Friday, July 19, 2013

How Low Will God Go? (Genesis 18:32)

How many faithful people did Abraham need to find in Sodom in order for the Lord not to destroy it? Ten (Genesis 18:32)

After openly debating whether to confide in Abraham (Genesis 18:16-19; John 15:15), God decides to inform the patriarch that the outcry against Sodom has warranted an investigation (Genesis 18:20-21). Accurately inferring that the city’s destruction is imminent, Abraham pleads for its survival (Genesis 18:23-32). He begins his plea with a question: “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18:23 NASB)

Abraham does not wait for a reply. Instead he applies for a reprieve in the event that fifty righteous citizens can be found (Genesis 18:24-25). W. Sibley Towner (b. 1933) reads:

In the spirited colloquy between the Lord and Abraham that follows, the patriarch bargains tenaciously for the lives of the innocent people of Sodom. He raised the possibility that fifty righteous person might become “collateral damage” when God blitzes the city. He even hints the Lord would be unjust. The tone, if not the literal text, of Genesis 18:25 says “Shame on you!” (Towner, Genesis (Westminster Bible Companion), 171)
After being assured that the city would be spared for the sake of fifty innocents (Genesis 18:26), Abraham presses his luck. He repeats the question, reducing the requisite number by five. This process is repeated through six iterations as the patriarch gradually dwindles the minimum from 50 to 45 to 40 to 30 to 20 to 10 (Genesis 18:24-32). The text takes on a tit-for-tat pace as after each reduction, God reassures Abraham that Sodom would be spared if it met the stated requirements.

Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) characterizes:

