Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 9, Number 37, September 9 to September 15, 2007

Genesis 18:16-33

A Sermon




By Rev. Scott Lindsay



Back in 1993, when we were at our previous church plant, we had determined that year that we were going to have a weekend retreat, up in the Snowy Mountain Range, in Victoria. In preparation for that camp, we had planned out this great menu and so the day before we left for the camp, I ended up going to a local farmer's and butcher's market with one of our elders, Ken Hanna, to help him do some of the shopping for the food.

This was a real treat because Ken was a master shopper, not just because he knew all the right places for the best prices but because he was great at bargaining. Moreover, bargaining was the standard practice at this particular market place. Over here, that sort of thing doesn't happen very much but at the markets there, the price listed was NOT the price you ended up paying.

Therefore, all morning long, I just sort of tagged along behind him as he went from one booth to the next and he was just an artist at this sort of thing. He would stand there and laugh and argue and haggle and sometimes threaten to walk away - it was awesome to watch. In addition, on most occasions - not all of them - but on most of them he obtained his price. Moreover, we acquired all the food we needed, and saved a lot of money. If you've never been a part of that sort of thing I highly recommend it because its great to watch, especially when you're with someone who knows what they are doing.

Here's the thing about bargaining - it works because, as a writer named Cole says, "both people have something that the other person wants." You're standing there with money and across from you is a guy with 300 potatoes - or apples - or lamb chops - or whatever. Therefore, because you both have something that is valuable to the other person, there is a basis for the bargaining process to take place.

But it's a different situation to try and bargain when you don't really have anything to offer, when you're not really in any position to bargain. Yet, that's precisely the situation described in the verses before us this morning. God lets Abraham in on what is about to happen in some nearby cities and Abraham sets about petitioning and bargaining with God out of concern for what is about to take place. What happened there and what that story is all about will be the subject of our time together this morning. Before we look at that, however, let's pray together......

(Prayer) …. Father in Heaven, please help us now as we come together around your Word. Guide us by your Spirit so that we can understand the things we see and hear and so that we can prove that understanding by our application. It sounds almost crazy, but we actually believe and expect that you can and do shape and change people with truth. Please meet us in that expectation - and more. We ask this in Jesus' name, Amen. .... ( read passage)

Following directly on from the encounter with Abraham and Sarah in the previous passage, after sharing a meal in their camp, and after the reaffirmation of Sarah's imminent pregnancy, the Lord and his two angels get up from their meal and begin moving in the direction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham, being the good host that he is, walks along with them for a certain distance.

Moreover, as He is walking along, the Lord thinks to Himself and asks whether he should let Abraham in on what is about to take place in the nearby cities of Sodom of Gomorrah. Of course, the language used here is anthropomorphic - which simply means it is written with humankind in mind and with a view to helping mere people, like you and me, relate in some way to the thoughts and actions of a divine-being. And so Moses describes for us here - in what is surely an overly simplified manner - this event in which God is walking along thinking about whether he will give Abraham an "inside" angle on this specific part of his plans and purposes.

God decides that he will share some of what is going on with his servant, Abraham. Why? Well, for one thing, Abraham has a special relationship with God. He is "God's friend" - as the NT writer James confirms for us. Further, Abraham has been set apart by God to be the father of many nations and to teach his descendants to walk before God in a righteous and holy fashion. Moreover, what is about to take place in Sodom and Gomorrah will be - among other things - an eternal object lesson as to the wisdom of doing just that. However, it will not be an object lesson unless God makes it clear, before anything happens, that what is occurring is a direct consequence of God's judgment.

You see, if God had not decided to let Abraham in on what was about to happen, it is very likely that Abraham would have just gone about his business and looked up one day and noticed that there was smoke coming from the direction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This being the case, he might have concluded any number of things - he might have thought that there was some sort of brush fire, or that raiding armies had set fire to the city, or that some natural disaster had struck - who knows? However, God makes sure that the lesson potential of Sodom and Gomorrah is not lost on Abraham (or us) by letting him know - before anything happens - what is going through his mind and what he is doing.

Therefore, God lets Abraham know that he is sending the angels on ahead to check things out. He has "heard" that there is great evil taking place in these cities and the angels are going as his representatives to confirm this report. Now, again, you have to keep in mind the anthropomorphic nature of this language and, indeed, of this whole event. Clearly, God does not have to actually send anyone into a city in order to know what is going on there. God does not have to explore things to find them out. He just knows them. That is part of what it means to be God.

