I have been looking at the life of Abraham in a series I titled Flesh Vs Faith. In the NT, Abraham is called the friend of God (James 2:23) and the man of faith (Galatians 3:9) and is presented as our example of faith. Surprisingly, many approach Abraham’s life as an example of what not to do. That is, when looking at events in Abraham’s life, they – justifying themselves with “nobody’s perfect” – claim that Abraham’s motives and/or actions are wrong and the lesson is don’t be like Abraham. My approach in this series has been to assume that the actions and motives are for us to consider positively and, since he is our example of faith, to find what is faithful about his walk. Admittedly, we should probably not be lying about our wife and set her up for Haremhood, but despite universal condemnation by the commentators Abraham’s actions in that instance were used by God to fulfill his promise to bless Abraham. The temptation to posit that God blessed him in spite of his actions does not seem taught by the Scriptures. No one living a life of faith has all answers. He grows in his knowledge and his wisdom and his faith. The well-meaning condemning of Abraham at every turn is the reading in of perfectionism. If we wait for ourselves to be perfect, no one will move.
In Genesis 18:16-33, there is another story which has engendered confusion over what is going on. Taken from the idea that Abraham is an anti-example of perfection, there are things to say, but I think very little light to be had. Perfectionism is a harsh, unpleasable master. Looking at it from the idea that Abraham is The Believer and our example for living by faith, I think we can see here the story of Abraham’s continuing growth without which he would not have made it to chapter 22 (the sacrifice of Isaac).
Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command 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 to Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to 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, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. Then Abraham drew 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 spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death 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 spare the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken 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 and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Behold, I have undertaken 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 let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. 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. (Genesis 18:16-33)
This starts kinda mid-context (indeed, my last post in this series was from Genesis 15, so I skipped over a lot). Abraham saw three men walking by his abode. He stopped them and offered hospitality. Turned out, these were angels whom God sent with a message. Within a year, 99 year-old Abraham would father a son with his 90 year-old wife. Abraham had no idea to whom he was offering hospitality and this specific incident is used in the Book of Hebrews as an exhortation to offer hospitality (Hebrews 13:2).
There was another reason these messengers were sent. So, after the meal, the three got up and went towards the city of Sodom. Abraham walked with them, again not expecting anything but because it was the hospitable thing to do. Here, a remarkable thing happens: The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command 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 to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:17-19) One of the three messengers turns out to be The Lord (Heb YHWH) and he has a conversation with himself. Of course, he is not figuring something out, but he is revealing to us what is happening and why. He is not going to hide these actions from Abraham because God had made promises to him and this event was an important step in the fulfillment of these promises. It is important for Abraham to know because that knowledge will affect his commitment to keep faithful to the Lord and the raising of his children.
When people talk of the great turning points of the Kingdom of God, I am unaware of anyone who points to Genesis 18:16-33. Maybe some might mention the earlier part of this chapter with its announcement of the birth of Isaac. And yet, God’s own words say that this event was essential. Not the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but God’s revealing of his plans to Abraham and, I believe, Abraham’s reaction as he struggled with that revelation.
Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” (Genesis 18:20-21) The Revelation is straight forward. The sinful actions in Sodom and Gomorrah have caused people to cry out to God. The two messengers are going to the cities to gauge for themselves what it is like. Implicit is that if it is as bad as they say the cities will be destroyed. This is what God chose to show Abraham, because of His promises to him. To be sure, this revelation shows God’s justice and that His justice is deliberate, not knee-jerk. Considering that God is just, we should live our lives doing righteousness and justice (v 18).
Key to the incident, especially from the viewpoint that the man of faith Abraham is our example, is Abraham’s reaction. It is here, also, where the “imperfect Abraham” teaching is found. A not infrequent analysis is that Abraham is “bartering” with God. You, of course, must understand, according to this teaching, that one does not barter with God. I once read a book on prayer that used this section as an example of how not to pray! Since he did not get God to spare Sodom, the prayer was a failure. The writer noted that Abraham stopped after six requests (Get it? Six! The number of human frailty!) and encouraged his readers to be “Seven-Time Pray-ers” (like Elijah 1Kings 18:43).
It seems to me that reading Abraham’s prayer shows none of these criticisms. Then Abraham drew 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 spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death 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?” (Genesis 18:23-25) The phrases in the prayer lead me to see that Abraham was shocked at what God revealed. “Will you indeed …”; “Will you then …”; “Far be it from you …”; “Far be that from you!”; “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” This last being what I think is the key point of the prayer. Having been given a new revelation of God, Abraham struggled to understand how that fit into his previous understanding of God. Abraham knew God of covenant and promises; of protection and provision. But God, the one who destroys cities? Possibly punishing the righteous with the wicked? I contend that Abraham’s prayer was a struggle to know that the Judge of the earth will do what is just.
What we see in the prayer of the man of faith is an active concern for understanding who God is. His prayer sure was humble enough, repeatedly confessing his unworthiness to talk to God, but there was something he did not understand and he struggled with it. God, for his part, did not seem bothered by the prayer but continued to allow Abraham to question him. We, in our common understanding of faith, would like to think that “men of God” do not struggle with things or ask questions. This story, which God called essential to the process of fulfilling his promises to Abraham, teaches otherwise. There is a “quick acceptance” which passes for faith but which is a short circuit to it. Rather than showing trust, it shows laziness, impatience and a lack of spiritual integrity. People of Faith own the Revelation given to them. Indeed, seeing a life of faith as a life of growth, I suggest that were it not for this episode of struggle, the future life of Abraham would have played out a lot differently.
While the text says that God left Abraham, indicating that God was the one who ended the interaction, I have to think that the point had been reached where Abraham’s struggle was satisfied. Not that he thought Sodom would be spared, not even that Lot would be spared, but he understood the Judge of the earth will act justly. Looking ahead to the rest of Abraham’s life, as he stood the next day seeing the smoke rise from the plains, he did not know if Lot was spared, but he knew the Judge of the earth shall do what is just. In chapter 22, as he is walking with Isaac to the Mount, it says that Abraham believed that God would raise his son from the dead. How could he have gotten to that point of faith if not by going through this struggle about the justice of the Judge of the earth?
God, he tells us, chose to let Abraham in on what he was doing. His reason for doing this was because his covenant with Abraham was going to be fulfilled. From God’s side, we see a revelation of his character. From Abraham’s side, equally important, we see the owning of that revelation through struggling to understand. Abraham, our example of the life of faith, is an example of growth and building up of faith and relationship with God.