understanding genesis 18

Genesis 18 depicts a very interesting narrative. In the first part of the chapter, the Lord (“Yahweh”) appears to Abraham. God appears with two angels (the term “men” is used interchangeably with “angels” throughout the text). Abraham recognizes God (God often appeared to Abraham), and respectfully refers to Him as “Adonai” (“Lord”). This term is used throughout the Bible as a respectful way to address God when people are talking to or about God. Abraham’s first thoughts are to wash God’s feet, set a resting place for Him, and then feed Him:

Gen 18:1 And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.
Gen 18:2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth
Gen 18:3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.
Gen 18:4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree,
Gen 18:5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”
Gen 18:6 And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.”
Gen 18:7 And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly.
Gen 18:8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

After Abraham watches Yahweh and the angels eat, they begin a dialogue. God has given several promises to Abraham by this point. In Chapter 15, God had promised to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars. In Chapter 16, God had promised to Hagar (mother of Abraham’s child Ishmael) that she would have countless descendants. In Chapter 17, God had promised Abraham that He will make Abraham the father of many nations. But by Chapter 18, Abraham is getting old and only has one child. The purpose of God’s visit is to inform Abraham that God will be forming a lineage from Sarah:

Gen 18:9 They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.”
Gen 18:10 The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him.

So Abraham is talking to God and two silent angels wait near a tree, Sarah is standing behind Abraham in the doorway listening (the tent was set up near the tree), and then Sarah listens to their conversation. She thinks the statement that she will have a child is improbable to the point of being silly:

Gen 18:11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah.
Gen 18:12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”

But God sees her, calls her out, and Sarah denies:

Gen 18:13 The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’
Gen 18:14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”
Gen 18:15 But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

A couple things of note, Sarah did not think that even God could give her a child in her old age. Sarah did not believe that God was necessarily omnipotent. Sarah did not think God would detect her lie. God points out that He can give her a child and uses a rhetorical question to emphasize His power. God uses this incident to highlight His power. God can and will do what He wishes. Sarah tried to hide her thoughts from God, but failed.

As a side note: some Classical Theists try to use this verse to claim God is omniscient, but the text does not necessitate this. In the story, God is knowing what someone is thinking who is standing in a tent in front of Him. This is very much different than minutely knowing every event past, present, and future event. Omniscience does not work, textually speaking, as a mechanism for God’s knowledge here. There is no indication that God is involved in ESP.

The text here represents Yahweh, Himself, as speaking. Some people try to represent this as a Christophany, but the text assumes that none other than the Yahweh of Genesis 2 and Exodus 3 is speaking. God is given a body and God interacts with Abraham. Although the author could have had an avatar or angelic delegate, in mind, the text has no indication that this is the case.

And here is where things get really interesting. God, as He is leaving, decides to inform Abraham about His very next plans: to observe and then judge Sodom. God seems to first address the angels (or Himself in an internal monologue), and then God turns to talk to Abraham:

Gen 18:16 Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way.
Gen 18:17 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,
Gen 18:18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?
Gen 18:19 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.”

God’s thought process is explained. God knows that Abraham is going to be a great nation. This is not because God sees the future as a movie or because God is some sort of magic time traveler. God’s own internal monologue reveals evidence the author was not referencing Negative Theology. God explains how He knows that Abraham will be a great nation: “For I have known him”. The ESV unwarrantedly renders this “For I have chosen him”, but the word is about familiarity. Adam “knows” his wife and they conceive a child. God “knows” because God is extrapolating based on current events. God says specifically that Abraham will teach his children, Abraham’s children will obey the Lord, and for that reason God will fulfill His promise. The later author of Exodus infers little in the way of future omniscience from Genesis. In later instances with Moses, God wants to kill all of Israel. This is because Israel no longer obeys God. When God was telling Abraham about becoming a Great Nation, this is because God expected that Abraham would teach his children to obey God and those children would obey God, just as the text declares. The author of Genesis is unaware of the future sins of Israel or unconcerned with any “discrepancy” for negative theology.

God explains that because Abraham will be a Great Nation that God will tell Abraham God’s plans, and God’s plans are to destroy Sodom. The Lord says to Abraham:

Gen 18:20 Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave,
Gen 18:21 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.”
Gen 18:22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD.

