[The following is an exegetical paper that I submitted to the Pentateuch class at Nazarene Bible College]
ORIENTATION AND CONTEXT
Significance of Text
Genesis 18:17-33 tells the story of Abraham's conversation with God (יְהֹוָה) immediately prior to the destruction of the city of Sodom. It is an amazing story that relays very powerful truths about God, His character, and His people. While the story of Sodom is often seen as an example of God's judgment, God's conversation with Abraham in this passage makes it clear that this story is about more than just the judgment of an angry God.
In Genesis 18:17-33, God begins a conversation with Abraham about the city of Sodom, whose sins were “very grave” (Genesis 18:20). God recalls the promises that He made to Abraham in Genesis 12 before telling Abraham about Sodom. God informs Abraham that He will “go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” (Genesis 18:21). Abraham proceeds to intercede for the city of Sodom, despite knowing how wicked the city was. God agrees to spare the entire city of Sodom if He can find 10 righteous people (צַדִּיק ) in the city. After this, Abraham and God each depart from one another. God heads to Sodom to see how sinful the city is, and Abraham heads back to his tent.
This text is significant because it reveals important theological truths about God's sovereignty. Throughout His conversation with Abraham, God remained the focus. Even when the conversation changed and Sodom became the subject, God was still in control and remained the central focus of the conversation. This passage highlights God's sovereignty and power.
This text is significant because it reveals important theological truths about God's judgment. Greg Koukl, founder of the Christian apologetics network Stand To Reason, has noted of Sodom and Gomorrah that “it seems the judgment of these cities was to serve as a lesson to Abraham and to others that wickedness would be punished” (Koukl, “What Was The Sin Of Sodom And Gomorrah?”). God punishes sin, and God gave Abraham an opportunity to understand this.
This text is also significant because it reveals important theological truths about God's mercy. We should take note of how slowly God allowed the destruction of Sodom. He did not destroy the city immediately upon hearing of the sins that were being committed by the inhabitants of the city. Rather, he was slow to destroy the city, a sure sign of His mercy.
This text is also significant because it reveals significant truths about God's willingness to communicate with mankind. God was not required to communicate with Abraham, or with any other human being for that matter. No one forced God to talk to Abraham. Yet it was God who initiated the conversation with Abraham in Genesis 18:17. This passage demonstrates God's willingness to communicate to mankind.
This text is also significant because it tells of the personal care God has for mankind. God spoke to Abraham as one would speak to a friend. God knew who Abraham was. In fact, God knew Abraham better than Abraham knew himself. The conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 18:17-33 demonstrates how much God cares for His people and for mankind.
This text is also significant because it demonstrates the power of intercession. Abraham likely knew that Sodom was a wicked city. In fact, it is difficult to imagine that he was not aware of Sodom's sins, given his interaction with the king of Sodom in Genesis 14:17 and the common knowledge that “the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD” (Genesis 13:13). Yet Abraham chose to intercede for Sodom anyway. This intercession may have done Abraham more good than it did Sodom, but God agreed to spare the entire city for the sake of a few righteous.
Genesis 18:17-33 also appears to raise some questions that require an answer. First, a glancing look at this passage appears to leave God without a firm knowledge of Sodom's sins, much less whether or not Sodom has sinned in the first place! Second, this passage appears to present God as a man or an angel when grouped with the surrounding context. Third, this passage, without sufficient background information, appears to have God bargaining with Abraham over how many people are necessary not to destroy the city of Sodom. Fourth, an earlier tradition surrounding this passage appears to leave God in a subordinate role to Abraham. Each of these questions demands an answer, and will be answered in the body of this paper.
Historical And Social Setting
The authorship of Genesis is difficult to determine for several reasons. First, no individual is explicitly mentioned as the author of this work. There does not even appear to be strong indicators as to the identity of the author, as there are in Luke's gospel, Acts, and some other books of Scripture. While there are such indicators in other books of the Pentateuch, there are not any in the book of Genesis. This is a primary reason why it is difficult to determine the author of Genesis.
