It’s not that God is going to destroy the righteous along with the wicked; it’s the exact opposite: God is not going to destroy the wicked because of the righteous.
This is Chapter, Verse, and Season: a lectionary podcast from Yale Bible Study. Join us each week as two Yale Divinity School professors look at an upcoming text from the Revised Common Lectionary.
This episode, we have Joel Baden, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Director of the Center for Continuing Education, and Tisa Wenger, Professor of American Religious History.
They’re discussing Genesis 18:20-32, which is appointed for Track 2 on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, in Year C. The text is read for you by Mike Macalintal, Liturgical Minister and Chapel Communications Manager of Marquand Chapel here at Yale Divinity School.
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.”
So Tisa, we’re jumping in here in the reading, sort of into the middle of the Sodom and Gomorrah story, specifically landing on this, this great dialogue, famous dialogue between Abraham and God where Abraham sort of appears to be negotiating on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom, trying to, you know, encourage God not to destroy the city if there are innocent people in it. Before we get into the details of that dialogue, which I find incredibly interesting, it’s always useful when bringing up the Sodom and Gomorrah story, to remind everyone what the story is actually about and what it’s not actually about. And, just to put it very plainly, this story, which has, for so long, been understood traditionally as a story about and condemning of homosexuality is in fact no such thing and is, in fact, a story condemning a lack of hospitality. The homosexuality that appears to be present in it is really not at all its central concern and the story from start to finish going all the way back to when God appears to Abraham at his tents and all the way through, is really about people not being hospitable to their neighbors, to the strangers in their midst, and simply to their fellow humans more generally. Having said that and gotten that out of the way, maybe we should turn to this dialogue where God says to Abraham, first God says to Godself, “I should probably tell Abraham what I’m about to do.”
Right. Well, you know, it strikes me, not only does the chapter here, which is before, you know, the passage that we’re really focusing on, but begins with the Lord appearing to Abraham, and, as you said, it’s about hospitality, about how to receive people hospitably, but it’s also about God’s promise to Abraham, the promise that Sarah will bear a child and the Lord says that he will not hide from Abraham what I’m 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. So, I mean, what’s that about? God has chosen Abraham. Why is that significant for understanding this dialogue between the Lord and Abraham?
It’s funny. I will admit that I have a sort of, I think it’s justified, but a sort of particular reading of this passage. Traditionally, the link between the chosenness of Abraham and this dialogue is understood as, in some sense, proof of why Abraham was worthy of being chosen, right? Abraham brings this deep morality to the conversation and, in a sense, challenges God’s own morality. This justifies Abraham as being the sort of chosen individual to become the ancestor of God’s people. God seems to be suggesting, at least Abraham seems to think, that God’s simply gonna go in and sweep away the city sort of almost carelessly because “I hear bad things about it” almost. “I’ll go down and see whether it’s as bad as I hear and…I’ll take care of it if so.” And Abraham, of course, went back and says, like, “you wouldn’t do such a thing, right? Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” Right? So it feels like, like a challenge. Which is a sort of a remarkable moment.
But again, we can understand as, and I think it’s typically understood as, well, this is why Abraham was chosen. Because he’s so good! He’s almost better than God, good. At least in this moment. Aside from that being a little bit of a weird thing to say, that Abraham is sort of morally more righteous than the deity, I think that’s not really what’s happening here.
Well, it’s funny the progression of the narrative, right? Like, it’s not, I mean, the Lord says how great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah? And, I mean, for one thing, that’s the first time Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned in the chapter at least. And the passage, you know, it’s a kind of funny progression. “I have to go and check out the outcry!” But it’s Abraham who first mentions, “suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place?” What’s the…it’s not God who says…yeah, where does he get that number?
Right. You know, this system has always struck me as the funniest thing that’s happening here. Which is for everything he’s saying, Abraham is effectively negotiating against himself the entire time. God didn’t come in and say, “I’m gonna destroy the city. I don’t care how many people are in there,” and then Abraham, like, whittles him down. Abraham starts at fifty. God may have started at five. I assume that God starts at, really, at one. But Abraham comes in and he’s like, “boy, what if it’s, what if there were, what if there were fifty?” And, you know, God’s response isn’t “oh, I hadn’t thought about that,” or “I don’t know. That seems, like, a little bit low, but okay.” God goes, “yeah, yeah, no, fifty’s fine,” and sort of waits as if, like, kinda waiting for Abraham to get there on his. As opposed to Abraham pushing God.