The text describes the “outcry” of Sodom as being “great”. This means that the rumors and reports from Sodom are significant and horrible. God is not saying “the things I have seen or the things I have firsthand knowledge about are grievous.” No, the text suggests that any familiarity with Sodom that Yahweh has is merely second hand. God has heard reports that Sodom’s sin is grave. To verify these rumors God says He will “go down now and see” and then He “will know” after He has seen. In the text, God does not currently know. This lack of knowledge encompasses “future knowledge”, “current knowledge”, and “past knowledge”. This even suggests that God is neither omniscient nor omnipresent. If God is physically located in Sodom then shouldn’t God know the current state of the city?

Some Classical Theists claim that deity figure was a Christophany (which creates all sorts of new problems for the text). If this deity figure was Jesus it still doesn’t explain the text. Why did Jesus have to send angels? Why didn’t Jesus know? Couldn’t God just tell Jesus what was happening? In any case, God is not in Sodom. The mechanism of a Christophany, in addition to not being implied anywhere in Genesis, does not solve the author’s contradiction of Negative Theology.

When the author wrote this passage, he did not have the Classical concept of God in mind. The author was not viewing God in some eternal now, static, unchanging, omniscient and omnipresent. To reinterpret this text, or any text of the Bible, in this light does harm to the narrative of the text. God did not have present knowledge of the events in Sodom. God was going to Sodom (sending His angels) to see if they were wicked. Based on that evidence, God would decide what to do.

This section ends with the two angels (not the Lord) going to Sodom. In fact, there is little to no indication that God ever did go to Sodom. “Go down and see” meant to send two angels to check out the situation. God creates a reconnaissance mission. This suggests that there were no current angels in Sodom, God was not in Sodom, and “checking out” just meant getting official reports (as opposed to the general outcry). God does not reappear in the Sodom narrative until Genesis 19:24, when God destroys Sodom.

When these men depart, Abraham makes his move. When Abraham hears that God will see if the “outcry is true”, this implied judgment to Abraham’s mind. God’s role in the story is to judge the wicked. Abraham’s role, on the other hand, is to argue for lenience, to temper God’s wrath. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann says as much:

Thus in Gen 18:16–19:29, Yahweh the judge is ready to act massively and decisively against Sodom and Gomorrah in response to their grave affront:

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. (18:20–21)

Abraham’s role in the narrative is to exercise restraint on Yahweh, to hold Yahweh to a higher standard of justice than Yahweh originally intended (v. 25). The narrative intends that the bargaining between Abraham and Yahweh (18:25–33) asserts a sovereign reasonableness in Yahweh’s attitude toward Sodom. That is, the massive judgment of 19:24–25 is appropriate to the massive affront of Sodom. And yet, the two large questions of 18:23–25 hint that Israel wondered about Yahweh’s potential for unmitigated rage. The exchange with Abraham leaves a residue of unsettlement and disquiet, a hint that at the edge of Yahweh’s judicial work, more than justice is possible. Wonderment about Yahweh’s lack of restraint is near the surface, even though it is not finally allowed in the narrative.

Abraham begins pleading for Sodom. His brother’s son (Lot) lived in Sodom, and Abraham did not want any harm to come to him. A dialogue occurs in which Abraham sees how far he could prevail against God’s criteria for destroying Sodom. Much like Moses’ conversations with God (later in Exodus 32), Abraham sets up logical reasons to spare Sodom. His reasoning is that God should not destroy the righteous with the wicked. Abraham’s argument is that the collateral damage might be too high for justice to bear. Abraham starts his hypothetical with 50 people:

Gen 18:23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
Gen 18:24 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?
Gen 18:25 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! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
Gen 18:26 And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

It is assumed in verse 23 that there was an unwritten conversation between God and Abraham that the narrative skips for brevity purposes. God appears to have informed Abraham that He has heard terrible rumors about Sodom and intends to utterly destroy the city (that is, if the rumors are true). Abraham summarizes God’s intentions as “sweeping away”. Abraham understands God’s intentions as righteous anger. Abraham begins the task of calling God to mercy. Abraham praises God’s righteousness, appealing to God’s sense of justice. Abraham also interlaces his statements with reverent praise. He starts with a hypothetical 50 righteous people, knowing full well he would see how far he could press God. God, naturally, accepts the hypothetical. God is showing His value of Abraham, as God had proclaimed in verse 17. Abraham attempts again, but with a lower hypothetical number:

Gen 18:27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.
Gen 18:28 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.”