Second, the individuals who are the most likely to have written the book of Genesis were not alive during the events that take place in the book. Early tradition places Moses as the author of the Pentateuch, including Genesis. However, Moses was not alive during the events portrayed in Genesis. It does not seem likely that someone like Abraham or Jacob would have recorded the book of Genesis. This makes it difficult to determine who wrote the work.
Third, modern scholarship appears to be split about the authorship of this book, as well as of the Pentateuch as a whole. The scholarly community appears to be divided into two primary categories. First, there are those who hold to the traditional view of Mosaic authorship. Those who hold this view usually claim that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch, with the exception of a couple of passages, such as the account of the death of Moses in Deuteronomy 34:5-12. Those who hold to this view typically point to “at least two clear references to Moses as the author” (Arnold, 68), as well as the fact that “both Jewish and early Christian tradition consistently associated the Pentateuch with Moses” (Arnold, 69).
Next, there are those who hold to the documentary hypothesis. This view theorizes four separate sources from which the Pentateuch was compiled, usually designated as Yahwist, Priestly, Deuteronomist, and Elohist sources. Those who hold to this view typically cite “the insertion of law codes into a unified narrative framework, anachronistic references to the Hebrew monarchy and to peoples and places unknown in Moses' time, duplicated accounts of the same event, varied literary styles, and the use in Genesis of a name for God that Exodus insists was not known until the time of Moses” (Flanders, 86). This passage from Genesis is said to come from the Yahwist source, which “is usually dated around 950 BC” (Achtemeier, 1152).
The traditional view of Genesis 18:17-33, as with the rest of the Pentateuch, places Moses as the primary author. This view was the predominant view prior to Julius Wellhausen, who helped to popularize the documentary hypothesis. One primary weakness of this view is the fact that there are clear passages within the Pentateuch which would not make sense unless they were written at a later date. One of the primary strengths of this view is that it aligns with ancient traditions regarding the authorship of the Pentateuch. This, however, appears to be the stronger viewpoint. While it is clear that Moses did not write certain portions of the Pentateuch, such as the narrative about his own death, there are clear references within the Pentateuch of Moses recording various portions of the Pentateuch. It is likely that Moses wrote much of the Pentateuch, and the Pentateuch as Moses wrote it was later redacted and “filled in” with narratives such as the narrative of Moses' death. In all of this, we must remember that “God is the ultimate author of the Scriptures” (King, “The Documentary Hypothesis”). God could have inspired several redactors just as much as He could have inspired Moses.
The Pentateuch, including the book of Genesis, was likely written during the 40 year period of time when the Israelites were wondering through the wilderness. There are two primary dates given by scholars for the Exodus event. Some propose a date of approximately 1446 BC as the date for the Exodus. Those who take this view typically point out that the author of First Kings (1 Kings 6:1) places the Exodus 480 years prior to Solomon's construction of the temple, which was completed in 966 BC (Arnold, 108). Another piece of evidence for this view is the so-called “Merneptah Stela”, which is dated to approximately 1209 BC. This archaeological find describes Pharaoh Merneptah's victory over several people groups living in Palestine, including the Israelites (Arnold, 108). It can be argued that the Israelites must have been in the land for some time if an Egyptian pharaoh recognized them as a people group.
Other individuals propose a later date for the Exodus event. Those who hold this view date the Exodus to the 13th century BC. Those who hold this view often point out that “the Israelites worked on the the store-cities of Raamses and Pithom. To have done so, they must have been in Egypt during the reigns of Seti I (1308-1290) and Ramses II (1290-1224), the pharaohs who built these cities” (Flanders, 176). In my opinion, the late date for the Exodus appears to be a weaker position than the early date. It is likely that Moses wrote much of the Pentateuch during the wilderness wanderings after the Exodus in the 15th century BC.
The original audience of this passage, and of the Pentateuch as a whole, appears to have been the people of Israel. This passage was definitely not written to someone outside the community of Israel. In addition, if it was written during the wilderness wanderings, there would be few non-Israelites around who could have read the Pentateuch in the first place. Moses certainly did not write the Pentateuch so that it could be lost forever in the wilderness. He intended for the Israelites to read it and use it to guide their daily lives.
Genesis 18:17-33 contains a conversation between God and Abraham immediately following God's announcement of the future birth of Isaac and immediately preceding the destruction of Sodom. There is no way to avoid linking this passage to the text immediately prior to it and immediately following it.
