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.

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  • Xian-x

    Brilliant. And, as someone who has himself used Sodom as an “adaptable exemplar” without ever noting Genesis 18, thank you.

  • VorJack

    Another good example is Exodus 32:9-14, in which Moses lectures God to spare his people: “Why should the Egyptians say, `With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.”

    You’ve got Moses saying, essentially, “But God, what will the neighbors think?”

    He goes on, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, `I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'”

    Sayeth Moses, “New remember your promises …”

    And of course there’s Job, bringing his legal case against God.  Fascinating stuff.

  • AnonymousSam

    Even better, earlier in Exodus, Moses has to remind God that the elders can’t come upon the mountain, because God has declared that anyone who does so shall die.

    Rather than lift the restriction, God decides not to have the elders (or anyone else) observe him, since of course, no man may look upon God and live (despite this happening many, many times in Genesis and Exodus).

  • Makarios

    “But God, what will the neighbors think?”

    In Yiddish, the relevant phrase is “Ma yomru ha goyim?” (“What will the non-Jews say?”)

    By the way, I’ve heard, but I’m not sure that this is demonstrably the case, that this requirement for a minimum of ten righteous men is the reason for the need for ten adult males to make up a minyan. 

  • C

     I once challenged a Sunday School teacher’s interpretation of that Exodus story. She said that our prayers have the power change God’s mind. I pointed out that God is omniscient and we can’t present an argument to God that God hasn’t already thought about, and no human is as intelligent as God (our wisdom is but foolishness to God and all that). Interpreting the story that way meant that we were putting God in a box and limiting God’s supposedly limitless knowledge and power.

    The pastor later strongly chastised me for disrespecting authority. We didn’t attend that church for too much longer.

  • Heartfout

    What the whole thing with the mob tells me is that the angels need to learn sample sizes. They were not told “Find 10 righteous men among the first X you see”, but “Find ten righteous men living in the city”. They barely check. I mean, it’s sort of understandable, I wouldn’t want to search a city if I came across a mob  demanding to rape me, but they still could have looked properly.

  • twig

    It’s sort of akin to the idea of turning the other cheek, isn’t it?  The idea that calling down the smiting and the fire and brimstone (“I rained down SULFUR, there’s a subtle difference) should only be done when absolutely all other avenues are exhausted and there’s not the slightest chance of accord or compromise. 

    Even if, as in the case given here, we’re talking about the absolute worst of the worst, every attempt should be made to find another way out.  What happens in S & G might have to happen, but it isn’t really taken as an easy decision, simple choice, high five let’s go home.

  • Shane

    I find one of the best ways to read the story of Sodom is with Jonah’s experience (Seriously, the book of Jonah is probably one of the most humorous in classic literature).  In Genesis, Abraham pleads with God; the righteous stand for those who sin always, believing in their redemption (Reading it Christologically here).  Jonah, on the other hand, actually comes across Nineveh having repented, and he gets pissed.  It’s funny, because he does very quickly what other Prophets take a long time to do: get his charges to repent.  He’s really successful, but he gets mad; he wanted to see some fire and brimstone.  There’s a lot of dualism in this reading, for Abraham, the patriarch, is not successful at all at finding the righteous, but still pleads for them anyway, while Jonah is incredibly successful, but wants them damned. 

  • Dave

     (nods) I’ve been very fond of this story since I first read it. (Say what I will about my Yeshiva education, the experience of painstakingly translating the Old Testament line by line from Hebrew does have a way of fixing bits of it in my memory.)

    It interacts very weirdly with the presumption of an omniscient God, though. (As one must presume, if one posits that the entire text is a uniform and coherent whole, as my rabbis did.) In that case, God presumably knows just how many righteous there are in Sodom, and allows this whole extended negotiation and ends it while the threshold number is still too high, because… um… because…

    I remember asking my rabbi about that, when I was eight or nine. My takeaway of his answer was, roughly, “Because sometimes God is a bit of a dick.” I suspect that wasn’t his intended answer.

  • Ian needs a nickname

    Abraham, Moses, Job, Jesus…

    The club of people in the Bible who question God’s goodness to his face and demand answers is small but extremely elite.  The implication is clear: God does not want us to blindly accept what we are told is right, not even if we are told by God himself.

