How are we to understand the dialogue between Abraham and God where Abraham approaches Him and passionately pleads with the Almighty not to “sweep away the righteous with the wicked” and to “do right” (Genesis 18:23ff)? Any way you look at it, it’s an extraordinary conversation that we can’t afford to treat as trivial or trite.
We’ve been told earlier in the narrative about Sodom (13:13), so it’s not a huge surprise when God proposes to move against them in judgment. There’s currently a tendency to look at Sodom solely in light of Ezekiel 16:49 where we’re told that their sin was that of being “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” This approach allows the terrible judgment that follows to appear to be unrelated to the sexual practices there (19:1-5), since such an understanding would clash with our present social and cultural agenda. But it’s a poor handling of Scripture; the Ezekiel text goes on to say “they did detestable things before Me” (v. 50) and Jude will speak of the people of Sodom and the surrounding area as giving themselves up to “sexual immorality and perversion” (Jude 7).
On the surface it appears that Abraham’s concern is about Lot and his family. Will they be caught up in the judgment that is coming against Sodom? Abraham knew, as we do, that sometimes the innocent suffer with the guilty (though not for the same reason). A man embezzles money and is sent to prison. He is being punished for the crime he committed. His wife and family suffer by his absence. Their suffering is not to be confused with punishment for they did no wrong. Their hardship is due to the ripple effect that sin has on all people due to the fact that we’re all connected. And the more closely you are connected, the greater the suffering. It is exemption from this that Abraham is seeking for Lot and his family.
So God this is a story of how God is confronted with two cries. The first is the outcry of those victimized by the evil (v. 20-21). The second is from Abraham—this man God has chosen “to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (v. 19). His outcry is that God will do what “is right” and not treat the righteous and the unrighteous in the same way.
Or is it?
Shouldn’t we find it curious that Abraham chooses such an indirect route to save his nephew? Why doesn’t he just implore God to save Lot and his family? Isn’t that what we would do? Maybe if we could detach ourselves from our understandable self-interest, we might enlarge this request to include all of the righteous. But that would be it. None of us would feel the compulsion to do what Abraham does—argue for the sparing of the whole city.
But that’s exactly what he does. And his argument is to the effect of how many righteous does it take to save the unrighteous? Yahweh goes right along with this. It is not Abraham leading God—it is a man after God’s own heart telling us what is in the heart of the Almighty. In the end, Lot and his family are spared and judgment does come to Sodom. It pains God but it protects others. It represents the amputation of a limb to save a life.
And with the ending to Sodom we’re thrown back to the beginning and the birth of a child. Isaac’s birth points toward something ultimate—the birth of Jesus. He is the One who provide the ultimate answer to Abraham’s question of how many righteous people are required to save the unrighteous. If His name is Jesus, one is all you need.