Genesis 18:17-33 comes immediately after God's visit to Abraham when he was 99 years old. In Genesis 18:1-16, we are informed that God came to visit Abraham and to announce the future arrival of Isaac. Abraham invites God into His home, where He provides bread for God and the two angels with Him to eat, as well as water for them to wash their feet. After staying with Abraham for a little time, God and Abraham leave and begin to have their conversation that is recorded in Genesis 18:17-33. The placement of Genesis 18:17-33 in relation to this serves to contrast the blessings that will be bestowed on the righteous-living Abraham, who has made God his Friend, with the wrath that will fall on the sinful city of Sodom, which has chosen godlessness.
This passage also comes immediately before the account of the destruction of Sodom, in which the two angels who visited with God and Abraham visit the city of Sodom. Seeing how sinful the city is, they destroy the city, saving only Lot and his two daughters. The placement of Genesis 18:17-33 in relation to Genesis 19 serves to highlight God's judgment, as well as His mercy.
PRESENTATION OF TEXT
Genesis 18:17-33 “The LORD said, 'Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, 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.' Then the LORD said, 'How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I 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.' So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham came near and said, 'Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose 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? Far 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?' And the LORD said, 'If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.' Abraham answered, 'Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose 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.' Again he spoke to him, 'Suppose forty are found there.' He answered, 'For the sake of forty I will not do it.' Then 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.' He 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.' Then 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.' And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.”
Text Critical Notes
There are three textual notes that should be made about this passage. First, the portion of this passage that is often rendered as “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Genesis 18:18) can also be translated as “all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him”. Even though it can also be translated in this manner, it does not appear to be translated in this way by many Bible translators. The NRSV, NIV, and HCSB all translate this passage in the same manner as the passage as quoted above. The only translation that I have found which translates this passage in the alternate way is the RSV.
Second, the word translated as “chosen” in verse 19 may also be translated as “known”. This word (יָדַע), indicates knowing an individual through experience. It can be used in a variety of ways, but usually indicates some level of personal interaction between two individuals (Strong, Heb. 3045).
Finally, an older tradition indicates that verse 22 should read as “So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while the LORD remained standing before Abraham” (Genesis 18:22). This has troubled some scholars, since this “has Yhwh taking the subordinate position” (Macdonald, 27). This can cause some uneasiness from the theological perspective.
Outline of Passage
I. God speaks to Abraham (v. 17-21)
II. Abraham speaks to God (v. 22-32)
III. God and Abraham depart (v. 33)
GOD SPEAKS TO ABRAHAM
We should note that God initiates the conversation with Abraham (Genesis 18:17). It is not Abraham who approaches God to discuss Sodom. Rather, God Himself who decides to speak to Abraham. However, God did not force Abraham to listen to the conversation. Abraham chose to follow the Lord, who then began to speak to Abraham (Genesis 18:16). This reveals incredible truth about the willingness of God to speak to those who are willing to listen to Him. The reader of Genesis 18:17-33 should understand that God will not force His people, or anyone else for that matter, to listen to Him. He will leave that up to their free choice. However, for those who love and are willing to listen to God, God is ready to speak to them.
When we examine the origin of the conversation between God and Abraham in this passage, however, we discover what appears to be a problem. The larger context of this passage presents God as though He were a man (see Genesis 18:1-2, 16). However, the larger context also corrects this misunderstanding. While Genesis 18 does state that Abraham “looked up and saw three men standing near him”, the entirety of Genesis 18 implies that these were not merely men that Abraham saw. For several reasons, we cannot accept this interpretation. First, we must note that Abraham recognized one of the men as the Lord. God did not introduce Himself as God to Abraham in this passage. Instead, Abraham recognized God and ran to Him. Second, we see that God has insight that a regular human being would not have. For example, when Sarah laughed “to herself” (Genesis 18:9-15), God knew that she had done this, even though the passage gives us no hint that anyone else knew this. How could they? Sarah kept it to herself, or so she thought. Third, we must note God's knowledge of future events, as well. It should not surprise us that God knew that Sodom was a sinful city. This appears to have been common knowledge (Genesis 13:13). What we should note is that God knew about the impending doom of Sodom. This is something that an average human being would not have known, and thus should be regarded as internal evidence that, although God may have appeared to Abraham as a man, God was not merely a man. Finally, we should note that it would not be impossible for God to present Himself in the form of a man to Abraham. Some believe that God took the form of a man to speak to Abraham on this issue, while others believe that this passage simply presents an anthropomorphism “which we have learned to associate with J” (Eiselen, 232).
