Prayers of Faith

Published: Monday, 09 October 2017

This sermon was delivered by Tri Nguyen. It is the ninth in our series on Abraham and Sarah.

Genesis 18: 16 - 33

The Lord be with you!

I made a mistake a few weeks ago by not looking at the text when I asked Geoff if I could swap the Sunday that I was down to preach. I’ve been kicking myself since I discover the text assigned for this week, with the added instruction to give an overview of the following chapters!

Overview of Abraham and Sarah series:

Today’s reading is part of a very complex section of Genesis, dealing with hospitality to angelic strangers,  the bargaining of Abraham with God, the destruction of Sodom, Lot losing the plot and the incestuous beginning of Israel’s neighbours, the Moabites and Ammonites, and Abraham making the same old mistake of deceiving a foreign king regarding Sarah.

It is also complex because these narratives come from different traditions, which have been woven together in these chapters, and edited by the scribes centuries later. Maybe it is because of these complexities, and others, that we are put off from reading the Hebrew Bible.

We have got more resources on the Bible than ever, along with all the apps and Bible reading programs. Even so, Bible reading has had a huge decline within the last 20 years. So much so that we have lost the art of reading the Biblical text carefully and the spiritual disciplines that go with it. And our young people have not been modelled or equipped to do so.

So, before we go any further, let’s take a step back and get reacquainted with some guidelines in reading and interpreting the Hebrew Bible.

First, let’s clarify the nature of the books of Genesis as a whole. Genesis is first and foremost a theological construct - to answer the big questions about God, his purposes and the nature of his relationship with frail humanity. It is not a literal, word for word revelation from God, nor is it an historical account, as in our modern understanding of chronological history.

Genesis is a collections of stories, which Brueggemann refers to as ‘Israel’s testimonies’ or ‘speech about the God,’[1] who Israel has come to know as God makes himself known to individuals, to a people, and to the nations, through Israel.

So the questions we ask in reading Genesis is not what happened, how, when, but ‘what is said’[2].    

These narratives, or testimonies, were first passed on orally down the generations, then it was written down, woven together by various groups, at particular times of crisis for the people of God, particularly during the Exiles, where they had to rethink what was said about God, what can they say about God now that they have lost everything, and what is God saying in this new situation that they find themselves in.

These texts were (much later) copied and edited by scribes, then put together with other books to form the Hebrew Bible.

22 So the men turned from there, and went towards Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[f] Genesis 18:22 Another ancient tradition reads while the Lord remained standing before Abraham

Even in our text this morning, there is a footnote which indicates scribal editing of the original text; they struggle with the idea of the judge of the world standing before Abraham, so they made the changes to reverse the roles. And it’s a dramatic change in our understanding of God. But more on that later.

But it’s not only the scribes of ancient times that have made changes to the text. The people who are responsible for the New International Version changed the wording of the text that has detrimental consequences as to how we understand Sodom’s wickedness.

and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” (RSV)

They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” (NIV)

The narrative of the destruction of Sodom in chapter 19 has wrongly been interpreted as God’s judgement on homosexuality. This became so wide spread within the last few centuries, that it has shaped our thinking of Sodom, influenced our language use (sodomy) and even our translation of the Bible in new versions.

I’m embarrassed that many Christians have used this text in the marriage equality debate. This is not only a bad reading of the text - it is also a wrong and destructive use of the text. 

It’s the same misinterpretation that gave rise to popular beliefs of the raptured, where some are being taken away while others are left behind.

So when we come to read Genesis a few thousand years later - in English with many new versions - it is crucial that we grasp the language, the context, and how God’s people told these stories for their own circumstances, what is said about God and God’s relationship with Israel and Israel’s neighbours. 

Without these insights, and careful reading, we make a lot of assumptions about the text from our modern day perspectives, which could lead to wrong and harmful interpretation.

 

Genesis 18: 16 - 33 in context

When we come to our reading for today, we need to read Genesis 18: 16 - 33 in its broader context.

