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Genesis: Sodom and Gomorrah

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

The three men depart, Abraham accompanies them some distance along their way, and then the Lord ponders. "Shall I hide from Abraham what I'm about to do? After all, I've chosen him to be a patriarch and he's going to persuade his sons and his household to follow the path of righteousness and justice." I'm paraphrasing a bit. Well, the Lord decides He will take Abraham into His confidence. And what the Lord is about to do is to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the evil they have done.

Two things to note:

  1. The Lord doesn't have everything worked out. He weighs things up. Once again, He's not omniscient;

  2. He's elevating Abraham. All the other stories thus far in Genesis have been about putting humans down, keeping them below Him, punishing them for their sinfulness and their arrogance. This is the opposite, even though it only involves one man, a very special man, but we see that special man being taken into the Lord's confidence.

We're then told that Abraham stepped forward – that's very bold of him – and asks the Lord, "Are you going to kill innocent people along with righteous people?" Aren't you going to differentiate, in other words? "What if there are 50 just people in Sodom? Do they have to die as well?" Then the killer line, so to speak: "Won't the judge of the whole earth do what is just?"

The Lord sees the force of Abraham's argument and concedes. "OK," he says, "if there are 50 just people, I'll spare the whole city." But Abraham isn't finished. "I know I'm only a wretched mortal" – well, his actual words are "I'm only dust and ashes" – "but what if – what if we take away five? Will you destroy the city if there are 45 just people in it?" "All right, I won't destroy Sodom if there are 45 just people." Abraham still hasn't finished. He asks the Lord in turn what if there are 40 or 30 or 20 or only 10 just people, and on each occasion, the Lord relents. "I will not destroy it for ten's sake," He says finally. And then He departs.

What a wonderful story! This is the true art of the deal. In a way – I hope this doesn't sound blasphemous – Abraham has outsmarted the Lord. And in a way – again I hope this doesn't sound blasphemous – he has shamed Him. The Lord is the judge of the whole earth. If that's the case, how can He kill innocent people? It's also the case that the Lord is given a lesson in justice, not to say as well, mercy, by a creature of dust and ashes. How mind-bendingly amazing is that? I find this one of the most moving – and one of the most daring episodes in the Hebrew Bible. The same theme, by the way, appears in the Book of Exodus, when the Hebrews are in the wilderness after the Lord has released them from slavery and they build a golden calf. Moses is up onto the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and the Lord sees what's going on below. He becomes angry and tells Moses He's going to destroy the entire race but He'll spare Moses and make a great nation of him. Moses resists the bait and urges the Lord to change His mind. Think of those words. To change His mind. And The Lord does indeed change His mind, just as He does here in the Abraham story.

But the story of Sodom isn't finished. Two angels arrive in the city one evening. They're passing the house of Lot, Abraham's nephew, and Lot implores them to stay the night with him. They finally agree, but just as they're about to go to bed, all the males surround Lot's house and demand that he produce the two men so that they can know them – that's to say know in the carnal sense of the word. Good host that he is, Lot declines to surrender his guests to the lust of the Sodomites – we might as well call them that – and instead offers his two virgin daughters. The Sodomites don't want his daughters, however, and they're just about to break the door down when the angels blind them. The angels urge Lot to leave Sodom right away because they're going to destroy it. It seems there aren't even so many as 10 innocent people in the city. When Lot hesitates, the angels drag him and his wife and daughters out of the city. "Flee to the hills and don't look back!" they tell him. "I don't want to live in the hills," Lot bleats. "How about I move to that little city over there?" They concede and he heads to the city of Zoar, but his wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt.

Lot's behaviour is despicable from beginning to end. True, he acted hospitably and hospitality in ancient cultures was valued very highly. But there's a limit to hospitality. A good host doesn't offer his daughters to be raped in order to protect his guests. And repeatedly Lot bargains with the angels. This is very different bargaining from the bargaining with the Lord that Abraham did. It's solely for his own comfort and welfare. We then learn that the Lord spared Lot as a favour to Abraham. "He remembered Abraham or kept him in mind" is the literal translation.

Lot's elder daughter, who is the soul of practicality, now suggests to her sister that they should get their father drunk and have him impregnate them in his sleep, since there aren't any husbands available now that Sodom and Gomorrah have been destroyed. This they do, two nights in a row. It's the first instance of rape in the Hebrew Bible, an incestuous rape of a male by two females. Both daughters become pregnant and both bear sons, who become patriarchs of the Moabites and Ammonites.

What a story! But as usual, Genesis doesn't pass any judgment. Nor does it tell us what Lot thinks about it all when he realises what he's done. Is he horrified? Or does he applaud his daughters for their "ingenuity"? The next sentence, Chapter 20 verse 1 blandly reads, "From there Abraham journeyed towards the Negeb."

In the next lesson we'll follow the stories not of Lot's two sons – Lot now disappears – but of Abraham's two sons.

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Written by

Robert Garland