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3. Abraham's Prayer for Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33)
Adapted from Disciple Lessons from the Faith of Abraham
Audio Version (21:21)
Marc Chagall (Russian-born French painter, 1887-1985), "The Praying Jew" (1923, copy of 1914 work), oil on canvas, 116.8 x 89.4 cm, Art Institute of Chicago. Larger image.
16When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17Then the LORD said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him."
20Then the LORD said, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know."
22The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD. 23Then Abraham approached him and said: "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing -- to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
26The LORD said, "If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake."
27Then Abraham spoke up again: "Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the LORD, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?"
"If I find forty-five there," he said, "I will not destroy it."
29Once again he spoke to him, "What if only forty are found there?"
He said, "For the sake of forty, I will not do it."
30Then he said, "May the LORD not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?"
He answered, "I will not do it if I find thirty there."
31Abraham said, "Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the LORD, what if only twenty can be found there?"
He said, "For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it."
32Then he said, "May the LORD not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?"
He answered, "For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it."
33When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
Abraham's prayer for Sodom -- really for Lot and his family -- is an amazing revelation of the faith of one man in the justice of Almighty God and an incredible boldness of a mere human before the Creator of the Universe. Abraham seems to stand before God alone, yet wields significant influence over God's actions.
Perhaps for Jewish readers, Abraham is the classic example of both Jewish chutzpah as well as a gift for bargaining. But I think he is much, much more. He has learned to pray. Let's consider the passage together.
Setting the Stage
Years before Abraham had emigrated to Canaan along with his nephew Lot, but as the uncle he retained a strong obligation to protect his nephew, a member of his extended family. Lot had settled in Sodom, a sinful city in the fertile valley near the Dead Sea. Once, when the kings of Mesopotamia sacked Sodom and carried off Lot and other residents as slaves, Abraham raised his own personal military force, attacked the Mesopotamian army by night, rescued Lot, and returned him to his home (Genesis 14:1-16).
But now Lot is threatened by another overpowering force -- God himself. And Abraham finds himself contending for Lot before the Lord. Abraham has entertained three men. It turns out that two of them are angels on their way to Sodom and the third is Yahweh himself. Here is where our story begins.
The Sins of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:20-21)
"Then the LORD said, 'The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.'" (18:20-21)
"Outcry against" (NIV, NRSV) or "cry of" (KJV) is the Hebrew noun za‘ārā, "cry, outcry." The basic meaning of this root is "to cry for help in time of distress."1A similar outcry of the oppressed for justice is heard throughout the Old Testament (Genesis 4:10; Exodus 2:23-24; 3:7, 9; 22:23, 27; Deuteronomy 24:15; Job 31:38-39; 34:28; Psalm 9:12; 10:17; 22:24; 34:6; 102:17; Isaiah 5:7; James 5:4).
Earlier God has told Abraham that "the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure" (15:16), so he isn't ready to punish the Amorites at this time. But now, the sins of Sodom have indeed reached the point where a righteous God must punish them. Throughout the ages God has shown mercy to peoples that have sinned (Exodus 34:6-7; Lamentations 3:22; Jonah 4:2; Romans 2:4; 3:25; 9:22; 1 Timothy 1:16). If God destroyed us for our sins, who would remain? (Psalm 130:3-4). But God is merciful, giving us a chance to repent. Nevertheless Sodom's days are numbered. There is a time that judgment must fall and that time has come.
Abraham is under no illusions. He knows how bad Sodom really is (13:13). He knows how truly wicked the city and its leaders are, evidenced by the fact that he refused to accept anything from the king of Sodom (14:21-24). He knows that when the Lord's angels observe the sins of the city, he will be obligated by all that is right and holy to destroy it. But Abraham feels an obligation to protect his own family from that destruction.
Will Not the Judge of All the Earth Do Right? (18:22-25)
Now we see a most amazing, bold, audacious appeal from Abraham to Yahweh.