  • swbarnes2

     The implication is clear: God does not want us to blindly accept what we are told is right, not even if we are told by God himself.

    Right.  This is why the Bible is full of places where people praise Abraham for absoutely refusing to kill his son just because God told him so.

    And this explains all those passages where people attempt to kill women and children because they think’s its God’s orders, and then God saves thsoe innocents, saying that he didn’t expect anyone to actually do anything like that, because it’s totally immoral.

    Maybe you can remind us what those passages are again, as I’m having a hard time finding them right now.  I keep finding passages that imply the other thing.

  • Samantha C

    I know at least when I was taught the story (in a Jewish context), it was stressed as a very plausible interpretation that, 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. In my Reform synagogue, so much empahsis was placed on thinking, questioning and reasoning for ourselves that when I told my Rabbi I was leaving the faith (I’d realized it didn’t work for me for a number of reasons), he said I was a better Jew for doing so than half my class was for parroting words and rituals without thinking about them.

    Also, every time I read “sodom and gamorah” I get the Simpsons’ New Orleans song in my head.

  • Timothy (TRiG)

    it was stressed as a very plausible interpretation that, while Abraham was being tested with the order to sacrifice Issac, he in fact failed the test by going with the order

    Abraham Said “No!”, by Kirk Cowell

  • 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.

  • Mordicai

    Doesn’t Abraham’s nephew offer his daughters up to that rape-mob?

    Anyhow, I like the ha-satan “adversary” role contrasted to the righteous dead; a neat trick.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    He does. and that always got up my nose – how it’s A-OK for rape to happen if it’s not the icky gay kind. (-_-)

  • JustoneK

    I’d always thought it was more “better them than the menz.”

  • Tricksterson

    Because they were his daughters and thus his property to do with as he pleased.

    I’ve also wondered for a very long time, “Why Gommorah?”  A big deal is made of what a wretched hive of scum and villainy Sodom is but Gommorah just gets thrown into the deal and noone ever says why.

  • ReverendRef

     I’ve also wondered for a very long time, “Why Gommorah?”  A big deal is
    made of what a wretched hive of scum and villainy Sodom is but Gommorah
    just gets thrown into the deal and noone ever says why.

    As near as I can tell, Gomorrah was just as bad as Sodom.  Isaiah 1:10-20 or 23 has a pretty good diatribe against both cities. 

    So maybe the storyteller got tired of saying “Sodom and Gomorrah” all the time and just shortened it to “Sodom.”  Or maybe it was like large cities today, where people from Ballard will simply say, “I’m from Seattle,” or people from Niles will say, “I’m from Chicago.”  (When talking to people not from there, obviously)

    Or maybe God just had bad aim that day and people assumed that if your town got hit with fire and brimstone it must have done something wrong.

  • AnonymousSam

    That’s the reasoning behind Er’s death. The entirety of the Bible’s dialogue on it is “Er was wicked, so God put him to death.” Likewise his brother’s death is rather scanty on details…

  • Marc Mielke

    Or maybe God just had bad aim that day and people assumed that if your town got hit with fire and brimstone it must have done something wrong.

    (11) Anyone smote in the area of the smiting shalt be collectively designated sinners.

  • Theo

    On the other hand, IIRC it’s never remotely suggested that Lot himself is a righteous man – as his conduct both here and later bears out.  Abraham just wants to save his sorry ass because he’s family.

  • Dmoore970

    That has always been the big question about this story for me.  Did Abraham actually care about the city of Sodom?  Or was he just trying to protect it because his nephew lived there?

  • Marc Mielke

    Isn’t it more ‘better the womenz than the ANGELS OF GOD HERE TO SMITE US ALL?” still kind of an icky thing to do, but more understandable. 

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • malpollyon

    I first encountered this story just a few months ago in this SMBC comic. I’d heard the story of Sodom and Gomorrah told before, but never with Abraham’s part.

