The LORD, Sarah and Abraham: A study in Encounter.

Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 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.” 20 Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 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.”

22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LordA23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his placeB.

Genesis 18:16-33

Footnotes:

A Genesis 18:22 NIV Masoretic Text; an ancient Hebrew scribal tradition but the Lord remained standing before Abraham.

B NIV Abraham returned home.

A surprise is served to Abraham by the Lord’s visit to his family in Genesis 18.  One might think- and most do- that the Lord, in the theophany of the Three Visitors, has come to see Abraham personally. But this is not really the case. In contrast to Genesis 12, Sarah has become the focus of the Lord’s attention, rather than her husband. Even while the couple are minding the niceties of respectful social graces and habits, serving bread, or cakes, and freshly cooked beef, the Lord has come to ascertain, to assure and then to decree that their longed-for child of promise will in actual reality soon be conceived and delivered- by ‘this time next year’! Abraham was in the doorway to his tent when the Lord appeared, and he had hastened forth to honour his guests. But Sarah did not emerge; apparently she never does. What does this tell us about her mindset?  No matter. The LORD can see, and not just through the fabric walls of their tent. He hears even silent laughter, and there is no obstacle to God’s Word conceiving and bringing to fruition exactly what He intends in His people at the right time.

As the three ‘men’ set out from Abraham’s camp, we see another shift in focus. They are looking down, towards Sodom. Our gaze is engaged along with theirs. What might they be seeing as they look down from their elevated position?  And see that we are told that Abraham is accompanying his Three Visitors as they go off on their way from his camping place. The man is walking with his God in the cool of the day. This is the way towards Sodom, we are told, and the man of God is joining His Lord in His journey. We are expected to anticipate what will follow for Sodom. And then-God pauses!  God’s intervention in the intimate moment of reproduction in this singular aged couple, after a long period of barrenness, is now immediately followed by a long-delayed but now soon-to-arrive corporate judgement. Yet again- just as the Lord did not simply ‘zap’ Sarah’s womb from on high in some disrespectful- violent– intervention, so again we perceive that God is not simply going to act in His world unilaterally. Is it not His ‘God-given’ right to do so? Well of course it is. If anyone has the right to mete out judgement, it is God!  But this is not what happens.  It is quite extraordinary. As Abraham is walking along, our focus is concentrated yet further- the three figures become One.  And we, the listener-readers are addressed directly, drawn in further to a secret question in God’s being. Perhaps we discover that we too have set out on this journey with Abraham and his Visitors.  The Lord speaks to us, in our hearing, and apparently less directly to Abraham. ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I AM about to do?’ The one thing you could guarantee about God’s thoughts is that they are concealed, private, secret to God; known only to Him. Not any more.  In this prophetic encounter, we see not only that the Lord God desires to partner with his son Abraham, but He also desires to partner with us- and this co-creation is even in judgement! In asking this question, we see God’s freedom to choose- not only to consider judgement but freedom to engage in a partnership with Abraham in a more intimate and relational way; to choose to open this freedom to us, to all of us. God’s thoughts and even God’s plans are secret- but they need not stay that way.  As the Three Visitors look down and towards Sodom, we are already seated with Him in heavenly places. This is training for reigning on the job. Not only is God ‘going down’ to see in detail, in intimacy, as He did in response to collective hubris at Babel, but we too are beckoned to accompany Him.  God says that Abraham, His son of promised and continuing blessing, is to command and do righteousness and justice. That is, Abraham is not merely to obey God’s righteous decrees, in the mode of the line by line law of Moses, but to command. To do. This is the language of grand agency, the language of Genesis 2:15; ‘to till and to watch over it’. This is how Abraham becomes father, our type and pattern.

How then does Abraham engage with God in this circumstance of impending judgement?  He does not wait for the Lord to arrive at the city; he does not listen patiently until God formulates his conclusion for judgement. No! Abraham anticipates God’s next move. He takes the initiative and finds that he is given the most generous and open hearing. And here the dynamic of the relationship between God and His creature is displayed in extraordinary detail and frankness.

“So the men turned from there.” Earlier we were told that Abraham’s divine visitor had ‘set out’ purposefully, His Eye looking ahead of Him. In the pause that followed, we are given an image of God falling into a reverie, in which the Three stand around, circling with one another, pacing back and forth as they mull over the possibilities for the future, considering, deliberating. Their journey is not continuing; the future is not set. God’s future is not determined.  Creation is not complete! Though the outcry against injustice, against Peace, has risen to the Lord’s ears, yet God is not content with the report from afar. He is open to the possibility that there may be more complexity than is visible from far away: I AM going to find out.  In this dialogue, God’s omniscience is not invoked or allowed to give the final word. What could the obstacle be? What does God allow to prevent his determination of the right course of action? Abraham!

Abraham still stood before the LORD!  Truly, in God’s world, mercy triumphs over judgement, [James 2:13] and this truth is also in Abraham. He stands in God’s Way by standing in God’s way. What nonsense is this? Does Abraham think- do we think- that he can stand opposed to God, somehow preventing Him from going on his journey? Yes, he does. [In his generation, Jacob will take this a step further, turning it into a full-on wrestle!] Is God incapable of moving around the will and presence of this created creature? He does not want to! As an alternative scribal tradition [the Masoretic text] preserves it, the LORD remained standing before Abraham.  We would not dare to make this up. God wants us to get in His way.

Have we been cheeky enough yet? How assertive can one be with God? “Then Abraham drew near…” The phrase is somehow incomplete, as though to say, ‘Then Abraham drew near to God,’ would be just too arrogant. So instead, we have ‘…Abraham drew near…’ which retains a slight reticence, an observation of due deference even while exercising respectful assertiveness.

And said

‘Will You indeed…?’  Abraham confronts his God in word, not merely in thought. He questions God’s will, God’s character, and God’s intent- His rationality, reason and morality.  ‘Sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’ Abraham questions God’s values. Are not the righteous worth more than the wicked? So the calculation is not one of arithmetic, is it? ‘Suppose there are…’ says Abraham, engaging God in direct ethical reasoning, and in no abstract theoretical sense. Abraham knows, as we do, that the LORD is in deadly earnest.

For what did it matter?  All of this?  Earlier that day, Abraham had been interrupted at the flap of his tent. He was OK.  Just looking down at the ground, whiling away the time. Nothing much was happening really. Sarah was inside, doing whatever. Decades before they had left their families in a distant land and come here, looking for a new life. There had been grand ideas of a call from God, but what did that matter now? Their lives had gone by, and they had prospered well enough. They had endured various thrills and spills in the journey. Made a few mistakes, but things had worked out. Turns out we couldn’t have our own kid, but hey ho, the Egyptian maidservant came in useful. Sarah was very pragmatic about it all really.  Is it really a problem that I’m Ishmael’s Dad, but Hagar is his Mum? He still counts. It’ll be ok. Once, it seemed that God really meant it about us having our own child. All that stuff about counting stars and sand, and having new names. Very romantic. Perhaps it was just too much wine.  We’re ok really.  Real life is much more complicated than dreams and visions, and we’ve had to get real. I’m not sure that I should have brought Lot with us, but he made his choice. Its tricky in the city. The neighbours are a bit rough, but he’s managing. His kids are going to get married soon. He will manage.

Abraham’s eye is caught by a distant movement.  There are three figures on the horizon, moving closer. The Visitors came walking out of the sun, certainly and surely across the desert. Abraham starts up and hurries toward them.  He is aware of his heart pounding in his chest.  This is real.

You have indeed walked a long road, and you should know that I accept you with all your faults and failings. I did not call you because you were perfect. I am not surprised by you. Now I have come to make good what I have promised. This time next year there will be new life. New life that seems to you to be even more impossible than ever before. New life is starting now! There’s going to be another baby- the right baby this time. No disappointments, no more barrenness. And no lies, no deception. I am giving you a Hope and a Future. This is not a wall poster, but the real thing. I AM your God and I AM making a great people from you two. That’s how it’s going to be, ‘Father of a Multitude!’

Now Abraham is shaken from his depressed thinking, and the scales have fallen from his eyes. He can see starlight and sunshine again, and can see the difference between the bright sky and the shade under the trees.  Let me see You on Your Way!  My Lord, where are you going now? Down to the plain, to the cities where Lot is, well, surviving. No, that’s right, all is not well there. It is a very wicked neighbourhood, and something should really be done about it.  When I was a younger man we had to rescue Lot from kidnappers. My guys chased them down and there was a grizzly fight, but we beat them off and brought Lot back home safely enough. Thanks for Your help with that!  I can’t do that sort of thing now though. You have to let people get on with their lives. I am more patient with people now, you know?

There’s no more time for that? What do you mean LORD? Time’s up?! You are going down there to sort it all out.  Oh, I see…  Well, no; hang on a minute LORD! What about all that hope and future stuff?  Are you sure this is… right?  Should this be the real End for them all?

So Abraham is roused in his faith, and I note something else that is extraordinary here. Abraham finds a way to argue with God- a remarkable transformation in attitude. But he does not mention Lot by name. He does not indulge in special pleading for his particular relative. That would be nepotism, and he knows God too well to imagine He would fall for that trickery. No names then. So he tries a different tack. Abraham puts himself in harms way, for the greater good.  He puts himself in the way, between the LORD God and the object of His impending judgement.  The bearer of God’s promise of blessing is a hair’s breadth from being dust and ashes, just like the two cities, and he knows it.  What is he doing? Perhaps Abraham is using his unexceptionality as his bargaining tool.  You have chosen to bless me though I am nothing special, he says, so I am pleading for them, whose special quality is… that they are not special.  If I am nothing special, and yet I can be the object of Your patience and blessing-made-good, what about them? Not the wicked ones, obviously, but the innocent, the righteous? Dear God, please do not cut short all these lives, though many most certainly deserve it. You have come to confirm your blessing on me as the soon-to-be-real Father of a Multitude, and the means of blessing all nations. Well, I am not prepared to wait. You say you will bring judgement now; I ask that I can be the means of blessing now. Spare them all for even one!

And so in this Encounter between the LORD God and Abraham, we see that the first father of Israel does ultimate business with God on behalf of all peoples, both in his lifetime and in lifetimes to come. He sets a pattern, as intercessor and priest, pleading for those he knows, for his own family, and for his wider community, and those who are strangers to him. Abraham shows us that every human creature of God is a star in the firmament of God’s creation, and each of us can follow in the footsteps of Father Abraham, pleading in action and in prayer on behalf of all our neighbours. This may all seem to be simply words, but words are the Way of our LORD, the God who flung stars into space by the power of His Word, and breathes life into us by His rhema Word. 

Death and life are in the power of the tongue,

and those who love it will eat its fruits.   [Prov 18:21]

————————————————————–

The experience of dwelling in this scripture episode is teaching me that we must reorder our priorities in deciding what we know: our epistemological principles. This matters in a ministry that is predicated on research, on engagement with relevant data and the extraction of valuable insights drawn from a plethora of information.

We do know from Genesis 11 who the family is that God has dealings with in Genesis 12, both on Abram’s side, and also Sarai’s, but we know nothing about Abram or Sarai other than a little of their cultural provenance. No features of Abram’s character are brought to our attention. Speculations are made by commentators and theologians about the cultural setting of the places in which Abram’s character was formed, but we are left without any particular impression of his quality as a man- he is unremarkable.  Yet the LORD YHWH calls him.  Thus commences the life journey of the man who our Jewish friends call Father Abraham, honoured by St Paul in his letter to the Romans many centuries later. 

So in this chapter, Genesis 18, we find ourselves many decades forward into the years of physical decline in this couple, after many episodes of journeying and mis-steps. Though the recipients of Yahweh’s Promise- not only being blessed but also to be blessing to many, to the nations, to the whole world- they remain reproductively barren.  Apparently, the fulfilment of The Promise is not to be through Ishmael. Fundamentally, it seems clear that God’s Word remains… just words. Humanly speaking, we should know that the time for fruitfulness from this couple has passed by.

Now pay attention. God’s words have been spoken, and they will not return to Him void- meaning undone in chaos. On this day, the Three Visitors come to their place, their present home, in the promised land.  There is greeting, and welcome; the offer of hospitality- some awkwardness in the rushing around, in the hasty words between husband and wife, and the fellowship meal is prepared. Still Sarah remains inside the tent. Does she know Who has come? Does Abraham know who it is he calls LORD? We do not know exactly when the truth dawns on them, but we know, as we are told at the beginning, ‘The LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre’. The LORD has come looking for his children in His garden. And he has come to ask questions. This time it is not, ‘Where are you?’ but, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?’  The LORD knows where she is hiding, but he wants to hear it from her husband, who awaits watchfully under the tree by their dwelling. In response, the LORD announces that the blessing will finally come about, in flesh and blood terms. Sarah can hear, and now Sarah knows she is being examined. And the intimate information is now made public- not at the time, but to us, in history. In a very delicate and respectful way we are told that Sarah is past menopause and she no longer expects ‘pleasure’. What can this mean? You would need to be married to know how to interpret this little ‘tweet’ of information. There are at least two possibilities.

But now this much is sure.  The LORD knows those who are His. He knows all their circumstances- the state of their hearts and bodies, and he knows their faith. Most of all, God is with them, and later, He will return (21:1) and His Word will be made good in the birth of their son Isaac, and then their laughter will be full. But that is for another day.

Now the Visitors rise to leave, and make for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Whatever surprises Abraham has still to process from this encounter, he now knows this: His Lord treasures his fellowship. The appearance of his Visitors was sudden; unannounced. But they do not disappear as mysteriously as they had appeared.  In their moving on, we are told that Abraham is going with his Visitors, to ‘set them on their way’.  In this intimacy, the Lord God now muses aloud. We are told in detail: much information has come to the Lord’s attention about the state of life in the communities of the two cities in the plain. As we would expect from any urban development, an abundance of data has poured forth, as an ‘outcry’ to the Lord. This is repeated; there is much crying out. But why exactly? What sense to make of this information? Reports of sin and its consequences are complex and tangled- there are intertwined webs and knots of effect and cause. Who is responsible? What judgements are appropriate? Surely there could not be just one simple solution- could there?

As I have already described, we see the most marvellous thing in Genesis 18:22-33. In this extended encounter- reported and recorded in a remarkably long dialogue by biblical standards- we are made privy to an unprecedented development in the partnership of Yahweh God and his called servant son.  Though I am but ‘dust and ashes,’ says Abraham- well, he soon will be, if this doesn’t go well!  A few moments ago he was a wrinkled old man and the humbled husband of a barren wife. Abraham has now become something else. This is what faith in encounter is supposed to do to us, isn’t it?  ‘Can these dry bones live? You alone know, Lord.’ This man of God now stands toe to toe with the LORD of All- he ‘draws near,’ we are told in 18:23. We should be embarrassed to catalogue what he does next.  A few moments ago, Abraham was nervously answering God’s questions. Now he is asking the questions- challenging God to His face. He is questioning God’s perspective. Have you done your sums right? Have you counted properly? Are you sure- Abraham remonstrates with God- that you haven’t MISSED ANYONE? Abraham questions God’s moral judgement. Have you correctly identified which ones are bad and which ones are good? He argues about principle; yes, he lectures God on morals and ethics. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” He reaches out to pull at the LORD’s heartstrings.  “Far be that from You!”

And then he bargains with God. I am an English person, so when I go shopping, I look for the prices on the shelf, and scout up and down the aisle, inspecting the range of produce and sizing up their relative value. Six packs and ‘Buy two, get one free’ offers. How do they compare? But my wife Shon is Hong Kong Chinese, so for her, the urge to barter is not very well concealed. Bartering requires a certain arrogance- to confront the stallholder and to make yourself their equal. ‘We can decide on the price together. It’s not just up to you’, says my wife. It’s not very English. This is exactly what Abraham does. ‘What is the price of your justice, God? No, sorry, that’s too high. Sell it to me for less.’ Down and down he goes; 50, 45, 40, 30; still lower! 20, 10; and each time, the LORD agrees. You’ve got to wonder why Abraham stops there.  I used to think-this was me trying to be clever- that since the difference between 50 and 45 is 5, that Abraham has already proved that God would agree to just 5. What I couldn’t make sense of is why he doesn’t get God down to one. Perhaps that would be just pushing his luck too far. After all, as much of Christian social media continues to tell me, sodomy is really an extra-serious sin, and the presence of five, or fewer, righteous people probably are not enough to offset the wrath of God against this wickedness. But if you read onto Genesis 19:27-29, it is specifically recorded that God remembered Abraham, and that as a result of their agreement Lot alone is numbered as the one rescued from the annihilation of the cities by fire and brimstone. And note that this one was prepared to hand over his own two virgin daughters to the Sodomites who had been hammering at the door to his house. So much for Lot’s righteousness being counted on God’s balance sheet.  In this arithmetic, Lot’s disobedient wife is discounted, as are the two daughters who later seduce their own father out of an understandable desire to preserve their bloodline.

‘How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?’ [Romans 11:33b-34 ESV]

The scripture does not allow us the hubris of even looking on while the man of God knocks God and His justice down to just one.  And then God does it anyway, because He wants to go down to one.  Now we know what Abraham could not dare to know.  God is not willing that any should perish. [2 Peter 3:9]

The LORD has His satisfaction. His son of promise has become a father who speaks up for the many; even those not part of his own community.  Abraham has no more questions, but that is not what we are told. The scripture says that God had finished speaking to Abraham. The whole conversation was in the LORD’s will, and presented to us as such.  Only now is God on His Way, while Abraham retires to his place, to await the morning when he will go out to see what the LORD will create with His Word which they agreed together.

What do we now know? I discover that what we know is less about God’s judgement- there must be judgement, in the end. God will not be mocked.  And with judgement there will be unexpected and spectacular mercy! But more that that: we know that Abraham and Sarah are known to God.  What they are is known to Him, and so is the fruit of His promise in and through them.  Now, from our present high vantage point, looking back through the lens of the Life and Word of Jesus Christ, back from the perspective of Paul, whose life and words were formed and transformed by being blessed in Abraham, we can begin to grasp- to really know– who and what Abraham and Sarah were. Such knowledge comes to use from beyond human sensitivity, beyond our powers of finding out. This knowledge is the collective knowing of the crowd of witnesses though all of God’s journey with His people through history. [Hebrews 12:1] It is the knowledge of those who overcome ‘by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.’ [Revelation 12:11 ESV] This testimony is won by those who are prepared to face the fact that they are dust and ashes even while they live; those who will draw near; who will undertake to speak with the LORD, Who stands before us. What else is life for? I know that this is what is remarkable.

Stephen Thompson 28 April 2020 © 2020

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Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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