God begins His conversation with Abraham by speaking of the covenant that He has already established with Abraham. God asks “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen 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” (Genesis 18:17-19). We should note that all of the elements of the Abrahamic covenant are present in this statement. Implied in this statement is the promise of descendants, the promise of land, and the promise of blessing, not only for Abraham, but for all the nations of the earth through Abraham. Some have noted that, in the Abrahamic covenant as referenced here, “What God offers Abram will have permanent value” (House, 29). God draws a clear contrast between the righteousness of Abraham, who will have lasting blessings in every way imaginable, and Sodom, whom He will soon address because of their wicked ways. Readers of this passage should understand that righteousness before God brings blessing, while immorality brings destruction. Readers should also understand that God keeps His covenant with His people.
God's conversation with Abraham also demonstrates the care that God has for His creation, and especially for those who live righteously in His eyes. God was not required to speak to Abraham, and no one forced Him to speak to Abraham. How could they? It appears that God spoke to Abraham about the impending doom of Sodom out of concern rather than out of a desire to gossip. It is probable that God understood that, when faced with this information, Abraham's response would be intercession. This care for mankind, including those who are the most sinful, is further demonstrated by God's willingness to go to Sodom to see whether or not the city was as sinful as He was told it was (Genesis 18: 20-21). If God did not care for the inhabitants of Sodom, He would not have taken the time to go and see what was going on in the city. A God who cares about even the inhabitants of that city would be more likely to make such a journey.
This previous point, however, raises another question. If God had to go to Sodom to see whether or not they were as sinful as He had been told, doesn't that imply that God did not know about the sins of Sodom, or even whether Sodom was sinful at all? While this may seem like an issue, the objection does not hold weight. First, we should note the fact that Sodom was a sinful place appears to be common knowledge (Genesis 13:13). Therefore, to claim that God did not have knowledge of this is to claim that He had less of an understanding than the average human at this time. This is difficult from both a Biblical and theological perspective, since God is elsewhere presented as a Teacher of men (Micah 4:2). Second, we must recognize that God has expressed His supernatural knowledge in the context surrounding this passage. When Sarah laughed to herself about God's announcement of Isaac, God knew about it, even though it does not appear that Abraham did. Here, we see that God knew what Sarah intended to keep to herself. Finally, it is implied in the Lord's response to Abraham that He already knew what was happening at Sodom. God said to Abraham “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!” (Genesis 18:20). This implies, even more convincingly, that God already knew the sins of Sodom. We must then ask why God went to Sodom in the first place. I will provide my answer to that question in the next section of this paper.
A final question we must ask ourselves in relation to this passage of Scripture is why God chose to speak to Abraham about the future of Sodom in the first place. Many commentators have asked this question. Some of them, such as the famed commentator Matthew Henry, have mentioned a possible answer that comes from several older sources. Henry asks, “But why must Abraham be of the cabinet-council? The Jews suggest that because God had granted the land of Canaan to Abraham and his seed therefore he would not destroy those cities which were a part of that land, without his knowledge and consent” (Henry, 35). This may be one reason why God chose to bring up the sin of Sodom in His conversation with Abraham. While this may have been one reason for the mention of Sodom, the text of this passage appears to indicate at least two other reasons. First, it appears that God mentioned the sins of Sodom to Abraham because of Abraham's status as a friend of God and an individual who is in a covenant with God. When speaking to Abraham, God asks, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Genesis 18:17-18). This question implies that the covenant relationship between Abraham and God is one reason that God is telling Abraham of the future of Sodom. Second, God goes on to imply that there is a second reason why He is informing Abraham about the future of Sodom. After asking the above question, God states, “No, 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” (Genesis 18:19). In other words, God knew that Abraham would teach his descendants to live righteously before God in part because of the lesson that Abraham will gain from seeing the destruction of Sodom. Whenever God passes judgment, He does it in the hopes that the righteous will see the effect of His judgment and continue to choose righteousness. While the promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants may have been a reason for God's informing Abraham about the impending doom of Sodom, it was not the only reason. This text states two clear reasons for God's informing of Abraham.
