The Politics of Divine Judgment and Mercy—Genesis 18:20-32 (Alastair Roberts)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

In the narrative of Abraham’s conversation with God concerning the destruction of Sodom we find an example of the faithful fulfilment of the calling of the people of God. We are to be those who seek to preserve the world from condemnation by our righteous and life-giving presence within it, tenaciously refusing to abandon it to its destruction.

20 Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21 I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” 22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.

23 Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”

In company with its sister city, Gomorrah, Sodom has become a potent and divisive symbol of a sexually licentious society and the terrible retribution that is fitting to it. Traditionally connected with homosexuality to the point of eponymity, Sodom and the biblical passages concerning it have been fraught topics in more recent theological debate. Its memory is not infrequently invoked in populist conservative Christian political commentary, where the destruction of Sodom for its supposed characteristic vice is used to justify attributing recent calamities to divine retribution upon America for its sexual and political sins.

The use of Sodom and Gomorrah as fearful examples of divine judgment is not foreign to Scripture itself. Indeed, Jude 7 claims that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was on account of their sexual immorality and that, through the judgment that fell upon them, they were set forth as an example of divine vengeance, anticipatory symbols of a final apocalypse of God’s justice (cf. 2 Peter 2:6).

In Ezekiel 16:46-52, the prophet presents Sodom as a ‘sister’ and an example to Jerusalem, claiming that Sodom was destroyed on account of its pride, fullness, idleness, indifference to the poor, and abominations, and makes the startling argument that Jerusalem’s sins eclipse those of its more notorious sibling. Comparisons between Sodom and the people of Israel are common in prophetic declamations, in both the Old and New Testaments (Isaiah 1:9-10; 3:9; Jeremiah 23:14; Lamentations 4:6; Amos 4:11; Matthew 10:15; 11:23-24; Revelation 11:8). Sodom is, as it were, the textbook example of the divinely imposed fate that befalls a society that has descended into vicious decadence, morally inured in its sybaritic pleasures and heedless both to the word of YHWH and to the cries of the poor.

The exemplary significance of Sodom is underlined in a different fashion by the striking figural details within the Genesis narrative concerning it. Through such details, the story of Sodom comes to stand for something much greater than itself, its voice passing beyond the narrow constraints of its immediate context to enter a rich scriptural resonance chamber. Such biblical narrative possesses a ‘musical’ character, whereby it exceeds its particular temporal location, being expressive of some of the deepest themes that pervade divinely orchestrated history.

These themes are most noticeable in a slew of anticipatory allusions to the Exodus, the judgment and deliverance that stands at the heart of Israel’s scriptural self-understanding. Here are some representative instances:

  1. YHWH appears in a human-like angelic form and consults with a prophetic leader of his people.
  2. YHWH appears to Abraham by a tree, as he later appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Genesis 18:1; cf. Exodus 3:2-3).
  3. Abraham twice refers to YHWH’s ‘passing by’, employing the characteristic verb of the Passover (18:3, 5; cf. Exodus 12:12-13).
  4. There is attention drawn to the doorway in connection with the firstborn son and the opening of the womb (18:9-11; cf. Exodus 4:22-23; 12–13).
  5. YHWH speaks of the outcry that has come up against an evil and oppressive political power, and of his coming down to address the situation (18:20-21; cf. Exodus 3:7-9).
  6. YHWH/the Angel of YHWH is associated with two messengers who go into the condemned city or nation as commissioned agents of testing, judgment, and deliverance (18:2, 16, 22; 19:1; cf. Exodus 4:14-17).
  7. A night-time meal with unleavened bread is prepared (19:3; cf. Exodus 12:8, 15-20).
  8. There is a threat to the family’s life at the doorway, which becomes the site of angelic protection to those eating inside, while those outside are judged (19:4-11; cf. Exodus 12:21-23).
  9. The righteous, led by the two messengers, flee the city as the morning dawns (19:12-17; cf. Exodus 12:31ff.).
  10. They are instructed to flee to ‘the mountain’ (19:17; cf. Exodus 3:12).