Abraham presses this again.

Gen 18:29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.”

Abraham senses God may become angry that Abraham is gradually reducing the number, so Abraham prefaces his next request with an apology:

Gen 18:30 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.”

To Abraham, why would God become angry? Did Abraham believe that God knew a further question would be asked? Did Abraham believe God could not be angered by annoying questions? Does Abraham believe his questions are defying God’s plans? Negative Theology does not seem to be a part of Abraham’s normative understanding of God. Abraham is treating God as if Abraham can influence God for the better or for the worse, based on real-time interaction.

Abraham then keeps pressing his luck until he whittles God down to 10 people. If God were to find ten righteous, then God would spare Sodom:

Gen 18:31 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.”
Gen 18:32 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.”

A few things of note about this text:
1. Abraham was not a Classical Theologian. Abraham saw God’s plans and decisions as flexible and open to reason.
2. Abraham believes with these questions he might be provoking God to wrath. This is just not an idle “asking God about God’s own criteria”. Abraham believed he was changing God’s criteria. In fact, if this story is just an instance of Abraham asking a series of empty questions to God, then why is it in the Bible?
3. Abraham does not believe God has current knowledge of the number of righteous people in Sodom. If Abraham did then Abraham would just ask God the number and use that number to phrase his questions.
4. This passage makes no sense if God has current knowledge of Sodom or a preset number of righteous people for which He would spare Sodom. If God had a set number (or knew the actually number of righteous people in the city) why didn’t God just tell Abraham?

Instead, the author is giving the audience a narrative of Abraham tempering God’s wrath. The purpose of the text seems to be to show its readers that God can be reasonable and responsive. There is no purpose for this story if it is a façade of an exchange. This story only makes sense in the light of Abraham pressing God and God changing as a result. God goes on to destroy Sodom, but only after evacuating Lot and Lot’s family. The later text even points to God “remembering” His agreement with Abraham. Although God destroys Sodom, God follows through with Abraham’s main point that God should not destroy the righteous with the wicked. After this conversation, God “went his way”:

Gen 18:33 And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.

Genesis 18 is very antithestical to Classical Theism. God is acting in time. God is unaware of even current events. God is walking around and eating food. God argues with Abraham and Abraham moderates God’s propensity for destruction. And at the end of the story, God leaves Abraham. Bruce Ware understands the obvious implications of the text, and as such, Ware challenges Open Theists. Ware’s arguments fall under the logical fallacy of “you too”:

We read, “Then the LORD said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 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” (vv. 20-21, emphasis added). Open theists insist that language about God learning from what happens ought to be taken “literally” or in a “straightforward” manner. Well, consider what we would end up with from this passage if we follow this openness approach. First, we would have to deny that God is omnipresent (i.e. , everywhere present), because God says that he has to “go down to see” if what he has heard is true. This indicates, on a “straightforward” reading, that until God gets to Sodom, he cannot know whether the reports he has heard are correct. Second, we would have to deny that God knows everything about the past, for he has to confirm whether the Sodomites have done these horrible things. Evidently, then, God does not know whether what he has heard about their past actions is true, so he doesn’t know the past perfectly. Third, we would have to deny that God knows everything about the present. Because he has to go down to see, God doesn’t know right now whether the reports are true.

The Tu Quoque fallacy is a fallacy in which an objection is not addressed in an argument; rather the speaker wants to ignore the objection because the objection also applies to beliefs by the objector. The logical fallacy occurs in thinking that the objector cannot be correct in their objection while at the same time not being intellectually consistent. The argument functions as a distraction from the issues, an attempt to shame the asker into silence. It is not a rational form or argument.

What is very telling about Ware’s argument is his granting of the face value reading of the text. Ware confirms the meaning, yet he rejects it based on implications that he does not like. Ware understands the implications of the narrative: God is not omnipresent, God does not know all things about the past, God does not know all things about the present. The author of Genesis 18 is unfamiliar with the concepts of omnipresence and omniscience. Instead, the author is presenting a picture of God in which God bounces ideas off of people, gains feedback, and accepts that feedback. This picture is consistent with other Genesis texts.

The candid moment by Ware explains much about modern Christian theology. Theologians tend to reject entire sections of text in favor of their preferred overarching systematic theology. This is just not honest to the text.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, Calvinism, God, Omnipresence, Omniscience, Open Theism, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to understanding genesis 18

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