God sent Abram to Canaan. A land of giants (the Nephilim) and cultures practicing harsh customs like sacrificing their firstborn child. Would you have moved willingly if God asked you?
Much later in the story, after Abram is renamed Abraham, he pleads with God to consider sparing Sodom and Gomorrah for even 10 righteous people’s lives. Would you plead for Sodom and Gomorrah to be spared? What people are you writing off as so heinous you would not negotiate mercy for them?
Do you remember the story of two angel’s visiting Abraham’s nephew Lot and the men of the city insisting on having sex with them? Recall your horror at Lot offering his two virgin daughters instead. Remember Lot’s eventual flight to a small city called Zoar that God spared. Of course many of us remember Lot’s wife looking back against the angelic injunction and becoming a pillar of salt during the destruction. Lot retreats to a cave in the hills because of his trauma. His virgin daughters get him solidly drunk and take turns having sex with him to get pregnant. I recently read this story to my 16-year-old daughter! I don’t think I would have let her watch the movie…
Early in the story, God muses, “shall I hide what I am about to do? Consider Abraham will become a mighty nation and all the earth will blessed in him.” He then says, “For I have chosen him, that he may command 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.” God continues, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know” (Genesis 18:19-21).
God hears an outcry (saqa). Here is a verse that helps bring some context to saqa: “For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (Psalms 9:12). It is reminiscent of Genesis 4 with Cain’s blood crying from the ground. In fact, most Old Testament scriptures containing outcry have this connecting thread of bloodshed.
This is a fascinating passage in broader context: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” (Isaiah 5:7). Justice sounds like bloodshed in the Hebrew tongue and righteousness sounds like outcry. God’s responses to injustice sound similar but are from a different source than us…they emerge from himself.
Now jump back to the kind of person God chose in Abraham. One who would command or train his entire household in righteousness and justice! There is a connection between God seeing Abraham’s call to disciple his generations in justice and righteousness and God inviting Abraham to peer into God’s own process of justice in response to the “outcry” coming up to heaven. Abraham: “Suppose 10 righteous are found there, will you spare them?” God: “For the sake of 10, I will not destroy it” (Genesis 18:32).
It is helpful to recall that God’s judgement is simply him allowing the fruit of sin to run its course. God is not protecting humanity from the consequences of individual choices.
It is also beneficial to know that when we read the story, we tend to fixate on sexual sins as the horror of Sodom but when we read the broader narrative of scripture, it is more about injustice to the oppressed. “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).
My question is this: how are we judging things? Is it by a knee jerk reaction to the narrative in front of us? Should we trust our not-so-intuitive lens for interpreting current events without deep reflection and prayer? I hope we take time to see a deeper story, to hear the real outcry. That we ask God for mercy over cities or governments we consider “Sodom-ish” or vile.
Mercy is often messy. Mercy to Lot opened a place for two new tribes born out of incest, the Moabites and the Ammonites that later troubled Israel. Mercy came again when later in history these tribes integrated into King David’s bloodline through his grandmother and mother. Eventually this Davidic bloodline brought mercy incarnate in Jesus. Then mercy came to us in a climax of grace through a bloody cross. That was messy too.
Do not expect mercy to be perfect — mercy is a potent action towards imperfect humans. Grace is perfect though, because grace is a free gift of the divine — God himself.