An Astonishing Conversation Gen 18:16-33


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Genesis 18:16-33

Abraham has been in conversation with three men, one of whom we know to be the Lord himself in a theophany and two others we will learn in Genesis 19:1 are angels.

Text Comments

v.16     The conversation so far has been about Sarah’s impending pregnancy. Nothing has been said about Sodom. But just as life and salvation are promised to Abraham and Sarah, judgment now looms over the unbelieving cities of the plain. The following verses have the form of a divine soliloquy, unless we are to understand the Lord was speaking to the other two men with him.

v.17     The Lord’s soliloquy is reported so that the reader will understand what follows. The conversation between Abraham and the Lord we are about to read is all about what is just and right. Abraham must do what is just and to teach his children the same. And the conversation he will now have with Yahweh will demonstrate the extent to which Abraham is a righteous man.

v.19     So far, all we have been told that Abraham must do in regard to his children is that he must see to the circumcision of his sons. Here we learn that much more was involved; the spiritual nurture of their lives. Here we learn that the promise God made to be the God of Abraham’s descendants was to be fulfilled by means of the many-faceted spiritual instruction they received at home. The promise to be the God of Abraham’s children had a condition attached. This is often the way the Scripture teaches its truth; part here, part there, the promise in one place, the condition in another.

v.21     “The Lord said” at the beginning of v. 20 suggests that these words were said so that Abraham could hear them. His statement is ominous because it closely resembles what was said about the world before the flood in 6:5. That judgment should fall on the cities seems almost certain, but God’s “if not, I will know” leaves a little hope and it is on this basis that Abraham now bases his appeal. In any case, God’s judgment is always based on a thorough knowledge of the facts; sentence is not passed until the investigation is complete.

v.22     The text reads that “Abraham stood before the Lord.” But there is compelling evidence that it originally read “The Lord stood before Abraham,” a statement that would have seemed to later copyists demeaning of the Lord. Hence the change. But for the Lord to stand, as it were waiting for Abraham, suggests that he was challenging Abraham to exercise some judgment about Sodom. The two men who went to Sodom are identified as angels in 19:1.

The narrative mentions only Sodom, because being the largest city it represented the five cities of the plain. [Sarna, 133]

v.25     There is, of course, a sense in which Abraham’s argument is not entirely valid. Later on we will be shown instances of the righteous suffering along with the wicked for the sins of the wicked and this theological problem is addressed in a number of places in the Bible. Jesus Christ himself is the supreme example of God’s treating the righteous as if he were wicked for reasons of his sovereign plan and purpose for the world. Still, the point is ultimately valid. God certainly will not finally treat the wicked and the righteous alike. Even the hard things the Lord appoints for his children to suffer are never unjust. In any case, God accepts the logic of Abraham’s argument in this particular case. Abraham has started well.

This is the fourth time that Abraham has spoken with God (Gen. 15:2, 8; 17:17). On the three previous occasions the great man’s personal welfare, his own life and situation had been the sole subject of the discourse. In particular, the Lord had promised Abraham a son and no son had so far appeared. Abraham spoke to the Lord about that.

But here we find something very different. Here Abraham was talking to God not about himself – this conversation has nothing to do with his own circumstances or fortunes, even though still no son had yet appeared – but about others, indeed about people who were total strangers to Abraham. In this lengthy conversation, Abraham revealed himself the righteous man that God had called to him to be.

It is no accident that the chapter reads as it does. In verse 19 we read the Lord saying that he had chosen Abraham to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice and teaching others to do the same.

Lest we miss the connection of thought, there is in Hebrew a word play in vv. 19 and 20. The Hebrew word “righteousness” in v. 19 sounds quite like the word “outcry” in v. 20. The Lord had called Abraham to live a righteous life and immediately the outcry of Sodom’s wickedness has come up to the Lord. Abraham’s call to be a righteous man and Sodom’s great sin are going to be connected in this narrative in some important way. How will Abraham’s righteousness respond to the outcry of Sodom’s great sinfulness?

And then, taking the original text of v. 22 to have been “but the Lord still stood before Abraham,” it becomes clear that the Lord was challenging Abraham to decide what ought to be done, in other words, to practice his righteous in regards to Sodom’s sin. The Almighty, the Judge of all the earth as Abraham will soon call him, does not wait upon the opinion of his servants unless it is important that he know and we know what those opinions are. Abraham is being tested at a critical point and we are being taught an important lesson! Remember, in most of its uses in the Bible the word “righteousness” refers not to our standing before God, our acquittal, our forgiveness and our acceptance into God’s family through faith in Jesus Christ. Ordinarily the term righteousness refers to a godly way of life, to authentic Christian behavior, to proper conduct; conduct that God approves.  That is certainly its meaning here. We read in v. 19 about Abraham doing righteousness and doing justice.

