In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Many of us are probably at least somewhat familiar with this story. It’s one of those stories that stand out because it’s so dramatic. There’s an awful lot of apparent craziness going on in this story. In preparing us for this story, the Bible tells us that God has judged Sodom and Gomorrah because of its sinfulness. So, in the narrative, we should not be surprised at the wickedness that we see in this passage.
But still for a lot of people, this story is troubling. It’s troubling because it seems to present a picture of God that we don’t like. It presents, to some people, a picture of an angry God and judgmental God. And I agree that this kind of idea can be difficult to comprehend. But this leads us to some things that we generally keep in mind as we read the bible.
We need to remember that the Bible (in its constituent parts) is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but written by human beings to human beings. What this means to us is that, in order for us to understand what it means to us, we should first seek to understand what it meant in the original context.
We need to understand that the Bible is composed of a variety of genres (and forms, figures of speech, and etc.). Different genres require different ways of understanding. We implicitly do this in our own culture. We don’t read literature the same way we do a science textbook. We don’t read a comic book the same way we do a magazine. Moreover, we don’t read a home & garden magazine the say way we do Time or The New Yorker. Different genres/forms require that we attend to the material in the same way.
We also need to realize that all writing is limited in scope and point of view. What I mean by this is that everything written is written from a specific perspective and has a particular context. Nothing is or can be exhaustive. We always include that material which serves or demonstrates that perspective and exclude material that does not. This does not mean that the writing, whatever it is, is less honest or accurate or less true – simply that it has a perspective.
Lastly (though this is not to say, all), the particular genre which we are dealing with today is narrative. Now keeping in mind some of the things that we’ve said prior, one of the common problems that we can make when reading scripture is to equate narrative with, for example, epistle.
I don’t want to spend too much time on this (b/c it’s purely introductory) but when we read an epistle of Paul, for example, we are usually looking for the problem of situation that Paul is addressing (the “occasion”). Often this translates into a thing that we should do or not do (over-simplified). Because of the nature of epistles, this is a reasonable thing to do. However, we cannot necessarily translate this to narrative. A narrative (which incidentally can be a historical narrative, a literary narrative, or a parable) may contain ethical instruction, but may not do so.
Finally, I just want to recognize that this seems like a lot of work. I don’t want to suggest that one needs to be a scholar to understand the bible. It’s possible, and has been done for centuries, to read the bible without any particular awareness of any of these things and have it still be profitable – to still hear the word of God. I just want us to be aware, as far as possible, the potential gaps that may exist in a 21st century reading.
As I said, I don’t want to spend any more time on this but, to put it another way, it’s important to keep in mind that when we’re reading the bible – our goal is not to read the bible to find what we want (or don’t want) but to try to discern what God is actually saying.
Again, we’re dealing with narrative here – presumably historical narrative. And we need to place this narrative within the greater narrative of Abraham’s story, the story of Genesis, and of the greater Biblical story. In that light, and I may be being redundant here, but I want to review a few main elements of the story we’ve encountered in Genesis so far:
- God created the heavens and the earth and it was very good.
- Sin entered the world because of the willfulness of human beings.
- Sin is illustrated as choosing our own way, which is both an active as well as a consequential rejection of God’s way.
- The result of this is death – this was not a surprise.
- Human beings grew in their sinfulness. Genesis chap. 6, the story of Noah, tells us:
6:5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.
- We saw this in the story of Cain, we saw that in the story of Noah (above), and we saw that in the story of Babel.
- And we saw that there are logical and theological consequences for our sin – our rejection of God.
- Nevertheless, in spite of our sin, God desired to restore humanity to Himself, to show grace to those who had and have rebelled against Him. This is what we’re seeing in the story of Abraham.
