The second half of Genesis 18 is the polar opposite of the first. The first half speaks of intimacy and fellowship, and the second of condemnation and destruction. God has “heard the outcry” against the wickedness of Sodom and has purposed to wipe it out.
A number of responses spring to mind, but the first one is to ask just what is God saying to us through this story?
No doubt the central lesson of our passage deals with the character of God. It tells us, in the first place, about his knowledge. Previously, Hagar encountered a God who both “sees and hears.” And here is a specific instance: the ways of men are not hidden from their creator. How could it not be so?
Do you remember that question that God asked Adam: Where are you? It wasn’t really a spatial or geographical piece of knowledge that was sought: it was a spiritual location. Where are you- in relation to me? Subsequent questions make that clear: Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten the fruit which I forbade you? These are spiritual indicators.
God knows where we are, and he certainly knew where Sodom was. Sin is never a surprise to him. He is not numbed into shock and horror by the surprise of our sinfulness.
But it needs dealing with.
I remember a Saturday long ago, playing in the woods with my brother and a friend. We had each got muddy and torn clothing and gashed knees. We presented ourselves at the back door of our house in reverse order of uncleanness. The idea was to break the bad news to my mother gently. My brother went first and we heard the sigh and resignation as he was packed off to the bathroom. My friend went next. A different kind of expostulation. Oh dear. What will your mother say. Let’s see if we can get those trousers mended. And then moi. I was the grand finale. I remember her gaze travelling down my little body. Worrying about the blood, cross about the mud, furious about the ripped shirt – a whole cornucopia of emotions- but she wasn’t surprised!
God is not surprised by our waywardness. But it needs dealing with.
And this is justice. Justice means a fair dealing with wrongdoing. God will not shrug at sin. He will not brush our mess under the carpet, but deal with it; just as my mother had to scrub –with a merciless enthusiasm- the mud from my wounds before the plaster was applied.
God will always do what is right.
And this is the point at which Abraham began to explore the character of God.
On the basis of God’s justice.
And where does mercy stop and justice begin? Abraham’s whole conversation is based on the question in verse 25, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
But what is “right”?
My mother’s role was to deal with a situation. She didn’t leave us in our dirt and discomfort. And my friend received different (kinder!) treatment because he did not belong to our family.
Mercy and justice are interwoven. It can be complex. But we have to see God’s mercy too in this passage. We see God’s mercy most clearly in this one fact: he would have spared the city for only ten righteous people.
It’s like a picture of street trading, with Abraham bargaining for a cheaper and cheaper cost. Would you destroy the whole city if there are fifty righteous people there? I KNOW you wouldn’t! There’s no way someone like you would sweep away the good and the bad together! What about forty-five? Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten….?
For ten I would not destroy the city.
This is a picture of intercession: the first recorded in the Bible. Intercession simply means standing in for someone else in prayer. Praying for a situation. But, it begs the further question: Does prayer change things?
Since God knows all things from beginning until the end, how can prayer change God’s mind? But it may change our mind: it developed Abraham’s understanding of God and encouraged his participation in what God was doing. Then the Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? And God’s answer was No: I’ll bring him into the discussion.
But why? It seems that God allowed Abraham to intercede in order to reveal his mercy, to make the point so that Abraham would know that God takes no pleasure in destroying the wicked.
And also: it shows the power of “righteous” people praying. Ten people can save a city! Think of that!
The bottom line had come to this: ten righteous would have saved Sodom. That’s all. Just ten righteous people to save a city of (according to the archaeologists) a quarter-million people.
I’m sure you know the familiar verse in Proverbs: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people,” (Prov 14:24); but there’s a less well-known verse further on “When the righteous triumph, there is great elation; but when the wicked rise to power, men go into hiding” (Prov 28:12).
Perhaps that is what happened in Sodom. Wicked men had risen to power and the righteous had gone into hiding. Whatever influence they once had for good had been dissipated by the overwhelming power of evil.
It happens, doesn’t it? Think of Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaking out against the treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany (and accepting the consequences). Think of Martin Luther King speaking against racial inequality in sixties USA.
And today, is it any different?
When do we speak out?
My conviction is that when we do speak out, we should have thought things through carefully and clearly. I think that we should always focus on issues, and never personalities. Second: we should pick our battles carefully, and occasionally (rather than ranting all the time). Third, I think we need to look locally first, rather than engaging at every level. And fourth, crucially, we must give others the right to disagree.
Having said all that, I know that my main focus is to introduce people to Jesus, so I don’t want to get knocked off that course. However, Jesus was never shy of speaking up on moral issues. It’s where we live, all the time.
But the story from Genesis 18 speaks to me to proceed with courage and with prayer.
I ask you, Lord, to fill me with a moral courage and with a commitment to prayer. I know that without prayer, my words and actions will come to nothing. And without your courage I cannot stand at all.
I see too, Father, that it is not the presence of evil that brought your judgement on Sodom, but the absence of good people.
You wanted to spare them.
Lord, what do you see when you see our city? Are you waiting for our prayers? I don’t mistake your patience for your lack of concern
I realise too, Lord, that if they will not hear me speak, they cannot stop me praying.
Salt for healing.
Light for shining.