The Sin of Sodom

Dealing with times of God’s judgment relayed in the Bible is difficult business. There seem to be some who want to interpret these stories as having the potential to happen anytime for even the slightest infractions. Some want to dismiss them as being too disconnected from the message of Jesus to be too useful. Most of the time though, I feel that we just ignore them and hope they go away or that someone doesn’t shed any light on these passages.

A lot of the issue, at least in my understanding, stems from a conflict between the ideas of God as love and God as judge. If God is love and loves human beings, how does that not conflict with God’s judgment that sometimes takes human lives? This kind of conflict is what makes passages like the one I’m going to look at today so difficult. The passage we’ll be looking at is Genesis 19 which is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Last week we saw God speaking with Abraham about the upcoming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In this story we see the details of what goes on before its destruction. We see Lot sitting at the gate of the city when two of the angels/men who were with Abraham last chapter enter the city. Lot insists they stay at his house instead of spending the night in the town square as they planned.

However, all the men of the city come out and surround Lot’s house. They call for him to give up the two men to them, so they may “know” them, which is often a way to refer to sexual acts. Now it’s at this point where I think we need to step back and ask, what is the nature of Sodom’s sin?

A popular view is that the sin that led to Sodom’s destruction is homosexuality. While that makes for a convenient weapon to fight with in the wars going on around that issue, the truth is that the sins of Sodom might be broader than that. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “…the Bible gives considerable evidence that the sin of Sodom was not specifically sexual, but a general disorder of a society organized against God.” While I agree with Brueggemann that, “It may be that sexual disorder is one aspect of a general disorder,” to isolate any specific issue out of this is sloppy work.

I think this can be seen just by looking at the context of this chapter. When God spoke to Abraham of the judgment on Sodom, it was due to hearing an outcry against the city, as well as Gomorrah. In other words Sodom and Gomorrah seem to have been creating victims on a consistent enough basis to warrant judgment because of the outcry against them.

While Genesis 19 may have been an example of how that victimization looked, it may not have been the only way.  To reduce this down to homosexuality, seems to be ignoring the mob’s intention to victimize those who they should be hospitable and welcoming to, like Lot is exemplifying. Would the mob’s actions be perfectly fine if the angels had taken the form of women? If you answer no to that, then the problems are something much broader than the way some would like to treat this passage.

The idea that this victimization of travelers (if it is even only contained to travelers) has been recurring may have been evident in the actions of Lot himself. He is sitting at the gate of the city. Maybe this is simply due to chance, but I wonder if it could have been intentional.

Could this have been his way to save people from the victimization that has been going on? He seems rather adamant to have the men stay at his house instead of the town square. This could just be his desire to be hospitable, but it could also be due to a knowledge of what may happen to these men if they stay out in public. There isn’t any way to know this for certain, but it certainly doesn’t seem too far-fetched to consider this possible.

Now it doesn’t really seem that Lot’s efforts here are going to work. If it weren’t for the actions of the men/angels he would have simply added himself to the victim list, and seemed quite willing to add his daughters to it as well. It is this kind of attitude and environment that is bringing the judgment of God upon these people. Even when stopped before doing something wicked, they do not flinch from it in the least but continue in it and scoff against anyone who would judge them.

So does this still warrant God’s judgment? To some that may be an illegitimate question. God is above us and who do we think we are to question his judgment, I get that train of thought and honestly, to some degree, believe it myself. However, with so many people who struggle with this kind of thing, it is worth asking the question in honest.

I think my biggest conundrum is this. Could there be times where God withholding judgment could reap more negative consequences than God actually passing judgment? Take this example. It seems that Sodom had been producing victims of some sort and that God heard the outcry against the actions perpetrated by these people. If God did nothing to stop this would that make it better? I’m not really thinking it would.

I still don’t have everything figured out about how God’s judgment works and especially how it works in conjunction with God’s love and mercy. However, what I do know is that love and mercy isn’t just overlooking victims and the real pain that has happened to them. I have to ultimately trust more in God’s ability to know when to judge and show mercy than by my ability to understand it.

In some ways I feel like Lot in this story. I know enough to know what Sodom is doing is wrong, but he’s not untainted by wickedness and his judgment on things aren’t the best. He tries to offer his daughters up to the mob, which to me is just as bad as offering the strangers. He becomes paranoid in Zoar and gets drunk and sleeps with both of his daughters. While I obviously have not done these exact things, the idea is that we can be a mix of both good judgment and poor judgment at the same time. Lot appeared to know that what the city of Sodom was doing was wrong, but had his own blind spots. His judgment was imperfect.