Then, when Abraham began interrogating the Lord, he showed himself concerned to make sure that what the Lord was intending to do to those people who lived in Sodom and Gomorrah was righteous and just. Indeed, that is the very rhetorical question he asked in summing up his concern: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just.” “Righteousness” and “justice” are the key words in this passage, the words that identify the theme. We have learned to notice the “leitwort,” the key word of a passage as a way of identifying the author’s theme in an age before tables of contents and chapter headings. These are the key words of this passage. They identify the author’s theme. This is all about righteousness. It’s all about justice. And it’s particularly all about Abraham’s righteousness.

Finally, Abraham didn’t stop his interrogation of the Lord until he had reached the point where it had become obvious that the Lord would not destroy those cities if they did not richly deserve such judgment. Abraham had discovered that there was no argument left to be made on their behalf. They were so thoroughly wicked that there was not even a righteous remnant in them on behalf of which an appeal should be made for mercy. A righteous and just man could not claim that they deserved a better fate or that mercy should be extended to them once again.

The question posed to us by the text is, of course: why did Abraham stop at ten? Some years ago I heard a sermon delivered at General Assembly by one of our well known preachers on this very text; this very conversation between Abraham and the Lord. He explained that Abraham stopped at ten because, by that point, he had come to the realization that there were no righteous men in Sodom, in fact, there could not be, because the one who makes men righteous had not yet appeared. He then turned the text into a prophecy of the work of Christ who, on the cross, would make the unrighteous, righteous. The preacher is a well-known representative of what is now called the redemptive-historical school of preaching that finds virtually every text in the Old Testament a prophecy of the saving work of Christ. We have much to learn from that school, and I have learned much from it, but, I confess, on that occasion I expected to see a lot of shaking heads among the thousand ministers or so who were listening to that sermon. Surely they would have been asking the same questions I was asking; the objections that were popping up in my mind would have been popping up in theirs as well. But, in fact, I was nonplussed to find that there was an enthusiastic response to the sermon.

Surely anyone, minister or lay person should be able to see that was not a faithful exposition of this text. The fact is there was a righteous man in Sodom, Abraham’s nephew Lot. We know he was righteous because in his second letter Peter says that Lot was a righteous man while he lived in Sodom! Besides, we already know that Abraham was a righteous man. The Lord himself had already said so earlier in the chapter! Good grief, in this very text we read that God called Abraham to do righteousness and justice. Abraham is so much a righteous man, his great concern seems to be to make sure that God himself acts as righteously as Abraham knows God to be! We do not deny, of course, that the righteousness of Abraham and Lot depended upon the work of Jesus Christ, applied beforehand to saints in the ancient epoch. No one doubts that. But the fact is there were righteous men in those days and Abraham’s stopping at ten cannot possibly be because he realized that it was not possible that there should be righteous men in Sodom or anywhere else for that matter because the man who was to make men righteous had not yet made his appearance in the world.

Rather, and this is the answer one finds in the better commentaries on Genesis, it seems that ten is the smallest number that could still count as a community, rather than as a few scattered individuals. Or, as one scholar puts it, “Abraham has reached the limit of the ability of a righteous individual to outweigh the cumulative evil of the community. … Ten persons…constitute the minimum effective social entity.” [Sarna, 134] Later, for example, it would require ten Jewish men to form a synagogue.

What Abraham had established in his conversation with the Lord was that the divine judgment of Sodom would be an act of the purest justice, all the more as the one righteous individual and his family would in fact be rescued prior to the destruction of the city. Throughout the conversation he had been careful to make sure that justice would be exercised as well for the righteous as for the wicked, and he was concerned that the Lord be merciful as well as just if he could be so. But the conversation ended at the point where it was clear to Abraham that justice required the destruction of Sodom. But see the role that Abraham was playing here, pleading for Sodom as long as he could. Since Abraham was to become a blessing to all the nations of the world, because he was to be a righteous man doing righteousness, he could not be indifferent to what happens to the people of the world around him. [Sarna, 131] That was an important part of his righteousness and it must be of ours.

In the context of ancient near eastern life and thought this conversation between Abraham and God is nothing short of remarkable. It is, of course, remarkable in that it is so perfectly clear that Abraham understands that Yahweh is not some tribal deity whose realm is limited to a particular geographical area or ethnic population. The living God who made heaven and earth is universal in his sovereignty and all nations and all peoples are subject to him. There are no other Gods! God is, as Abraham says here, the Judge of all the earth. But Abraham also believed that this living God would act justly, that he would do what is righteous, that is, he would act in a way that is observably and demonstrably just. It is precisely this confidence that God’s ways are just and righteous that prompts the conversation in the first place. It must have seemed to Abraham, at least at first, that the destruction of Sodom was incompatible with God’s justice. In particular he was worried that the innocent might be made to suffer with the guilty.