Nevertheless, God is concerned for Abraham, his servant and friend. God wants Abraham to know that His judgments are just and righteous. He wants Abraham to know that before He takes the extreme step of sending judgment upon entire cities He has carefully taken into account what is going on. He wants Abraham to know that his judgments are not capricious, fits of rage like what you might find among the so-called "gods" of some pagan religions. Instead, God's judgments are always the considered, measured, and justifiable response of a Holy God to real, known, evil.

And so, for Abraham's sake, God sends the angels on ahead to "check things out".. And not just for Abraham's sake but for the sake of Lot and his family - as the next passage will make clear. However, for now, the focus is on Abraham, and his need to see and believe that the judgments of God - even when they are terrible and severe - are nevertheless righteous and just.

Nevertheless, there's still more that God has in mind for Abraham. This becomes evident by the fact that, after he explains to Abraham what is going on, God sticks around. Whenever God hangs around, it is always for a reason — this was important to God, thus, we do not wish to miss this. You never just see God "hanging out" in the Bible. There is always something going on. In this story, he sends the angels on ahead, but he stays behind with Abraham. It is almost as if he is waiting for something. He does not have to wait long.

At the announcement of the investigation of Sodom and Gomorrah, and with the strong implication of impending judgment, Abraham becomes immediately concerned, for at least two reasons. He knows about the reputation of these cities and so is sure that the investigation will not turn out well for them. Moreover, he is also concerned because among the people of the city are Abraham's relatives - Lot and his family - and possibly others that might be regarded as un-deserving of being included in the judgment of God, at least in Abraham's view. Therefore, Abraham asks, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?"

Now it probably needs to be said at this point that when the word "righteous" is used here it is important not to read a full systematic theological definition of that word into this text. What do I mean by that? Simply this: In the language of our own day, whenever you and I talk about doctrine and theology and the word "righteous" is used, we typically use this word to mean something like "sinless" or "pure", or something like that. Moreover, we think of verses like Romans 3:10 which, quoting Psalm 14, says that "no one is righteous." Correspondingly, when we read such a thing, we understand what Paul is talking about - that before God, there is no one who stands un-affected and un-tainted by sin. We are all victims of Adam's fall and are guilty "in him." In that sense, no one is righteous. No one can stand before God and say that He owes them salvation or blessing or anything because of their own inherent goodness. Nobody can say that.

However, that sense of "righteous" is not the only one that appears in the Bible. There are other places which use the very same word to describe people who are regarded as righteous - not in an absolute, sinless sense but in another very real sense. Sometimes the Bible uses the word righteous to refer to people who are rightly-related toward God. They are loyal, but not sinless. They are his people and have a basic Godward orientation toward their life and are characterized as those who consistently pursue Him and His ways, even if they do not do so perfectly. It is in this sense, for example, that the New Testament talks about the person of Lot, in 2 Peter, describing him as a "righteous man" which, if you know Lot's story, you know he is far from sinless. It is this same sense that is used in Genesis 6, with regard to Noah, when it says,

Genesis 6:9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.

Now, to be sure, we understand that in the grand design of God all of God's people - from Adam onward - are covered and clothed in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ and when God's work within them is complete they do and will have lives and hearts that are congruent with that declared righteousness.

Nevertheless, that ultimate reality is not what is in view in these particular verses - even though it is true. What is in view here is what we have already seen - people who have a basic and consistently God-ward orientation to their belief and practice, a God-ward shape to their life. So, when Abraham says "Lord, if there are fifty righteous in the city" when he says that he is saying, "Lord, if there are fifty of your people in the city, will you destroy them with the wicked.? If there are fifty people who honor you as the true Creator and God - will you destroy them along with the wicked?"

This question, I believe, is the thing that God has stuck around for. He wants to give Abraham the opportunity to make an appeal for the sake of the righteous. As has already been said, God wants Abraham to know not only that what is about to happen to Sodom and Gomorrah "is" an act of divine judgment but that it is a just and righteous judgment. Moreover, in order for Abraham to know that, he has to be delivered of this notion that there are a number of righteous people still living in these cities.

And so God, just by sticking around, invites this dialogue - a dialogue that will serve an important role - after the fact - in helping Abraham to understand that there are not these masses of righteous people roaming around these cities and that, therefore, God's judgment has been just.

