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Doing Justice Justly with Exquisite Care

Abraham at a table with the Holy Trinity.

Abraham was gutsy, if nothing else, to bargain with God. And on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, no less. If there are 50, 45, 40, 30, 20—no, 10 righteous, surely you’ll spare the city, God. God never says no, but Abraham stops at ten. The next day, the cities are destroyed by fire. It’s a strange and complicated story with many interpretive hazards. 

So, drawing lessons from it for Christian mission, as does the Adult Bible Study Guide this week, seems a surprising and risky move. Unintended and unaddressed questions abound between the lines and in the margins of this lesson. But since raising tough questions is good pedagogy, perhaps this risky move makes for a rich—if complicated—learning opportunity.

The lesson’s claim is straightforward. As Abraham interceded to God on behalf of people and cities that offended him, so we are called to pray for those whom we might otherwise disdain. It’s a good Christian practice. Jesus said as much in his sermon on the mount. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:4344).

An aspect of Christian mission, the lesson then deduces, is to hope and pray that sinners might be saved, but then to submit to God’s wisdom when some are not.

The biblical story, read plainly and simply, however, sits rather awkwardly inside this missional framing of intercessory prayer and submission. For readers who want to let the story do further work, a fantastic companion is religion professor Sigve Tonstad’s chapter “On Level Ground with the Judge of the all the Earth” in his book God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense. Here are four avenues for reflection that Tonstad’s scholarship opens up alongside the Sabbath School lesson:

1. The Outcry Against Sodom

A straightforward reading of this story will likely be thwarted by the temptation to speculate about the “sins of Sodom.” They are undefined in this narrative, but Ezekiel 16:49 names Sodom’s guilt: she had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” 

The text is quite clear that God does not simply come up with the judgment against these cities out of nowhere. God is responding to an “outcry” against Sodom—a weighty Hebrew word used three times in the story (18:20, 21; 19:13) to indicate an anguished call from victims for justice and relief from their oppressors. Sodom, Tonstad summarizes, is “a community where there is flagrant violation of human rights, exploitation of the poor, and indifference to suffering. As the story unfolds in Genesis, the city appears to be a place that is hostile to visitors and dangerous in or out of doors,” including its practice of making “sex a weapon violence” (127). 

A well-sedimented and harmful history of interpretation has insisted that Sodom’s greatest sin was same-sex sex. While neither the point of the lesson nor the narrative center of the story, the presumption is hardly an unimportant or incidental interpretive question, and bracketing it out to stay focused on other themes is careless. Reducing all of this to a fiery judgment against homosexuality (which the lesson does not do) is bad Bible reading. It also distracts from reflection on the nature of outcries that attract divine attention—in Scripture and in the present.

2. The Exquisite Care of Doing Justice Justly

This outcry for divine justice, which anticipates the cries that God hears from the Hebrew slaves in Egypt (Ex. 2:23-25), complicates Abraham’s advocacy. Is he trying to slow God’s mission to defend those trampled by the powerful? If so, that would be an unfortunate model for mission.

Again, Tonstad provides insightful commentary. Abraham is concerned about justice even in the way the intervention on behalf of the oppressed will be executed.

The moral crisis in Sodom now receives a new dimension. Evil must be called to account, but how? What if the measures lack precision? What if there is “collateral damage,” injury to innocent people who will suffer with the guilty? What if the proposed remedy raise questions that would be even more troubling than the ones it seeks to address? The way the story is told makes it look like God comes to the scene of trouble to address complaints about intolerable injustice. In the process of getting to the heart of the matter, Abraham steps forward to become the spokesman for an overlooked concern. His concern changes the focus from the general complaint that God is doing too little to curtail evil to a demand for exquisite care in how to deal with it. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right?” Abraham asks, pressing his case as though God is on trial (18:25). (133)

What might it mean for missional disciples to advocate for exquisite care in the urgent projects of resisting oppression and procuring justice?

3. Fire and Brimstone: Precedent or Aberration?

Mishandled, the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah has become a “precedent-setting example of divine retribution” (139). But Tonstad wonders if a comparison with the flood story is apt—reading Sodom and Gomorrah instead as a form of divine action God promises never again to employ.

It is not contrived to ask, now with respect to Abraham: What happens next, after the fire? Have we witnessed a precedent, a form of divine retribution from which God will not backtrack? After the flood, death by drowning is a spent force in the divine armamentarium, marking it off as an exception (Gen 9:11, 15). Is death by fire still a viable option after Sodom? Do Noah and Abraham, the exceptional twosome in Genesis, come off the same page not only with respect to what they have in common before and during their experiences but also with respect to the aftermath? (140)

When, in Luke’s Gospel, the disciples of Jesus try to conjure Sodom as precedent, Jesus rebukes them (Luke 9:54). Missionary disciples may at times shake the dust of a city off their feet (9:5), but calling down fiery retribution is out of bounds. Instead, the missionary model is Father Abraham: advocating boldly for urgent yet exquisitely careful responses to reigns of terror, violence, and injustice. That’s the principle; how to carry it out is worthy of nuanced and rigorous discussion.

4. It Only Takes a Few

One final takeaway seems to me implicit in this story: from the divine/biblical perspective, even ten people acting for justice in an unjust city may be enough to bring about redemptive transformation. Jesus said as much about the kingdom of God: mustard seeds become trees, and a bit of yeast enlivens a heap of flour (Luke 13:18-20). Missionary disciples point to and collaborate with such yeasty seeds of radical hope wherever they appear. 

How do we model Abraham’s courageous faith in daring to ask God to be good and do good? Does this help us hear and say the Lord’s prayer in a fresh way—thy kingdom come, thy will be done? 

 


Vaughn Nelson is Spectrum editor of Adult Sabbath School commentaries for this quarter. He can be reached at vaughn[at]spectrummagazine[dot]org.

Title image: Abraham and the Holy Trinity (2008), Monreale Cathedral, licensed under public domain. 

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