Abraham and the First Mention of Justice – Genesis 18

Abraham is one-hundred years old. I don’t know if that is a literal hundred, or a figurative hundred. What I’m sure of is that he and his wife Sarah are old.

And on a hot day in the desert, three men show up – three men that speak with one voice. And one of whom, or all of which are God. It’s confusing in the text, so I’m sure Abraham was confused as well. So after dinner, they all go for a walk.

As they are walking, God says this to himself:

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him so 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 upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” 

And there it is. The first mention of justice in the bible. Righteousness – the act of living in right relationship with God – has come up before, but this is the birth place of biblical justice.

I feel this concept, the biblical understanding of justice, is something we have lost, but desperately want to find. In the past year alone we’ve seen riots in Baltimore, the continued rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, outcry/celebration/confusion over statements from pop-culture icons like Beyonce and Jada Pinkett Smith, and the astoundingly brazen rhetoric of the Donald Trump political campaign. We are not at rest. We are not at peace. We are a people in search of justice.

The passage that follows the birth of justice is troubling. Abraham and God come to a cliff (at least I imagine it was a cliff overlooking the city of Sodom). And God says:

“The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.”

Now wait, who is crying here?  The cities? It seems like the cities are crying out. And the cry is produced by their sin? But the cry may be lying? So he needs to go and check it out? Doesn’t he just know if the cry is telling the truth? Why does he need to see it?

The passage continues.

Then the men (two of the three that had just eaten dinner with Abraham) turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the Lord. Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you indeed sweep it away and spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous are treated alike. Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?”   So the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account.

A few observations.

First, Abraham has some guts. It takes a bold man to lecture God. Bold or foolish. Or maybe it is the voice of a man who knows he is safe speaking to his God?

Second, least you be tempted to make this about sexual sin because of coming chapters, the prophets are clear that the sin of Sodom was pride.

Third, what kind of accounting is this? Typically we think of justice as fairness. Our symbol for it is a blind lady with a scale. The sides of the scale must weight the same – this is justice – the balancing of the status quo. It must remain perfectly level, so everything is out of whack. If someone takes one person’s eye, than they should lose an eye. No conversation. Keep the scale balanced.

But here God is saying the 50 on one side balance the entire city.

To make things worse, as the passage continues, Abraham argues God down to 10. If there are 10 righteous people, the city is saved.

These are some nonsense scales. If I used this kind of fairness logic with my kids, there would be a revolt.

Child #1: “Daddy, Julianna took 1000 pieces of candy. I didn’t get any! It’s not fair.”

Me: “Julianna, give your brother 10 pieces of the candy. There, now Julianna has 990 pieces of candy and you have 10. It’s fair.”

This is nonsense accounting on God’s part.

Finally, was Abraham exercising justice? We aren’t told if his discussion with God is appropriate, or if he learned anything, or if this was even right to do. The Bible leaves us no conclusion. If forces us to sit, and digest the scene, uncomfortably wondering what God thinks of all this.

From the birth of justice, I leave knowing very few things:

First, being in right relationship with God means I can push back without fear, trusting that we are friends who can talk to each other in that manner.

Second, either God can’t count, or our concept of “fairness” is not the same God’s concept of “justice.”

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