GENESIS 13, 18-19: THE CONTEXT
Chapter 13 reports that Abram and Lot became sufficiently affluent that “the land was not able to bear them, that they might live together” (13:6), so they agreed to separate. Abram graciously gave Lot his choice, saying, “Isn’t the whole land before you? Please separate yourself from me. If you go to the left hand, then I will go to the right. Or if you go to the right hand, then I will go to the left” (13:9). Lot saw that the plain of “the Jordan, that it was well-watered everywhere, before Yahweh destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of Yahweh” (13:10), so he went there. “Abram lived in the land of Canaan, and Lot lived in the cities of the plain, and moved his tent as far as Sodom” (13:12). However, the narrator inserts an ominous note, “Now the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinners against Yahweh” (13:13).
In chapter 18, Abraham showed effusive hospitality to three men (Yahweh and two angels see 18:22; 19:1). One of them, identified by the text as the Lord (18:13), reiterated the earlier promise that Sarah would have a son (18:10), at which Sarah laughed (18:12). At the conclusion of that visit, Abraham escorted his visitors as they began their journey to Sodom (18:16). The Lord asked, “Will I hide from Abraham what I do, since Abraham has surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed in him?” (18:17 – 18). The Lord decided not to keep Abraham in the dark, because “For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Yahweh, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that Yahweh may bring on Abraham that which he has spoken of him” (18:19). These words “righteousness and justice,” which God charged Abraham with doing, are important to our text. Abraham will argue that God, too, must be righteous and just, and that to do so he must spare these cities based on the presence of a few righteous people.
GENESIS 18:20-21. I WILL GO DOWN AND SEE
20Yahweh said, “Because the cry (Hebrew: za’aqa) of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous, 21 I will go down now, and see whether their deeds are as bad as the reports (Hebrew: se’aqa) which have come to me. If not, I will know.”
“Yahweh said, ‘Because the cry (za’aqa) of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous'” (v. 20). The text does not specify whether God is talking to himself or Abraham, but God’s decision not to keep Abraham in the dark (v. 19) suggests that God is addressing these words to Abraham. God has heard the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah — presumably from those who have suffered at the hands of the residents of those cities — perhaps also from those who have not been victimized but were offended by the immorality that they witnessed there. God does not specify the nature of the sin that was reported, but does say that it is grave.
“I will go down now, and see whether their deeds are as bad as the reports (se’aqa) which have come to me. If not, I will know” (v. 21). God surely knows the truth about Sodom and Gomorrah, but addresses these words to Abraham to reassure him that God will not act hastily or without just cause. God will conduct an investigation to determine the true situation in the two cities. The implication is that God plans drastic action if the situation is as bad as reported and doesn’t want Abraham to wonder if drastic action was justified.
We are reminded of an earlier occasion when “Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5). In that situation, the Lord responded by sending a great flood to destroy all but a righteous remnant.
GENESIS 18:22-26. WILL YOU CONSUME THE RIGHTEOUS
22The men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, but Abraham stood yet before Yahweh. 23Abraham drew near, and said, “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked? 24What if there are fifty righteous within the city? Will you consume and not spare the place for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Be it far from you to do things like that, to kill the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be like the wicked. May that be far from you. Shouldn’t the Judge of all the earth do right?” 26Yahweh said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sake.”
“The men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, but Abraham stood yet before Yahweh”(v. 22). Verse 19:1 specifies that these “men” are in fact angels.
“Abraham drew near, and said, ‘Will you consume the righteous with the wicked?'” (v. 23). Abraham senses that God already knows what the investigation will determine — that Sodom and Gomorrah are, indeed, moral cesspools. Abraham has surely heard reports about those cities and may well have known people who were victimized there. When God tries to reassure Abraham that he will conduct a thorough investigation, Abraham is not reassured. He sees the handwriting on the wall. He can imagine what God is about to do.
Although Abraham does not mention Lot’s name here, Lot and his family settled in the vicinity of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham’s concern surely stems in significant measure from his concern for Lot’s family.
