The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
3 He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”
“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”
6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”
7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.
9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.
“There, in the tent,” he said.
10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”
He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”
30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”
He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”
He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
First off, let’s just talk about how much flour three seahs is. My NIV text notes tell me that’s 36 pounds! Abraham made a ton of food. Also, let’s talk about how long this must have taken. If Sarah and her household have to prepare bread (which takes a few hours to knead and rise and bake), as well as slaughter and dress an animal (by hand) as well as cook it? Hours. So I’m thinking, if these guys came in the heat of the day, in other words mid-afternoon, they must have stayed until well into the evening. Basically, Abraham had a dinner party with God, which is kind of cool.
But what I want to talk about a little more today is yet another example of God’s compassion. I was always taught that the God of the Old Testament was an angry and punitive God. For sure, there is a fair amount of punishment that goes on in the Old Testament, but even more than that there is compassion. Again, the punishment that happens is more that of a parent correcting a child than a spiteful king condemning an unfortunate subject: He cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, but made sure they were clothed and continued to check in on them and their descendants; He set a mark on Cain so no one could further persecute him; instead of completely obliterating mankind through the flood He saved us through Noah and his family; instead of striking mankind down completely at the Babel he simply confused their plans and redirected them. See what I mean?
Spoiler alert – Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed. But Abraham doesn’t know this yet. He is distressed that good people might pay the price of the wicked if God obliterates these cities. Once again, my NIV footnotes put it beautifully: “Abraham’s questioning in vv. 23-32 did not arise from a spirit of haggling but of compassion for his relatives and of wanting to know God’s ways. Perhaps Abraham stopped at ten because he had been counting while praying.”
And the amazing thing: God says yes to sparing the whole wicked land if there are just ten good people there. What wonders a few good people can achieve without even realizing their impact! Simply by existing, ten people would have saved two entire cities.
There may be some who counter this argument by saying “So where is God now in Syria? Or Yemen? Or Somalia? Aren’t there at least ten good people there?” And I unfortunately have nothing but the cold comfort of history to offer them. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed thousands of years ago: that story is finished and easy to be seen both historically and allegorically. As to current or recently ended conflicts (and I’m including things like the Civil and Revolutionary Wars in recently ended conflicts), we are still in the middle of that unfolding story. These stories are not finished: We have people who can trace their lineage back to slaves in the 18th century (or earlier), veterans of World War II still living, refugees from Syria seeking asylum. It is too raw, we are too invested, to gain any allegorical wisdom from these more current events. God’s plan is still unfolding.
That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and just say about every bad thing “it must be God’s plan.” We should fight where we see injustices, and be living examples of God’s compassion. This country has a lot of healing still left to do from it’s history of slavery and it’s historical exploitation of Native Americans. We can’t bring back the literally millions of people killed, but we can make space for their descendants at the table. We can also welcome the asylum seekers who call for help at our borders. We can advocate for alternative energy, which would lessen our reliance on oil and stop adding fuel to the fire of oil-related conflicts in the Middle East but also in our own country.
What I’m saying is, we’re still living these stories. My ardent hope is that in several hundred years we, too, can be an allegorical as well as historical story. I hope future historians can say “The USA’s first three centuries were marred by social inequalities of almost every kind. But the country has been a leader in global peace for just as long.” Or perhaps they’ll say, “Global unrest was driven by a reliance upon fossil fuels in the 20th and 21st centuries. Through the dedicated work of scientists and social activists, fossil fuels haven’t been used in over 100 years.”
One thing we can learn is from this is that I’m clearly not cut out to be a news writer. But if you can get past my hokey headline-writing skills, just remember that these are the outcomes we are fighting for. We are the instruments of God’s compassion. Abraham was an advocate for the righteous in a wicked world. Let us be the same, today.