ABRAHAM SPEAKS TO GOD
There is an immediate issue that must be noted about Abraham's response to God. We must resolve the issue of who is the dominant figure in this passage. This is an apparent issue based on an ancient tradition about the original reading of this passage. Macdonald notes that there is “an ancient Jewish scribal correction. According to this tradition, the original reading, 'Yhwh remained standing before Abraham'.......has Yhwh taking the subordinate position. It was this idea of Yhwh being accountable to Abraham that was so unacceptable to the early scribes, who reversed the subject and predicate” (Macdonald, 27). However, even if this ancient tradition were in fact the original reading of the passage, it does not seem as though God were taking the subordinate position. First, we should note that the text of verse 22 gives an account of the location of the two men who were with the Lord during His visit with Abraham in the same sentence where the text was allegedly changed. If the ancient tradition were, in fact, the original rendering of the passage, it may have been rendered in this manner because the author was trying to account for the location and activity of all three of Abraham's visitors, including the Lord. This possible interpretation eliminates the idea of God taking a subordinate position to Abraham in this passage. Second, we should also note that the concept of God taking a subordinate position to Abraham is at odds with the remainder of the text. We should note Abraham's humility when speaking to God when interceding for Sodom. If Abraham were to be seen as the superior here, he would not be humbly pleading with God for mercy. Rather, we should expect to see him demand mercy for Sodom from God. The text does not indicate that this was Abraham's attitude. Rather, Abraham's humility is clearly seen in his attitude toward God, especially in comments such as “I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). Third, we should note the way in which Abraham exalted God during the remainder of the conversation. Abraham did not even appear to consider himself equal with God, must less superior to God. Abraham's constant use of exalting terms for God, such as “Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25), while using humble titles for himself indicate that he did not understand himself to be superior to God in any way.
This text gives us insight into the sovereignty of God. Abraham understood God to be the “Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25). This involves God's sovereignty and authority over all of mankind, including both Abraham and the people of Sodom who were committing such horrendous sins. In fact, a clear message in this text is the finality of God's decision. There is no one who can override God's judgment, not even Abraham, the friend of God. Sodom was a city that had seen war (Genesis 14). However, as the account unfolds and we see the judgment of God on Sodom in Genesis 19, it becomes crystal clear that even a city like Sodom that could stand to fight a war against a king more powerful than its own cannot do anything to override the judgment of God. Sodom is entirely helpless against God. There is no way for an individual to read this passage without understanding God as the final authority for matters involving the judgment of sin and the blessing of the righteous.
This text also gives us insight into the judgment of God. First, we must note that God is holy, and therefore must pass judgment on sin. Second, we should note that this does not mean that God must be quick to judgment. Sodom was a wicked place, and this was known for at least 13 years. Sodom's wickedness is first mentioned in Genesis 13:13. The nearest passage indicating the age of Abraham at this point indicates that he was 86 years old (Genesis 16:16). Abraham was 99 years old when the conversation in this text took place. During these approximately 13 or more years, God did not destroy the city of Sodom. Third, we should note that the judgment of God is final. No one has veto power over God, and Abraham's reply to God indicates that Abraham understands this clearly. Finally, we should note that God intended His judgment to produce the best result possible for His people in the situation that they were in. Even though God judged Sodom, he intended it as a lesson for Abraham, so that Abraham may instruct his descendants to live righteously before God.. Fourth, as the events of Abraham's conversation with God and the destruction of Sodom play out, the text clearly communicates the message that God does not desire to destroy the righteous along with the wicked, even going so far as to indicate that the wicked can be saved from destruction because of a handful of righteous. Theologian Norman Geisler points out that “In this fallen world, believers sometimes experience collateral damage from the actions of unbelievers...nevertheless, it is God's stated policy and practice not to judge believers with unbelievers (Gen. 18:25)” (Geisler, 1478).