“Will you consume the righteous with the wicked?” (v. 23b). Abraham boldly raises an ethical dilemma. Seldom is there a place so thoroughly wicked that there are no righteous people sprinkled among the wicked. If there are righteous people living in Sodom and Gomorrah, can God justify inflicting the same punishment on them that he inflicts on the guilty? In war we call it “collateral damage” and find the idea highly repugnant. In war, some collateral damage might be inevitable — wars, after all, are fought by fallible humans — but God is not fallible and ought to hew to a higher standard. Abraham, in his concern for Lot and his family (as well as other righteous people who might live in these cities) raises the ethical question. Perhaps the prospect of hurting innocent people might cause God to change his plans.
“What if there are fifty righteous within the city? Will you consume and not spare the place for the fifty righteous who are in it?”(v. 24). Abraham acts as a defense lawyer here. He has introduced the ethical dilemma and now makes it specific. He picks a number — fifty in this case — and asks God if he will fail to forgive the cities for the sake of fifty righteous people. By raising the issue of fifty righteous people, he draws a line in the sand. Will God cross that line and commit the injustice of destroying fifty righteous people? Will he not spare the city for the sake of the righteous fifty?
Abraham could have approached the task of defense in a very different way. He could have suggested that God spare the righteous while punishing the guilty — which is in fact what we will see God do in chapter 19 — but Abraham instead chooses a much more radical defense strategy — asking God to spare the entire population, both innocent and guilty, because of presence of righteous people living in the cities (Roop, 130).
“Be it far from you to do things like that, to kill the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be like the wicked. May that be far from you. Shouldn’t the Judge of all the earth do right?”(v. 25). Abraham has introduced the ethical dilemma and has raised the possibility that there might be righteous people living in Sodom and Gomorrah — perhaps as many as fifty. Now he takes the next step, reminding God who God is — “the Judge of all the earth” — the one who loves righteousness and hates wickedness (Psalm 45:7). Will the one who requires righteousness and justice from others fail to act righteously and justly himself?
“Shouldn’t the Judge of all the earth do right?” (v. 25c). Abraham’s question anticipates the giving of the law, which will say, “Keep far from a false charge, and don’t kill the innocent and righteous: for I will not justify the wicked” (Exodus 23:7). The writer of the book of Proverbs has the Lord saying, “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to Yahweh” (Proverbs 17:15).
“Yahweh said, ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sake'” (v. 26). This is surely not what Abraham expected. He crafted a tightly reasoned argument in behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, and challenged God with unassailable arguments. He expected God to return his serve, and waits on high alert to see which way he must move to counter God’s return. But God surprises him by agreeing. “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sake.” How can Abraham counter that? He has won the argument — or has he? He senses that he has won too easily. Something must be amiss.
GENESIS 18:27-32. WILL YOU DESTROY ALL THE CITY FOR LACK OF FIVE
27Abraham answered, “See now, I have taken it on myself to speak to the Lord, who am but dust and ashes. 28What if there will lack five of the fifty righteous? Will you destroy all the city for lack of five?”
He said, “I will not destroy it, if I find forty-five there.”
29He spoke to him yet again, and said, “What if there are forty found there?”
He said, “I will not do it for the forty’s sake.”
30He said, “Oh don’t let the Lord be angry, and I will speak. What if there are thirty found there?” He said, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.”
31He said, “See now, I have taken it on myself to speak to the Lord. What if there are twenty found there?”
He said, “I will not destroy it for the twenty’s sake.”
32He said, “Oh don’t let the Lord be angry, and I will speak just once more. What if ten are found there?”
He said, “I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake.”
“Abraham answered, ‘See now, I have taken it on myself to speak to the Lord, who am but dust and ashes'” (v. 27). Having reminded God of who God is — Abraham now remembers who he (Abraham) is. He is dust and ashes — formed from the dust of the earth and destined to return to dust. More to the point, he remembers who he is in relationship to the Lord. It is the Lord who has given him life, and Abraham continues to live by the grace of God. He has boldly challenged God on ethical grounds, but realizes that he may have gone too far. He decides to tone down his rhetoric.
