Genesis 18:20-33 7/24/16 Epiphany, Norfolk

Our 1st Reading this morning, from the Book of Genesis, is one of those great Old Testament stories that’s too good to pass up for a homily. I’ve preached on it before, and I’ll probably preach on it again. It’s one of my favorites.

First, we need to understand that the text has some problems. It is an old story, and it has been rewritten and re-translated so many times, that parts of it don’t make sense. But there’s still enough there to make it a wonderful story.

Let me recap it for you. Word has come to God that things are pretty bad in the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. So, God decides to personally visit Sodom and Gomorrah and see for himself. And God pledges that if things are as bad as God has been hearing, then everything in the two towns will be destroyed. Well, Abraham doesn’t like that idea. Abraham has a concern for those in the towns who are righteous – in other words, still in a “right relationship” with God. So Abraham approaches God and begins trying to strike a deal with God. “Suppose there are 50 good people within the city. Will you still destroy the whole place?” And he makes a pretty good argument. Why should the good have to suffer for the bad? And God thinks about this a little, and God decides that if there are 50 righteous people, God will spare the town. So, Abraham goes the next step: What about 45? God says “O.K.” Then 40. Then 30, 20, and finally 10. God finally agrees that if there are 10 righteous people, God will spare the two towns. And both Abraham and God are satisfied, and go about their business.

Now, the Jews would have really loved this story, because it’s a big part of their culture to haggle and bargain. They would have liked the way Abraham and God worked this out and struck a deal. Abraham really worked God down, and the Jews would have admired that. They also would have admired the fact that God was willing to “give.” This would have really spoken to the Jewish culture.

Well, before I go too far, we need to look at the background to this story. Remember that in Old Testament times, there was a Northern Kingdom (Israel) and a Southern Kingdom (Judah). The Northern Kingdom referred to God as “Elohim”, and the Southern Kingdom referred to God as “Yahweh.” They also understood God differently. In the Northern Kingdom, they saw God as mystical, hiding in smoke and clouds, speaking out of fire and whirlwinds, and things like that. In the Northern Kingdom, God did “magical things.” In the Southern Kingdom, they saw God as very humanlike. We call it “anthropomorphic.” For the Southerner, God walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve, and talked to them. And here, God visits and argues with Abraham. So, this story is from the Southern Kingdom, and God is seen as very “human like.”

Well, how about Sodom and Gomorrah? Those two towns really did exist, and they existed in the Southern Kingdom. They were south of the Dead Sea, which was not as large as it is, today – although it has shrunk in recent years. Just south of the Dead Sea there were 5 small cities, including Sodom and Gomorrah. They were in a valley, called the Siddin Valley. Now, the Siddin Valley would have been very fertile, and a really nice place to live. But archaeologists tell us that there was a major earthquake in the region, and the Dead Sea either overflowed its banks, or the Siddin Valley sank and allowed the Dead Sea to over wash it. Either way, the Siddin Valley, including Sodom and Gomorrah, ended up under the Dead Sea. Don’t forget that the Dead Sea today is over 1,000 feet below sea level, which makes it the lowest dry land on earth. So, there’s been a lot of sinking and eroding going on there for a long time, coupled with a lot of earthquakes.

Now, if we are going to be good Biblical Scholars, we have to face something with a story like this. And that “something” is, that there are at least two perfectly valid understandings of the story. One would be “exactly like it’s written” – that God got angry, caused the earthquake, and destroyed the cities. That is a valid and Biblical understanding of the story.

The other would be, that the oral lore of prehistoric times, told of the destruction of these five towns, and the devastation to the area. And many, many generations later, as the writers in the Southern Kingdom were writing their understanding of their History with God, they recalled this ancient event, and made up this story to explain the earthquake and the destruction of the towns. Most Biblical scholars follow the second understanding. And we refer to this as “reading back”, and writing a story to explain a historical event from the past. But don’t ever get caught in an argument between these two ways of understanding a Bible story. You can’t win, because both are valid.

Well, let’s get back to our story of Abraham haggling with God. I can really identify with this story, because I do the same thing, all the time. I’ve told you before that I argue a lot with God, and I really do. I’ve also admitted that I try to strike deals with God, and I really do. And sometimes I feel real stupid about it. I do it a lot, and I’ll bet you do, too. And the truth is, at least in the Bible, God doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, in the Bible, God seems to enjoy striking deals with mankind. Over and over again, like our story this morning, God responds rather positively to our efforts to strike a deal. I can’t think of one instance in the Bible where God strikes down, or becomes angry, when someone tries to negotiate a deal.

So, why doesn’t it always work out when we bargain with God? Well, we have to take the whole Biblical Narrative in context when we’re trying to understand God.

We need to remember that the Biblical understanding is that God does not alter or reverse history. When we make a mistake, or create a mess, God is not going to step in and “rewind history” for us. When a course of events is in motion, God will hold our hand through it, but God will not let us go back and start over. One of the great Old Testament themes is that God does not alter history.

That is one reason that Jesus had to die on the cross. History was in motion, and God could not alter it. But God could correct it with the resurrection.

Well, what does God do? First, God gives us another chance. We’re not destroyed by our mistakes, our imperfections. God lets us go on with our lives, learn from our mistakes, and try to do better – next time. Secondly, God opens up new possibilities for us, new opportunities, new insights, new understandings – things we didn’t see before. No, I didn’t get that new job, but I see some things that need doing in the old job. No, the relationship did not work out, but I see ways to move on with my life in new and positive directions. God opens our eyes to see things that we didn’t see before, and then move on with our lives.

Well, to end this, I really don’t think it’s wrong to try to strike deals with God. But if we’re going to do it, we need to do it right. Don’t make reversing history a part of the deal. God won’t do that. Instead, make a second chance, or a new opportunity part of the deal. And remember poor old Abraham in today’s reading. He struck his deal – 10 righteous people and the cities would be spared. But in the end, God could only find four righteous people. Abraham had his deal with God, but it still didn’t work out. THAT happens to us, sometimes, too.

Amen.

Posted July 26, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

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