The numbers of righteous reduce by five’s, from fifty to forty (Genesis 18:24, 28a, 29a) and then ten’s from forty to ten (Genesis 18:30a, 31a, 32a). Interspersed are the Lord’s speeches, like a refrain, repeating the equivalent number in each case. This give-and-take arrangement, which in this case means Abraham “takes” and the Lord “gives,” exhibits the Lord’s grace and also Abraham’s compassion for the recalcitrant city. (Matthews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 (New American Commentary), 229)
Stuart Briscoe (b. 1930) compares:
He...engaged in a dialogue with the Lord which at first sight is reminiscent of an American tourist trying to beat down an Arab shopkeeper in the bazaars of the Old City of Jerusalem. He got a guarantee from the Lord that if there were fifty righteous people in Sodom the city would not be destroyed for their sake, but he recognized that he was overestimating the spiritual condition of Sodom. He brought down his figure by increments until the Lord promised that if there were ten righteous Sodom would be saved from judgment. The Lord had proved once again that His commitment to righteousness was inviolate. That if His servant was capable of moral integrity the Lord Himself was no stranger to rectitude and could indeed be trusted always to do what is right. (Briscoe, Genesis (Mastering the Old Testament), 166)
Perhaps sensing the time for bartering has reached its limit, the conversation abruptly ends; Abraham stops at ten and God departs (Genesis 18:32-33).
Then he [Abraham] said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the ten.” (Genesis 18:32 NASB)
It would appear that Abraham seeks to spare the city for the sake of a few good men. Miguel A. De La Torre (b. 1958) cautions:
As we envision all of the town’s men before Lot’s house we are forced to ask: Where are the women of the city? We know by Genesis 19:4 that the men were wicked, but what about the women? When Abraham asked God...if ten righteous men could be found would the city be spared, we wonder what would have happened if Abraham would simply have asked for ten righteous persons? Patriarchy blinds us to the women’s presence in the story. All the men may have been wicked, but what about their wives? Their daughters? Is the city’s salvation or destruction based solely on the faithfulness, or lack thereof, of men? Do women who may have been righteous remain invisible? (De La Torre, Genesis: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 191)
Though bold enough to negotiate with God, Abraham is cautious in his interactions with the divine. Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) analyzes:
The bargaining, concerning the requisite number of just people to save the city, falls essentially into three parts, bringing the number first to fifty, then to thirty, and finally to ten. The language of just and wicked/evil is moral, but in this legal debate, such language also has the legal meaning of innocent and guilty. The issue: Does God punish the innocent? Abraham is careful. In pleading the case he “deploys a whole panoply of the abundant rhetorical devices of ancient Hebrew for expressing self-abasement before a powerful figure” (Robert Alter [b. 1935], 82). (Brodie, Genesis As Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 249)
R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) applies:
As Abraham explored the fate of Sodom with God, beautiful things emerged about him and his God. The six “what ifs”—What if...fifty?...forty-five?...forty?...thirty?...twenty...ten?—are instructive. In all of this Abraham “hangs on to God’s skirt like a burr.” He wrestled with God like Jacob did with the angel (cf. Genesis 32:22-32). And amazingly, Abraham’s boldness grew, for notice that the last three petitions lowered the number of necessary righteous by tens! Jesus would teach his disciples that “they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). This first patriarch and disciple set the pace. And we should note that Abraham’s prayers were not without effect. As the cities of the plain went up in flames, we read tellingly that “God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overflow” (Genesis 19:29). (Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing (Preaching the Word), 266)
Conspicuously, Abraham willingly breaks off the negotiations when he arrives at ten righteous citizens (Genesis 18:32). Gordon Wenham (b. 1943) comments:
Clearly Abraham feels he has reached the limit of what he dare ask. He opens with the conciliatory “Do not be angry” (Genesis 18:30) and asks to speak “just once more.” And again his request is granted, albeit with the same threatening formula as in Genesis 18:31: “I shall not ruin it.” (Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (Word Biblical Commentary), 53)
Terence E. Fretheim (b. 1936) inquires:
Why does Abraham stop at ten and not take the dialogue with God all the way down to one? Or why does Abraham not begin with the number ten (or one)? If he wanted to focus on the issue of justice in a strict sense, the presence of one righteous person would be sufficient to make his case. That is to say, for even one righteous person to die in the course of the judgment on the wicked would be unjust. Because Abraham does not begin with the lowest numbers, he must want to make another point than one of strict divine justice...Why, then, are fifty or ten righteous persons enough to spare the city, but, apparently, one to nine persons is not? It may be that the number ten represents the smallest group (some think of a minyan) and that a smaller number would be dealt with as individuals, who could be (and were) led out of the city. Nahum Sarna [1923-2005] suggests an appropriate direction for reflection. Ten represents the limit of the number of righteous individuals who could outweigh the cumulative evil of the community. Ten constitutes the “minimum effective social entity.” I prefer the language of “critical mass.” (Fretheim, Abraham: Trials of Family and Faith, 83-84)
Leon R. Kass (b. 1939) observes:
Curiously, Abraham on his own and voluntarily—“I will speak yet but this once” (Genesis 18:32)—stops the bargaining at ten. This is strange. On the principle that has driven him from the start, and that has apparently been supported at every turn by God’s response—namely, that the righteous ought not suffer—Abraham might have pressed the case to its logical conclusion: to spare the city for the sake of one righteous man. Why does Abraham break off at ten? Why does he not push all the way to one?...Abraham may have been afraid or ashamed to push to the limit, either out of a gradually increasing fear that God will judge him presumptuous or out of embarrassment at revealing a personal interest in his one kinsman. In addition, encouraged by God’s concessions, he might have become increasingly moved by feelings of awe. But fear, shame, and awe aside, Abraham may have broken off the bargaining because he may have learned something. Encouraged by God’s acceptance of his conditions, he is gradually brought to adopt the divine perspective. Like God, Abraham has begun to think about justice for a whole city. (Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, 324)
Much has been made of why Abraham ceases his bartering at ten. Many have pointed to concern for his nephew, Lot, a resident of Sodom (Genesis 14:12), as the explanation for Abraham’s vested interest in the doomed city. In fact, this episode marks Abraham’s second intervention for Sodom and the first was clearly undertaken in deference to Lot (Genesis 14:14). Still, there were fewer than ten members of Lot’s family (Genesis 19:12-14).

