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Abraham, Part 2: God’s Gadfly or Meek Servant?

Why does the patriarch stick up for Sodom and Gomorrah but not for his son?

P. David Hornik


April 28, 2013 - 7:00 am

God, in the form of three men, comes to Abraham as he sits “in the tent door in the heat of the day”; Abraham, realizing right away who the three men actually are, rushes to put together some food for them while asking his wife, Sarah, to “make cakes upon the hearth.”

God—speaking either as “they,” a threesome, or “he,” a single figure—informs Abraham that “Sarah thy wife shall have a son.” The hitherto-childless Abraham and Sarah are “old and well stricken in age,” and Sarah—who has overheard from the tent—breaks out in incredulous laughter.

Before setting out for Sodom near the Dead Sea, God—“Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him”—takes the tribal chieftain into his confidence and reveals to him his next mission:

Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous;

I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.

It is at this point that Abraham—his self-assurance apparently boosted by the news about a son—launches into his amazing cross-examination of God, which centers on his blunt question: “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?”

What Abraham means is this:

Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?

That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

This could be called “reminding God of his better nature” except that the words seem almost too bizarre and counterintuitive to type.

And yet God’s response—no less remarkably—is seemingly to accept Abraham as a sort of moral interlocutor, replying:

If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.

Abraham proceeds to whittle down the number. While taking care to disparage himself—he calls himself “but dust and ashes” and acknowledges that “I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord”—he asks God what he will do if there are just 45, 40, 30, 20, or finally, 10 “righteous” in the city.

And each time God seems to concede, stating finally: “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake.”

Could it be that God already understands morality and is just—out of tolerance and perhaps affection—giving Abraham the answers he seeks?

Maybe. But even if so, to call this a role reversal appears a great understatement. How can a mere mortal—even a paradigmatic one who is so crucial to God’s plans—subject the Judge of all the earth to such a grilling and not only get away with it but seem to prevail?

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All Comments   (29)
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A very interesting drash! Many thanks.

Let me add, with respect to the story of Abraham arguing with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, that it is because of this, among other stories, that we are known as the children of Israel -- "Israel" meaning literally "he who struggles with God".

Since Biblical times, Jews have expected God to be answerable to them. In a very real sense, this is a direct repudiation of the concept of kings who are above the law. Not only were Jewish kings answerable to the law (see the story of David, Nathan, and Bathsheeba); God Himself is not above His own laws.

Consider this, if you like, one of the many vital teachings that the Jewish people would show, by example, to the rest of the world.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Mr. Hornik: IMHO I think Abraham was tested and found wanting because he did not protest. Observe, from the point that the angel (or is it God?) tells Abraham not to sacrifice his son, there is no more contact between God and Abraham. I think that speaks volumes.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
From the Sodom and Gomorrah story Abraham learned to trust God's mercy and justice. No further need to rehash that lesson was required when God demanded Issac be sacrificed.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
" There are two ways in which the total sacrifice is implemented--the physical and the experiential. The choice of the method is up to man. The need for sacrifice was established as an iron law in Jewish history. However, whether man should sacrifice on a physical altar atop some mountain the way God summoned Abraham to do or in the recesses of his personality is man's privilege to determine. Whether the sacrifice consists in physical agony, pain, and extinction of life or in spiritual surrender, humility, and resignation is man's affair. God wills man to choose the altar and the sacrifice.

Abraham implemented the sacrifice of Isaac not on Mount Moriah but in the depths of his heart. He gave up Isaac the very instant God addresses Himself to him and asked him to return his most precious possession to its legitimate master and owner...

There was no need for physical sacrifice, since experientially Abraham had fulfilled the command before he reached Mount Moriah... Had Abraham engaged the Creator in a debate, had he not immediately surrendered Isaac, had he not experienced the Akedah in its full awesomeness and frightening helplessness, God would not have sent the angel to stop Abraham from implementing the command. Abraham would have lost Isaac physically. "

Rav Soloveitchik
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Genesis is without question, the craziest book I have ever read in my life.
Good luck Mr. Hornik, in your quest to bring coherence to it.

I wash my hands of the whole affair.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thank you. A good d'var Torah.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Plenty of food on this table.

Some time ago, after becoming aware of islam's exponents and an acceptance, no, desire, that their children should be martyred, I understood that we do not worship the same god or God.

