The righteous man and the wicked city: ‘Abraham Pleads for Sodom’

The New International Version of the Bible adds these little section headings at the start of each chapter or pericope. At the start of Genesis 19, for example, it adds the heading “Sodom and Gomorrah Destroyed.”

That’s a familiar story, even for people who haven’t read the Bible. The names of those cities endure as the proverbial superlatives of wickedness and the worst examples of whatever it is anyone wants to condemn.

But I want to talk about the story before that one, the story at the end of Genesis 18. The little section heading in the NIV for that story reads “Abraham Pleads for Sodom.”

Did you catch that? Abraham pleads for Sodom. He pleads on behalf of Sodom. Abraham takes Sodom’s side against God.

This weird little story from Genesis 18:20-33 isn’t nearly as famous as the story in the chapter that follows. It should be. Because I think without this story, we wind up misreading the story after it.

The characters here are familiar ones: Abraham and God. But part of why this is such a weird little story is that neither Abraham nor God acts quite like we expect them to act. Instead, they’re conscripted here into folkloric roles not usually associated with either of them. They’re cast against type.

Abraham, in this story, isn’t playing the part of the faithful patriarch so much as the type of the cunning servant. He takes on the role of Sodom’s defense attorney, a tricky task that requires the trickery of a trickster. And that’s what Abraham displays here — relying on cleverness and flattery and a quick tongue. He recalls Lear’s Fool or Scheherazade. I’m reminded a bit of Bilbo Baggins’ conversation with Smaug, or of a thousand and one other tales in which flattering, clever servants, peasants or jesters outwit proud and pompous kings.

And that’s the other weird thing in this story: it casts God in the role of the proud and pompous king — a king vulnerable to flattery and to persuasion by a clever servant.

In this story, God is not all seeing and all-knowing. The storyteller here did not get the memo about omniscience and omnipresence. “I must go down and see,” God says, “whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me.” (That’s from the NRSV, but I like how the NIV renders this: “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me.”)

Like the character of God in the prologue of the book of Job, this God seems detached, sitting on a distant throne and hearing rumors and reports from the world below. In Job, those reports are relayed through “the Accuser” — or “the Satan” — who is portrayed there as a kind of prosecuting attorney, laying out the case against humanity. Here in Genesis 18, these reports are instead filtered through Abraham, Sodom’s advocate and not its accuser.

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.”

And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

Ultimately, Abraham wins the argument but loses the case. God sends two angels to go see if Abraham’s 10 righteous can be found in Sodom but, instead of finding even that tiny number of good people, the angels come across a rape-crazed mob bent on violence. (You can have the best attorney in the world, but if you’re going to act like that in court, well, you’re not doing yourself any favors.)

It’s pretty obvious that trying to gang-rape strangers instead of welcoming them with hospitality is a definite sign of not being “righteous.” But what does “righteousness” look like in this story? If the people of Sodom are the model of wickedness, then who is the model of goodness?

And that’s where this weird little story gets really interesting and challenging. Because Abraham is a righteous man.

And what does the righteous man do? The righteous man pleads for Sodom.

Abraham commended his love toward Sodom in that while they were yet wicked, he pleaded for them.

You’ll often hear Sodom invoked as the infinitely adaptable exemplar of whatever wickedness the speaker wants to condemn. Washington or Las Vegas or America as a whole or the Internet will be called “Sodom,” and the speaker will warn that just like in the story in Genesis 19, the denizens of that place are doomed and damned. Occasionally, when such a speaker is in a particularly generous mood, you’ll hear them suggest that there may be just barely enough time for this “Sodom” to repent.

But for all those invocations of and allusions to Genesis 19, you’ll almost never hear any similar references to Genesis 18. You’ll almost never hear a speaker referring to some contemporary “Sodom” in the way Abraham does — pleading on its behalf, serving as its righteous advocate and defender.

It’s a weird little story there in Genesis 18, but I think it’s a really good weird little story.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    It’s important to remember that “hospitality to guests” was a big deal in the ancient world. 

    The message might not be so much “It’s okay to rape, so long as it’s straight,” and more “Raping visitors is SO BAD that even sending out your daughters to please the angry rape mob is better.”

    Which isn’t really a great moral lesson. But ancient folks took hospitality seriously.

