The formal title of this lesson is “Faith and Doubt,” but the twists and turns in the complex narrative comprising Genesis 18-19 are worthy of a more dramatic title. How about “Debate, Destruction and Deliverance”?
The story begins in chapter 18, where three men appear before Abraham, who is sitting at his tent entrance. Abe prepares a lavish meal for them, and they promise that his wife, Sarah, will have a son.
We don’t hear about Sodom until 18:16 when the divine visitors (as they turn out to be) head off for Sodom and Gomorrah because of the complaints against their “grave sin,” which must be punished. However, one visitor — Yahweh, the Lord — stays behind and stands before Abraham (18:22).
Then begins a remarkable conversation that raises profound ethical questions and provides both the backdrop to and contrast with Sodom’s destruction in chapter 19. Using the ancient practice of bartering, Abe takes the initiative.
“Yahweh, are you really going to wipe out the whole city? What if there are 50 righteous people there?” Forty? Thirty? Twenty?
Abe bargains Yahweh down to promising to save Sodom if only 10 righteous people live there.
I used to be amazed at this vignette. How could Abraham have the audacity to argue with God — and get God to agree with him? If we try that today, God never answers back and agrees with us!
But Walter Bruggeman’s commentary on Genesis suggests this conversation represents a more advanced theology about God than does the following older story of the total destruction of Sodom. Abraham is asking whether righteous people must suffer because of the wicked. Is sin more powerful than righteousness, or is it the other way around?
Though Yahweh comes around to Abe’s perspective, Gen. 19:1-28 reverts to a theology of retribution illustrated by the destruction of Sodom, possibly by volcano or earthquake. No doubt it was included because of Lot’s family’s rescue (19:15-26). Unfortunately, this older view is alive and well today in our prison system, or when some preachers use the fear of hell to pressure people to repent, or when a hurricane is explained as punishment for sexual sin.
Much as I prefer to study the Bible in its larger literary contexts, I suspect the reason the printed lesson focuses only on Lot’s family is because that part relates to the overarching theme of our fall quarter: “Responding to God’s Grace.” The last verse, 19:29, says that “when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham.” Just as Abram and Sarai (and Lot) had been called out of their pagan culture by God’s grace (Gen 12:1-5), so Abe’s nephew Lot and family were rescued from a dying city by grace.
There is much more to learn from the rich narrative of Genesis 18-19. The theme of hospitality ties Abraham in 18:1-8 with Lot in 19:1-3, actions that result in Lot’s rescue. We could explore the tradition of ancient walled towns closing their gates at sundown for protection and punishing strangers who are left inside. Both here and in Judges 19, gang rape is used or threatened as a weapon against travelers who trespass this custom. (Although Sodom has often symbolized what we call male homosexuality, gang rape is a crime of domination, unrelated to same-sex attraction.)
Questions for discussion:
— Yahweh and Abraham sound like conversational peers in 18:22-33. Why doesn’t God talk with us the same way today?
— How common today is a retributive theology that explains natural disasters as God’s punishment for sin?
Since retiring from teaching New Testament at Messiah College, Reta Halteman Finger adjuncts at Eastern Mennonite University, is a contributing editor at Sojourners magazine and writes a bimonthly Bible study blog, Reta’s Reflections, at eewc.com.