- And in the story of Abraham, we’ve seen God speak with Abraham on three separate occasions, instituting a covenant. In the last passage we discussed, we’ve seen the first instance of those three where God requires something of Abraham. Previously, God’s covenant was characterized entirely (almost?) by what God would do – nothing was asked of Abraham. But in the last passage, we saw that Abraham was required to be circumcised and to circumcise all of his male descendants. This was to be a sign of the covenant – a mark of belonging.
Perhaps it’s this story that helps us understand what’s going on in our passage today. In our previous chapter, chapter 17, in some respect, Abraham is asked to “choose.” Make no mistake, God is sovereign in instituting his covenant, but Abraham is still invited, by the sign of circumcision to participate in it. Circumcision, then, becomes a sign of a decision, at some level, to live under the covenant.
Perhaps this story is meant to illustrate the opposite of being part of God’s covenant? Remember that we floated the possibility that Lot serves as a foil to Abraham. Lot chose a different path, chose to live outside the covenant, literally choosing the land that was outside of the promised land.
Perhaps this story serves as a reminder, quite simply, that there are consequences to sin – consequences to being outside of God’s covenant? We’ve seen this already in the Biblical story: in Cain’s story, in Noah’s story, and in the story of Babel.
So, in other words, if we attend to some of the basic principles of reading scripture, we can get a better understanding of what’s going on and how we might understand it. It’s understandable that people struggle with passages like this and other passages of God’s judgment in the Bible. And it’s understandable that many people struggle with the notion of a God who judges. But what we need to understand is the theology that this is helping us to form. We need to try to understand this passage from the point of view of:
- The Sovereignty of God
- The Holiness of God
- The Sinfulness of Humanity
So, again, perhaps this story serves, in part, to remind us of what it looks like, ultimately, when we are outside of God’s covenant promises. That ultimately to be apart from God is to be apart from life – it leads to death.
That’s not usually what we want to hear. It’s one of the main issues that people have with Christianity. People have difficulty hearing that we are sinners. This is nothing new, but the current climate, our current culture has made it more and more difficult to talk about. The current worldview, in its variety of forms, says that the ultimate judge of things, the final arbiter of right and wrong, of what’s good and what’s not good, is ourselves.
What the biblical story tells us is that we are not the judge and decider of all things. What the biblical story tells us is that there is a God. And that God is actually God. He is not simply an extension of human ego – not just an extension of ourselves (simply a bigger, smarter, more powerful version of ourselves). He is not a genie to serve our desires and pleasures. He is not a purveyor of spiritual commodities. He is in fact, God. He is big in a way that we cannot understand big-ness. He is wise in a way that we do not understand wisdom. He is powerful beyond our comprehension or our imagination. And He is good. He is truly good. He is not just better-than. But He is ultimately and finally good. So we cannot understand the judgments of God on the basis of “what I would do.” Nor can we judge God on the basis of what I would prefer.
So What Now…?
Believe it or not, I think this story has an upside. We shudder at the thought of a God who would judge entire cities. This is true, even in the light of the previous passage, chapter 18, in which God tells Abraham that if He finds even ten people who are righteous, He would not destroy it. The simple conclusion, of course, being that there were not even ten righteous people to be found. Indeed, are there any?
Nevertheless, I want to suggest that, though it’s hard to understand, it is a good thing that God judges sin. Because sin is precisely that which should not be. Sin is precisely that which is contrary to anything good – that is, God. To everyone who says, how can a good God allow evil in the world, in the end of things, this is the answer – He doesn’t. All evil, all sin will be judged and done away with.
And of course, we are all sinners and we don’t want to be judged. But God provides opportunity for any of us to be delivered from that judgment if we put our faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Because of the work of Jesus, the righteousness of Christ is counted as ours.
So, like Abraham, we all have a choice. Will we be part of God’s saving work, His plans for restoration, His eradication of sin and evil in His creation? Or will we choose to go our own way? And thereby, will we choose to receive what is the consequence of our way? We have a choice.
Joshua 24:15 says:
15 But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
I hope each of us will choose to serve the LORD.