THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM – PART IV – SECTION III
POWER AND LIMITATIONS: GENESIS 18-20
I. The final chapters before the birth of Isaac describe a year in which God makes Abraham grow, giving him a vision and liberating him from corrupt neighbors, but also showing his own continuing flaws.
A. In chapter 17,
God promised that Abraham would have a child by Sarai, now named Sarah,
within a year. The next three chapters describe three interrelated
events occurring within that year, which show both Abraham's devotion
and compassion on the one hand, but also his still stumbling faith on
the other, with the dramatic contrast with the decadent and violent
Sodom and Gomorrah, but also the more just King Abimilech. .
II. The vision of the angels in chapter 18 shows Abraham's righteousness, justice and faith.
1. Abraham is
courteous and humble. Sitting at his tent, he recognizes that
the strangers will want a meal and a place to rest, which he offers.
4. This theme of angels appearing as guests or other humans to people will be repeated in next chapter and elsewhere in the Bible, with such events as the apparition of an angel to the parents of Samson, to Gideon the judge and warrior, and to Tobias. See Judges 6:1-24, 13:2-23; Tobit 5:4-17. The letter to the Hebrews would later say that, through hospitality to strangers "some have entertained angels unaware." Heb. 13:2. Later pagan mythology continues this theme, with the most famous example being the account of Zeus and Mercury appearing to a town in the guise of pilgrims and being rejected by all of them except the pious old couple Baucis and Philemon.
- Part of
the idea is to test a person's righteousness by having an apparent
stranger appear in a situation where it does not appear that hospitality
will be rewarded or inhospitality punished. Another reason for
the anonymous appearance of angels is that they are so powerful that
people would be overwhelmed if they knew that the guests were angels.
1. It appears
that Abraham now accepts their message, but Sarah thinks it comical.
Here as elsewhere, God's generosity is more than we dare ask for.
III. In the prelude to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God tells Abraham through one of the angels what will happen and Abraham puzzles about divine justice.
1. The idea is that, because Abraham must teach his descendants about justice and righteousness, God will make part of His own justice clear to Abraham. The ensuing discussion, and the result that there are not even five just people in Sodom, will bring out more of God's justice.
- As Dr.
Leon Kaas explains, the ideas of righteousness and justice in Hebrew
are related, but distinct. Righteousness (tsedaquah) means acting
in a fashion fitting for God's holiness, not deviating from the right
path, but acting purely and consistently. Justice (mishpat) means
punishing the evil and rewarding the good; it tends to be a response
to righteousness or unrighteousness. Righteousness tends to be
more internal, and justice more external. The Beginning of
Wisdom 318 f.n. 25.
1. At first,
the notion that God must test Sodom and Gomorrah seems absurd.
God must know the truth.
2. However, there
are two reasons for this need for a test. First, the reaction of the
cities is not fixed. They could repent and turn back to God as
Nineveh would at the preaching of Jonah. Jesus does later say
that Sodom and Gomorrah would have repented if His miracles had been
performed there. Matt. 11:23-24. Second, God is giving
an example to all human rulers not to rely on hearsay, but to find out
the truth for themselves. See Is. 11:3.
C. In the next scene, Abraham inquires into God's justice, asking whether He would destroy the innocent with the guilty.
1. The scene continues with one angel, who is apparently closest to God, walking a long distance with Abraham. They start in Mamre, which is to the west of the Dead Sea, about midway between its northern and southern ends, and probably travel down a trade route about 30 miles south to the area overlooking the plains south of the Dead Sea where Sodom and Gomorrah were. The other two angels went further along to Sodom and Gomorrah.
- The test
identifies the speech of the angel who remains with Abraham with God's
own words. Here as elsewhere, angels are direct messengers for
- God continues
affirming, without much explanation, that He will not destroy the city
if there are 50, 45, 40, 30, 20 or 10 just people.
- There is
a conflict here, as elsewhere. On the one hand, it seems extraordinarily
inappropriate to continue questioning the will of the almighty God,
who is vastly beyond our understanding. On the other hand, God
has given us a desire to know why He acts as He does. This interaction
between the mystery of faith and the desire of reason is ever at the
core of true theology, especially with regard to the question of evil
and suffering. See On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering
- The implication,
however, that God will not destroy the whole if He can find anyone who
is fully just sets up the later fittingness that we be saved by one
who is a perfect human, perfectly obedient to God, Jesus Himself.