There is a Mesopotamian composition from the middle of the second millennium B.C. entitled The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer. In the poem a pious man whose world had collapsed around him complains that despite his scrupulous attention to the worship of his gods, they seem to be utterly uninterested in his circumstances. The gods, he complains do not seem to operate in any predictable way. No one can possibly know what they are going to do or why. But Abraham knew that the living God must treat human beings justly because he himself is just. God’s ways may be mysterious, but they must be just! [Sarna, 132-133]

 

But the conversation is also remarkable for this: an itinerant immigrant to that part of the world is found pleading with God to be just in his treatment of people that Abraham didn’t even know! Where else will you find this in the ancient near east? I will tell you. You won’t find it anywhere else. Where will you find it in the world today? You will find it only rarely. This was something entirely new in the world: this care for others, this concern that they be treated with justice and mercy, this sympathy, and, in particular, this concern that God himself deal justly with everyone, not just with Abraham. Abraham seemed to feel it right that he should be concerned that God do nothing that would in any way impugn his own divine integrity or reputation. This is remarkable for the familiarity of the conversation, for Abraham’s boldness in speaking to Yahweh, but also for his confidence that he knows what God is like and how perfectly just he must be in all his dealings with human beings.

It is the more remarkable a conversation because Abraham seemed to appreciate how unnatural, how seemingly inappropriate his interrogation of God must seem. Who was he, after all, to question the plans and purposes of Almighty God? See how carefully and cautiously he spoke!

“Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.”

“Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak.”

“Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once.”

Here we learn for the first time in the Bible that true righteousness is not simply offering the right worship of God, or being honest in one’s dealings with others, but living in sympathy with and caring for the lives of others. What we see here in Abraham, the righteous patriarch, is an other-centered man. Concerned for God and for other human beings! And concerned in large part because of his confidence in God’s character!

This other-centeredness that God requires of us will be emphasized in countless different ways through the rest of the Bible, but here in Genesis 18 we find ourselves at the headwaters of this teaching that the people of God, righteous men and women, must be people whose righteousness leads them to be equally concerned for justice and mercy, for obedience and for love, and for others as well as for themselves. We have earlier witnessed God’s concern for all the people of the world. He chose Abraham, remember, with the salvation of the world in view. We have already read that Abraham’s descendants would have to wait for centuries to receive their promised inheritance in Canaan because the Lord would not take that land from the Canaanites until their iniquity was full, or, in other words, until there was no use in waiting for their repentance any longer. And we have learned that God was committed to the welfare and happiness and salvation not only of Abraham himself but of the members of his family for generations to come. And here was Abraham learning his craft from God himself, pleading not for his own family, but for people with whom he has no personal connection at all.

If that is true righteousness, if that is what it means to keep the way of the Lord, if that concern both for the Lord’s name and for the people of this world is what we are called to demonstrate in our lives, then righteousness is a far greater thing, a far higher thing than most of us think most of the time. I know that is true of me.

We are Presbyterians and are grateful to be. We have a rich heritage in the Reformed tradition, both theologically and spiritually. The Presbyterian Church has been graced by a great number of saintly men and women who have served the Lord to great effect. But our tradition is not perfect, by any means. It is not without its defects and its weaknesses and its blind spots.

I have told you before that, as fine a theological confession as the Westminster Confession of Faith is, there is – in the Confession and the two catechisms – no mention, none, of Pentecost, what Herman Bavinck calls the third great work of God (after the creation and the incarnation of God the Son). There is in those documents no mention of the church’s obligation to take the gospel to the world, and almost no mention of the Christian’s obligation to love the world and to seek the world’s salvation.

The Puritan tradition, of which the Westminster documents are important and influential specimens, was highly introspective, and tended to concentrate on the believer’s inner life and experience to the neglect of his obligations toward others. Introspection has a place in any authentic Christian life to be sure. Paul requires us to “examine ourselves.” But taking the example of Abraham here and with it the teaching of Holy Scripture as a whole, our examination of ourselves should certainly consider more than our private sins. It should measure the extent of our love for others, of our interest in the kingdom of God in this world, the name of the Lord and the reputation of the Lord among all the peoples of the earth.

The failure to emphasize what is so often emphasized in the Bible was undoubtedly a blind spot in the early generations of the Reformed or Presbyterian tradition. Too little attention was paid to the interests of which Abraham gives voice here in chapter 18.

You have heard me say before that this has been made a criticism of one of the most beloved works of our tradition, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The story is, as you know, the story of one man’s pursuit of salvation. But it does not show us a Christian doing much for others along the way. Bunyan’s Christian is absorbed with himself not with the lives of those around him.