"The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham approached him and said: "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing -- to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (18:22-25)
Abraham's name for God -- "The Judge of All the Earth" -- is another indication of Abraham's monotheism and very high view of God's righteousness. The gods in the Mesopotamian pantheon were not known for their righteousness, but for their capriciousness and sins. On the contrary, Yahweh is the righteous and holy God! He can be trusted to do what is right. Abraham is sure of it.
God has just spoken about Abraham's destiny to raise up his family in "doing what is right and just (mishpāt)" (18:19). Now Abraham demands righteousness of God: "Will not the Judge (shāpat) of all the Earth do right (mishpāt)?" (18:25). The term "judge" is shāpat, "judge, govern, act as ruler," is from the same word group as mishpāt, "judgment, justice" in verse 18.2How can God destroy a city that has 50 righteous residents? He asks. It would be wrong "to kill the righteous with the wicked," Abraham contends. If God expects justice of Abraham, surely he himself must be just, Abraham argues. Abraham maintains from God's own character that God must treat the righteous justly.
Q1. What is the basis of Abraham's argument that God should spare Sodom? How does it relate to God's character?
Abraham's motive in this appeal, of course, is to save his nephew Lot from destruction along with Sodom. This is the second time Abraham has risked himself to rescue Lot. Now he comes before the Lord himself with incredible nerve and chutzpah!
Was God upset with Abraham's boldness? No. I think God had set up Abraham for this very act of intercession by revealing to Abraham his intentions for Sodom.
Boldness Mixed with Humility
Over the course of the next few minutes, Abraham boldly bargains God down from 50 to 10 righteous people that would prevent God from destroying Sodom -- and the Lord agrees. Abraham dares go no lower.
Throughout this bold prayer, Abraham asks for the Lord's indulgence, repeatedly acknowledging his own humble place before Almighty God:
"Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the LORD, though I am nothing but dust and ashes...." (18:27)
"May the LORD not be angry, but let me speak...." (18:30)
"Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the LORD...." (18:31)
"May the LORD not be angry, but let me speak just once more...." (18:32)
Here is a fine balance of humility, knowing our place, and yet boldness, taking the opportunity that God has given by inviting us to intimacy with him, the King of Heaven. This is praying with two factors in mind: (1) the joy of having God as our Father and (2) maintaining the realization of God's awesomeness ("who art in heaven") and holiness ("hallowed by thy name").
Q2. How did Abraham demonstrate his humility before God? Why must boldness be tempered with humility?
Why Does God Bargain with Abraham?
Why does God bargain with Abraham? God could have said, "What I plan is just -- because I say so!" Certainly God is the Judge of All the Earth. He would have been justified in destroying that wicked city and all who chose to live in it. Or he could have said, "Abraham, frankly there aren't even ten just people in Sodom. Don't waste your breath." Be he didn't.
Instead he engages in dialog with Abraham to see how far Abraham's faith will take him.
Was the Lord angry with Abraham? Oh, no. Not at all. Abraham is the apple of his eye. He is delighted that his servant Abraham believes in him enough and understands him enough to ask this. Genesis 15:6 explains, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him as righteousness." The faith of this pre-Christian human is wonderful to God. Here is a man who actually trusts him enough to pray this kind of prayer. Wow!
God loves you when you pray to him. When you call out, "Abba, Father," he hears your prayers and longs to answer them. After all, you are his child. He has chosen to adopt you into his family and bless you -- because of Jesus.
Notice, however, about this bargaining session, that Abraham is not offering to do something in return for God's favor -- trying to buy God's response. Instead he is appealing again and again to God's own gracious and righteous character. This is the kind of bargaining that doesn't demean God by cheapening his response into a transaction, but exalts God by magnifying his righteousness, by insisting that his great righteousness requires him to spare the city for even ten righteous persons.
Q3. Do you think Abraham's boldness pleased God? Why or why
not? What might cause God to take delight in your prayers to him?