When Abraham is trying to knock down the cost of saving the cities, does it not provide an opportunity to illustrate not only who God is to us, but also an opportunity for God to know Abraham. Our own sons have done us proud by going toe to toe with us on many occaisions.

I do not, and will never believe that God would create us only to watch a pre-ordained program of events. When He says what will be, He is not gainsaying the gift of life, heart and thought that we are imbued with. Our gift of free will is God's gift to himself as well. He is engaged and must experience suffering and joy even as a parent sees in the child a reflection of his own worth. He can have a "Son in whom he is well pleased."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
One could spend a lifetime on the story of Abraham. This is a good essay.

Judaism is neither a religion of redemption nor submission. It might be called a religion of relationship.

Mount Moriah today is the temple mount. A place of intense worship, conflict, very real consequence. Many sons and daughters have been sacrificed for that hill and others forgotten. For me, that is the lesson.


1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Abraham knew something that we can only see if we look at the whole story.
"My son, God will provide HIMSELF a lamb..."

Fast forward 1850 years, and
"The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).

+ Jesus is the true and better Adam who passed the test in the garden and whose obedience is now imputed to us (1 Cor. 15).

And that's not all!!!

+ Jesus is the true and better Abel who, though innocently slain, has blood that cries out for our acquittal, not our condemnation (Heb. 12:24).

+ Jesus is the true and better Abraham, who answered the call of God to leave all that was comfortable and familiar out of obedience to God.

+ Jesus is the true and better Isaac, who was not just offered up by his father on the mount but was in the end sacrificed for us all. God said to abraham, “now I know you love me, because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love, from me.” Now we can say to God, “now I know that you love me, because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love, from me.”

+ Jesus is true and better Jacob, who wrestled with God and took the blow of justice we deserved. Now we, like Jacob, only receive the wounds of grace to wake us up and discipline us.

+ Jesus is the true and better Joseph, who sat at the right hand of the king, and used his power to forgive and save those who betrayed and sold him.

+ Jesus is the true and better Moses who stands in the gap between the people and the Lord, who mediates a new covenant (Heb. 3).

+ Jesus is the true and better Job—the innocent sufferer who then intercedes for his foolish friends (Job 42).

+ Jesus is the true and better David, whose victory against Goliath was imputed to his people, even though they never lifted a stone to accomplish it themselves.

+ Jesus is the true and better Esther, who didn’t just risk losing an earthly palace but a heavenly one, and who didn’t just risk his life but gave it—to save his people.

+ Jesus is the true and better Jonah who was cast out into the storm so the rest of the ship could be brought in.

There are, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: It is either about me or about Jesus. It is either advice to the listener or news from the Lord. It is either about what I must do or about what God has done.

Jesus is the true temple, the true prophet, the true priest, the true king, the true sacrifice, the Lamb, the Light, the bread. The Bible is not about you—it is about him.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
נִגַּשׂ וְהוּא נַעֲנֶה וְלֹא יִפְתַּח־פִּיו כַּשֶּׂה לַטֶּבַח יוּבָל וּכְרָחֵל לִפְנֵי גֹזְזֶיהָ נֶאֱלָמָה וְלֹא יִפְתַּח פִּֽיו׃
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
An interesting question is posed in the article, but we might also ask why Lot offers his daughters up to the mob so that they will spare the angels, or why Abraham lends "his sister" Sarah to some ruler, because he fears being slain. These stories are fascinating to me partially because of their loose ends, incongruences, even contradictions. The New Testament seems to have been a much more purified and made more consistent by various church councils.
Because I do not believe that any of these stories happened EXACTLY as described, does not mean that I think there are no deeper truths to be learned here. The truths are more likely to cut closer to the bone than most believers (and me) care to accept, but I do believe that we are in the presence of sacred myth, valuable, in that it is so ancient and so much closer to our roots. But I can also accept that the lifestyles espoused here, the preference for nomadic sheepherders with a red tent for menstruating women, as opposed to the joys of the CITIES of the green plain, Sodom, (essentially CITIES, which relatively new in human existence) are subject to quite a bit of cultural and personal extrapolation when we try to "believe" them or even learn from them.

I tend to avoid ciities when I can.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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