Abraham and Sodom in Genesis

The story of Sodom’s destruction in the book of Genesis is a lot (no pun intended) more central to the Abraham narrative than people tend to recall. I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

Most people are familiar with the basic outline of Genesis 19. A violent mob in the city of Sodom showed up at the door of an immigrant named Lot and demanded that he turn over the two men visiting him so that the men of the city could gang-rape them. I think that probably sounded as horrible to the first readers of Genesis as it does to us. The ancient code of hospitality required that Lot safeguard his visitors, and the best thing that Lot can think of is to offer his own daughters to the mob in the place of his protected guests. Rather than being placated by this gesture, the townspeople became incensed and attacked Lot. They shouted, “Hey, you foreigner, what gives you the right to tell us what to do? We’ll give it to you worse than we were going to give it to your visitors.”

The two visitors – whom the reader knows to be angelic beings – miraculously protected Lot from the mob and warned him to flee from the city. They told Lot to take his wife and daughters, run to the mountains and not to look back. When Lot hesitated, the angels basically dragged Lot out of the city. Like passengers evacuating a burning jet, they left all of their possessions behind. Lot complained that he couldn’t make it to the mountains, and asked if he could take refuge, instead, in the small town of Zoar. When Lot and his family were safely ensconced in Zoar, the Lord brought fire and brimstone down on Sodom, destroying the city, its people and all life in the vicinity. Despite the angelic warning, however, Lot’s wife looked back on the city in its destruction and was turned into a pillar of salt.

The original readers would have been familiar with salt pillars near the Dead Sea, and so in some ways this is a simple etiology story. Why are there pillars of salt near the Dead Sea, and why is the area around it so devoid of life?

The story of Sodom does not begin in Genesis 19, however. The first brief mention of Sodom is found in the table of nations in Genesis 10:19, where it is described as part of the territory of the Canaanites.

It is in Genesis 13 that we begin to see Sodom in the context of Abraham’s story. Lot was Abraham’s nephew, the son of his brother Haran. Abraham and Lot had been companions from the very beginning of the Abraham narrative in Genesis 11. Eventually, Abraham became rich in gold and livestock. In Genesis 13, it became necessary for Abraham and Lot to separate, because their herds had grown so large that they could no longer pasture their flocks together. Abraham offered Lot his choice of pastureland, and Lot chose the urbanized, well-watered Jordan valley. Abraham remained in the hill country of Canaan, settling near the city of Hebron. Lot settled near the cities of the Jordan, a region which the author tells us was still “like the Garden of the Lord” before the Lord destroyed Sodom.

Perhaps one reason that Lot begged the angels for the right to stay in Zoar was that he had become attached to life in the valley and did not want to return to the mountains where Abraham lived.

Despite the initial appearances, Lot did not actually get the better end of the territorial arrangement with Abraham. Immediately after Genesis tells us that Lot pitched his tents near Sodom, it reports that “the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord.” God’s case against Sodom does not begin with the attempted rape of the angelic visitors. And Lot’s troubles in Sodom begin in the very next chapter of Genesis.

Genesis 14 tells a rather complicated tale of a war that involved the city of Sodom and gravely affected the life of Lot and his family. When the war turned against Sodom, the people fled the city and the king went into hiding. In the course of looting the city, the enemy took Lot and his family captive and moved north. When Abraham learned of these events, he raised an army to rescue Lot from his captors. Genesis 14 presents Abraham as a warrior tribal chief who allied with other tribal chiefs to fight the northern invaders. Abraham’s small force routed the enemy, rescued Lot and recaptured all the treasure that had been looted from Sodom.

The king of Sodom came out to greet Abraham in the Valley of the Kings. It was at this point in the story that Abraham encountered Melchizedek, the king of Salem and priest of the Most High God. It is a story that that the New Testament author of Hebrews understood to be filled with Christian symbolism. Melchizedek brought out bread and wine and blessed Abraham, and Abraham offered the priest-king “a tenth of everything.”

Abraham returned Lot, the other captives and the captured booty to the king of Sodom, putting the king in his debt. The king of Sodom offered to let Abraham keep the treasure, but Abraham refused to enrich himself at Sodom’s expense. The horrible treatment that Lot and his visitors later receive from the people of Sodom in chapter 19 is all the more shocking, then, because of the great service Abraham had performed for Sodom.

Lot and the city of Sodom then disappear from the narrative for a while.

Genesis 18 combines one last divine prediction that Abraham and Sarah would have a child, in fulfillment of a promise first made in Genesis 12, with a dialogue between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom. Three men appeared in the heat of the day at Abraham’s camp in the Judean hills near Hebron. The author identifies one of the visitors as “the Lord,” while the other two are the same angelic beings who later visited Sodom.