Therefore, Abraham approaches God, appealing to Him on the basis of His own justice and His own reputation, in other words, on the basis of his own character and asks God not to destroy the righteous with the wicked. Moreover, he begins his appeal by asking if the Lord will destroy the city if there are 50 righteous people there.

Now why he picks the number 50 is anybody's guess. Most likely Abraham probably felt that this was a "safe" number - that surely there were at least 50 righteous people to be found in this massive population. So, he asks if God would be willing to spare the city for the sake of 50 righteous people. The thing that Abraham is trying to find out is this: What is the minimum number of righteous people for whom you would be willing to spare this city? Is it 50? 45? What is it?

Now, the one thing you can never determine with great certainty in Bible reading is tone. An awful lot is communicated between people by the tone of their voice. Like when one of your kids comes and asks if they can have a cookie and you say, "yes." Ten minutes later they are back and they ask again and, you hesitate a bit, and say, "Okay." Then ten minutes later they are back and ask yet again. This time you respond, with a slight growl in your voice that says, "Yes, but if you ask me one more time, there's going to be trouble." And your kids - usually - pick up on this and they don't ask anymore. A lot gets communicated just by tone.

Tone is one thing that we can only guess at when we read passages in the Bible. Tone is something that I think about in this dialogue between Abraham and God. Here Abraham is, asking God if he will spare the city for the sake of fifty righteous people, and God responds that He will. I do wonder what the tone was and how it changed throughout this conversation and if, perhaps, as things went along, it became increasingly clear to Abraham that there was a limit to how much he could ask for.

So, Abraham asks for 50 and, when God responds to that, he ventures forward cautiously, asking if God will spare the city for the sake of 45 righteous. Again, God says that he will. This continues in systematic fashion until finally Abraham asks if God will spare the city for the sake of 10 righteous people. God says that he will. But at the number 10, Abraham stops asking.

Now he may have stopped because He realized from the way that God responded that He had reached the limit. Maybe there was something in the tone of God's voice that made it clear. Or, he may have stopped because he felt sure that the city would be spared now that all was required was finding 10 righteous people - surely that would be easy enough to do? Surely, there were that many in the city, right? Surely, out of this massive population, ten righteous could be found, right? Perhaps that was the reason the bargaining stopped.

But then again, perhaps that was not it at all. Perhaps it had nothing to do with the tone of God's voice. Because when you read the text carefully it seems that another possibility comes to the surface. Notice what verse 33 says,

... the Lord went his way when He was finished speaking with Abraham.

In other words, the impression is given that the bargaining stopped at 10, not so much because Abraham was finished asking - although he may have been - but because God had decided that the conversation was over. Now that the conversation is finished, God no longer sticks around, and they both go their separate ways.

How much further Abraham might have gone in the bargaining remains an open question, at least for now. At this stage at least, it would appear that the minimum number of righteous people for whom God would be willing to spare the wicked is 10. However, if the city is not spared, then Abraham will understand that God was right to send judgment since not even ten righteous people could be found in the entire place! That is where the story finishes.

Now, one of the significances of this story is its exemplary value. It is a story that illustrates God's concern for righteousness and which also shows him taking steps to respond to wickedness with judgment. This certainly would have been important for the original readers of this story. They were soon to be entering into the Promised Land and would be God's instrument of judgment on the wickedness to be found among the people there. In seeing the careful way in which God proceeded back in Abraham's day - investigating these cities through His angels - they would know that God would have exercised the same discretion with regard to the people who were about to be removed from the land before them. In addition, they would know that God's judgment upon these people would be just as accurate and equally deserved and that, therefore, their role in this whole matter was justifiable. In other words, they would know the rightness of what they were doing, and that would give them courage and conviction to carry out the tasks set before them. They would know something of God's amazing forbearance and mercy, that he was willing to withhold judgment on the masses for the sake of a handful of righteous - if they could be found. There was no hairpin trigger to God's wrath. It took a lot to get him going. All of this would have been crucial for them to know.

Moreover, let's face it, if you have been set the task of destroying nations and driving families from their homes wouldn't you want some assurance that what you were doing was right and just and absolutely okay with God? This story would help God's people to see that when the time came.

At the same time, seeing God's concern for righteousness would serve as a warning for them as they took their own place and settled their own cities in the Promised Land. Their God was a Holy God and would be just as concerned to see righteousness upheld and wickedness suppressed, even and especially among a people called by His name. The sorts of things that went on in places like Sodom and Gomorrah were not to take place among the people of God.

