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

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?