First, Abraham intercedes in prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah. He persists in calling out to Yahweh’s mercy until he hears the promise that even if there are only 10 righteous in the city, He will not destroy it. After so much intercession, certainly there will be 10 righteous people there, right? No; and the next day, Abraham looks out to see that whole area converted to smoke and ashes.
Second, Lot, considered a righteous man, offers to hand over his daughters to the sinful desires of the men of Sodom as a means of protecting his guests. Later, he and the few in his household who believe the news about the coming destruction… don’t want to leave the city that is about to be destroyed! They almost have to be dragged against their will to their rescue. Then Lot’s daughters trick him into perversion to continue their family line.
Next, Abraham lies to Abimelech about his wife, Sarah. Although Abraham thought, “There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife” (Genesis 20:11) the pagan Abimelech shows more integrity and fear of Yahweh than Abraham! But instead of Abraham asking Abimelech’s forgiveness for lying, Abimelech is the one who has to seek Abraham’s intercession to save his own life! The man who showed more fear of the LORD is the one who prospers the man who lied.
Afterwards Isaac is born, and a few short years later Hagar and Ishmael are forced out… with Yahweh’s approval! Abraham sends his first son, a son he loved and cared for, out to the desert where he almost dies. Shortly thereafter, Abimelech seeks a covenant of peace with the man who lied to him earlier, and the chapter ends with Abraham in worship, calling on the name of Yahweh, the eternal God.
If we read with the following expectations: God’s justice must be clear and immediate; His chosen ones are always righteous men of integrity; familial love and faithfulness reign supreme over all other virtues… then all these stories should frustrate us immensely. Perhaps we can launch a few attempts at resolving our frustration by saying:
1. God is not under any obligation to explain or immediately clarify his justice for us;
2. God’s chosen ones are not perfect in everything but are defective and sinners just like the rest of us, and
3. Love and obedience to God are more important than even devotion to family.
Very well, all of these are true; but they still are not satisfactory answers to the question: How could God allow and approve of these events taking place?
I think we find part of our answer in what we call “grace”. I made a reference to grace briefly a couple days ago, when we spoke of the wrath of God and His just judgment in the flood. We read, “Noah found favor [grace] in the eyes of the LORD” (Genesis 6:8), and we noted something constant in God’s wrath in the whole Bible: in His judgment, He always saves a small remnant by grace. We defined grace like this: it is Yahweh’s unmerited favor to man, a love initiated entirely in Him without any sense of obligation or recompense, and it actively blesses a human being. Now we are going to expand on this definition to understand today’s reading.
First, notice that there are differences in God’s love. He shows a love common to everyone that theologians call “benevolence”: “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). When God sends the rain, He doesn’t send it only on the fields of good people and leave the fields of their evil neighbors dry; He sends his rain on everyone around. He gives all of us, good and evil, life and the benefits of creation. This is called God’s benevolence.
But God also has a special love that He gives to certain people of His choosing. This is grace. God made His covenant with Abraham, not with Pharaoh or any other man of his generation. He did not promise the land of Canaan and innumerable descendants to John Doe in the city of Ur. We can compare this love to a marriage. I love all the women in our church equally… but I love my wife more than any of the others. I have a special relationship with her in marriage that I don’t have with any other. There are benefits in our relationship that are reserved just for her (at least, I hope she thinks of them as benefits!). In a similar way, Yahweh has a unique relationship with Abraham, Sarah and their followers in Genesis 18 – 21 with promises and benefits that everyone else does not have. This special love of Yahweh is called grace.
Second, something stands out especially in our reading today: Grace is undeserved and given to the ungodly. That is how the apostle Paul explains it in a very concise example from Abraham in Romans 4:1-8, even using the word “ungodly” (Romans 4:5). We don’t have time to reproduce his whole argument here, but notice his quote of Psalm 32:1: Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven (Romans 4:7). Blessed, Blessed by God!... are those who’ve acted lawlessly? Yes, those who have acted lawlessly! Because their lawlessness and sins have been forgiven by God. Yahweh manifests His grace to these lawless ones by doing something for them that He doesn’t do for everyone: He forgives their sins. And we can speak of any of the benefits of the covenant this way.
Third, if we understand these aspects of grace, we can look at it from three different perspectives. For people outside of grace and the covenant, grace can seem unjust. (Why should those sinners receive benefits from Yahweh that I don’t get?) From God’s perspective, grace shows itself in abundant, unmerited generosity. For those who receive grace with a humble heart, grace is unmerited favor that awakens profound gratitude, faithfulness and even fear. (If you have time today, read the parable in Matthew 20:1-16 where you can see these three perspectives in action: the hired men who have worked all day (to whom the owner of the vineyard’s grace seems like injustice), the owner of the vineyard (who paid the workers hired last as if they had worked all day, only because of his generous grace) and the workers hired at the end of the day (who certainly must be thankful because they received much more than what they deserved.))
Now, if you’ve followed the definition of grace up to this point, we can return to Genesis 18:16 – 21:34. How can Yahweh have allowed so much unrighteousness?
If we look at this reading from outside the covenant, without any consideration of Yahweh’s grace, looking only at His justice and wrath, many of the actions here are unrighteous, simply worthy of punishment and condemnation. We should just shake our heads in disapproval.
If we see them from Yahweh’s perspective, we see many of them as manifestations of His abundant grace ministered through and even beyond His covenant: He protected lives, forgave sins, encouraged His chosen ones and abundantly blessed people who didn’t deserve it (including Ishmael who mocked the chosen Isaac and therefore was dismissed from community defined by the covenant, but who nevertheless by grace received the promise that he would be a great nation).
And if we look at Genesis 18 – 21 from the perspective of those who participate in the covenant, we see these events with profound gratitude and even fear. If it weren’t for Yahweh’s grace, how would Lot have saved himself from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? How would foreigners like Abraham and Sarah have protected themselves from someone as powerful as Abimelech… to the point that he approached them to seek peace with them and their favor? How would they have had a child? Those who have received the benefits of God’s grace contemplate these events with thankfulness and fear that wells up to worship.
Now to close: What happened, then, to Yahweh’s righteousness? Did He throw it out in favor of grace through His covenant? Of course not. Grace and the covenant are not contrary to Yahweh’s righteousness but are simply manifestations of the same. Lord willing, we’ll see more about the answer to this question in tomorrow’s reading.
Once again, the events of Genesis 18 – 21 may seem like a scandalous and frustrating mess, but if we consider them in relation to the covenant described in previous chapters, we too may tremble before the abundant, undeserved and faithful grace that Yahweh extends to His chosen ones.