He had no idea. The mess of his city, well yes, that was evident.1 And why he didn’t just leave is unclear; though he had made the choice to live there after all and it was his city. But what was near at hand, he might have guessed but had no certainty – until he watched the fire fall.
There were things happening in the background. Before the “end of the world as he knew it” there was deliberation and consultation between God and his Uncle Abraham; all of which was unknown to Lot.
Gen. 18:16-33 provides one of those fascinating insights into God’s heart and His involvement with His world. It must be read as it is and in real time to fully understand what transpires.2 Having announced to elderly and barren Abraham and Sarah His soon to be fulfilled plan to bring to them the promised son, God turns His attention to the Sodom “issue.”
16 Then the men rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom; and Abraham was walking with them to send them off. 17 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? 19 “For I have chosen him, so 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 upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” 20 And the LORD said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. 21 “I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.”
22 Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the LORD. 23 Abraham came near…
God seems intent on inviting Abraham into consuls and deliberation. The text indicates God’s concern that Abraham be clear on God’s character in His dealings with Sodom. Any misunderstanding on Abraham’s side might create a tension in their relationship, a place of doubt in Abraham’s heart concerning God. In fact, this very question Abraham will raise, “Are you just, do you do right?”
But there might be a more personal reason – friends consult with friends! God was unwilling to move forward in such an important matter without including His friend and partner, Abraham. By God’s own choice, His redemptive purpose for the world is bound together with this one man and God takes Abraham’s input seriously.
In verse 22, an ancient scribal tradition reads the text this way, “And the Lord stood before Abraham.”3 What a significant moment! God waits before Abraham, “what might Abraham what to say, what is on the heart of My friend?” Abraham draws near to God, accepting God’s invitation and shares what is on his heart, offers his input.
In the exchange that follows, Abraham presses God on exactly what would be needed to allow God to spare the city. In the end, Abraham is satisfied with God’s evaluation. Does Abraham’s consultation influence what God will do? In other words, is this interchange a form of intercession? Other places in the Bible show that there are times where God’s invites input and changes His mind as a result!4 In this text, however, it seems unlikely that this is point.
What then are we to make of this?
There is evidence in the text that the judgment of the city, the final outcome, is still undecided (20-21). However remote the possibility of mercy, it seems that God has not finalized His decision to destroy Sodom. God’s abhorrence with bringing judgment is clear, it is the last measure. The attempted rape of God’s angelic messengers seals the fate of the cities (19:1-11).
What is interesting is that the presence of the righteous actually does hold God’s judgment at bay. While the numbers (50, 10, etc.) seem not to be the point, they are significant in the sense that they constitute some minimum that can actually affect the outcome of the city. Therefore form God’s perspective there is hope for the most wicked of situations IF there are righteous there.
Now this is not automatic – as though God counts noses and says, “Okay, I can be merciful.” Rather, it seems if and only if, the righteous are engaged with God, committed to bring about real redemptive change (no matter the personal cost), then God can hope. Fatalism is subtle tool of the demonic. It robs God’s people of hope that there might still be a redemptive possibility.
Let’s not succumb to any form of fatalism. Whether it be the taunts of our culture that we are irrelevant Neanderthals or some theological fatalism that says the world must get worse and worse before Jesus returns.5 Yes, we must be realistic; but the difference between realism and fatalism is simply God.
There is hope for America! That hope is God and that hope is us – will we give Him free reign to deal with us, to probe the depths of our hearts? Will we repent, thoroughly, completely and deeply for our complacency, our indifference, our unwillingness to engage with God for His sake and for the nation’s sake?
Coming from his commentary on this text, Terence Fretheim’s observation is both insightful and hope-filled:
“The text witnesses to the significance of the presence of the righteous in any situation; they can subvert the effects of sin and evil from within the city so that the consequences are less severe, perhaps even sparing the wicked and reclaiming the city. The author argues against fatalism among the righteous, the belief that nothing can be done about society’s problems, that plays down the potential impact of human activity and resigns itself to sin’s consequences. The righteous can indeed make a difference, to the world and to God.”6
1 2 Peter 2:7.
2 If we read the story with our knowledge of the outcome in mind we will miss many insights; this is true of all Biblical narrative.
3 See Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 49. Net Bible notes here: 64tc. “An ancient Hebrew scribal tradition reads ‘but the Lord remained standing before Abraham.’ This reading is problematic because the phrase ‘standing before’ typically indicates intercession, but the Lord would certainly not be interceding before Abraham.” (I would disagree and find their assessment mostly a theological decision – MRH)
4 Exodus 32.
5 Let me be blunt: this faulty thinking emasculates the church, robs it of hope, faith and the courage to act in dark times.
6 Fretheim, Genesis, NIB, 479.