needs” to inform anyone of anything strikes me as silly. The creator of the universe is required to notify us when he wants to do something in our neighborhood? Really?

Instead, consider God’s reasoning in light of what we’ve read about Abraham thus far. Genesis 18:18 repeats the idea from 12:2–3 that Abraham will be a source of blessing for all nations, and verse 19 stresses that God expects Abraham to do the right thing.  Both verses allude to action that Abraham might take.

Action especially makes sense when we consider Genesis 14 (my last post). In that chapter also, Sodom faces disaster. The Sodomites don’t deserve help, yet Abraham rescues them anyway. Abraham knows that he had been called to benefit others, so Abraham does exactly this.

This means that in Gen 18 God reveals his plan to Abraham to get Abraham to take action. This is a crucial lesson for us today! When we Christians hear that unsaved neighbors are facing troubles – even troubles that seem to result from sin and rebellion – we should consider such news a call to action. Just as Abraham blesses his neighbors by helping in times of need, God expects us to bless our neighbors in their time of trouble.

Verse 22 gives one more fascinating detail that points to God’s expectations. After God reveals his intentions, the two angels (“men”) head toward Sodom, as planned … and God stays behind.  God sticks around just to give Abraham a chance to speak.

So in verses 23–25 Abraham does what he has been called to do. He tries to persuade God to change his mind, using a little logic: the deaths of fifty innocent people is too high a price to pay to punish wicked Sodomites. God has a reputation to maintain!

Some commentators argue here that Abraham is not really interested in saving all the Sodomites, but that he’s thinking more about only one resident, his nephew Lot. This argument is similar to one often raised about Abraham’s actions in Genesis 14, in which Abraham rescues Lot along with the other Sodomites. (See my previous post for why this argument doesn’t work.)

But since Genesis 18 never mentions Lot, we should avoid inserting people and ideas into specific passages. If Abraham is worried about Lot only, then we should expect him to say so, or at least for the narrator to let us know. Instead, Abraham has been called to bless everyone in his area, so he obeys his calling.

Abraham’s heart is clearly in the right place. Yet at the same time he begins to go off track right at this moment, displaying his not-uncommon lack of faith.  The question “What if there are fifty righteous people in the city?” essentially states (hopes?) that the presence of fifty righteous people in Sodom will save it. Abraham turns out to be right – God says “OK” in verse 26 – but by starting with a such a high number, it becomes very hard to get to a number that  actually does the trick.

By this point in Abraham’s life, he knows what Sodom is like. Recall again that he rescued the Sodomites in Gen 14, and that his only nearby relative lives in Sodom.  As much as anyone, Abraham knows that there are not fifty righteous people in that city.  The number has to go way down.

So in 18:27–28 Abraham asks God what will happen if there are five short of fifty. God says, “forty-five is fine.” Then in verse 29 Abraham asks if forty will work; God again responds OK.

One more comment needs to be made here. Many commentaries claim that this part of the chapter reflects “Middle Eastern bargaining” or something similar.  But this is not bargaining.  Abraham keeps asking God to reduce the required number, but God does not make counter-offers. The only thing that God says from verse 26 onward is “fine with me.” No complaints, no delays; just “OK.”

Instead of bargaining, it’s more accurate to read Abraham’s requests as a series of statements about the extent of God’s mercy. Abraham begins by suggesting that the salvation of a wicked city requires the presence of fifty righteous people.  After God says “fifty is enough,” the question becomes, how low will God go?

Unfortunately, this passage does not give us a clear final answer. Verse 32 leaves us knowing that God would have saved Sodom if as few as ten righteous men had been found there.  But would God have saved the city if it had contained even fewer righteous people?

We do not have an answer because Abraham does not ask.  He loses his nerve. He starts off strong in verse 25, “Far be it from you to do such a thing!,” but begins to lose confidence in verse 30, “may the Lord not be angry, but let me speak.” By verse 32, he can ask “just once more” before his nerve is gone completely.

Abraham asks God to spare Sodom six times.  Six times, God says, “OK.” This leaves us with the question: what would have happened if Abraham had asked a seventh time? What would have happened if he had said, “What if only one can be found there?”

Here is a possibility from Jeremiah 5:1:

Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.

For the sake of a single righteous person, God is willing to spare punishment for the sake of a single righteous individual. And in Gen 19 Lot turns out to be that righteous individual (2 Pet 2:7).

The reason that Abraham cannot save Sodom in Gen 18 is not that God is not merciful enough.  The reason that Sodom is destroyed is that Abraham does not believe that God could be that merciful. God is willing to spare the city; all Abraham need do is ask. But Abraham does not ask because he does not believe that God will say “OK.”

There are two big lesson to take away from this passage. First, the presence of a few righteous people can delay the coming effects of God’s anger.  If Sodom had as few as ten righteous men, the city would have been spared. This means that our presence among unrepentant sinners gives them a chance to get their act together.

Second, we should never limit God’s mercy. God did not have to explain his plans to Abraham, or to give Abraham an opportunity to seek mercy for Sodom. And when Abraham asked, God was quick to say “OK.  I’ll be merciful, just as you say.”

Today, the answer to the question “will God spare the wicked?” is the same as it was in Genesis 18: “Yes!” God wants to give evil people another chance.

Abraham could not believe that God is that merciful. Can we?


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