 

Today’s story continues on from last week’s text about Abraham and Sarah’s extravagant hospitality to three strangers, in which they experience the presence of  God, who announces to this elderly couple what to expect when you are expecting, which made Sarah laugh.

           

In today’s episode, Abraham is learning what God was about to do to Sodom, and he bargains with God, for God to act justly.

Then in chapter 19, the story goes on to describe the outcome, not only of Sodom but also of Lot with his wife and daughters who were living in that city. Almost parallel to chapter 18. Chapter 19 concludes with the strange story of Lot’s daughters taking matters into their own hands to bear children. Then in chapter 20, we find Abraham up to his old tricks, deceiving a foreign king, saying that Sarah is his sister, so that all may go well with him.

These are difficult narratives indeed, but they need to be read together, to grasp the key issue, concerns, and what is said about God, Abraham and the neighbouring nations.

Genesis 18: 16 - 33

With that broader context in mind, we can take a more detailed look at the text:

16 Then the men [the three strangers who met Abraham and enjoyed Abraham’s hospitality] set out from there, and they looked towards Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way.

 

17 The Lord (is God appearing as one of the men) said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in/through him? 19 No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’

Whilst in the previous section Abraham is told he will have a son, here, we the readers get to listen in to God’s own conversations with God-self:

Abraham will become a great and mighty nation, all the earth shall be blessed in him.

Chosen to teach his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, by doing righteousness and justice.

Here we see how God’s blessing and promises unfold - Abraham will become a great and mighty nation. Mighty and great here refers to Israel’s role as God’s covenant partner, channel of blessing to all others, all the earth. It’s an intentional correction to Deuteronomy’s understanding of Israel’s position in the world as being above all others. I think this is wise, because Israel fails time and time again to be the model of righteousness and justice, as we see in the characters of Abraham and Lot… but being God’s channel of blessing is quite another; while we may stumble in the way of the Lord, we are not disqualified to advocate and intercede for others. 

Abraham being a bearer of blessing to the world involves teaching his children and his household (which includes all the foreigners that he has acquired) to keep the way of the Lord, that is by doing righteousness and justice. And secondly, mediate blessing to others through advocacy on behalf of those who cry out for justice.

Doing righteousness and justice is the key theme of this chapter and the following. It involves both personal ethics and public advocacy on behalf of others. Here Abraham exercises this role by interceding for the city of Sodom. 

‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?

25 Far be it from you (it would be defiling of you) to do such a thing, to slay the righteous 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?’

When you travel to the Middle East (and also in Asia) you need to know how to bargain well. How to get the best price possible without dishonouring the seller.

 

You are very kind and gracious my friend, but how about $10, I’ll take it for $10. I see you are very patient and good to me my friend, how about $15 then… no, unfortunately for me, I have to decline, you have a wonderful day and may God prosper you and your family… (at which point, you then pretend to walk off) $17, that is generous indeed but how about $16, I’ll consider you the noblest of salespeople  I have ever known…

It is because of who God is - that is, the judge of the earth (not just Israel) - and because of the covenantal partnership Abraham has with God, that Abraham could come near to argue and intercede for the city, calling God to be true to his character, to not violate his holiness. God involves Abraham and gives Abraham the opportunity to work it out with God, how God’s justice is to be worked out in the world.

Abraham works it out, he insists that ethical distinction must be made. ‘God is obligated to differentiate between the wicked who disregard God and violate neighbour, and the righteous who fear God and honour neighbour… Abraham suggests not only that the assumed 50 righteous be rescued, but that they be the basis for rescue of the entire city.’[3] God affirms Abraham’s process…      Abraham lives into the reality of being chosen, blessed, and a bearer of blessing, by actively advocating for the other. I wonder what our advocacy and prayers for our city and churches sound like?

In this reading we also discover what is said about God at different times in Israel faith.

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.”