  • Plarry

    I really like Alan Dershowitz’ exegesis of this story in _The Genesis of Justice_. IIRC, he looks at the story in the following way: every system of justice is imperfect – some innocent people are going to be punished along with the innocent. In this exegesis, God is posing Abraham the question, what is the balance in the system of justice that you want – are you so driven to punish the guilty that you will wantonly sweep away the innocent as well? Abraham’s answer is no, the system of justice we want is one in which guilty go free rather than innocents are punished.

  • mud man

    If an angry mob showed up at my door hollering “We’re gonna FUCK YOU UP!!!” I sure wouldn’t think this had anything to do with homosexuality.

  • Mark Z.

    That is perhaps the best explanation of the Sodom story that I’ve ever heard.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Here’s the relevant passage from the Revised Standard Version.

    [5] and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.”

    If I wasn’t aware of the tendency to euphemize sexual relations as the verb “to know” I might ask why an aggressive mob wants to “know” two men, and conclude robbery is the motive. But then Lot says he has two daughters as substitutes, so in context, it’s likely that rape is among the planned offences.

    It goes on to say:

    [9] But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came
    to sojourn, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with
    you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and
    drew near to break the door.
    [10] But the men put forth their hands and brought Lot into the house to them, and shut the door.
    [11]
    And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the
    house, both small and great, so that they wearied themselves groping for
    the door.
    [12] Then the men said to Lot, “Have you any one
    else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or any one you have in the
    city, bring them out of the place;
    [13] for we are about to
    destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become
    great before the LORD, and the LORD has sent us to destroy it.”

    The RSV calls the angels “the men”, and gives them the power of temporarily blinding people.

  • Jim Roberts

    This. Fred’s background seems smiliar to mine, and I found this passage on my own when I was about 11 and first actually read straight through the Bible. Yeah, the prophets were a SLOG, but I got through and I think actually learned a few things. Thankfully, I had my dad’s study Bible and am reasonably clever so there was enough interesting information in the sidebars to get by.

  • Ross Thompson

    while Abraham was being tested with the order to sacrifice Issac, he in
    fact failed the test by going with the order, which was why the angel
    had to show up and stop him.

    Yes, that’s plausible, so long as you stop reading at exactly the point the angel shows up, and you miss God waxing eloquent about how Abraham is such a good and faithful man for passing the test, and how everyone should be like him.
    Genesis 22:

    15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,

    16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:

    17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;

    18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

  • urbicande

    I can’t speak for Christianity, but we spent a fair amount of time on this in Hebrew School when I was a kid.

    I think this partly explains the difference in how Christians and Jews see God. Christians have God-The-Father, and Jews have God-The-Annoying-Big-Brother-Who-Protects-You-But-Sometimes-Puts-You-In-A-Headlock-And-Gives-You-Noogies.

  • Tricksterson

    If it wasn’t for the context I would think “know” meant “interrogate”.  After all, here is a hostile deity sending emmisaries to a foreigner living in their city.  What would you do?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    One could also argue that Lot was grossly misunderstanding what was going to happen and decided to throw his daughters out as bait. Kind of still gives a real ick factor.

  • histrogeek

    It occurs to me that Moses pulled off a similar bit of flattery with God on behalf of the Israelites at one point (when Moses himself was not in one of those  grrrr-stupid-Israelite moods).
    “Ya know deity-with-unpronounced-name, those people of yours are rough, probably deserve complete smiting. No argument here, but I’m just thinking out loud here. What happens when the Egyptians hear about this? Aren’t they going to say, ‘Whoa, that god led through the Red Sea to the middle of the desert just smite the crap out of them in private? Dude, even Set isn’t that hardcore. I think I’ll stick with Osiris. Warn everyone else too.’?
    “Just sayin’. Bad for the image ya know.”

  • histrogeek

     “God destroyed the men of Sodom because they were xenophobic rapists. And proud, greedy and selfish to boot.”
    Wonder why they never say that? Total mystery…

  • hf

     The message might not be so much “It’s okay to rape, so long as it’s straight,”

    It definitely doesn’t mean that in the eyes of whoever stole the story for Judges 19-20. This fan version has a mob making the same demand, but ultimately committing crimes of a non-homosexual nature. This leads to the destruction of the city. Biblical literalists, note that the Bible says God supported the destruction (20:18,23,28) and “the LORD defeated Benjamin before Israel.” (20:35) And the reason given for all of this (20:4-11) does not appear to mention the alleged homosexuality once.

