Haggling with God

It’s “Difficult Passages” month and the midweek blog is an opportunity to talk not about those difficult biblical passages themselves, but about other passages that help us think about the difficult passages.  Last week: Jacob wrestling with God.  This week: Abraham haggling with God.

Genesis 18:22-33 occurs right after Abraham and Sarah have extended hospitality to three travelers, and right before the infamous destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  After refreshing themselves and eating their fill, two of the travelers continue on to toward Sodom.  The other, who turns out to be Yahweh, stays behind with Abraham.  What follows next is a good old fashion haggling contest between this elderly man and the Lord of the Universe.

Knowing that the entire city of Sodom is in danger of being destroyed by divine wrath, Abraham opens by challenging the Lord: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?”  The Lord answers: “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”  Abraham then gets bolder and asks whether Sodom could be saved if there are only 45 righteous within.  Yes, for 45 Yahweh will spare and forgive the city.  What about for 40?  For 30?  20?  How about ten?  Each time Yahweh responds that the city will indeed be spared for the sake of these few.  “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”  Throughout the haggling Abraham is self-deprecating to a fault, calling himself mere dust and ashes, hardly worthy to bargain with the Lord.  But Abraham also challenges Yahweh with words that still fit on the lips of those who mourn destruction and seek the redemption of the world: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

In this encounter, Abraham brings his own sense of justice to Yahweh, and challenges the Lord to be more merciful.  One might think that Yahweh would turn on Abraham – remind him he is a mere mortal.  Tell him he has no place haggling with the Almighty.  But Yahweh listens!  Yahweh is even persuaded by Abraham’s persistence.  Abraham calls on the Lord to do a more merciful job of being the Lord, and Yahweh responds positively.

I love this story because it suggests that God is looking for partners in this world who will extend and deepen the experience of justice and fairness.  Abraham is a friend of Yahweh, and this very friendship emboldens him to challenge Yahweh to be more just.  God does not silence such a challenge, but invites it and responds favorably.

As we ponder difficult biblical passages, I see in Genesis 18:22-33 an invitation to recognize our conscience as one of the ways the Divine speaks to us.  When we voice our conscience to God, it is, in a way, the Divine speaking through us back to the Divine, partnering with us for the creation of a more just and merciful world.

This Sunday’s difficult passage: Numbers 25.  Quite a doozy.