Today’s First Reading and an Early Revelation
Today’s first reading for Roman Catholic Masses was the passage in which Abraham implores God to spare the city of Sodom for the sake of the innocents whom God might “sweep away… with the guilty.” The typical reading of this passage — and the point most often emphasized during homilies — is that Abraham is daring to negotiate with God — and winning. The point often drawn from the scene is that prayer and intercessions can have an effect.
I can’t recall the specifics, but I know that I’ve heard non-believers cite this interaction as evidence that the Bible can’t be an accurate representation of the God whom believers profess it to describe, because an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God couldn’t possibly bend to the requests of mere mortals. There’s a capriciousness evident in a Supreme Being who would slaughter innocents with the guilty and then change His mind upon the request of a human being who is more charitable than Him.
Expanding the quotation, though, a few lines before those presented in the lectionary suggests a different interpretation:
The men set out from there and looked down toward Sodom; Abraham was walking with them, to see them on their way.
The Lord reflected: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, now that he is to become a great and populous nation, and all the nations of the earth are to find blessing in him? Indeed, I have singled him out that he may direct his sons and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord may carry into effect for Abraham the promises he made about him.”
With this interior dialogue included, the exchange between God and Abraham reads less as a negotiation than as a revelation, for Abraham, about the nature of God. It’s clear that Abraham thinks he’s presuming to debate with the Lord, but nothing in the responses is inconsistent with the interpretation that God is merely answering questions about His previous intentions (in the knowledge, of course, that there were no such innocents to be found).
Two points follow from this reading. First, what Abraham accomplished wasn’t to persuade God of a higher morality, but to affirm for his descendants that such a morality coincided with their God — in keeping with God’s stated intention of directing Abraham’s “posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” Had Abraham not explicitly pursued his line of questioning, the mercy of God would have been an open question after He’d destroyed Sodom.
Second, we can take Sodom as representing a promise, in this biblical story, that God will spare all of human society as long as there are those among us through whom He can work. Owing to free will, we can go well astray from our purpose and from the path of “what is right and just,” but the existence of just a few points of human light are sufficient for the long, slow process of broad salvation.
After all, God did not destroy Jerusalem in the New Testament, and the process of salvation continues, these millennia later. We’re living in Sodom, in other words, and we must strive to be those few innocents on whose behalf God will spare the city.