  • Gorgias

    Here’s the funny thing; the NIV’s translation of the words “Bring them out so we can have sex with them” is by no means the most obvious translation of this passage; the words are more accurately “bring them out so we can know them.”  “To know” in this context might have a sexual meaning, but it doesn’t always, otherwise one is lead to the inevitable conclusion that a chapter or so previous, God’s “knowing” of Abraham was much more intimate than most of the Right would be comfortable with.  The real lesson to be drawn from this book is how Lot, the righteous man, prizes the sanctity of guest-right for strangers above his daughters’ virginity.  By contrast, Sodom is full of xenophobic rednecks who want to rob, lynch, or otherwise do bodily harm to helpless strangers wandering through.  Might that involve rape?  Possibly, but it’s by no means certain.

    So my question is this: why do conservatives who go on and on about the alleged unnaturalness of homosexuality so gleefully insist on populating Sodom and Gomorrah with wandering homosexual rape-gangs?

    One might almost suspect that they have sex on the brain.

  • Jim Roberts

    I had a friend who was taking biblical Hebrew and said that “we can know them” could, reasonably be read as, “give ’em the business,” in the old slang sense where you weren’t sure what was going to happen, but it was going to be unpleasant. Not sure how accurate that is.

  • Michael Chui

    “Now. We get to spend some time finding out about your true self. Tell me – Are you familiar with the works of Shan Yu?”

  • Edo

    So my question is this: why do conservatives who go on and on about the alleged unnaturalness of homosexuality so gleefully insist on populating Sodom and Gomorrah with wandering homosexual rape-gangs?

    It’s the NIV, so this is a chicken-and-egg problem.

    On the one hand, this is the NIV we’re talking about: the magnum opus of American evangelicalism. The NIV was written by and for an evangelical audience, so of course it’s going to say what they read it to say.

    On the other hand, the NIV sorta predates the Big Four Issues of American evangelicalism. How much it influenced their formation is an interesting thing to look at someday, but whatever that influence was, it’s kinda cornered, because a hard line against Gay Anything has been a cornerstone of evangelical identity for awhile. Can you imagine the fallout if a revision had changed Gen. 19 from “have sex with” to “know”?

  • 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.

  • 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.
    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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • hagsrus

     Women don’t count for anything anyway – no capacity for righteousness, of course.

  • John F

    Were there less than 10 babies in Sodom? What about all the cats and dogs?

  • Tricksterson

    Property doesn’t count.

  • Dave

    ” …and also much cattle.”

  • Anonymous

    What about the women and children of Sodom? Abraham and God were using the masculine plural when talking about the righteous – righteous men. Was there a No Child Left Behind act to evacuate the children before the city was destroyed?

  • flat

    Well if there was one: it would have been something righteous in it self.

    But the whole point of sodom’s destruction was that there was nothing righteous going on in the city.

  • ReverendRef

    A couple of other things about this story (which may have been mentioned here in the past, so forgive me if I’m repeating myself):

    First, one can almost get the impression that Abraham didn’t need to stop at 10.  It seems clear that God’s goal here is salvation — what can he do to save Sodom & Gomorrah.  Had Abraham bartered down to one righteous man the story might have been different.

    Second, it wasn’t necessarily the desired rape of the strangers or (as Gorgias creatively points out above) any number of “mean, nasty things” they wanted to do (hat tip to Arlo Guthrie).  What got S&G in trouble was, according to Ezekiel, “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  They were haughty, and did abominable things before me.”

    So apparently a self-centered, self-righteous attitude falls along the lines of “unforgivable sin” more than the other things.

  • flat

    I once heard a sermon about this subject it was very interesting and I am glad that Fred brought it up.

  • Ross Thompson

    Because they were his daughters and thus his property to do with as he pleased.

    Well, that’s what he told the rape-gang, but Genesis 19:14, it’s explicitly stated that the girls were married:

    And Lot went out, and spake unto his sons in law, which married his daughters, and said, Up, get you out of this place; for the Lord will destroy this city. But he seemed as one that mocked unto his sons in law.

  • JustoneK
  • aunursa

    As a Jew I find it puzzling that some Christians contrast the dark “Old Testament” with the loving message of the New Testament.* Where in the New Testament do the righteous plead that Jesus show mercy on the wicked and not condemn them to eternal damnation (e.g. Matt 25:41)?