The above has been a lengthy preamble to the discussion of this week’s lectionary reading. Yet it provides important background: only as we appreciate the exemplary and, indeed, paradigmatic significance of YHWH’s judgment upon Sodom, both within current discourse and in scriptural witness will our current passage be given the exemplary and paradigmatic significance that it too merits by virtue of its connection with that event. Approaching our lectionary reading in such a light, I believe that we can identify four paradigmatic principles concerning divine judgment with general application.

First, the people of God are actively to seek the good of the nations. In the verses that immediately precede our reading, YHWH gives his rationale for speaking with Abraham concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,

‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’

YHWH’s purpose in calling Abraham was that he might become a great nation, whose greatness was most powerfully manifest in the fact that all other nations would be blessed through him. Abraham and his descendants were to be agents of blessing, through ‘doing righteousness and justice.’ Introduced in such a manner, it is implied that YHWH’s determination to consult with Abraham concerning Sodom and Gomorrah is driven, not by a precipitous urge to bring destruction, but to prepare Abraham to bring blessing through the pursuit of justice and righteousness.

Second, the prophetic people are admitted to the divine council. In Amos 3:7, the prophet declares, ‘Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.’ The prophet has access to the council of YHWH, and their intercession shapes the determinations that the council reaches. We see such an incident in the vision of Isaiah 6. The prophet speaks on behalf of the divine council to the people, and speaks on behalf of the people within the divine council. In Genesis 18, Abraham is made a participant within this council, given the prophetic privilege and responsibility of a role in the council’s deliberations. Already this hints at the fact that Israel’s future greatness and vocation as an agent of blessing may be wrought, less by military might and national splendor, than by prophetic faithfulness, witness, and the pursuit of justice through intercession (cf. Jeremiah 1:9-10). As a prophetic people, Israel was to become an advocate for the nations.

Third, God’s mercy outstrips our expectations. At first glance, it may appear that Abraham and YHWH are haggling over the number of people for whose sake YHWH will have mercy upon Sodom. Yet the presumed negotiations do not play out in anything like the manner we might expect.

YHWH does not counter Abraham’s inquiry concerning the fifty righteous with a declaration of his willingness to spare the city for the sake of hundred righteous. There is no alternation of competing terms, steadily converging on a mutually acceptable figure. No, not a single one of Abraham’s requests meets with the slightest resistance. Fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, even ten: YHWH would spare Sodom for even ten righteous.

The assumption that God is eager to condemn and that mercy can only be wrangled or finagled out of him with considerable difficulty is punctured beyond repair. God is rich in and delights to show mercy. As the prophets of YHWH are to communicate his grace and mercy to others, he trains them to become partisans of this grace and mercy, those accustomed to petitioning and pursuing it. Where they become eager to bring punishment, as the prophet Jonah was, they are challenged and corrected.

Fourth, God’s justice is seen in preserving, not just the righteous, but others for the sake of the righteous. It is interesting to observe that Abraham doesn’t simply beseech God for the preservation of the righteous of the city of Sodom, but for the preservation of the entire city for their sakes. The slaying of the righteous with the wicked is, Abraham argues, inconsistent with God’s justice, as he grounds his case upon God’s character. When Lot and the small number of his family were delivered from the city, the city was condemned to destruction, yet while they remained, the whole city was protected on their account.

These principles have enduring relevance for Christian witness in society and politics. As the children of Abraham, we are called to be agents of blessing to all of the nations of the world. As a people of prayer, anointed by the Spirit of Pentecost, we are commissioned to petition the divine council on behalf of the nations and rulers of the world. Praying for the good and the justice of our rulers and nations is a primary dimension of the Church’s social and political vocation. God has set us apart to seek his mercy for the sake of others.

We are to be those who seek to preserve the world from condemnation by our righteous and life-giving presence within it, tenaciously refusing to abandon it to its destruction. In prayer, in labor for justice, in pursuit of righteousness, in bearing of witness, we stay judgment and bring blessing, confident in the strength of divine mercy.


Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.

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