Howard F. Vos (b. 1925) conjectures:

He never got so personal or selfish as to pray for relatives only. He stopped at ten, apparently presuming that Lot’s influence would guarantee at least that many righteous persons. But evidently such was not the case, as subsequent developments would demonstrate. (Vos, Genesis (Everyman’s Bible Commentary), 90)
Burton L. Visotzky (b. 1951) critiques:
Maybe Abraham got shy because his naked self-interest at saving his favorite nephew would be all too clear. When self-interest, rather than true justice, is the driving force in the bargaining, perhaps it is doomed to fail. Although it must be noted with divine irony that even as Sodom melts down, Abraham’s seed gets saved through his clout. So God destroys the city and still saves Lot. But what lesson might Abraham take from this outcome, then? (Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics, 65)
George W. Coats (1936-2006) determines:
The point is not that Lot and his family are righteous. In the flood story, Noah survives disaster in part because of his righteousness (Genesis 7:1). But Lot is not labeled righteous, here or in chapter 19. In these negotiations, Lot never enters the discussion as a reason for appealing to the Lord for mercy. The issue is simply the contrast between wicked Sodom and the righteousness that cannot be found there (cf. Genesis 13:13). Moreover, the entire dialogue carries out the plan cited in Genesis 18:21. The grave sin is as grave as the depiction in Genesis 18:20. Thus, the negotiations constitute the probe of Yahweh into the character of the city, and the city proves void of righteousness. The unit sets the stage for chapter 19. (Coats, Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature (Forms of the Old Testament Literature), 141)
If the halting of Abraham’s petition is not connected to Lot, then why does he stop? Many explanations have been posited. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) surveys:
Joseph Blenkinsopp [b. 1927] (“Abraham and the Righteous of Sodom,” Journal of Jewish Studies 33 [1982] 1230) summarizes suggestions of earlier commentators. He notes the suggestion of Ludwig Schmidt [b. 1924] (De Deo, pp. 151-156) that 50 and 10 have a special significance as military and judicial subunits. Schmidt’s proposal is that 50 stands for an extended family and 10 for the smallest unit constituting a group in the city. Perhaps for Abraham 10 was a sufficient figure to make his point, and to go beyond that number was unnecessary. Walter Brueggemann [b. 1933] (Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 [1985] 410) says that “In its outcome the narrative is thoroughly Jewish because the bottom line is the minimum often, a minyan.” James L. Crenshaw [b. 1934] (A Whirlpool of Torment: Israelite Traditions of God as an Oppressive Presence, OBT [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984], p. 20 n. 38) suggests that in halting at 10, Abraham “stopped short of pushing the deity to the limit.” (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 24-25)
Martin Kessler (b. 1927) and Karel Deurloo (b. 1936) add:
Abraham counted off from fifty to ten, but to complete the number of six questions, the narrator had him say fifty minus five, which YHWH, who knows his math, calculated as forty-five. Abraham could not go beyond ten. In Judaism, ten is the minimal congregation of the righteous (minyan), which could represent the whole city. After six days of work, the seventh day is YHWH’s. Thus, Abraham let the seventh possibility open for YHWH, for he remained concerned about Lot. Only in that seventh possibility would Abraham’s intercession have any effect at all (Genesis 19:29), since the other six had failed. (Kessler and Deurloo, Commentary on Genesis: The Book of Beginnings, 116)
Tellingly, the basis of Abraham’s appeal is God’s justice, not the city’s righteousness. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) outlines:
It appears that Abraham’s concern is twofold. His first concern, as expressed in Genesis 18:23, is whether Yahweh would indiscriminately kill the innocent along with the guilty. Thus, in Genesis 18:23 the emphasis is on the preservation of the saddîq. But in Genesis 18:24-32. Abraham expands his concern to include the preservation of the city/the place (hā‘îr/lammāqôm) because of the presence of the saddîq...Nowhere does Abraham challenge God’s evaluation of Sodom’s moral turpitude. The judgment is not up for debate. Nor does he at any point turn to Sodom to urge repentance. Rather, he turns to God to ask for divine mercy. (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 24-25)
Abraham fully admits that he is rooting for the minority to win the day. Laurence A. Turner interprets:
Note that Abraham does not plead for the salvation of a righteous remnant from the destruction of Sodom. Abraham knows his nephew better than that (see Genesis 13:8-13). In addition, Abraham has met the Sodomites first hand (Genesis 14:1-24), which has surely made him aware of the information divulged to the reader in Genesis 13:13, ‘Now the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord’. Knowing this, he may well wonder what corrupting effect they have had on Lot. As a result, Abraham pleads for the salvation of the whole city, on the basis of the vicarious righteousness of a minority of 10. In his pleading, Abraham divides the inhabitants of Sodom into two mutually exclusive groups: the righteous and the wicked (Genesis 18:23, 25). Abraham’s plea for the vicarious salvation of the whole city means that regardless of whether Lot is deemed to be righteous or wicked, he will be saved along with the rest of the city—if there are 10 righteous Sodomites (see Genesis 7:1-10, 19:30-38). (Turner, Genesis (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 82)
Regardless of his motives, Abraham’s actions are groundbreaking. This dialogue marks a major turning point in salvation history (Genesis 18:23-32). David Rosenberg (b. 1943) explains:
Tracing Abraham’s drama of these tentative iterations of a final agreement—to spare the cities if even ten innocent people can be found here—... [leaves] this danger of allowing evil to persist. Ten innocent individuals existing in Sodom certainly will not erase that evil. But Abraham is articulating what has never been accessible in any cosmic theater: the decision about evil is no longer a singular drama in the mind of a god. Now, it is one that has been joined in by humankind; that is what makes it more complex and costly...Abraham is not merely balancing moral weights on Sumerian scales here, but actively engaging with Yahweh in the creation of a realistic theater. Similarly, the vulnerability assumed by Yahweh in turn is staggering, for while ten innocents cannot erase or undo the evil, evil can erase or undo creation...It is now up to mortal men and women to negotiate and explore the way of God within a cosmic theater, and not to simply struggle with the dictates of a god. (Rosenburg, Abraham: The First Historical Biography, 218-19)
In permitting Abraham to intercede for Sodom, God is allowing humans the opportunity to shape history. And humanity has had that option ever since.

