God’s Acts of Providence (11)

god_and_the_angels_2_visit_abraham_by_arent_de_gelder_1645_1727The Chief End of Man (10)

Bargaining for the Sinful

Genesis 18

The LORD appeared to Abraham accompanied by two companions while he was sitting near great trees of Mamre at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.  Upon seeing them, Abraham immediately rose to greet them, bowing low to the ground.  Abraham is the first to speak in this perplexing encounter with the LORD.

18 3“My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on–since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”

In the previous encounters with the LORD, we are given no indication of His appearance (assuming that there was a visual component).  Here, we find Him appearing in none other than human form.  Perhaps we should pay close attention to the form that the LORD God chooses for His encounters with humankind, for would not this have a significant influence on both our immediate response and the way in which it is remembered?

In this particular case, the form elicits Abraham’s instinct of hospitality.  It is initially unclear if Abraham recognizes in these human forms his LORD, or, if he is only being generous to passing strangers.

6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.” 7And Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds, and milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

Abraham has likely perceived something about these three that speaks to greatness, for he prepares a feast and then stands nearby, likely in some apprehension, as they partake.

9They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10The LORD said, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

If Abraham had any doubts about who it was visiting him, they were removed by this exchange.  The reiteration of the promise by the LORD removed all doubt about His identity.

The exchange with Sarah is both fraught with significance and seemingly trivial.  Sarah’s inner laughter was of enough importance for the LORD to call her on it.  And yet, once this has been accomplished the matter is dropped.  Perhaps it was meant to have a powerful influence on Sarah.  I can only imagine that to be called out on a sin by the LORD God Himself would reverberate with unimaginable power for the rest of a person’s life.

16Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? 19No, 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 to Abraham what he has promised him.”

Once again we are allowed to hear the LORD’s inner thoughts.  In a sense, He is asking Himself if Abraham should be given the position of a Prophet – one who is given the Word of God and who thus becomes a participant in its Life.

But there is something else of wondrous import in this inner dialogue. The LORD thinks, “all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him.”  The LORD is here thinking about us!  Here, at the very beginning of the nation of Israel, a people set apart to carry God’s promise, our salvation was in God’s mind.

20Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomor’rah is great and their sin is very grave, 21I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know.”

The outcry is likely that of the innocent who have been caught up in the snares of sin in these cities.  We will see in due course the treatment that could befall unwary passers through.

What exactly is meant by the LORD going down to see for Himself once again places us in the position of interpreting a situation in which He has chosen to limit Himself.  It must be said, though, that it is truly a terrible thing to have the LORD choose to look into the sin of an individual or a community due to an outcry against them.

22So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom; but Abraham still stood before the LORD.

23Then Abraham drew near, and said, “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

It’s of significant note that the LORD has not told Abraham of His intentions if the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was as grievous as the outcry it had caused.  Perhaps there was something in the demeanor of the LORD or His companions (angels of destruction on their way to their dreadful task) that foreshadowed destruction.  In any case, Abraham guesses well.

We now see what can only be described as an audacious act of mercy on Father Abraham’s part.  There can be little doubt that Abraham knew well the evil that had free reign in the lives of the inhabitants of these cities.  Yet, he decides on the spot to engage the LORD God in a test of wits for the lives of these very people.

Perhaps seeing the LORD in the form of human flesh steeled Abraham’s courage.  As intellectually untenable as this may seem, in the heat of the moment, with the lives of thousands hanging in the balance, perhaps Abraham lost sight of the full glory of the LORD.  In doing so, he would be so bold as to contend with Him, not as man to man, but as man to a Being who could be swayed by human argument.

We also must note that the object of Abraham’s mercy was likely not just Lot and his family.  If so, he could have simply requested that they be spared.  In past encounters Abraham had been straight spoken with the LORD regarding his desires.

26And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27Abraham answered, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Wilt thou destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29Again he spoke to him, and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30Then 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.” 31He said, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32Then 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.” 33And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

It is noteworthy that this tense exchange ends up being limited to the fate of only Sodom.  It is the LORD who makes this limitation.  Abraham presses his case to the outer limits, increasing his own abasement while reducing the number of righteous.

One can almost see Abraham when the number reaches ten, perspiration on his face, hands trembling, considering if there is room in the LORD’s patience and mercy for the number to be reduced to five.  If he did harbor such a thought, he concluded that the LORD had been pressed as far as mere flesh could.

This encounter shows how small a proportion of righteous can protect the larger community in which they live.  It also reflects Abraham’s largeness of soul that he would contend to such lengths for those who were well known to be evildoers.  Finally, though, it speaks to the inexorable justice of our LORD God once He has set His face to answering the cries of the oppressed.

If the consequences were not so dreadful, Abraham’s contending with the LORD could almost be seen as comical.  Here a man of dust seeks to outsmart the LORD God of the universe.  Surely He knew exactly how many righteous people lived in Sodom, so would also know where to draw the line.

But in truth there is nothing comical about this situation.  The LORD does not treat us as playthings that exist for His amusement.  No.  He treats us as lost souls of the utmost value that He will go to the greatest length to recover.  He also treats us as beings that bear moral responsibility for our choices.  And, in some extreme cases, a terrible judgment is extracted for the whole world to witness.  In every individual case there is a judgment.  When that moment comes, may we be found in Jesus Christ.  It is our only hope.

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