July 24, 2016
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Genesis 18: 20-32
Have you ever haggled over a price? I remember haggling with a gift shop merchant in Jerusalem once. I wanted to buy a souvenir doll for my mother. I had looked around at many shops and finally found a doll in a little, old store packed from floor to ceiling with ancient merchandise. Rugs, hats, clothes, religious articles and other items were piled everywhere. I asked the proprietor about a doll and he pointed to the top shelf above his glass cases. He stood on a flimsy white plastic deck chair to try and reach the package, but was too short. So he recruited me to step up on the chair instead and I was able to reach two doll boxes. They were old. The plastic had browned and cracked. Inside, the dolls themselves were rather pitiful Barbie and Ken dolls re-decorated “by hand” in the 1980’s. I was not impressed, but still wanting a doll, offered to buy them. I started low, maybe $5, but my counterpart wanted an outrageous sum, like $50! I offered $10, but he was not willing to come down much, so he offered just one doll for $25. He wouldn’t budge, so I left. (This is often a good strategy.) After I had made it around the block, I found the store owner chasing me down with the dramatically reduced price of $15 for one doll. Hesitatingly, I relented and bought the doll. My mother still has it, so I guess it was worth it.
In this Sunday’s first reading from Genesis, we find Abraham the patriarch likewise haggling with God in a rather unusual conversation. He has just served up a meal to the Lord and two angels, which we heard about in last Sunday’s reading. Now the Lord and the angels are on their way to investigate the sins of Sodom and destroy the city for its defiance of God. In a short interior conversation with himself, God decides to tell Abraham what he is about to do (Gen 18:17-19). Here Abraham embodies what it means to be a righteous person and he is juxtaposed with the citizens of Sodom who represent rebellion against God.
The Sins of Sodom
The sins of Sodom are not really the focus of our reading. Their sins receive the marquee role in the following chapter, where the men of the city threaten to gang-rape Lot’s visitors (Gen 19:5). Genesis emphasizes their sinfulness early on: “Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD (Gen 13:13 RSV). Sodom, and its sister city, Gomorrah become bywords for dissolution. Later on, the prophets refer to their intransigence when trying to find fitting comparisons for the contemporary sins of God’s people (Isa 1:10; Jer 23:14). As we saw in the Noah story, God decides to punish the rebellious. Yet here in the case of Sodom, he comes to investigate the crimes of the people and see if they match the “outcry” that he has heard (Gen 18:20).
Abraham Haggles with God
After the Lord announces that he intends to bring destructive judgment on the city of Sodom, Abraham politely intervenes with a few questions. While the two angels head off to Sodom, the Lord stays behind to discuss matters with Abraham. Abraham asks the key question, “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen 18:23 RSV) The rest of the discussion swirls around this idea. Abraham starts with fifty righteous persons—if there are fifty, will God still destroy the city or spare it? God responds that he would spare the city. Abraham, then goes further and keeps reducing the test number: first forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, and finally ten. God continues to insist that he would spare the city on account of such a small number of righteous persons. Then the back-and-forth ends.
But what do we make of this negotiation? Some interpreters argue that Abraham is trying to save the city. Even though he has had a dispute with the king of Sodom earlier (Genesis 14), Abraham here appears sympathetic toward the city. However, it could be that he is simply and politely trying to convince God to save his nephew Lot. His long negotiation could include a tacit request to save his relative (thanks to Edward Bridge for this point in his article “An Audacious Request” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, March 2016). That is, Abraham would be silently indicating what he really wants by engaging in this extended intercession. And in fact, God does rescue Lot and his family from destruction. On the other hand, some scholars think this story is making a larger point—that Abraham is testing God to see whether he is a willful tyrant who merely imposes his own will on others or whether he adheres to an eternal standard of justice. The negotiation proves, albeit in a roundabout way, that God himself does abide by the law and does not simply threaten others with his idiosyncrasies.
Most of the time we can avoid the inconvenience of haggling because stores put prices tags on everything. Yet our relationship with God sometimes feels like the conversation I had with that Jerusalem merchant. Sometimes we find ourselves in a tug-o-war with the Almighty, trying to reserve a bit of our personal preferences in the context of our relationship with him. From this story about Abraham, it seems to me that God actually appreciates a little bit of tension in our relationship with him. He wants us to think things through and struggle over points and ask him questions. It shows that we’re really listening. At the end of the day, however, our best path is to yield to him, to trust him, and to believe in him like Abraham did.