Haggling About One
Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command 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 to Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”
So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death 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?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 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.” Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place. (Genesis 18:16-33 ESV)
I know Charlotte isn’t here to defend herself but even she would agree that when visiting markets in Asia or Syria or Jordan, haggling isn’t her strong suit. She doesn’t read the signs all that well when entering into it. Me? I have no time for it and can’t see why I can’t be told the lowest price at the start. Nevertheless my mind is taken by our first reading to the bargaining that’s supposed to happen. That’s how I hear it! Haggling in the market place except what we have is a private conversation between Abraham and God. Normally I think we’d say God and Abraham and give priority to God. The text even says that after the two men went to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah because of all the cries for justice and help in the face of such evil, Abraham stood before the Lord. However this is one of the very passages where it seems later copyists actually changed the text. There are manuscripts that state that God stood before Abraham … waiting it seems … to have a talk … and the copyists seemed to have felt that this action elevated Abraham and belittled God. They can see Sodom down on the plain – perhaps it’s just a speck on the horizon – its inhabitants unaware they were being observed and of the serious conversation taking place.
The outcome of God’s investigation is not in doubt. God will bring about justice – that was certain. But it seems that Abraham has a question – a rather deep theological question – regarding justice. What is God’s justice? What will determine God’s actions – the wickedness of the many or the innocence of the few? How many? How few?
If there are 50 righteous people, Lord? It wouldn’t be fair, Lord, to strike the city and there are 50 righteous there.
Ok, I won’t strike the city if there’s 50.
Abraham pursues the discussion – he’s aware that he has no right to speak let alone haggle – but God did stand waiting and God did say he’d work with 50 so …
Um, how about 45?
Ok, I won’t strike the city if there’s 45.
Now the question comes without any qualifying statements. 40?
Ok, I won’t strike the city if there’s 40.
Maybe Abraham’s breathing heavy, perspiring somewhat, who knows – its just guesswork, … Lord, don’t get angry with me but – and he makes a bit of jump here – what about 30?
Ok, I won’t strike the city if there’s 30.
Strike again seems Abraham’s motto now – in for a penny in for a pound so they say – um, 20?
Ok, I won’t strike the city if there’s 20.
The conversation is still going! Abraham says that this will be the last haggle – how about 10?
Ok, I won’t strike the city if there’s 10.
And then the Lord goes and Abraham goes back home.
The literalists might now say that 10 is a clear number – in a city with more than that – much more – 10 is good – unless you’re a Noah and his family living in Sodom – and you’re a family of 8 – bad luck! Of course I think that working with the actual numbers misses the point. God is not going to indiscriminately plough through humanity like a blue whale eating krill. He is not a blind force that just acts like electricity – good or bad, man or woman, if you touch the wires you’re zapped. He is a sovereign being who makes choices, who reacts, whose will he brings to fruition in ways that are just and holy and righteous, in keeping with himself. He reacts to evil and injustice and doesn’t turn a blind eye to it – his judgements when made are final; there’s no short stay in prison and then early parole – his judgements when executed are one way. And his justice is carried out when there is no one left who is righteous. Not one.
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a fearful thing for it suggests that when people live evil and corrupt lives they will destroy themselves and when God reveals his judgement it is total and complete.
But maybe it’s not yet. God’s judgment is not instantaneous in that we sin and we get zapped for it though we suffer the consequences of our actions. If it were so, God and Abraham wouldn’t have been able to have their conversation.
Actions are reflections of relationships and the point of the conversation – of God waiting and of Abraham haggling – was that justice is truly served when people’s relationship are centred in God himself. Now that’s nice in theory but the truth is that from conception and birth, human beings are rebellious towards God and the kicker is that each of us is also responsible for this rebellion. In fact that is what the teaching on original sin is all about – the mystery that we are born sinners and yet totally responsibly (no extenuating circumstances) for our sin. From that perspective when God looks down on us we should rename the planet Sodom and Gomorrah.
Lord, will you strike the planet if there’s 1 billion righteous? 1 million? 100,000? 1,000? 100? 1?
And one man cried from a cross, ‘Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing’. One man was righteous, innocent, pure, unblemished and God made him to be sin for us – not just bad or nasty or smelly or revolting – all of that and more – sin for us. The cross is a Sodom and Gomorrah and that one man defiled and destroyed.
The end? No! This one man – Jesus – the carpenter from Nazareth – rose from the dead – he is God in the likeness of sinful flesh – the Lord. The cross is both justice and mercy for there is now a new life, a new creation, a relationship that drowns and battles the rebellious sinful nature in people who are disciples of this Jesus. It begins through words and water and leaves Christians walking wet.
Symbolically, walking wet would have helped in Sodom and Gomorrah when we consider what happened to those cities. Walking wet helps us today. We bring God’s word – justice and mercy – law and gospel – to our
world that is dead in sin and needs a resurrection. We bring words and we bring lifestyles – we bring invitations ‘come and see Jesus’ to those who need the light of the world, need hope, need rescuing, need forgiveness – we bring prayers because God interacts with us, actually hears us, actually does what we, for Jesus’ sake, ask – we bring salt to a decaying society as we get involved in the world around us – and life is lived for another day.
When the Lord finished speaking with the people of Ascension Lutheran Church, he left and they returned home.
- Genesis 18:16 - 33