But Abraham seems to be so hesitant. I mean, so afraid that he’s gonna be, that God is gonna be angry for suggesting this, ya know? “Oh, do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there!” But does he have a reason for thinking that God might be angry at this suggestion?
I tend to think that this really just has to do with lack of familiarity with this particular deity. Right? Remember this is still relatively early in Abraham and God’s relationship and they’ve only kind of just met. And Abraham may be used to all the other deities out there whom you would never have even such a dialogue with. You would never have access to any kind of conversation with and, certainly, I think most gods were pretty terrifying to most people back then. So, Abraham, I think, feels like he’s, you know, maybe pushing it as he’s exploring the boundaries. But that doesn’t mean that he actually is. In fact, the way that I read this is not Abraham as changing God’s sense of justice but that Abraham is actually just exploring and discovering God’s sense of justice.
It’s almost like God is very patiently waiting and saying “that’s right. For the sake of ten, I won’t destroy it.”
That’s exactly it. And going back to your initial statement about this, this goes back to the fact that Abraham is the recipient of the promise, right? Why does God talk to him about this at all? It’s because God says, “I’m gonna tell Abraham what I’m gonna do, because Abraham is going to be a great nation. And because the nations are gonna model themselves on him. And I have singled him out in order that he may instruct his children in his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” What God is now letting Abraham in on by having this conversation is what does God’s sense of righteousness and justice look like?
And so it’s this moment of discovery, and there’s a pedagogy to it, as you said, right? There’s a patient pedagogy here, right? “Abraham will get there. He’ll get to the point where he realizes that I don’t do this sort of thing capriciously.” When God makes a decision to destroy, it is only because there’s no other choice. It’s because it’s evil all the way down. And Abraham, they didn’t have this conversation. Abraham could see the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and say, “boy, that must have been real bad,” but he wouldn’t have learned anything about the way God works. And wouldn’t have been able to instruct his offspring and the future generations and the nation that will come from him. You wouldn’t be able to teach them anything about God’s justice. But this moment gives Abraham, like, an opportunity to not just witness, but to dispute and understand and explore. What does it mean for God to punish? What does it mean for God to save? Where are those lines? And now Abraham knows, right? It’s not fifty. It’s not forty.
Right. It’s not only that God, it’s not that God is going to destroy the righteous along with the wicked. It’s the absolute opposite. God is not going to destroy the wicked because of the righteous, right? The presence of any righteous people at all is going to save. And, I mean, I’m just thinking if only the passage were read this way all the time.
Yeah. I feel that way about so many biblical passages. But, you know, again, what I love about the way this one is constructed is, we were talking about this, the patience of learning, who in this conversation is learning something? Again, traditionally, it’s, like, God who is learning from Abraham. “Oh,” like, “yes, you’re right.” But the person who’s learning is the one who’s sort of talking it through and all God says is, “Yep. I won’t do it for fifty. I won’t do it for forty-five.” Incredibly short sentences. And you watch Abraham, like, vocalize…
Bargain himself down.
Exactly. And talk himself down as if, as if he can’t believe, almost, that, like, it’s this low, right? Wait…you would for ten? Like, are you the kind of God that, like, ten is…? And it turns out the answer is “yes.” And that, to me, is what is otherwise almost a boring passage. Like fifty, forty five, forty, thirty, like, it’s so repetitive. But when you read it this way, as, like, as pedagogy about what God’s justice entails, I think that just makes sense of the shape of the passage. And it actually gives us, it gives us, as sort of stand-ins for Abraham, it gives us much more claim on the story as meaningful for us today.
Thanks for listening. And thank you, Professors Baden and Wenger, for your insights this week.
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Chapter, Verse, and Season is a production of the Center for Continuing Education at Yale Divinity School. It’s produced by: Creator and Managing Editor, Joel Baden; Production Manager, Kelly Morrissey; Associate Producer, Aidan Stoddart; and I’m your Host and Executive Producer, Helena Martin. Caity Stuart did the transcript for this episode, and our theme music is by Calvin Linderman.
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