Now that is not entirely fair. An author should be free to write the story he has chosen to write and Bunyan was telling his own story of conversion and pilgrimage. He didn’t have to say everything in order to say something very important. Bunyan’s work is a classic and of immortal value precisely because it says so well, so powerfully, and so beautifully the story Bunyan intended to tell. We know for a fact that Bunyan himself was a man for others and did a great deal of good for multitudes of others.

Still, one could wish that somewhere in that great story Bunyan had made it clear that the calling of a Christian was to be a man of the world and for the world, a man whose sympathies were as wide as the world, and whose heart was divided between a concern for God’s honor in the world and a hope that multitudes would be saved. According to the Bible we must work out our own salvation while seeking the good of others!

The most thoughtful among us know very well how easy it is for us to concentrate on ourselves to the virtual neglect of others. We know how easily we can think about lives, even our own Christian lives, without much if any concern for others, especially others outside our immediate circle of acquaintance, our loved ones and friends, and without much concern at all for the honor of God in the world. Modern American individualism has served to heighten this tendency of ours, powerful enough as it is in its own right. It is altogether too easy for us to think of everything in regard to ourselves, the very thing Abraham does not do here in Genesis 18 and so the very thing true righteousness does not do.

All of us, though men, I think, to an even greater degree than women, tend to think more of our sins of commission, much more than our sins of omission. But our failure to have Abraham’s mind is almost entirely a sin of omission! It is surely significant that the Lord Jesus summarized the whole law, or defined true righteousness in terms of love for God and for one’s neighbor. That is our great failures, our most significant moral defects must in the nature of the case be sins of omission, things we should have done for God and for others that we did not do. Sins of commission are bad enough – all that we have done that we should not have done (we know what those are don’t we!) – but the true index of our sin must be all that we have not done that we should have done, all that our lives ought to have been that they have not been, and, especially, all that we might have done for God and for others that was never done.

In the teaching of the Lord Jesus, from his Sermon on the Mount to his solemn teaching about the judgment day during the last few days of his public ministry, this concentration on our interest in and service of others was uppermost. He will judge our lives, he will measure our righteousness, he said, by our concern for the poor and hungry, by how faithfully we served those in prison, and so on.

We would never utter his words, I am sure – though some ministers come close to uttering them nowadays — but we struggle not to think of God as Angelus Silesius, the Catholic mystic, thought about him. He thought he was being particularly spiritual when, in his meditation on the text: God is love, he came eventually to think it meant that God, being love, needed us as the objects of his love.

I know that without me God cannot an instant be.

He needs must perish at once, were death to come to me.

God loveth me alone, he holdeth me so dear

That if I love him not, he dieth of anxious fear.

Nought is but I and thou, and if we two are not,

Then God is no more God, and heaven itself is nought.

Karl Barth refers to this poem as pious blasphemy and wonders if the Roman Catholic bishop who gave it his imprimatur was an imbecile.

God is love, absolutely, but his is a love of holiness, majesty, sovereignty, and justice that existed without us for eternity past. We know the beauty and the obligation of love precisely because we have been made in the image of God who is and has always been himself, in his Trinitarian life, perfect love, love eternally given and received. But what is more, and more to the point this morning, it is perfectly clear in the Word of God that God loves many others beside ourselves and that his love for us and his love for them compels us to love them as we love him. The eternal God does not need us, even as the objects of his love. But he has made that kind of love for others, that kind of sympathy and concern both for God and for others that we find here in Abraham, fundamental to a truly righteous life.

Abraham here is cast very clearly and purposively in an exemplary role. We have already learned that Abraham is one of the Bible’s great examples of a believing man. We are to be like him in the trust that he placed in the Word and promise of God, no matter that promise was a long time in being fulfilled. But here Abraham is set before us as the righteous man, the truly good and godly man. He is godlike in his concern for justice and for mercy and, in particular, in his concern for others beside himself, for the reputation of God and for the life of others. And not just for others whom he had reason to know and love – his family, for example – but people in general, for human beings as human beings. If we would be the people God would have us to be, we must aspire to be like Abraham in his concern for others, his sympathy for others, and his commitment to doing right by others.

That is true righteousness according to Genesis 18! And that is our calling as the people of God, both for our own lives and for the lives of our children whom we are to teach to do righteousness and justice: to keep the way of the Lord. It’s my great weakness. I know it is, this lack of care and concern for other people, even for the honor of the Lord. I suspect it’s your greatest weakness too. You may not think of it as such, but I suspect a little contemplation and reflection will prove to you that it is. But here, near the very beginning of the Bible, we are taught and shown that this care and concern and sympathy with others and for others ought to be something we aspire to make our strength. This must be the standard: to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, which is to say among other things, but perhaps chief among them, caring for the lives and destinies of other people beside ourselves! This must be the standard by which we measure ourselves; it is for this grace we must pray and work. Consider Abraham interrogating the Almighty and try to find yourself in that picture, and don’t stop until you can.