As in chapter 19, the ancient code of hospitality plays a significant role in this episode. Abraham ran to greet the visitors. He offered them food, drink and a place to rest. He asked Sarah to bake a large serving of bread and he selected one his best calves for slaughter. He brought milk and cheese and the other food and set them before his guests. This is a very different reception than the angelic beings will receive from the people of Sodom.

After the group ate together, the visitor got down to business and explained the purpose of their visit. “By this time next year,” they told Abraham, “you and Sarah will have given birth to the child God promised you.”

Like a good host, Abraham began walking with the visitors as they began to make their way down from the hill country toward Sodom and the Jordan valley. As Abraham prepares to say farewell to the visitors, the Lord spoke.

The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command 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 to Abraham what he has promised him.” 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 18:16-21

This, then, is the second announcement of Sodom’s grave sin. Both announcements come before the people of Sodom mistreat Lot and his visitors in chapter 19. The angelic visitors went to Sodom precisely for the purpose of investigating the charge against the city. The treatment the angels received simply confirmed Sodom’s wickedness.

The statement that Abraham will become a great nation, and that all the nations of the earth will be blessed in him, is an echo of the covenant promise God first made in Genesis 12.

Abraham pleaded with God on behalf of a wicked gentile city; other strands of the Biblical tradition are not so generous toward the pagan world, but the author of Genesis takes the promise that Abraham will bless the world very seriously.

Abraham had already been a blessing to Sodom when he rescued the city’s residents in chapter 14. Now, in response to God’s pronouncement, Abraham blessed Sodom again by bargaining for its survival. What if there were 50 righteous in Sodom? Would God still destroy it? What if there are 45? 40? 30? 20? 10? Alas, there was not even one. Everyone, “both young and old – all the people, to the last man” participated in the attack on Lot and his guests.

In chapter 14, then, Abraham acted as a kind of a king, a military leader who led an armed force to defeat Sodom’s foes and restore justice to the city. In chapter 18, Abraham acted as a kind of priest. Abraham made a type of sacrifice when he offered the heavenly visitors flesh and bread to eat, and he interceded to the Lord on behalf of the people of Sodom.

Sodom, then, is a representative of the nations of the world, whom Abraham’s descendants will bless. And Abraham’s seed will bless the world through both kingly and priestly acts.

If the first part of the Lord’s speech in Genesis 18:16-21 recapitulates an idea that has been repeated numerous times since Genesis 12, it also puts new emphasis on a theme that has remained mostly hidden in the background until now: I have chosen him, that he may command 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 to Abraham what he has promised him.

God intends for Abraham’s family to keep the way of the Lord, doing righteousness and justice. Genesis 17:1 had hinted in this direction, but now God’s meaning is clear.

By setting this revelation in the context of the Sodom narrative, the author accomplishes two purposes.

First, the writer draws a sharp contrast between the kinds of behavior God expects of his people and the kinds of behavior found among the people of the world. God looks for his people to be obedient and righteous. The people of the worldly city, as typified by Sodom, are violent and wicked. God’s people are to be different.

Second, the fate of Sodom serves as a warning for later Israel. If God did not spare Sodom, the unrighteous city, why do you think he will spare you when your actions are even worse. The prophets Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Amos all use the Sodom story to scold Israel for its own sins and to warn Israel of God’s impending judgment. In the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, Peter, Jude and the author of Revelation do the same.

For the sake of ten righteous people, Sodom would have survived. Abraham can’t save the Sodom of his day, but his righteous descendants will save history’s later Sodoms. Abraham’s descendants will bless the world, in part, by living righteously among the nations of the world.

The Sodom story ends with two details, one poignant and the other bizarre.

First, Abraham returned to the place where he had bargained for Sodom’s fate and looked down toward the Jordan valley to see the smoke rising from Sodom’s ruins. The author doesn’t tell us what Abraham thought as he observed the destruction, but it would be a terrible sight to behold.

The second detail, as I said, is bizarre. Lot found that it wasn’t safe for him to remain in Zoar, so he and his daughters departed to live by themselves in a cave. Lot’s daughters lost their husbands-to-be in the disaster and they wanted to have children to preserve their father’s heritage. In their abject poverty and complete isolation, their prospects for finding new husbands were dim. The women cooked up a plan to get their father drunk so that he would get them pregnant. It worked, and their children became the progenitors of the Moabites and the Ammonites, Israel’s kinsmen and sometime adversaries on the east side of the Jordan.

So it was, that when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived. Genesis 19:29

Expanded from Abraham’s Call and Sodom’s Fate