On a side note from my previous Represent? post…
Genesis 18 and 19 are fantastically interesting passages.
It starts with God coming to dinner. He shows up as three people; but speaks with only one voice. He restates his promise to Abraham that Abraham would have a child and Sarah laughs at the thought from another room. God then proceeds to call Sarah out, and the whole exchange ends with Sarah claiming she didn’t laugh and God simply saying, “Yes, you did laugh.”
How are we supposed to read that? Is he giggling while He said it? Is it in a Mr. Spock logical, “Live long and prosper” tone? That is one of the reasons I love Hebrew. The writing is efficient and leaves a lot to your imagination (kind of like a Jose Saramago book).
Then God and Abraham go for a walk. On the walk God starts talking to himself about Abraham.
Absorb that for a moment. We get to hear a conversation God is having with himself. The creator of the universe, the designer of the atom, the inventor of flowers is speaking to himself and we get to listen.
Then the men rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom; and Abraham was walking with them to send them off. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed ? For I have chosen him, so 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 upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”
Let’s break that down.
God affirms again that Abraham is going to bless the world – that somehow through Abraham and his kids right relationship with God, one another, and the world will be restored to what they were in the garden (see the opening Represent? posts here, here, and here).
Then God introduces something new to the narrative. Thus far Abraham has only had to believe, go on the journey, and be circumcised as a sign of the covenant. But here God gives us a look into His master plan. How will Abraham bless the world? By keeping the way of the Lord – living in a way defined by righteousness (right relationship with God) and Justice (right relationship with one another).
These two words are going to become a theme throughout the rest of the Old Testament narrative and carry over into the New (which I will argue much later). This is their first mention, so we should pay attention.
Next, God looks out over Sodom and says that He is going to judge them according to their deeds. Through the coming debate we get some insight into Righteousness and Justice.
Putting an end to bad behavior would seem like justice to us. Bad people are made to stop doing bad things; but it is more complicated than that.
Notice I didn’t use the word “punished.” God does not indicate that He is punishing anyone; rather that pain and suffering, “an outcry,” has come from the city because their “sin,” their broken relationships with God and one another has reached critical mass. Here Justice is about stopping evil, not punishing people. The distinction I believe is important.
So Abraham does what our tame, reverent, unexciting modern prayer life believes s unthinkable. He starts a debate with God. Abe asks, “What about the good people in Sodom? When you take down the bad, will they be hurt as well? Is that justice?”
The bargaining begins. How many good people does it take to save the city? Finally it is agreed that if ten righteous people are there God will not destroy the city.
Is this a per capita decision on the part of God? Is the number even important or was it the debate that mattered? The text is silent.
What can we glean from this wild conversation? I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but there are a few nuggets I believe we can pull out.
First – Righteousness is being in conversation with God…just like in the Garden. This conversation is dynamic and engaging. At time it is even a debate. It is not a static ask and receive. It is a friendship.
Side Note – when bad things happen, if we are in a dynamic conversation with God, we should feel free to look at Him in the eye and say, “What the hell? This sucks.” We behave as if we might offend God by showing Him our true emotions; but He wants honest, real dialogue with you. When people are suffering I will often recommend that they get off by themselves and have it out with God. He’s a big boy. He understands. He can take it. Tell Him it’s not fair. Tell Him how you really feel. You will be surprised by His loving, empathetic response.
Second – justice – this is tougher. In this passage it has to do with ending suffering and harm, silencing “an outcry.” Do the numbers really matter? Is it the asking of the question that is important? God does not go do a head count that we can tell. We are left with a lot of silence to interpret; but the problem arises, how do you end the sin and not harm the righteous.
I think this is a question we are still asking today. Recently in fact questions concerning what is a “just war” arose around Afghanistan. Is this not the same question Abraham was asking God? (We won’t even get into if this is a question a nation-state should be asking.)
Around the question of how we are to represent God in the world this passage gives us a glance at the big picture – lives defined by Justice and Righteousness seem to have something to do with it all.