To me the only one capable of perfect judgment, perfect mercy, and perfect love is God. In our blind spots we may not recognize that at times, but that is ultimately what I trust in. I may not have everything worked out and I will act accordingly in that, but I will trust that God does. It’s about all I can do.

Abraham and Victory in the Midst of the Struggle

Last week I looked at the separation of Abraham and Lot and how they went their separate ways. My thought was that this separation stemmed from the fact that Lot wasn’t supposed to be on this trip in the first place. Part of the reason I gave was due to the various trouble that Lot gets into later on. Genesis 14 is one of these places where we find Lot in a troublesome situation.

At first this chapter doesn’t really seem to fit in the Abraham narrative. We start off talking about kings that populate the area surrounding Abraham and how a coalition of five kings rebelled against another king who they had been subject under. This rebellion is routed and in the wake of this defeat, the victorious armies plunder Sodom and Gomorrah.

It is at this point that we see any kind of connection with Abraham, because who is taken away as part of the plunder? Abraham’s own nephew Lot and his household. Abraham gets word of this and he rounds up the men of his household, chases down the victorious kings, defeats them, and takes everything back including Lot and his household.

When Abraham gets back from doing this, he winds up meeting two different kings. The king of Sodom and the king of Salem, Melchizedek. Melchizedek is not only introduced as the king of Salem, but also a priest of God Most High. However, we’re left with a very strange situation here. Who exactly is this Melchizedek and the god he serves? Is it the God who Abraham is following? Walter Brueggemann posits that Melchizedek is actually a Canaanite priest and therefore not referencing the God of Abraham, although the title God Most High does become used for the God of Israel.

I guess I just don’t know what to make of the spiritual origins of Melchizedek. I do think that he is presented here as a positive figure. He rightly blesses Abraham and attributes his victory to this God Most High, which even if this is another God, Abraham seems to give these attributes to the God he follows only a few verses later in 14:22. Also in response to this utterance by Melchizedek, Abraham gave him ten percent of everything. Whatever the reason for this tithe, it would be hard to construe this as a negative thing.

Abraham responds very differently to the king of Sodom. The narrative has already indicated to us that Sodom and its people are wicked and it seems like Abraham is well aware of this within the story. The king of Sodom offers that Abraham can keep the goods and return the people that he retrieved. Here though Abraham says that he made a vow to “Yahweh, God Most High, creator of heaven and earth,” saying that he would not accept anything from the king of Sodom.

This is interesting because Abraham reiterates the names used in Melchizedek’s blessing only in seeming antagonism to the king of Sodom. Abraham wants little to do with him and only asks that his men are allotted what they have eaten, and the allies he brought with him get their share. He doesn’t want to have the king of Sodom believe that he made Abraham rich.

The trouble with a passage like this is that it doesn’t seem like it holds a whole lot of direct application. I have become more questioning of our attempts to try to extract some moral tale or practical application out of every nook and cranny of the Bible. Sometimes you just don’t get that or if you do it is more nuanced than we often like to teach about.

What you can see here is the continued effects of God’s relationship with Abraham. He is successful in retrieving the goods that the coalition of kings lost in the first place and Abraham’s focus in going to battle was retrieving Lot. Abraham is victorious not because of his battle prowess, but because God gave him the victory as we hear through Melchizedek.

Now you could apply the idea of God being the one fighting our battles to us today, but I also think we need to be careful with such a thing. There are a lot of people who follow God and feel like they’re losing the battles they’re involved in. Does following God always mean victory in every endeavor? I don’t think it does. If it did  the early church would not have been persecuted in their following of Jesus, the Corinthians wouldn’t have had such a mess going on in their churches, and we’d never ever sin at all.

So while I do believe that God does give us victory, the ultimate expression of this being the victory found in Jesus Christ over sin and death, I just think the application of such an idea has to be carefully presented. Even with Abraham, he is able to retrieve Lot’s household and the goods raided from Sodom. At the same time Abraham is still in the midst of a struggle that God hasn’t given him victory over, the arrival of an heir. Sarah is still barren, and even though God provides a victory here, Abraham is still in the midst of a struggle and has to trust in the promise of God.

Is this not more like real life? We may have times where things go our way. We may be given certain victories in life, but at the same time a different struggle may be in progress. So while God is faithful and God does provide victory there is no promise that life will not be a struggle and that things will always go our way if we’re following God. It is that in the midst of this struggle we can trust in God no matter where the struggle leaves us. It is not necessarily easy, but I find that it is a lot more real than simply leaving it at God gives us victory and act like that applies to everything.