    The crime that brought on the city’s destruction does include a gross violation of hospitality.

  • Sodajerk

    Exactly.   Fred, I’d hate to disagree with your post, since you’re often quite thought-provoking, but here Abraham is NOT pleading for Sodom.  He’s pleading for the righteous so that they are not punished along with the guilty.  He’s basically pointing out to God that he shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.  The wheat with the chaff.  The corn with the husks.  The good with the bad.  I mean, take them both and there you have the Facts of Life.

  • Leum

    WRT Isaac and Abraham, by OT prof thinks that in the original story, Isaac was killed and that this was later edited to read differently. Part of the reason he believes that is Genesis 22:11:

    “Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.”

    It has Abraham returning to his servants; Isaac is strangely missing.

  • Lily

    Content note: genocide, fear of God, hell and stuff

    Hey, guys, I’m a lurker!  I’m Lily, will be 23 in a few weeks and some of you may have seen me  joining discussions on Ana Mardoll’s blog. I have mild cerebral palsy and have been going through a lot of spiritual issues, mostly related to the Old Testament–my family’s Methodist evangelical, but my parents were Baptist growing up. I really can’t say whether it was the Baptist tracts I found at the age of nine that made me terrified of God or being annoyed with the way I was treated in my youth group, but at some point I equated skepticism with wickedness. And the Old Testament God is mean. But Jesus saved us from God’s wrath so everything’s fine! I feel like in evangelical Christianity you have to worship both genocidal God and Jesus. Like the God in this Genesis

    I found the kids’ version of Left Behind as a child and was convinced I’d be left behind too because, y’know, God killed non-believers in that. The only way the Old Testament is accessible to me is through The Prince of Egypt. (Mostly because of Ralph Fiennes, shh.)

    ~Lily~

  • Tricksterson

    Welcome.  Have a cookie.

  • Lily

     Thank you.

    ~Lily~

  • ako

     I find a lot of fundies have a hard time grasping the idea of consent being a genuinely important moral principle when it comes to sex.  It’s the same reason why they keep equating same-sex marriage with marrying children.  Something in there keeps going “Yeah, consent, whatever, but the important stuff is the authority-given rules of sex!”  From that perspective, it’s possible to look at the Bible and go “They tried to gang-rape angels in the form of men, and there’s a ‘no sex with men’ rule, so therefore the city burned because of gay!  All of that stuff about using force and attacking strangers is probably also not good, but obviously, the most important thing is the evilness of gay!  There’s a rule and everything!”

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    I find a lot of fundies have a hard time grasping the idea of consent
    being a genuinely important moral principle when it comes to sex. It’s the same reason why they keep equating same-sex marriage with marrying children.  Something in there keeps going “Yeah, consent, whatever, but the important stuff is the authority-given rules of sex!”

    Actually, now that you mention it… I wonder if the point of disconnect isn’t both simpler and broader than this.

    I can imagine believing in a paternalistic God, in the context of Whom
    we are all as children. In fact, that seems to be the kind of God a lot
    of people believe in. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch from there to believing that the same rules apply to all of us, where God’s law is concerned, as apply to children where adult law is concerned.

    Most of us, whatever our religion or lack of it, would agree that consent just doesn’t matter when it comes to sexual relations with children. Some would argue that children are incapable of consent in this area, but even those that wouldn’t go that far would agree that no matter how sincerely I
    might agree to, or even enthusiastically initiate, a sexual act, if I’m below the age of consent then having sex with me is just wrong, period, full stop.

    And on this view anyone who believes otherwise — even if (perhaps especially if) they claim the act is justified because I’ve “consented” — is at best confused, and perhaps simply evil. The former are to be prevented from acting out on their confusion (this is the case, for example, when children choose to engage in sexual acts with one another). The latter… well.

    Nor is this attitude restricted to sex; there are all kinds of activities which we prohibit below the age of consent, though few of them with the fervor we reserve for sexual activity. And, again, for many people whether the children choose to engage in those activities or not, or whether the children enjoy those activities or not, simply doesn’t matter.

    Which does sort of sound like a certain perspective towards human sin.

  • Tricksterson

    So nobody should have sex?

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Presumably, this is why God authorized certain special exceptions. 

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    I would think that more amusing were it not for all the folks quoting Corinthians (“It is good to stay unmarried, but if they cannot control themselves they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn.”) as a basis for their sexual ethics.


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