See Rom. 5:12-21.
6. Later on,
Moses will intercede with God, not to save the innocent, but rather
the guilty and untrusting Israelites, for the sake of the covenant.
See Ex. 32:1-14; Num. 14:1-25.
III. The text then turns to the testing of Lot, on the one hand, and Sodom on the other, with the areas around Sodom being destroyed.
A. Given the fact that Lot and his family ran from Sodom to Zoar, which is on the southwest corner of the Dead Sea, within an hour or two, Sodom had to within a few miles of this place; and Gomorrah was presumably nearby. Their location could be below the current Dead Sea, or possibly south of it.
1. The destruction
described could have been the result of a massive earthquake or volcanic
like underground explosions, which caused the bitumen pits described
in chapter 14 to throw out colossal amounts of pitch and other molten
materials. The earth and the molten material would have swallowed
up the cities; the term "overthrow" in verse 25 of chapter 19 literally
means "turned upside down." In addition, weather patterns
may have since made area utterly inhospitable.
2. This punishment
is fitting for Sodom, Gomorrah and the areas, which turned the moral
order upside down because of their uncontrolled and flaming passions.
Now their own cities are turned upside down by fire from the earth.
B. Two of the
three angels continue onto Sodom, which stands in for the whole area.
It is noteworthy that God will not destroy the innocent with the guilty,
and here it seems that He would not destroy the unrepentant with the
repentant. For it appears that the repentance of one city (Sodom)
could have prevented the destruction of the whole area, or at least
given them a chance to repent.
C. There is a parallel between Abraham and Lot, with similarities and differences.
1. Similar to
Abraham, Lot greets the guests, whom he does not recognize as angles,
in a humble fashion. At first, the angels are relatively
silent, but then provide for Lot's family. Lot's wife, like
Sarah, shows some doubts.
D. At first, Lot behaves nobly, seeing what look like clueless strangers in Sodom and offering them protection and hospitality.
1. Lot can easily
ignore them and, in fact, their initial refusal of hospitality gives
him every excuse to do so. However, he is generous enough not
to be put off, possibly because there will be a great danger to them
at night in the town square.
2. Lot himself
does all of the preparation. His family is not as united as that
of Abraham. However, he does have the courtesy of dining with
the guests and, as it turns out, with angels. Again, hospital
people entertain angels unaware.
3. Lot is basically
just, see 2 Peter 2:7-8, but he does not have the faith or assertiveness
E. The city then shows its horrible perversion and violence.
1. The text says that all of the men, young and old, came to the house. The term "all" may be a hyperbole, but it is clear that the large majority of the men in the town, who population was at least in the hundreds, came to abuse the strangers. Their vice combined lust, violence and a determination to dominate strangers.
- It is possible
that the defeat in the battle against the five kings from the east,
described in chapter 14, hardened a hatred of outsiders.
- In any
case, there is a gang mentality that increases evil tendencies.
- It is strange
that Lot would not think of the abuse of his daughters as bad as the
abuse of strangers. However, the duty of hospitality was so strong
that he may well have considered a failure on that front worse.
He may also have been buying time, knowing that the offer would be refused.
- In any
case, Lot comes off as basically wanting to do what is right, but in
a weak fashion. For its part, the city looks down upon Lot as
a foreigner, and threaten violence against him as well.
F. Despite the violence
of the town toward Lot and his family, he is still reluctant to leave.
People can be attached to their wealth and comfort, even when they know
it is destructive. The angels mercifully force Lot to leave as
the dawn is rising. There is a great symbolism of evil prospering
in the darkness, but being destroyed in the light.
G. Having only a
partial faith in God, Lot has little faith in himself and his family.
As a result, he asks to stay at Zoar, a small town on the southern end
of the Dead Sea that had been allied with Sodom and Gomorrah in the
was against the kings of the east. See Gen. 14:2. It appears
that Zoar was one of the cities to be destroyed. The angel grants
the request, thus possibly saving Zoar. Strangely enough, Lot
in the end does not want to stay there either.