 

Split Opinions on Splitting the Land

It can be difficult at times to tell whether the actions of Biblical characters are to be viewed as positive or negative. This is because a number of times we see no moral judgment on the actions presented. Sometimes, as in the case of Genesis 12:10-20 that we looked at last time, we see good results for Abraham when his actions seemed morally questionable.

This week we look at Genesis 13 and we run into the problem of trying to figure out what this passage is about. Is the story positive, negative, or simply a bridge to what is yet to happen? This becomes a complicated matter as my two commentaries have diverging opinions about this story.

Before we get to the interpretation of the passage, what’s going on here? Abraham leaves Egypt a wealthy man and sets back off to the altar that he made before heading to Egypt. Once there though, disagreements began to take place between the Abraham’s herders and Lot’s herders. They both had too much wealth and there was not enough space for them both at this location.

Abraham wants to part company with Lot on amiable terms and decides to give Lot a choice, he can take the land to the east of where they are or to the west. Lot decides to move to the east and sets out. However, we’ve given the ominous foreshadowing that Lot has chosen to live close to Sodom and how wicked that city was.

After Lot leaves, God comes to Abraham and reconfirms the promise. He tells Abraham that all that he can see will become the land of his descendants. God also says that those descendants of Abraham will be so numerous that they won’t be able to be counted. After this exchange Abraham goes to Hebron and builds another altar to the Lord.

Now Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis believes that this story demonstrates the faithfulness of Abraham, in contrast to his act of faithlessness in Egypt. Brueggemann puts it this way, “In [Genesis 12], Abraham is self-seeking and self-serving. He trusts in no resource beyond his own shrewdness. He is willing to sacrifice others for his survival. In chapter 13, Abraham is very different. He takes no thought for himself or for tomorrow.”

On the other hand John H. Sailhamer presents Abraham’s actions very differently. To Sailhamer, “Abraham’s separation from Lot also carries on the theme of “promise in jeopardy. As the story reads Abraham is on the verge of giving the Promised Land to Lot.” While the story doesn’t go that way Sailhamer comments that “God’s promise was secure, in spite of Abraham’s passivity.”

To be honest I think Brueggemanns is reaching a bit far. He seems to hold a lot of weight on God’s blessing at the end of the chapter, but to be honest you could look at Abraham being blessed at the end of chapter 12 while he was in Egypt also. Does that mean what he did was faithful? It more falls on the idea that God is faithful even when we are not. I don’t see that God’s reiteration of the promise here is necessarily  a good job Abraham.

I’d say that I’m more in line with Sailhamer, but even then I’m not quite sure I’d put it in quite a panicked way. Is the promise really in jeopardy? I don’t think we need to go that far. In my mind, this incident with Lot and those that followed, add some credibility that Lot wasn’t really meant to be on this trip in the first place.

We’re never explicitly told this, but there are a number of possible pointers. First, we have the conflict here. While Lot isn’t the source of the conflict, his presence there creates two family groups that don’t appear to think of themselves as one coherent group. This causes some strife and they separate.

We also see Lot choose to go east. As I’ve said in previous posts, going east doesn’t have positive connotations in Genesis for whatever reason. Just in case we doubted that the whole going east was a negative, the story adds that Lot is traveling towards Sodom and how the people there are wicked.

So why did Abraham take him along? Admittedly, traveling away from the main family would not have been easy so having an extra family member wouldn’t be a terrible thing, but I think it goes a bit deeper than that. It is very possible that Lot is the first attempt of Abraham to have an heir just in case Sarah remains barren. What we see in this chapter is that idea coming to a close. Lot and Abraham are separating here and being considered two separate family units.

If this is the reality behind Lot’s traveling with Abraham, it is no wonder that God reiterates his promise to Abraham after Lot departs. Abraham’s back-up plan may no longer be viable, but God is promising to give all the land he can see (including the east interestingly enough) to his offspring and that his offspring will be numerous.

I also wonder if that’s why we have the offspring language here. Abraham thought that Lot could be the one to inherit the promise of God, but here we have God tightening up the promise to let Abraham know that it will be his own offspring, not simply an heir from a close relation.

At the end though, my thoughts are not clearly expressed in the stories, so they could very well be wrong. Regardless though, why does it matter? I mean does it really matter to us if Abraham was right or wrong in how he separated with Lot or if Lot was to go with him or not? In some ways no, but I also think that no matter what God’s faithfulness is on display here.