“What if there will lack five of the fifty righteous? Will you destroy all the city for lack of five?”(v. 28a – b). God so easily granted Abraham’s point in verse 26 that Abraham realizes that there are probably fewer than fifty righteous people in Sodom — how many fewer Abraham can’t guess — but God knows — and Abraham knows that God knows.
“What if there will lack five of the fifty righteous?” (v. 28b). Abraham could as easily ask, “Suppose there is only one righteous person?” The ethical question — whether God will punish the innocent along with the guilty — is the same whether there is one righteous person or fifty. But Abraham isn’t feeling quite as bold as he felt a moment ago. He has recovered an appropriate demeanor in his relationship with God. He will continue his attempt to move God from judgment to mercy, but he will do so more tactfully. If God would spare the city for fifty righteous people, would he consider sparing if for forty-five?
“I will not destroy it, if I find forty-five there” (v. 28c). Now Abraham is pretty sure that there aren’t forty-five righteous people in Sodom.
“He spoke to him yet again, and said, ‘What if there are forty found there?'”(v. 29a). Abraham brings the number down by another five. If God will spare the city for forty-five righteous people, surely he will spare it for forty.
“I will not do it for the forty’s sake” (v. 29b). Now Abraham doubts that there are forty righteous people in Sodom.
“He said, ‘Oh don’t let the Lord be angry, and I will speak. What if there are thirty found there?’” (v. 30a). Abraham has twice lowered the number by five, but sensing that he is still far from the mark he lowers the number this time by ten. “What if there are thirty found there?”
“I will not do it, if I find thirty there” (v. 30b). Now Abraham doubts that there are thirty righteous people in Sodom.
“See now, I have taken it on myself to speak to the Lord. What if there are twenty found there?”(v. 31a). First, Abraham acknowledges that he is speaking to the Lord and that he knows his place. Then he respectfully submits another possibility — this time lowering the number by another ten. “What if there are twenty found there?”
“I will not destroy it for the twenty’s sake” (v. 31b). Now Abraham doubts that there are twenty righteous people in Sodom.
“Oh don’t let the Lord be angry, and I will speak just once more. What if ten are found there?” (v. 32a). Abraham realizes that he is (1) exhausting the Lord’s patience and (2) getting nowhere, but he feels compelled to try one last time, lowering the number by another ten.
“I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake” (v. 32). Now Abraham doubts that there are ten righteous people in Sodom — but he doesn’t press the issue further. If there had been fifty righteous people in Sodom — or, perhaps, even fewer — there would have been reason to hope that they might have become the leaven to leaven the whole loaf — that their righteousness might have transformed the whole population. However, at some point, “even God cannot turn the situation around and still be just; judgment must fall. Abraham recognizes this by not taking the numbers lower than ten. He tacitly admits that a few righteous may indeed ‘be like the wicked’ (v. 25)” (Fretheim, 470).
GENESIS 18:33. YAHWEH WENT HIS WAY
33Yahweh went his way, as soon as he had finished communing with Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
This verse is not included in the reading, but should be. The Lord decides that enough is enough and goes his way. He has finished speaking to Abraham. Abraham, having nowhere else to turn, returns to his place.
GENESIS 19: POSTSCRIPT
Chapter 19 tells how the story plays out. The two angels visit Sodom, and Lot shows them hospitality (vv. 1-3). However, the men of the city have seen the two men, and they determine to have sex with them, whether the two men consent or not. Lot does everything that he can to protect the two men, even offering his two virgin daughters for the men’s pleasure (v. 8) — an idea that we can barely imagine. However, Lot’s action reflects the requirement in that culture for a host to protect his guests at all costs. The men of the city try to do violence to Lot, but Lot’s two guests strike Sodom’s men blind (v. 11). Then they invite Lot to gather his family together so that they might escape the coming destruction (vv. 12-14). After their escape, “Then Yahweh rained on Sodom and on Gomorrah sulfur and fire from Yahweh out of the sky. He overthrew those cities, all the plain, all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew on the ground” (vv. 24-25). “But his wife looked back …, and she became a pillar of salt” (v. 26).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)
Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1: General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995)
Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary, Genesis 11:27-50:26, Vol. 1b (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005)
Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987)
Towner, W. Sibley, Westminster Bible Companion: Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994)
Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994)
Copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan