Summary: Year C. Eight Sunday after Pentecost July 29, 2001 Genesis 18:20-32 Title: “We grow in intimacy with God by asking Him questions.”
Year C. Eight Sunday after Pentecost July 29, 2001
Title: “We grow in intimacy with God by asking Him questions.”
In verses eleven to fifteen we have the scene of Sarah’s laughing at the very idea, God’s questioning her about her doubts and Sarah’s denial she laughed at all. In verse sixteen, Abraham accompanies his three visitors, one of whom is now obviously God himself, from Mamre, near Hebron, to a place where they “looked down toward Sodom.” Sodom and Gomorrah are traditionally believed to be located at the southern end of the Dead Sea. In verses seventeen to twenty, have God debating with himself whether to let Abraham in on his plans to destroy Sodom for its sinfulness. In the ancient Near East a servant of a god or a king was often a friend and confidant. In telling Abraham beforehand what he intends to do God was taking him into his confidence, implying that he wanted or was open to his advice and opinions. While a king, god or God would not exactly be equals with a confidant and friend, they come as close to it as possible without either forgetting who is who.
There are two intersecting themes in this account. One involves the theological question of the boundary between God’s justice, by punishing Sodom for its sin, and his mercy and the other involves the spiritual quest of getting to know God more intimately, by asking probing questions of God in a friendly, open atmosphere.
The underlying context of the theological question is the notion of “corporate personality.” The ancients simply presumed that the individual and his or her group or community, be it nation, tribe, family or even one’s body, are one. What happens to the group affects the individual and what happens to the individual affects the group. “Corporate personality” affected moral questions as well as identity questions. In the context of morality the notion became narrowed to “corporate responsibility.” If an individual or individuals sinned the whole community was responsible for it and suffered the consequences of it, even though the rest of them were not actually guilty of the offense. In this story the notion is turned around. If a relatively few could cause the destruction of the whole group, could a relatively few also cause the salvation or sparing of punishment of the whole group? Ultimately, the answer to this question will be that even one, the Suffering Servant, can cause the group’s salvation. This is foreshadowed in the sparing of Lot, representing his family, the only righteous one in the whole city of Sodom. Although, in the story he is spared, the town is not. The answer given here- if even ten are righteous, God will spare the whole town- paves the way for developing the dialectic between God’s justice and mercy, a question still puzzling humanity today.
There is another dimension to this story involving Abraham’s personal quest. Through his open, friendly dialogue with God, we would say “prayer,” he is developing an intimacy with God, not by challenging his decisions, but by asking about his own limits, boundaries and where he “draws the line.” This is not merely to get information about God, but to get to know what makes God tick. Ironically, in asking about God’s boundaries he is moving the boundaries of his own relationship with God, coming ever closer to God’s center. The spiritual quest is related to the theological question, but is more important than it or any other question. It is the freedom and the act of questioning, not the question itself or the answer to it, that is important to Abraham. He will not question the answer, but he will grow in intimacy by asking it or any other question.
In verse twenty, “the outcry…their sin is so grave,” the sin of Sodom has traditionally been interpreted as a homosexual one. The word “sodomy,” anal or oral copulation with a person of the same sex and, in the law, such copulation forced on one of the opposite sex, comes from the city’s name, Sodom. However, the text does not support this interpretation. First of all, as described in chapter nineteen, especially verse five, it would be more public gang rape than the private act of either “sodomy” or any other specific homosexual act. While it is true that the Hebrew verb used in 19:5, yada`, “to know” is used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse and can be interpreted here as such the parallel text in Judges 19: 22-25 where another term, nebalah, “folly, vile thing,” is also used to describe how Jacob’s sons characterized the rape of their sister, Dinah, at the hands of Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite, showing this to be a case of rape rather than sex between consenting adults. The context makes the interpretation that a sexual sin is involved here is a reasonable one, though rape and gang-rape at that is the real reference. It is not the only interpretation, however. Ironically the same verb, yada`, “to know” is used to describe God’s closeness to Abraham in 18:19. The Bible itself has interpreted this “sin” differently. The three major prophets did not see the “sin” as a sexual one at all. Isaiah 1:10; 3:9 refers to their sin as injustice; Jeremiah 23:14 as a variety of irresponsible acts so named; and Ezekiel 16:49 as pride, excessive food and indifference to the poor. Perhaps, their inordinate desire to gang rape these strangers came as a result of a broader rejection of God across the board, indicating how far the evil consequences of sin can spread and how low they leave a person or persons.