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

The righteous man and the wicked city: ‘Abraham Pleads for Sodom’ July 12, 2012

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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