H. Only Lot's two daughters accept the offer of salvation.
1. The fiancées
of his daughter simply disbelieve Lot and stay in Sodom, thus condemning
themselves to punishment. Even the intercession of another person
must be accepted for salvation to be effective.
2. Lot's unnamed wife, who was presumably from Sodom or the outlining areas, looks back at her now lost homeland. She is turned into salt, either as a punishment, or perhaps more likely, because the very hideousness of the sight, like the head of Medusa, is deadly.
- Being turned
into salt may have been a euphemism for dying and being taken into the
shaking land, which are to this day marked with salt pillars.
I. The final scene
involves Abraham looking majestically, but sadly over the wreckage,
probably wondering about the fate of his nephew Lot. It is an
image of righteousness dwelling in final stability and dignity as destruction
overwhelms the unholy. The word for the fumes rising from the
ground (olah) is also used for the smoke rising from a sacrifice offered
on the altar. Both work to the glory of God, but in different
IV. Lot's subsequent life confirms the instability of his family and his final break from Abraham.
A. The text does
not say why, but Lot is afraid to stay in Zoar. He may have been
afraid that they would think he brought the destruction on the other
lands. Or, perhaps, he believed them to be as corrupt as the residents
B In any case, he
goes to live in the very hill country that he was supposed to have fled
to in the first place. Notably, he does not return to Abraham,
perhaps out of a shame at having left him and being unable to provide
1. The Moabites
and Ammonites were people who lived in plains west of the Dead Sea and
Jordan Rives, with the Moabites to the south and the Ammonites to the
north. The Chosen People, the Moabites and the Ammonites sometimes
fought each other, see Judges 3:12-14, 10:7; 2 Sam. 12:20-31, but they
were not meant to be enemies and their lands were not supposed to overlap
with those of the Chosen People. See, e.g., Duet. 2:8-23.
2. The text indicates
that the children were named Moab and Ammon, after the Hebrew words
for "father" and "kin." There is a mixed notion here.
On the one hand, they are related to the Israelites, and thus have a
certain share in their dignity. Despite their odd parentage, God
does seem to have guided the children of Lot to become peoples of their
own. See Duet. 2:9, 19. On the other hand, at least part of their
founding was from a bizarre relationship and they became pagan.
V. Having seen the angels and witnessed the judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah and their region, Abraham then stumbles again, fearing violence from his neighbors.
A. It is not perfectly clear why Abraham went to Gerar, which is in the southwest of what would become the Promised Land.
1. The explanation
of a famine, which was the reason for his travels to Egypt in chapter
12, is not likely because Gerar, appears to have been less than 100
miles away and with a similar environment.
B As with the journey to Egypt, Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister, an arrangement that Sarah agrees with. Verse 11 indicates that, as with the similar event in Egypt, Abraham again is worried that the people may kill him to marry Sarah. There may have also been a subtle testing of God's promise to him, or perhaps even a desire that God would settle upon Ishmael as Abraham's heir and thus avoid the impending problems between Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael.
1. As the Pharaoh
before him, King Abimilech sends for Sarah to be his wife, but fortunately
does not have relations with her immediately.
1. It appears
from chapter 18 that there was sterility among Abililech's household.
There were presumably many members of his household, probably in the
hundreds, with his people in the thousands. That large number
would explain both why Abraham was afraid of him despite being the lord
of many hundreds, and explain how the sterility among his household
could be noticed in a few months' time.
- The gift is
not so much compensation, for no real harm had been done to Abraham
or Sarah. It was rather to make it perfectly clear to everyone
that Abimilech realized that taking Sarah was a mistake, and so he released
her. The gift was partially an admission of guilt, so that people
would not blame Sarah for deceit nor think that Abimilech was sending
her away because she was unsatisfactory.
F. Here, it is Abimilech who comes off as the sensible and faithful one. There is a message that goodness can be found outside the Chosen People, and likewise that even the leaders God selects are not perfect. Here as elsewhere, the Biblical accounts are both supernatural and also eminently human.