Harrowing Of Hell
July 28, 2013

Abraham Pleads with God

Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet, MDiv

Genesis 18:20-32

The LORD said to Abraham, “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.”

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a story that makes many of us uncomfortable, in no small part because the large scale act of judgment captures our attention.  God eliminates two cities with rains of sulfur and fire.  It seems another example of what many refer to as “the angry God of the Old Testament.”  We are also uncomfortable because of a horrible and dangerous misreading of the text which has led to an association of Sodom with homosexuality.  For those who believe homosexuality is a sin, this has become one of the texts used to justify their claims that God hates homosexuality.

We are uncomfortable with the judgment that takes place in this story and I think we are meant to be.  Abraham too was uncomfortable.  Perhaps our discomfort proclaims, in fact, how much our hearts have come to understand and desire a different kind of outcome – an outcome of mercy that God yearns for us to help bring into greater fullness.

So how do I get that from this story?

First, we need a little more context.  We have two central characters:  Abraham and his nephew Lot.  We see in Abraham and Lot two different responses to human freedom.  Abraham is content to trust that he will receive what he needs, and so when the land proves insufficient for both his flocks and Lot’s, he lets Lot choose first between two land options.  Lot operates with more selfish motives.  He quickly chooses the easy land – the fertile plain with plenty of water, and he chooses to take up residence in Sodom with people (the text tells us) who were evil offenders of God.  He chooses easy wealth and moral compromise.

Time passes.  The Lord shows up one day with two men (or angels) and makes two visits: first to Abraham and Sarah where he brings the promise of a son, and then to Lot, where he desires to investigate the outcry he has heard against Sodom and Gomorrah.

When the angels reach Sodom, Lot seems to suggest that the city may be dangerous for them.  In fact that night the men of the town surround the house.  The text tells us, “the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house.”  This is an important detail.  Everyone in the city is involved.  They surround the house and demand that the two visitors be given to them, so that they may know them.   The verb “to know” is often used in the Bible to refer to sexual activity, and when Lot urges them not to be so wicked and offers his virgin daughters to them instead, I think that confirms that he believes that there is a threat of sexual harm.   I find both the situation and Lot’s response, even as he tries to protect these divine guests, alarming.

But is homosexuality the issue here?  No.  What we see here is not homosexuality.  What we see is a violent mob, set on humiliating and violating the two strangers who have come to town.  They are aggressors, bullies beyond restraint.  The two strangers are “other,” and the men of Sodom show no capacity for treating them as human beings.   It is a bizarre and frightening scene – more like stories we hear of homophobic violence, than homosexuality.

The prophet Ezekiel writes much later:  “this was the sin of your sister Sodom:  arrogance!  She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.”  In spite of their relative affluence, they did not check their greed.  Instead, they seemed to live in a state of scarcity thinking, hoarding what they had, fearing the alien and the poor, and in their fear, growing more and more arrogant, and as Genesis suggests, violent.  This was their sin.  They wasted their freedom on oppression and violence.

And so there is a visit that brings a new beginning for Abraham, and a visit that brings an ending for Sodom and Gomorrah.

As Walter Brueggemann observes, it is in times of beginnings and endings that we have our greatest questions of God.  In today’s text we have a demonstration of some of these questions.  The storyteller includes a scene between the two visits, where Abraham and God talk frankly about God’s plans.

The text should include a few earlier verses that read:

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.”

God wants to include Abraham in his plans, and I wonder if God believes that this inclusion will help Abraham in helping his descendants use their own freedom in a way that blesses the rest of the world.  In this regard, God treats Abraham like a partner.

And Abraham responds like a full partner.  He asks, “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?”

It is a bold reply.  “Far be that from you!”  It is perhaps what many of us are thinking as we read a destruction story in the Old Testament, “Far be it from the God I believe in to really do this sort of thing!”  What I like about Abraham is that he says this out loud, in dialogue with God.  It is not just an uneasy feeling that makes him privately fear or reject God; he openly wrestles with God.  He brings his questions into the conversation – into a place where discovery is possible.  Abraham represents a new development in the relationship of Humanity and God; one where God treats humanity like a partner and where humanity can engage God with questions.  Healthy relationships need open dialogue.

God replies that he will forgive the whole city if he finds 50 righteous people there.

Abraham has lobbied for a form of justice that puts far greater weight on the innocence of the few, than on the wickedness of the many.  This is not, I will point out, a justice where the wicked die and the innocent are rescued.  It is a justice where the presence of a few good people is sufficient to spare everyone from judgment.  This would have been a radical proposal within the retributive justice framework prevalent in the religions at this point in time, where if anything, the guilt of the many had the greater power – not only to do harm in the first place, but to invoke divine punishment that could sweep up even the virtuous.

Abraham introduces a different form of justice and urges God to act justly, by this definition.   God’s revelation about what God is about to do, provokes in Abraham a new set of questions, and a new yearning for the possibility of redemptive mercy as a quality of justice.

In his journey with God over the years, Abraham learned to live within a new paradigm and he now begins to imagine new categories for justice that feel more consistent with how he has come to understand the character of God.  He becomes an intercessor, living into his calling to promote the good not only of his own family, but of all people.  He stands before God and calls God to act justly, and then continually lowers the bar for how many innocent people must be present, exploring God’s capacity for mercy.  The point is not the number, but Abraham’s ability to imagine a system of justice where the power of the innocent few is greater than the power of the wicked to drag everything with it into destruction.

In the end, there is not even one innocent person found in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Not even Lot is innocent.  Yet, the story tells us that God remembered Abraham and rescued Lot.  Lot does not get what he deserves.

Therefore, we find deep in the book of Genesis, a hint of something bigger than retributive justice.  A story that reveals Israel’s theological development as it wrestles with the nature of true justice, the character of God, and the potential of humanity’s partnership with God in securing redemptive possibilities.

In Abraham we see a faithfulness that goes beyond obedience for one’s own sake.  It is a faithfulness that seeks to build a way of life that honors the fingerprints of the divine in other people.  It is a faithfulness that becomes passionate for merciful justice.  As such it is a faithfulness that serves as an early precursor to the gospel of grace Jesus would make far more explicit.

Like Abraham, we are invited by God to experience blessing and to use our human freedom to co-create with God the kingdom of heaven.  A kingdom marked by grace and mercy and redemption.

This week, where will you expand your own sense of mercy and extend love where it may not seem deserved?