Chapter 18 of the Book of Genesis begins with the visit of three strangers to Abraham and Sarah’s tent in the desert. Per the customs of hospitality, Abraham and Sarah arrange a meal for the strangers, who it turns out are messengers of God here to tell Sarah, then in her nineties and barren her whole life, that she is going to get pregnant. She laughs, perhaps sarcastically (because she doesn’t believe them) or perhaps with excitement.
God and Abraham walk together to a mountain overlooking the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God tells Abraham of their coming destruction. They are cities filled with wickedness, says God, and must be punished. Abraham argues with God: “will you still destroy the cities if there are 50 good men living there? What if there are as few as ten?” God says the cities won’t be destroyed if Abraham can find ten good men.
In Sodom lives Lot, Abraham’s nephew, along with his wife and daughters. God’s three messengers go there, but the men of the town try to break into Lot’s home in order to rape the men. To placate the crowd, Lot offers them his virgin daughters instead. But the attackers refuse, so the three men urge Lot and his family to leave town for its destruction is imminent. The following morning the towns are destroyed as the Lot family flees, but Lot’s wife looks back against God’s warning and is turned into a pillar of salt.
God: appears in the form of three strangers/angels at Abraham and Sarah’s tent. Destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham: the first Jew. Argues with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah.
Sarah: in her nineties and barren, she’s told by the three strangers that she will become pregnant
Lot: Abraham’s often-wayward (and incestuous) nephew, he and his family just manage to flee Sodom before it is destroyed.
- Sarah is developing a relationship with God and becoming a key player in the Jewish story. Up to this point, God’s communication has been pretty exclusively with Abraham, so their relationship is on more solid footing. So she may at first have doubted God when she was told she’d get pregnant. But it turns out that God intends her to be the “first mother” of the Jewish lineage.
- God is teaching Abraham about wickedness, punishment, and justice — divine justice. God seems to be saying “look, Abraham, you need to tell your future descendants that this is what’s going to happen if wickedness is pervasive. I saved Lot because he’s your family, but otherwise I never found enough good people in the city to offset the harm done by all the bad people. You can argue with me all you want, but this is divine justice.”
- Humanity’s relationship with God. Abraham feels both a deep sense of loyalty to God, but also a willingness to push back against what he perceives are God’s harsh measures. We have, for the first time, a human claiming the right to pass judgement on God, to provide commentary on what kind of God, God should be. We have now a more intimate God who walks with individual people.
- If we’re considering how this story informs our Jewish values, we can say that the act of questioning, the act of arguing on behalf of justice, to find the good, the act of welcome and hospitality — these are all net positives. One interpretation of this biblical story might be that this is how we should behave.
- Location of Sodom and Gomorrah: some scholars suggest that a couple of ancient cities found near the south tip of the Dead Sea have destruction patterns similar to those described in the Bible.
- Pillar of salt: Lot’s wife is still there, along Route 90 in Israel, condemned for all time to watch Birthright participants take selfies in the Dead Sea.
- One of the few mentions of homosexuality in the Torah.
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© 2017 Jason Harris