This text also gives us insight into the mercy of God. God demonstrated His mercy in several ways in this text. First, as stated above, God did not judge Sodom immediately. Sodom was a sinful place, and had been for at least over a decade. God was merciful to Sodom by delaying His judgment. Second, God demonstrated His mercy on Sodom by agreeing to investigate the claims surrounding their wickedness. In a sense, this appears to parallel the account of the Tower of Babel, in which God came down to investigate the events surrounding the building of a tower to Heaven. From this account of Sodom, as well as the parallel account in the Tower of Babel, we can understand that God does not pass judgment without first looking into the sins of the individual or people group committing the sins. That is, God demonstrated mercy on Sodom by choosing to investigate the sins of Sodom prior to destroying the city. God had every right to destroy Sodom, since their sins were known to Him (Genesis 13:13). However, in my opinion, it seems that God was looking for a redeemable quality in Sodom. It appears that God was looking for some reason to spare the city, but found none. This leads to my third point. This text clearly communicates the message that God desires to grant mercy rather than pass judgment. If God wanted to destroy Sodom, He had enough opportunity. Instead, it appears that His desire was to find a reason to show as much mercy as He possibly could to Sodom and its inhabitants. Fourth, this text demonstrates God's mercy by Abraham's appeal to God's mercy. That is, Abraham's intercession for Sodom begins with an appeal to God's supreme moral character and mercy (Genesis 18:23-25). Victor Hamilton says of Abraham's prayer to God, “The prayer presupposes a belief and faith in a God who is merciful as well as just, compassionate as well as holy, tender as well as stern, a God who, to quote Pascal, 'lends to His creatures the dignity of causality.'” (Hamilton, 96). The individual who is to be understood as God's friend and the patriarchal ancestor of Israel clearly understands that God is a merciful God. Finally, God later demonstrates His mercy by allowing Lot to survive the destruction of Sodom. In the account of the destruction of Sodom, which is the fulfillment of Abraham's conversation with God, while the city of Sodom was destroyed, God demonstrated His mercy to Lot by warning Lot of the coming destruction of the city. Then, God allows Lot to escape, even though he appeared to be slow to leave the city. Finally, God demonstrated His mercy toward Lot by allowing Lot to travel to the town that Lot chose, even sparing that town for Lot's sake (Genesis 19:21).
This text also gives us insight into the power of intercession. Hamilton points out the way in which Abraham interceded for Sodom. He writes, Abraham does not urge Sodom to repent; rather, he appeals to God for mercy. And in doing so, his prayers parallel the prayers of other intercessors” (Hamilton, 96). During Abraham's bargaining with God, God agrees to spare the entire city if He can find only a few righteous people in the city. God does not find that many righteous individuals in the city of Sodom. In fact, it appears that Lot was the most righteous individual in Sodom, and perhaps the only individual who did anything that is right in God's eyes. However, it appears that Lot would have been swept up in the destruction of Sodom had it not been for Abraham. While Abraham begged for mercy for the entire city, God granted mercy to Lot on behalf of Abraham. We are told in the account of the destruction of Sodom that, “So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had settled” (Genesis 19:29). It appears that Lot and his two daughters were spared on behalf of Abraham's intercession. It is very difficult for any reader of this passage not to see the incredible power of intercession in this account.
One final issue needs to be addressed here. Some have compared Abraham's pleading with God to bargaining in a bazaar. However, this claim is not entirely accurate. There are distinct differences between the transactions of a Middle Eastern bazaar and the conversation between Abraham and God. Macdonald explains the process of bargaining in a Middle Eastern bazaar as follows: “The buyer approaches the vendor, who gives the initial price; bids then alternate between the two and converge. If complete convergence is reached, the sale is consummated. In the haggle, backward moves are forbidden and accepted bids must be honored” (Macdonald, 31). With this explanation, we can clearly see the difference between the intercession of Abraham and bargaining in a Middle Eastern bazaar. First and perhaps most obviously, God does not provide any bid during this conversation. The “bids” come entirely from Abraham's side, but never from God's side. God simply accepts the “bid” that Abraham makes. Second, as Macdonald points out, “For the model of bargaining to make sense, then, Abraham must be the vendor and Yhwh the buyer. But such a reading is deeply problematic” (Macdonald, 32). Abraham is attempting to buy the safety of the city from God, who is the “Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25). God is sovereign and owns the city of Sodom. Abraham does not. Thus, the bargaining model does not fit with this narrative.
