Monday of Week 13 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 18:16-33

For the next two days we read the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As we begin the reading we see the three mysterious visitors of Abraham preparing to continue their journey to Sodom.

As an act of courtesy on the part of a host, Abraham accompanies them on the beginning of their journey. In parts of the Old Testament, especially in the Pentateuch, God is portrayed as having very human qualities and this is particularly revealed in the dialogues he holds with various people (e.g. when Moses pleads on behalf of the recalcitrant Israelites).

There is a delightful touch in today’s reading. As Abraham is seeing off his mysterious visitors, one of whom is identified as God himself with two angels as companions, God wonders to himself whether he should reveal to Abraham his plan to destroy Sodom. He knows how good and compassionate a man Abraham is, almost more kind and compassionate than God himself! But Abraham is now an important person in God’s plans. He has become the head of a great nation and all the other nations will be blessed in him. So, in a way, he has a right to be privy to God’s intentions.

In fact, Abraham has been specially chosen to teach his sons and his posterity to follow closely the ways of the Lord by doing what is right and just so that the promises made to Abraham will be realised. And the very justice about what the Lord is planning to do is going to be questioned.

Now, while the two angels continue on their journey, the third man, who is the Lord, tells Abraham he must go down to Sodom and Gomorrah to verify the reports reaching him of their terrible immorality. Again, God is presented in human terms as needing to verify by a personal visit whether what he hears about these cities is true. What was the terrible sinfulness of Sodom and Gomorrah? Israelite tradition was unanimous in ascribing the destruction of the two cities to their moral wickedness but there were different understandings of what this wickedness consisted.

According to the Yahwist account we are following here, the evil was in a request to have homosexual acts with the three visitors of Lot (one of whom, of course, was the Lord), giving us the word ‘sodomy’. Others however, would see this not just as a serious violation of the traditions of hospitality, but as a sin of rape. Such acts were abhorrent to the Jews. In that time and culture, it was regarded as the utmost degradation for a man to be abused in this way. Roman soldiers would sometimes humiliate their prisoners of war in this manner.

The idea of permitting this outrage to recipients of a host’s hospitality was beyond conception to Lot. Only the most wicked could even think of such a thing. The degree of abhorrence is indicated by Lot offering the people his daughters instead. Though this compromise certainly horrifies us, it was judged better in that culture, at that time, to have his own daughters violated than allow his guests to be touched. What better could Lot have done?

Elsewhere, in Isaiah, the perpetrators of social injustice are likened to the people of Sodom (Is 1:9). Ezekiel likens the immoral behaviour of his people to that of Samaria and Sodom and says his people’s record is even worse (Ezek 16:61) “You became more corrupt in all your ways than they” (Ezek 16:46-51). Speaking of the idolatry and sexual immorality of Jerusalem, Jeremiah says, “To me they are all like Sodom, its citizens like Gomorrah” (Jer 23:14).

While two of the men (the angels) continue on their way to Sodom, the third, who is the Lord, stays behind with Abraham, who immediately begins to plead on behalf of Sodom. Surely a God of justice will not wipe out the innocent with the guilty? Supposing there are as many as 50 good people in the city, will God destroy it? Abraham dares to tell God how he should behave! “Far be it for you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty, so that the innocent and guilty would be treated in the same way!” And then the punch line: “Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?” It would be unjust to condemn the innocent, however few in comparison with the many sinners. We have here the age-old problem of why the good should suffer along with and because of the wicked.

The sense of collective responsibility was so strong in ancient Israel that the question does not arise whether the just might may be spared separately and individually. God will, in fact, save Lot and his family but the principle of individual responsibility does not appear until later (e.g. in Deuteronomy and the prophets). Abraham’s argument, then, is that since all will share the same fate he asks that even a minority of good people would be enough to win pardon for all.

Even so, Abraham’s request does not go below the number 10. Beyond that would be too much to ask for. But later we read in Jeremiah (5:1) that God would pardon Jerusalem if only one just person could be found and the same is implied in Ezekiel (22:30). Then, in Isaiah 53, it is the suffering of the one Servant which will save the whole race but this was not understood until it was seen fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. God then agrees to spare the city, if he can find 50 good people in it. But, having got this concession, Abraham presses further, although he knows he is being very impertinent in speaking to his God like this. “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes.” But what if there are only 45 good people? No, the city would not be destroyed if 45 innocent people could be found. Abraham then continues his bargaining – 40? 30? 20? Even only 10? Each time God concedes and at the end replies: “For the sake of those 10 I will not destroy it.” With that, the Lord leaves Abraham and continues on his journey to Sodom, while Abraham returns to his home. However, on the following day, he will go back to the place where he spoke with the Lord and where he could look down on Sodom and Gomorrah in the valley below.

Unfortunately, as we shall see, not even 10 good people could be found in the whole of Sodom. Perhaps this would be a good time for us to reflect on the level of our own compassion with people who come into our lives. We may sometimes find ourselves doing the very opposite of Abraham, that is, condemning a whole group because of a small number of misbehaving people. We do need more of Abraham’s attitude of seeing as much good as possible in the world around us.

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