God judges rightly

Slices

Prepare

Do you have real exchanges with God? Family conversations sometimes involve raised voices and slamming of doors – but love preserves the relationship. Thank God that we are part of his family today.

Bible passage

Genesis 18:16–33

Abraham pleads for Sodom

16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down towards Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17 Then the Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’

20 Then the Lord said, ‘The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.’

22 The men turned away and went towards Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: ‘Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’

26 The Lord said, ‘If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.’

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: ‘Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?’

‘If I find forty-five there,’ he said, ‘I will not destroy it.’

29 Once again he spoke to him, ‘What if only forty are found there?’

He said, ‘For the sake of forty, I will not do it.’

30 Then he said, ‘May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?’

He answered, ‘I will not do it if I find thirty there.’

31 Abraham said, ‘Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?’

He said, ‘For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.’

32 Then he said, ‘May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?’

He answered, ‘For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.’

33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

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Explore

We can only speculate about the details of this extraordinary and dramatic scene. The first section (vs 17–19) seems to be delivered by God as a soliloquy which Abraham is prevented from hearing. But then (v 20) Abraham is fully briefed about the serious peril facing Sodom and Gomorrah, and he is provoked to action (v 23). 

The cities face investigation and possible disaster because of their sin for which they are collectively responsible. Their sin is not specified here (although there are definite clues later on), but it is so ‘grievous’ (v 20, NIV) that God’s action to sweep them away is justified. This makes Abraham’s bold intervention before God all the more remarkable. 

Of course, this is no different from what happens when any Christian prays. Our intercession matters – and it changes things. The presence of a few righteous people in these cities would have saved them (v 32), though such people couldn’t be found and the cities were destroyed (19:24,25). Let us never forget that the presence of a few praying believers can save a city or a nation from God’s terrible judgement. 

Author
David Bruce

Respond

‘Lord, may I renew my commitment to pray regularly and with real concern for my community. Remind me of the effect of my interventions with you – that you listen, and that what I pray matters greatly. Amen.’

Deeper Bible study

Show us, Lord, that you welcome our questions and that prayer involves more than passive acceptance of whatever happens in the world.

The earlier comment that these chapters teach us about prayer applies especially to this remarkable passage. It opens by allowing us to overhear God’s private thoughts concerning his relationship with Abraham (vs 17–19). These words immediately set up a tension between the universal reach of the salvation, which has begun with the choice of the patriarch, and the destruction and death that is about to be visited upon the cities of the plain. 

This tension is immediately recognised by Abraham and prompts the prayer in which the issue of divine justice is raised before God, reverently yet with extraordinary boldness. Commentators observe that verse 22 should be translated ‘the Lord stood still before Abraham’, indicating God’s openness to his people and suggesting that prayer is a dialogue. Abraham takes full advantage of this and, in a manner which anticipates the book of Job, challenges the Lord to act consistently with the nature of his own revealed character. The fundamental question underlying the whole conversation concerns the justice and mercy of God and how the destruction of entire cities and their populations can be consistent with his righteousness. The question is no less urgent today in the era of nuclear weapons when we hear political talk of raining death and destruction indiscriminately upon entire cities.

The crucial lesson about prayer that we derive from this passage is that it may take the form of questioning God, even of wrestling with him, about the perceived contradictions between his holy and gracious nature and actions attributed to him which appear inconsistent with his justice. This text and the tragically neglected biblical tradition of lament allow us the freedom to articulate our doubts and struggles before the throne of grace. 

Grant us the liberty of your children to speak freely and honestly with you, Lord, knowing that you understand our doubts and struggles.

Author
David Smith

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