ABRAHAM AND GOD DEPART
After Abraham's intercession, God and Abraham each go their separate ways for the moment. The reader of this passage can also learn from this. First, the reader can see that God still remembered Abraham, even after they each went their separate ways (Genesis 19:29). The reader should rest assured that God hears the intercessory prayers of the righteous, and remembers them, even after intercessory prayer is over. Second, the reader should note that it was God who ended the conversation with Abraham. This should not be interpreted as God's turning His shoulder on Abraham. Instead, the reader should understand that God sets out to fulfill His plans when the intercessor is finished interceding. Finally, the reader should note that God “did not leave off granting till Abraham left off asking” (Henry, 35). That is, God did not depart until Abraham was finished interceding, and immediately went to accomplish His plan for His glory.
Genesis 18:17-33 presents the reader with several clear theological truths. First, it demonstrates the reality of God's judgment. While God is patient with people, a holy God must eventually judge sin. Second, this text demonstrates the reality of God's mercy. God is a merciful God, and does not intend to pass judgment until He has fully investigated a matter and looked for a way to grant mercy to an individual or group. Mercy, in this case, is not manifest by God refusing to judge Sodom, since God did eventually judge Sodom. Rather, God's mercy in this case is found in God's decision to delay His judgment. Third, this text speaks of God's sovereignty. God has the final say on all issues, including who He will judge and who He will grant mercy to. Fourth, this text speaks of the power of intercession. God listened to Abraham's intercessory prayer by saving Abraham's nephew, Lot, despite the fact that God judged Sodom worthy of destruction. Fifth, this text speaks of God's willingness to speak to those who will listen. God desires for us to listen to His voice, yet He will not force us to do so. Sixth, this text speaks of the care God has for His creation. Throughout this entire episode, God's care for people, especially His chosen people, shines through. It should be clear to the reader of this passage that the main theme is not impending judgment. Rather, the main themes of this passage are intercession and mercy. God responds to the intercession of those who are in a right relationship with Him and seeks every opportunity to grant mercy before passing judgment.
Genesis 18:17-33 has several applications to the everyday life of the modern Christian. Each of these applications require action on the part of the believer. However, all of these applications can be performed by any Christian. None of them require special training or status. They only require that a Christian allow God to work through him or her.
First, we must intercede for those who do not know and are not living righteously before God. Abraham's intercession for Sodom did perhaps more good than we may realize from a quick glance at the passage. At a minimum, it appears that Abraham's intercession spared Lot's life (Genesis 19:29). The same thing can happen when a Christian chooses to intercede for someone who does not know God. Our intercessory prayers may spare the life of a friend or a nation.
Second, we must not give up on those for whom we are interceding. Abraham's intercession before God was a bold intercession. We, as Christians, must be just as bold and just as humble when we intercede for others. Abraham plead with God until the moment that God left to see Sodom. We must also be willing to intercede until the very end. God may be holding off judgment on an individual or a place because of the intercession of His people.
Third, we must care for one another, just as God here demonstrates His care for even the most sinful individual. We must remember that even the most sinful individual is still a human being made in the image of God. If God, who is holy and despises sin, can show that He cares about sinful man, then we, as a people who know God, should also be willing to express this same care toward all of mankind, regardless of how “bad” the individual is.
Fourth, we must live godly lives. This is how we live a life that is distinct from those who do not live godly lives. We can set an example of godliness that may lead some of them to seek God. Furthermore, in God's eyes, we may be the righteous few for whom God may spare our neighbor, city, or country.
Finally, we must always remember that God is a merciful God, and live our lives acknowledging this truth. God must judge sin. However, God's desire is to show mercy to mankind. He does not desire that people perish or become destroyed. As Christians, we must live our lives with the realization that, even when God's judgment is near, His mercy is never far away.
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