While YHWH hears the outcry, and knows how grave Sodom’s sin is, and already has in mind what is going to transpire, but YHWH does not have the full picture, YHWH decides to go down to see and to know (here’s that word - to know). YHWH the judge of the earth, seeks to investigate, to find out if it’s true, according to the charge brought forward against Sodom.

In the following verse, there is a footnote which indicates editorial changes made by the scribes from the ancient text: ‘while Abraham remained standing before the Lord’

ancient tradition reads while ‘the Lord remained standing before Abraham’

Can you imagine the creator of the world, the judge of all the earth, standing before Abraham, and involving Abraham in the inquest that God is about to commence?

I am in awe of this God who discovers with us and who humbly comes alongside us, and invites us, even to argue with God, and mediate for those in need, those who cry out for justice in the world.

We see this in what Jesus did when he got on his knees and wash the disciples’ feet, and invites them to do the same for one another.

Now let’s look at what this text says about Sodom:

Early on (in Genesis 13:13) we already learn that Sodom has a reputation for being a wicket and sinful nation, but we are not told what the nature of Sodom’s sin or wickedness is, then, and also here. We are also not told who is crying out for justice.

Chapter 19 runs parallel with 18, in that it begins with Lot (like Abraham) met these strangers, coming through the gate, and like Abraham, he sought to offer them hospitality. While the strangers refuse, Lot persists.

Then the court scene - like God, seeking to investigate, to sift the evidence, to know

the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’[4]

The people of Sodom have every right to be fearful of strangers; if you remember, their city was plundered and all the people and goods were taken away by the mighty army of Chedorlaomer. They are back in Sodom, because Abraham, the stranger had rescued them and brought them back (Gen 14). Now there are two suspicious strangers, coming to them in the night, then hiding out with Lot, who is also a foreigner… the people of Sodom want to investigate, to know, if these men are spies; why have they come, what’s their purpose?

We would certainly be suspicious; our government certainly would lock these strangers in detention centres indefinitely, and would humiliate them.

It is Lot who I think wrongly assumes that the men of Sodom want to sexually humiliate the strangers and so offers his daughters in their place. In their fear of the strangers, the angry mob seek violence and humiliation, not only to the stranger but also to Lot, the refugee.

This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down.

In Ezekiel 16 we read

49 This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

Sodom’s sin and wickedness was more about the way they treated the poor and needy, the strangers who sought asylum, like their intent with Lot and the messengers of the Lord… it’s from their failure to uphold justice and righteousness that they are punished… their thirst for violence may involve sexual humiliation, but it is not clear here in this text.[5]

These narratives are Israel’s testimony that YWHW, the judge of the earth, chose Abraham, to follow and keep the way of the Lord, by doing justice and righteousness, showing hospitality and care for those in need, and this will be a blessing to the nations. While Sodom was destroyed, because there was not one person who was doing justice and righteousness, not one show of hospitality, everyone to the last person was hostile and violent. Israel’s neighbour; the Moabites and Ammonites have their existence, because of God remembered Abraham.[6] These narratives are about hospitality, not homosexuality, and it is about how Israel relates to its neighbours.

Jesus calls us to follow him, to live out, to embody God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness, which Jesus sums up as loving God and neighbour. This involves doing what is right and just, offering hospitality and care to the strangers, the poor and the needy, and to advocate on their behalf, and in doing so we bear God’s blessing to the nations.

Prayer:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

 

[1] Walter Bruggemann Theology of the Old Testament, (in Part II, Israel’s core testimony)

[2] Walter Bruggemann Theology of the Old Testament, (in Part II, Israel’s core testimony)

[3] Walter Brueggemann Great Prayers of the Old Testament, p.1 - 10

[4] this story is also found in Judges (20:5), almost identical, but it is believed to be an older source, which genesis edited, toning down the violent, including sexual violence.

[5] there is no references to Sodom’s wickedness in the bible as homosexual…

[6] Mark Brett, Genesis ‘divine extravagance conspires with the complexities of human agency to found two of the circumcised nations listed in Jeremiah 9.26 – Ammon and Moab’