Bartering With The Lord

November 3rd: Vayera
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In the discussion between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, we have one of the most important theological passages in the whole Torah. The conversation takes place just after God and two angels visit Abraham and Sarah and announce that, in a year’s time, Sarah will give birth to a son. As Abraham walks his guests out to the road, God ponders whether or not to discuss the Sodom and Gomorrah situation with Abraham. Thinking that Abraham needs to understand—so that Abraham can teach the rest of the world about God’s justice, the Holy One tells Abraham what is getting ready to happen. Then, Abraham comes forward and says, “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, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of the all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18.23-25)

There should be a lot of tension at this point, while Abraham and we wait for God’s response. Will Abraham’s point stand, or is he utterly wrong about God? Though the Torah never says that God formally agrees, the continuation of the discussion implies that God accepts Abraham’s point: “The Judge of all the earth will deal justly!” Thus does God enter into Abraham’s negotiation about the minimum number of righteous people necessary to save the city.

 If one believes that God wrote or dictated the Torah, then here we have it from the Lord God of all the Universe: God is always just. If one believes that the Torah is the work of human beings, writing in a state of inspiration, then we have the expectation very clearly stated: God is just and fair. In a sense, God has no choice but to be just. Later thinkers may wonder at this understanding of the Divine, but this belief in a just God is a cornerstone of Biblical theology. Indeed, it is against this standard that many theological arguments have been conducted. (See the Biblical Book of Job, Rabbi Isaac Luria’s Kabballah, and Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.)

 The conclusion of the discussion between God and Abraham—after God agrees that, should there be ten righteous people, Sodom will not be destroyed, takes the form of a seemingly innocuous passage. “When the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.” (Genesis 18.33) Paired with the introduction to the famous discussion—that Abraham “walks along with God and the angels to see them off,” this would simply mean that Abraham walks back to his tent, perhaps to talk to Sarah about the amazing visit. But, given the depth of Biblical interpretation, could there be a deeper meaning to the phrase, “Abraham returned to his place?”

I have never really thought much about this passage, but Jacob Weiner, our Bar Mitzvah this week, sees in it some very interesting possibilities. I do not want to reveal his Midrashic treatment before he gets to share it at his Bar Mitzvah, but I ask you to think about the question. After such a dramatic, potentially dangerous, and theologically significant encounter with the Lord, what could “Abraham returned to his place” mean? What lessons can it teach us?  Think about it this week, and I’ll share Jacob’s insights in next week’s Torah essay.