The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge 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 about for Abraham what he has promised him.’ Then the Lord said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and 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 towards Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came 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 forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous 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 forgive the whole place for their sake.’ Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself 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, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself 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 do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. 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.
This is a passage that reminds me of how it is very natural for children to push the boundaries of authority. My mum used to say to me (when I was a new father) never promise something that you can’t or won’t deliver. This covered both positive and negative situations. If you say … ‘don’t do that or I’ll send you to bed (or worse)’ and you don’t send your child to bed, the child knows that your boundaries are at best fluid and at worst irrelevant! But this passage does more than just portray a childish taunt at authority it is demonstrating the grace of God being interjected in a moralistic scenario where sinners are destroyed.
This passage, and the one that follows (the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) do come across with a ‘binary’ morality (you are either good or bad) and an equally binary response (life or death). I suspect most people, me included, do not neatly fit at either end of this spectrum, so the offer of God’s saving and forgiving grace to Abraham is a great comfort to me, a sinner.
Lord, we love you; we love more than our earthly mothers and fathers. And yet, we fail to listen to you and to obey you even more than we do our earthly parents. Forgive us. We know we deserve punishment but instead we get love, forgiveness and new life; for which we are truly grateful. Amen.
Alan Yates is the Moderator of the General Assembly of the URC and a member of Trinity URC High Wycombe.