Genesis 18: Abraham is visited by “three visitors”; Abraham pleads the case of Sodom and Gomorrah
There are two parts to this chapter: first, Abraham is visited by three visitors, and then he has a talk with the LORD about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
To start with, Abraham is visited by “three men”. I’m not sure if Abraham knew that they were the LORD; he seems very eager to please them, on the other hand, hospitality was viewed differently in his time, and he may very well have done the same even if the men were just normal “men”. In any event, he has them rest under a tree, while he and Sarah rush to prepare a meal for them, including a “choice, tender calf” from his flock (verse 7).
While the “three men” eat, the LORD casually mentions to Abraham that He will return the same time next year, and Sarah will have a son. Sarah happens to be listening in, and when she hears this, she laughs and thinks to herself “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?” (verse 12). (Note that the word translated “master” can also be translated “husband”, according to the NIV footnotes.) When the LORD hears Sarah laugh, He calls her on it:
Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
Is it any wonder that the boy will be named “Isaac”, which we read in the last chapter means “he laughs”? Every time someone hears that Abraham and Sarah are going to have a son, they burst out into laughter.
Anyway, that’s the first half of the chapter. The second half, from verses 16–33, is the part that I find absolutely fascinating. The LORD has decided that He is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, because “[t]he outcry against [them] is so great and their sin is so grievous” (verse 20). However, before He does so, He discusses it with Abraham.
This troubles Abraham, though, and he brings it before the LORD:
Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 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? 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?” (verses 23–24)
Now, this greatly surprised me the first time I read it, but the LORD actually agrees. He tells Abraham that if He can find 50 righteous people, He won’t destroy the city. It’s at this point that the bargaining begins:
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, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?”
“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
I found that little “will you really destroy the whole city because of five people?” part a little disingenuous, but that’s just me. As you can see, though, the LORD didn’t call Abraham on it, and agreed not to destroy the city if there are 45 people.
As the conversation goes on and on, Abraham keeps bargaining God down! “What if there are only 40?” “What if only 30 can be found there?” “What if only 20 can be found there?” “What if only 10 can be found there?”
And that’s how the conversation ends. If the LORD can find 10 righteous people in the city of Sodom, He won’t destroy it.
The reason I keep putting “three men” in quotes, is that this chapter goes back and forth between referring to them as “three men” and referring to them as “the LORD”. I find it interesting, however, that when the LORD appears to Abraham, He appears as three men: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, maybe?
When the second section starts, the LORD mentions “Sodom and Gomorrah”, but when He starts talking with Abraham, the conversation seems to centre just on “the city”, and “Sodom”. I don’t know if Sodom and Gomorrah are two separate cities, and Abraham only cares about Sodom because that’s where Lot lives, or if maybe Gomorrah is a region, in which Sodom is located, or what. A quick hunt on the internet would probably clarify that for me, but I don’t care about it enough to put in the effort.
It’s important to note, when Abraham is discussing Sodom and Gomorrah with the LORD, the way that he is questioning Him. It’s hard to tell a person’s tone of voice, when reading his words in print, but Abraham is not accusing God of anything here—and especially not accusing Him of being unjust. However, he is very confused, because it doesn’t seem to him like God is being just, and yet he knows that God is just.
When Abraham asks “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”, he’s really asking. In effect, what he’s saying is “I don’t understand what you’re doing here; is my understanding of your justice incorrect?” Some people take this passage as a hint that they can talk to God any way they want, and challenge Him on anything, but that’s not what Abraham is doing. We should never forget, when praying to God or talking about God, that He is in control, and that He knows everything, and that His justice is just, whether we understand things or not. Abraham knows this, and is approaching his conversation with God having all of this in mind. He just wants to understand.
For comparison, you might want to read the book of Job—specifically, God’s response to Job in chapters 38–41—in which God basically says to Job “Who are you to question Me? Do you know who I AM?!? You’re just a man, and I’m God!”
Finally, I don’t want to give anything away here, but Sodom is going to be destroyed. After all of this bargaining down, God couldn’t even find 10 righteous people in the city. And here’s the thing to think about: Obviously He knew that He wouldn’t be able to find 10 righteous people in the city, since He knows everything. So why didn’t He just stop the conversation short, before Abraham could start all of the bargaining, and say “Look, I know where you’re going with this, but there aren’t any righteous people in the city, so don’t worry about it.”? Why have the conversation in the first place? And I believe that the answer is that He wanted to teach Abraham something about His justice.
The lesson that I get out of this is that the LORD does not get any pleasure out of condemning Sodom and Gomorrah, yet at the same time His Justice and Holiness will not let the sin of the two cities continue. When Christ came and died on the cross, it changed the way that He metes out His justice, but still, it might not be a bad idea for North American’s to take a hard look in the mirror; if He couldn’t tolerate Sodom and Gomorrah, I’m sure He’s not pleased with us, either! I’m not saying He’s going to destroy the continent or anything—I’m not a doomsayer, and I won’t be found at Yonge & Dundas in a sandwich board saying “The End is Nigh!”—but He has brought quite a number of large and powerful civilizations from being rulers of the world to being historical footnotes, and there’s no reason to think He’s not going to do the same with us.