If Abraham did what was right we see a picture of God as blessing that right action, just like he blessed Abraham even when he was self-centered in Egypt. If Abraham didn’t do the right thing in this story, God was faithful to Abraham and reiterated the promises to him once again. If Lot was a back-up plan of Abraham’s God is still faithful. Sure the back-up plan may cause some difficulties on the way (like this argument between the workers), but God is still faithful.

Maybe that’s simply playing one note too much, but I think the faithfulness of God is a comfort. It doesn’t always mean there won’t be discord, it doesn’t always mean that our own attempts to fulfill God’s promise won’t singe us, but it does mean that God will remain faithful to us. Even those times where our faithfulness is not so stellar.

 

 

 

Notes on the Beginning of Abraham’s Journey

Last week when I posted on Abraham’s call, I felt that I didn’t really cover all that I wanted to. The idea of the barren being called to life by God was just such a strong theme that I really wanted to focus on. However, there were also a few other thoughts about Genesis 12:1-9 that I wanted to touch on. I thought about trying to tack it on the last post, but it felt forced and the post was already getting a bit too long. So I decided to continue, but the focus will be more on the start of Abraham’s journey after accepting the call to go to the land God will show him.

Abraham is often presented as a person of great faith and a figure that we are to emulate. While there is much to bolster such a view, we should be careful not to take such a one dimensional view of Abraham. Abraham is very human. There are times where his trust in God produces great acts of faith. At times though, we see Abraham struggle to trust God or do exactly what God has told him to do.

It is possible that at the beginning of this journey we can see this dual reality of faithfulness and struggle. Abraham responds to the call of God and sets off, but he brings his nephew Lot. Now it is hard to say if this is intended as a negative or not. When God calls Abraham, Abraham is told to “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household…”Yet we see Abraham taking Lot, part of his father’s household, with him.

This by itself isn’t enough to really make any sort of solid conclusion, but as we go on there are a number of complications that center around Lot. It certainly seems possible that taking Lot with him, wasn’t exactly part of the plan. Even if this isn’t an example of Abraham’s humanity and lack of faith, there will be other examples as we continue on.

Another point of interest is that Abraham’s journey of faith, even at the start, seems like it will not have complete resolution of God’s promises in his lifetime. We see this in Genesis 12:7 where God says, “To your offspring I will give this land.” The land will be given to his offspring, not to Abraham himself. Even with Abraham’s response of faith to God’s promises, Abraham is not going to see all of those promises fulfilled.

As I think about this, I wonder does our faith have the same challenge? It is hard for me to say, I do think that as we journey on our faith it is continual and we don’t always see the full manifestation of what is promised to us, but often I feel that what is promised is not fully physical like land, a nation, or offspring. If anything I feel that our struggle is in seeking to be like Christ, but yet failing due to the conflict of our own humanness in our attempts. I’m not convinced this is exactly the same thing, but what do you think on that?

The final note regarding this passage has to do with the Canaanites and this note comes largely from Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis. I think often it is easy to quickly view the Canaanites as enemies to be ousted as we know about the later conflicts that arise, but Brueggemann doesn’t think this is the case here in Genesis.

First, he does acknowledge that there is a bit of a conflict, but he frames it in a bit of a different way. He says, “the promise of God is never easy to believe and practice. It must always be believed and practiced in the midst of those who practice more effective and attractive ways.” I find this interesting, mainly because so many want to present the Christian faith as the most effective and attractive, but Brueggemann doesn’t seem to do this. It would appear that he presents following the God we claim as a faithfulness to a promise that doesn’t follow the order of the world around us, and is often very slow-paced in comparison.

Second, Brueggemann speaks about the interesting dynamic that Abraham seems to take with the Canaanites. They aren’t enemies to defeat or be in constant conflict with. He doesn’t even seem to attempt to convert them at all. Instead Abraham seems to live in the midst of them and interact with them in a positive manner.

This leads us to the third and final point that Brueggemann brings up. He notes the fact that Abraham builds altars to and calls upon the name of the Lord. Bruggemann comments on it by saying, “Abraham’s calling on Yahweh’s name means that he had resolved to cling to none other than to the promise-maker.”Now while we see no active interactions between Abraham and the Canaanites regarding conversion, the building of altars to the Lord would present where Abraham’s loyalties lied. This reality would surely present Abraham as one who followed a God and a promise that the Canaanites did not. Again this doesn’t seem to be done in a framework of conflict here, but neither would Abraham’s beliefs be completely unknown either.

So here are a somewhat random collection of notes regarding the start of Abraham’s journey. Maybe they weren’t worth a separate post, but I thought they were kind of interesting. Next time we look at Genesis we’ll move on to Abraham in Egypt. If you’ve any insights or thoughts to add feel free to comment.