Moreover, these same realities are significant not only for God's people in Moses' day but also for us as latter day recipients of these same texts. We too need to know that the judgments of our God are just and right and are not the actions of a capricious, calloused, or insensible God but are, as we have already seen, the measured, carefully investigated, just responses of a Holy God to real evil. He does not just fly off the handle in a fit of rage, but takes His steps and makes His decisions on the basis of what is accurate and true and right. God is just - even when that justice is terrible to behold.

Having said that, we need to be careful here. It would be one thing for Abraham to say to someone - after Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed - that it was the judgment of God that brought this about. He could say that sort of thing with great certainty because he had a direct word from the Lord on that. However, it is quite another for you and I to make such absolute declarations without a similar word from the Lord. To be sure, it may be that some of what happens in our world "is" a direct, intentional act of judgment on God's part. I do not doubt that such things happen. However, it also may be that what we are witnessing on a given occasion is not so much an intentional, focused act of judgment as much as it is the general outworking of the broken-ness and fallen-ness that came into the world because of sin, and that will continue until Jesus returns. So, we need to be very leery of making pronouncements of judgment.

Well, in addition to this, we can also learn from this passage some things about prayer since, when you think about it, this is precisely what is going on here, right? We typically define prayer as "talking with God" - which is exactly what is going on here with Abraham. He is talking - that is, "praying" to God. This is a "conversational prayer" if ever there was one. Abraham is acting as a mediator for the sake of the righteous. He is pleading with God, interceding on behalf of other people. Moreover, remarkably, God responds to Abraham's prayers. He hears and responds to them.

You and I have the same role/responsibility as Abraham in our own day. We have the opportunity and obligation to plead with God for the sake of the righteous. We live in a world that is full of wickedness. We live in a country and in a world that has institutionalized and legislated evil into the very fabric of our culture. Surely, if Sodom and Gomorrah by its wickedness merited God's attention then our own cultures would deserve the same.

Even further, like Abraham, we have been given privileged access to the counsels of God by means of the Scriptures. We look at them and we know, for certain, that a day is coming when the Lord will return in judgment. We have been given "inside information". And knowing what we know, we of all people should pray for God's mercy upon this place, for the sake of the righteous. We should pray that evil would be exposed and addressed. We should pray for justice. We should pray that God will withhold his hand or, if not, then we should pray that he would spare and deliver his people amidst his judgments, and in spite of their being enmeshed in their cultures, in spite of their reluctance to let go of worldly things - a reluctance which Lot demonstrates but which God nevertheless graciously looks past.

This is the fundamental difference between the plea that Abraham makes and the one that Jesus makes. You see, Abraham's appeal to God for mercy on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah was an appeal that had in mind persons like Lot, his nephew, who as one of God's people - and so in that sense "righteous" - but who in an ultimate sense was not righteous at all. If you study the life of Abraham from Genesis 12 onward you will see clearly some of the flaws in Lot's character, including and especially when you get to chapter 19.

Therefore,, when Abraham asks God to spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous he has in mind persons like Lot. However, when God indicates his willingness to spare the wicked on account of the righteous - He isn't thinking of Lot. He is thinking of His Son, Jesus who - in the fullness of time - would come and by his righteousness the wicked would be spared.

Therefore, it is that Sodom and Gomorrah get destroyed in chapter 19 and in that we see God's just judgment against the sinfulness of humankind. And yet we see Lord and his family spared in the midst of all that - through Abraham's mediation, to be sure, but ultimately because God had decided to show mercy to Lot who is one of His people and in that sense "righteous". However, it is not until the coming of Christ that we learn that the ultimate basis of his being numbered among God's people is not his own merit but is entirely than of another - Jesus Christ.

So again, what is the minimum number of righteous for whom God would be willing to spare the wicked? In Abraham's dialogue the number stopped at 10. Why? Because at the end of the day it did not matter how low the number was. Abraham might well have bargained and pleaded all the way down to 1. But even then it wouldn't have mattered because the person with the necessary sort of righteousness that would avert God's wrath was not to be found in that city. The one in whom that sort of righteousness could be found had not yet come.

But he would come. And he did.

What is the minimum number of righteous for whom God would be willing to spare the wicked?

One. Just one.

And that righteous man is Jesus.



This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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