In the first part of this article, I discussed what the Genesis narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah reveals (or doesn't reveal) about the nature of their alleged sin. In the second part, I explored what later Bible sources reveal about the sin that supposedly resulted in their fiery destruction. Last of all, I want to call attention to what I believe is one great *positive* moral lessons contained in this gruesome and morally ambiguous story. That lesson can be discovered through close observation of Abraham’s negotiations with God when He announced their impending doom.
Today, rather than showing genuine concern, many Bible believers appear thrilled about Armageddon and the End of the World. They rejoice in their own expected triumph and the downfall of unbelievers and sinners (i.e. people who think differently from them and fail to keep their religion-specific or denominational morals). In contrast, when the Lord revealed his plan to Abraham – he did NOT rejoice.
Abraham was NOT cheering. He did not hope for destruction in Sodom and Gomorrah, despite the fact that, being forewarned, he could get his nephew out alive alright. He did not smugly write them off as deserving of such a fate. He didn’t allow his ego to become inflated and thank God that he is better than his Sodomite brethren. In fact, he humbly protested the Lord's stated intentions, despite the assumption that most of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah were guilty, and despite the fact that they clearly didn't share his moral or religious standards.
And so, Abraham seems to have cautiously entered into a process of negotiation with God in Genesis 18: 22-32. As Abraham stood before the Lord, he stepped up and said:
“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty... Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”
God agrees to spare the place for the sake of fifty innocent people. Then, even bolder still, Abraham proceeds to renegotiate that number down to 45, 40, 30, 20 and finally 10, to which the Lord replies “I will not destroy it for the sake of ten.” Given this trend, if Abraham had kept pushing we should not be surprised to find that number reduced to one.
Abraham’s conscientious objection demonstrates the kind of compassion-based morality that Jesus would later encourage throughout His ministry, particularly with the words “Love your enemies.” This should be a lesson to fundamentalists who wish ill on those they regard as sinners (or those communities they see as tolerant of “sinners”).
Imagine if we emulated Abraham's compassion, appealed to the better angels of our tradition, risked to err on the side of mercy, and left the condemnation and punishment up to God alone! And imagine if we had Abraham's courage, to dare to question if perhaps God is more radically compassionate than our previous experience and socialization has allowed us to believe. What is described as a kind of negotiation may also be thought of as Abraham’s process of discovering God’s true character and learning to distinguish between this and the more ruthless popular conceptions of deity in his day.
Imagine that, and then contrast that against the attitude of many Christians in our day (as shaped by their misunderstanding of story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and as shaped by their anticipation of a cataclysmic end of the world). They grow increasingly careless as they expect the end of the world to be imminent. They don’t think twice about burning up the earth’s resources; and they make no apology to future generations about the pollution of the earth’s water, soil, and air. They encourage aggressive foreign policies, in part because they see in many such skirmishes “the signs of the times,” and they presume themselves to be on the side of some righteous army. They are blinded by nationalist pride and by some of the ministers who are supposed to help them avoid such destructive tendencies. Instead of warning of the danger and immorality of these attitudes, many ministers have become little more than cheerleaders for the chauvinistic side of mainstream Christian and American culture, with all of the attending pathologies.
We are brought up thinking that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is when God killed all the gays, and that sodomy means anal sex or something like that. But can you imagine if the term sodomy were understood in our language and culture to mean cruelty, inhumanity, and the miscarriage of social justice? Just imagine! What a different impact this story would have on our world! God didn't kill the gays. He answered the "outcry" of those who suffered some form of injustice, cruelty, or neglect. If understood in this way, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah could become a powerful antidote to counteract SO MANY of today's social, religious, and political ills! And as we have seen, this interpretation is strongly supported by the Biblical text. Let us be like Abraham, willing to speak out against injustice and violence even at the hand of those we regard as the highest religious authorities. And let us avoid the mistake of the infamous Sodomites, who were violent and cruel and prejudiced and neglected the cries of those in need.
In short, let us love our neighbors as ourselves, and treat others as we would want to be treated. Afterall, this is what discipleship is really all about.