Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” – Genesis 18:23-25 ESV
Abraham is living in a tent by the oaks of Mamre. His nephew, Lot is living an urban lifestyle in the city of Sodom. Some time earlier, after Abraham and his family had returned from a time in Egypt, he and Lot made a mutual decision to separate ways because they both had large flocks and could no longer afford to pasture them together. So in a highly generous move, Abraham gave Lot first dibs on choosing a land in which to settle. And the Scriptures tell us, “So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Genesis 13:11-13 ESV). In the very next chapter we learn that Lot not only settled in the land near Sodom, he took up residence in the city itself. “They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way” (Genesis 14:12 ESV). When a regional battle took place between nine cities in the region, the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah were defeated and their cities pillaged. Lot had been taken captive and had to be rescued by Abraham. But even when he was rescued, Lot went right back to the city of Sodom. Then one day God let it be known to Abraham that He had had enough of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. He was going to destroy them. “Then the Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know’” (Genesis 18:20-21 ESV).
What’s interesting to note is that Abraham seemed to already know what God was going to discover. Even he knew that Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked. Which led him to ask God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” The question was not whether the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked, but whether God would spare any of the righteous that were living in the cities. Abraham seemed to have no problem with God exacting His justice on these two cities, because he knew them to be very wicked places. But he struggled with the idea of God destroying the righteous along with the wicked. He knew that his nephew, Lot, and his family lived in Sodom. He viewed him as a God follower. He had come all the way from Ur of the Chaldees when God had first called Abraham. So it seems that Abraham’s intent was not to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as much as it was to secure deliverance for any righteous individuals who might be living in those cities. Abraham himself had rescued Lot when he had been taken captive. He sought the same action from God.
Some see what takes place next as an indication that Abraham bargained with God. He asked God, “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” (Genesis 18:24 ESV). For Abraham, it is a matter of trying to understand the balance between God’s justice and mercy, so he asks God a hypothetical question. He wants to know if God would spare the city if 50 righteous people could be found living amongst the wicked. And when God agrees to his initial number, Abraham begins to lower the number, first to 45. “Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” (Genesis 18:25 ESV). Again, God agrees. Then Abraham begins to systematically lower the number until he gets it down to ten. Even then, God agrees. “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it” (Genesis 18:32 ESV). God told Abraham that if there were ten righteous people living in Sodom, He would spare the entire city. So what is going on here? Is Abraham successfully pressuring God to lower His standards or alter His plan? Is this a model of prayer for us? Why was Abraham seemingly successful in getting God to agree to spare the city if there were ten righteous people living in it? I think it is because Abraham’s greatest concern was for the reputation of God. Abraham had begun his dialogue with God with the statement: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Yes, Abraham was concerned about Lot and his family. But he was more concerned about God’s reputation among the nations. What would people think if God destroyed the righteous alongside the wicked? So now it became a matter of the extent of God’s mercy. How many righteous would it require for God to spare the cities? So Abraham started with 50 and then worked his way down to ten. And each step along the way, God agreed to spare the city for the sake of the righteous.
The real issue at hand is the motive behind Abraham’s actions. Why did he do what he did? Why did he ask what he asked of God? What was his motive? Abraham was still learning a lot about God. He was growing in his relationship with Yahweh. When faced with the news that God might destroy two whole cities, one of which contained his nephew and his family, Abraham had questions. He knew God to be just. But he also knew God to be merciful. So he appealed to both. But at the end of the day, Abraham seems to have been concerned with the name and reputation of God. He was attempting to understand how God’s reputation could be spared if He destroyed the righteous along with the wicked. But the focus of Abraham’s request seems to have been the reputation of God and his own understanding of God’s nature. Yes, he was concerned for Lot. But he was more concerned about God knowing how his God was going to balance His justice with His mercy. What about us? What is the motive behind our requests? What do we really want? Are we trying to get to know God better and understand His ways? Or are we simply bargaining with Him to get what WE want? Why we ask from God is far more important than what we ask of Him.