Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge 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 about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” Genesis 18:16-21
I know what I am going to say next will get me into a lot of hot water from a lot of circles of people but…that hasn’t stopped me before….
I think we need to read everything in the Bible where the writers put words into God’s mouths with a grain of salt. We need to be careful and discerning with such passages. I’m not saying we should summarily dismiss them, but we do need to listen carefully.
As we have walked through the Abraham and Sarah stories this month, I’ve noted the places where it is evident that later editorial stitching has shaped the texts as we now read them. At the same time, in the back of my mind, I keep reminding myself that the literary genre we are looking at in these stories is “legend”. Realizing that is helpful in listening to the texts with a discerning ear.
Yes, I learned as a child that Davy Crockett fought a bear when he was three and that he could grin a raccoon out of a tree. Those are legends. Memorable stories that carry a culture’s value system. Davy Crockett was a pioneer, a real character, who ultimately died at the Alamo. The legends of Davy Crockett carry values of fierce independence, courage, resourcefulness, loyalty, and even good humor. The factuality of a toddler bear fight isn’t the point.
So in this text for today, immediately after confirming the wonderful promise to Abraham and Sarah that they can anticipate the birth of a child in less than a year, God starts talking to himself about whether or not it is wise for God to let Abraham in on his little secret plans to destroy two cities and all who live in them. Finally God decides that, since Abraham is his chosen guy, then Abraham needs to be brought into the inner circle of God’s plans for destruction.
Honestly, this is the kind of story that fuels the worst of our character defects. If only we believe that we are righteous and that God is on our side, then we are free to do virtually anything we want to destroy anyone who stands in our way. That is a problem.
Not only does such thinking fuel modern day religious terrorists, it also deafens the ears of the spiritual seekers who read such stories literally and reject the image of a God who plays favorites, heartlessly destroys cities and towns, and commands, rather than simply encourages, such dominance and violence.
So how do we listen to it with discernment? First, I think we let go of the idea that there is a “once and for all time” meaning hidden within it. The story lives on forever and people will continue to engage it in the context of their lives. Today I’m reading it as I’m also watching the devastation in Egypt, Syria, and Africa, all fueled by the manipulation of “God is on our side” thinking.
Second, we pay attention to the words themselves. God’s soliloquy is coming at the beginning of what looks like a fact-finding mission. God wants to go and see whether or not the evil he has heard about is true. Such is the effect of legend – it invites us to let go of critical thinking like “can raccoons really be smiled out of a tree?” or “is it really possible than an omniscient God wouldn’t already know everything?” What is left is the new possibility that God, rather than having a PLAN, might in fact have an infinite number of contingency plans, each having something to do with human activity.
And finally, God’s values are shining through here – that justice and righteousness are the core values of what God expects to see from Abraham and his line. Justice, right relationships among people, and righteousness, a right relationship with God.
Those values invite a new question. Not “is God on our side?” but “Are we on God’s side which is always for the good of all people?”
Let us pray: Dear Lord, we wonder so much about you, we live in mystery. So often we are tempted to reject mystery and create our own certainty. But faith is not about certainty, it is about openness, about trust, about self giving love. Inspire faith in us, that we might be faithful. In Jesus’ name. Amen.