The Bible’s story hinges on what God wants to do and what God can do with Abraham’s descendants—and neither is particularly clear in the early chapters of the saga. God and Abraham seem to both be feeling their way through the new relationship, and I’m beginning to take more seriously the language of Abraham as God’s friend—it’s kind of easy to read the story almost like Abram and God are pals, traveling around together just for the sake of it.
There are of course moments when something else shines through all of the odd episodes of Abraham’s story. The narrative reaches outside of itself and shows itself to be more than a story about one man’s weird relationship with God. In these moments, the Abraham saga becomes a critical piece in the story of God and Creation. One such moment takes place in Genesis 18.
Here is a well-worn story of Abraham bargaining with God, negotiating on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or at least on behalf of his kin who live there. I won’t retrace the story here, because I want to focus in on one particular facet of the episode—the terms of the negotiation. We’ll pick up with God’s internal monologue (dialogue?) regarding whether or not he’ll let Abraham in on what’s about to happen:
The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 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.”
Here God opens up, just a smidge, about the long-term plan for Abraham and his descendants. They are to become a great nation which will bless the world, (just as God promised Abram in Genesis 12. But also, catch the important added note here: What kind of nation will they be? What does God want to become the characteristic mark of Abraham’s children? They are to be a people who keep the way of the Lord by “doing righteousness and justice”.This is a pair of Hebrew words, Tsedakah and Mishpat, (צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט ), which become particularly important for the prophets and which are loaded with meaning, most of which I’ll leave you to unpack on your own (big hint: as a pair, they almost always connote social justice concerns for the poor). This little aside by God is the first time we really meet them in the Bible, and that would be remarkable enough in its own right, except note further how the words actually function in the story that follows. While God intends for Abraham to teach his children about Righteousness and Justice, they actually become the critical words that Abraham leverages to bargain with God:
23 Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 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? 25 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?”
Abraham is even more shrewd than we give him credit for: he effectively uses God’s own words and intentions against God, holding God to a standard. Abraham takes his vocation as an advocate of righteousness and justice so seriously that even God has to own up. In this story, Abraham becomes a force for Righteousness and Justice, even with God. The implications of this are tremendous, even if the story won’t do all the work to unpack it for us. What might it mean for us to enter into such advocacy? What might it mean as people who act and pray, people who have become children of Abraham?
The end result of the story is the sad destruction of the two cities, and while the narrative certainly paints this as justified, even within Abraham’s bargain, there is a final haunting image in the Genesis 19 I’d like to point towards:
24 Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; 25 and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.26 But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. 27 Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord; 28 and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the Plain and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace. 29 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.
That image of Abraham, alone, looking down on the burning wasteland is a poignant image, one that stands in my mind as both mourning the brokenness and wickedness of creation, as well as pointing towards the unfinished business that God and Abraham have with each other. If God’s intent is to bless the world through Abraham’s descendants, and we are willing to accept that mantle ourselves, then the end of this story calls us to look around us, smell the sulfur, and dive into the work left to do.