Why does Abraham intercede for Sodom? Is he more concerned with divine justice or his nephew’s fate? Are you concerned with international affairs? Given that God has accepted every one of his propositions, why does Abraham stop at ten? Does Abraham’s dickering have any affect? Have you ever bartered with God? When have you interceded for another? Would God destroy the righteous with the wicked; does God tolerate collateral damage? How many innocent people were dwelling in Sodom? How many righteous residents would it have taken to spare the city?

The questions that God answers are not near as tantalizing as the one that the text leaves dangling: Would God sweep away the righteous with the wicked (Genesis 18:23)? Perhaps sensing this tension, Josephus (37-100) denotes that there are no righteous in Sodom (Antiquities 1.199). In moving the dialogue towards the negotiations, Abraham lets his initial question linger.

Some have speculated that Abraham leaves satisfied; the theological point having been made. Allen P. Ross (b. 1943) pinpoints:

This passage [Genesis 18:16-33] has most frequently (and legitimately) been treated for its emphasis on intercession; the predominant theme of the whole section, however, is justice. This motif grows out of the preceding narrative, which stressed that God was able to do whatever he chose to do. But would it be just? The answer to this question was a foregone conclusion, which Abraham’s intercession demonstrated. It is clear from the outset of the story that Abraham’s intercession was not going to alter the situation, for Sodom and Gomorrah deserved judgment. The narrator thus used the intercession to show that the destruction of the cities of the plain would be just. (Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis, 347)
Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971) writes:
The discontinuance of the conversation at “ten innocent” has given rise to many reflections...His refusal to go on from the ten innocent to five and finally to one, raises many questions need not mean that the conversation ends with an open question. Apparently Abraham and the narrator, at Yahweh’s answer in Genesis 18:32, reached a final limit, to ask beyond which did not occur to Abraham. Thereby, in our opinion, the narrative guards the uniqueness and marvel of the message about the one who brings salvation and reconciliation for “many” (Isaiah 53:5, 10); for this was not anything expected or inferred from men. Besides Isaiah 53, one should refer to Hosea 11:8-9 for the ultimate consequence not drawn in our conversation: God does not want to destroy, rather his heart ‘recoils”; he is as a holy one “in your midst”...The righteous one who redeems, the holy one is here not a man but God himself (Kurt Galling [1900-1987], Deutsche Theologie 1939, 86ff). (Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 214)
In contrast, Susan Brayford (b. 1950) suspects:
When God again admits he will not destroy on account of ten, Abraham perhaps wishes he could speak once again. However, he said he would not [Genesis 18:32]. Just in case Abraham decides to ask for more – or less, God stops speaking to Abraham and departs [Genesis 18:33]. Abraham, no longer having a conversation partner, returns to his place. Inasmuch as Abraham never again engages in an extended conversation with God, his ‘place’ is both literal (where he is living) and figurative (not equal to God). (Brayford, Genesis (Septuagint Commentary Series), 317)
As such, the text ends with Abraham’s initial inquiry unresolved. Robert Ignatius Letellier (b. 1953) notes:
Interestingly for the general structure of the whole narrative complex, the last answer “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it” (Genesis 18:32) is ambiguous since it resolves the tension provoked by Abraham’s last question but does not terminate the anxiety generated by Abraham’s intercession generally...The unresolved issues of Genesis 18 span the break with Genesis 19 and look to ensuing events for resolution. (Letellier, Day in Mamre, Night in Sodom: Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18 and 19, 51)
W. Lee Humphreys (b. 1939) expounds:
There it ends—at ten. “And Yahweh went as he finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place” (Genesis 18:33). Their dialogue ends, but we are not sure where we stand, for we are not told what the speakers think, know, or feel about it. The whole scene appears a bit askew upon reflection. Yahweh tells Abraham he will go down but does not go when Abraham does not pick up on his going. Abraham switches the issue from what Yahweh proposes to do to concern for Yahweh’s justice, and his nature as “judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25). Yahweh enters this new frame of reference, but in a most literal way that may well subvert it. The back and forth, then, in terms of such literal calculations, ends with a resolution in which little is resolved. (Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal, 122)
The question of the fate of the city that houses five or even one righteous soul is left for another day. This discussion will ultimately end with Jesus: One will be enough.

Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) interprets:

The discussion ends with a dismaying abruptness. First, its abruptness is striking because it ends at a figure of ten (Genesis 18:33). One might insist, if we were calculating mathematicians, that that ending shows there must be ten and that nine will not do. But, one would fail to see the point. Rather, the conversation breaks off because the point is established that the power of righteousness overrides evil. The dramatic exploration need not be carried further. Second, the narrative is abrupt because after the deep struggle of chapter 18 the stroy of chapter 19 goes ahead as though nothing is changed. That is likely because (1) chapter 19 is old traditional material that could not be altered in the telling and (2) because the dialogue of chapter 18 is a new theological probing that only raises a fresh question still to be pursued rather than reaching a firm conclusion as a basis for chapter 19. The possibility raised by Abraham is perhaps too radical. It is suggested and then left to germinate in the heart of God. The issue remains between new affirmation (Genesis 18:22-33) and old tradition (Genesis 19:1-28). The principle of a new righteousness is affirmed in Genesis 18:22-33. These verses (Genesis 19:1-28) sound as though the concern is only to rescue the innocent (Lot and his family) without a care for the guilty. The popular theology of Genesis 19:1-28 moves in the direction of individualism and will be easily accepted by conventional believers. Previously, Genesis 18:22-33 carries with it a more difficult theology that will be intellectually more demanding. It stands against the usual moralism of each receiving his or her due. It is the good news of Genesis 18:22-33 and not the convention of Genesis 19:1-28 that moves toward Jesus of Nazareth. And like a subtle reprise, even in the conventionalism of chapter 19, Genesis 19:29 adds one whisper from chapter 18. Lot is saved not by his righteousness but vicariously by the power of Abraham...By the new mathematics of Genesis 18:22-33 (and Genesis 19:29), one is enough to save (Romans 5:15-17). (Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 172-73)
R.R. Reno (b. 1959) deciphers:
As he presses God on behalf of the possible righteous residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, we see that those called to fellowship with God intercede as well. In this way Abraham foreshadows Moses, who intercedes on behalf of the sinful Israelites, as well as the Levitical priesthood that sacrifices on behalf of the people. Abraham even more clearly prefigures Christ. Abraham urges God to accept the righteousness of a few as sufficient for the salvation of the sinful many. Abraham stops at ten, but as the history of the covenant moves forward the righteousness of Christ alone is sufficient for the deliverance of all. Christ Jesus sits “at the right hand of God...[and] intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34). Christ is like Abraham, petitioning his Father on our behalf: “Suppose there was one man found righteous, wilt thou not spare the city of man for his sake?” (Reno, Genesis (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 186)
God will not only answer definitely that one righteous individual will be enough to save the populace, God will supply the One.

Do you think that Abraham regretted breaking off the conversation when he did or is he content with the conversation’s resolution? Is God more or less merciful than Abraham had imagined? What would the city’s fate have been if a lone righteous soul had been found in Sodom? What is the most impact one person has had on a community? What impact do you have on yours?

“One person can make a difference and every person should try.” - John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)