    * I am reminded of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  The South Rose window, which represents the “Old Testament”, was deliberately made darker; while the North Rose window, symbolizing the New Testament, is much brighter.

  • Jim Roberts

    Aunursa, that “eternal” is quite probably less eternal than your English translation might indicate.

  • jclor

    I wish this post hadn’t come out the same day as the Freeh Report about the Penn State abuse scandal.

    Talk about a search for the righteous amongst the wicked.

  • redsixwing

    Flash fiction time.


    Abraham stood before the Almighty, the Ancient of Days, and he trembled to his unshod feet. “If I should speak again,” he dared, “may The Lord forgive me; but what if there are not even ten? What if there is but a single righteous man to be found within Sodom?”

    And the Light considered, and turned Its unknowable face on him, and said: “Then I shall spare the city, that not a single righteous man shall perish by my wrath.”

    “Thank you,” said Abraham, and after he had knelt, he fled the Presence.

    It was said that Lot lived long in the city of Sodom, with his father Abraham always at his side and his daughters and their husbands, and though he often left the city on one business or another, Abraham always stayed behind. When Lot asked Abraham why he would not step beyond the boundaries of Sodom, the old man would frown and stroke his whiskers, and say only, “I do this for the memory of Isaac.”

  • veejayem

    The destruction of Sodom is a favourite fundie stick for beating gays with. It’s always “God destroyed the men of Sodom because they were gay”, never “God destroyed the men of Sodom because they were xenophobic rapists. And proud, greedy and selfish to boot.”

    And men who rape other men rarely self-identify as gay anyway.

  • 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…

  • 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!”

  • 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?

  • Ross

    Presumably, this is why God authorized certain special exceptions. 

  • 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.

  • Damanoid

    –and this week’s special guest star, Peter Falk, as Abraham.

    “Well, I guess I’ve done about all I can here.  It’s a shame about Sodom, but there just ain’t fifty righteous people in town.   You know your business better than me; you’re the author of Creation, and I’m just an ordinary prophet.  You’re a busy man, God.  I won’t take up any more of your time.

    –Oh, there’s just one more thing I wanted to ask you…”

  • Jim Roberts

    This would, of course, need to end with both God and Abraham saying to each other, “As you wish.”

  • Patrick

    Yeah… I think the more obvious interpretation of that passage is a blood-debt driven indictment of the people of Sodom.  God was going to kill them, but Abraham pleaded with God to let them go if they passed even a very, very low bar.  But they failed worse than you might even imagine, making God totally justified in murderizing them.  Its less a story about the righteousness of Abraham, and more a just-so story by conservative elements explaining why their liberal bleeding heart opponents are suckers.  “You DON’T want us to kill all those people in the next tribe over?  But they totally have it coming!  Look at what happened when Abraham plead on behalf of our enemies- they repaid him by trying to gang rape angels!  ANGELS!  Don’t be a sucker like him.  Go get your machete, there are minimally pubescent girls to orphan and then ‘marry’.”

    …that’s the context of this story.  That’s the societal norms that are its backdrop.  See surrounding chapters for reference.

  • Sheila O’Shea

    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.

    Really?  It’s part of the regular cycle of scripture readings in the Catholic Mass.  My dad calls it the “haggle reading.”  It didn’t occur to me that other strains of Christianity wouldn’t be as familiar with it.

  • Charity Brighton

    I thought he meant that in the sense that “Sodom and Gomorrah” have become a sort of pop culture reference that even people who aren’t religious at all can cite. Most people are at least vaguely aware that the cities were destroyed because they were evil, but the part about Abraham’s arguments hasn’t permeated as far outside of Christianity.

    The pastor later strongly chastised me for disrespecting authority. We didn’t attend that church for too much longer.

    So… you challenged the authority of a pastor by… claiming that God is omniscient? What’s next? Being accused of heresy by a minister after saying that Christ is the Messiah?

  • Tricksterson

    eah but he was implying that the pastor and his minions weren’t omniscient so, heresy.

  • Tricksterson

    Fred come from an evangelical Protestant background, maybe it gets skipped over by them.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.)


  • Tricksterson

    Welcome.  Have a cookie.

  • Lily

     Thank you.