Persistence in Prayer
Abraham's persistence pleases God also. Jesus gave us two parables that teach persistence in prayer -- the parable of the Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-13) and the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8). In both parables, the lesson is the same.
"I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
"So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:8-10)
"… Yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'"
And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:5-8)
An older generation of saints used to call this kind of persistence "praying through," praying until assurance of an answer comes. If we want answers to our prayers, we too must learn to "pray through" and not quit before the assurance of answered prayer comes.
Q4. In what way does Abraham show persistence? Why is persistence necessary in prayer? Have you ever experienced "praying through"? What was it like?
The Audacity of Prayer
Through his prayer, Abraham has prevailed upon the Lord to change his mind -- at least to modify his judgment. Last week with Moses we examined the audacious assumption that underlies prayer -- that we can influence God to change his mind. Of course, God will never act against his own character and word. But God can work out his will and purpose in many ways.
Notice how God answers. While there are not ten righteous people in Sodom, God answers the intent of Abraham's prayer -- to save his nephew. Lot is righteous (2 Peter 2:7), so he and the family who comes under Lot's protection must be saved. The angels were under strict orders from God that they were not to destroy Sodom until Lot was safe. When Lot requested permission to only flee as far as Zoar, the angel granted his petition:
"Very well, I will grant this request too; I will not overthrow the town you speak of. But flee there quickly, because I cannot do anything until you reach it." (Genesis 19:21-22)
Abraham prays and God grants the intent of his request, even though he does not grant the literal request itself. How wonderful! How gracious!
Lessons from Abraham's Intercession
I believe God intended to teach Abraham -- and us -- several lessons about intercession, that is, praying to God on behalf of someone else. I see four lessons here:
- Boldness or confidence before God is necessary. See Ephesians 2:18; 3:12; Hebrews 4:16; 10:19.
- Humility . Abraham remains respectful of God and cognizant of his own inferiority at the same time that he petitions boldly.
- Yahweh's character and word are the basis of the appeal. You can see this some of the great prayers of intercession in the Bible: Exodus 32:9-14; 33:12-17; Numbers 16:20-22; 1 Samuel 7:5-14; 2 Samuel 24:17; 1 Kings 17:20-23; 2 Kings 19:1-37; Ezra 9:5-15; Nehemiah 1:4-9; Daniel 9:4-19; Amos 7:2-6.
- Persistence in prayer continues until the answer is received.
I invite you to seek this awesome God in bold, persistent, prevailing prayer, based on his promises and character. Indeed, this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you! (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
The Intercession of Jesus on Our Behalf
When I think about Abraham interceding for sinful Sodom -- especially for his nephew Lot -- I think of Christ's constant intercession for us his people before the Father. We read that he is our "Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous" (1 John 2:1). He is the "one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). He is "at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us" (Romans 8:34). And he is able to save us to the uttermost "seeing that he ever lives to make intercession for [us]" (Hebrews 7:25).
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Perhaps the extent of our sin is not as great as that of Sodom, but certainly our sinfulness before God is just as repugnant. Thank God that there is One who intercedes for us, who has brought us to repentance, and has made a way for us to be forgiven.
Now, like Abraham and Moses and Jesus, we are to intercede for others. We are to stand in the gap for them (Ezekiel 22:30), that they might find salvation. God has called us to intercession. God has called us to prayer.
Father, I have been way too timid in my prayers, when I compare myself to Abraham. Help me to know you so well that I won't feel afraid to ask great things of you. Grow my faith in you and lead me to exercise this ever increasing faith in my prayers to you. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"23Then Abraham approached him and said: 'Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing -- to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?'" (Genesis 18:23-25)
Standard abbreviations http://www.jesuswalk.com/greatprayers/refs.htm
- Leon J. Wood, TWOT #570a. The roots zā‘aq and sā‘aq are very similar, both signifying the same sense of a cry for help out of a situation of distress.
- Robert D. Culver, TWOT #2443 and #2443c.
Copyright © 1985-2016, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastorjoyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.
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