Reading the Bible can be a mixed experience. On one hand, yes: it is full of information about how to walk with God. There are flawed people, people we can deeply identify with. There is comfort to be found. Questions can be clearly answered.
And then there’s the other stuff.
One thing that’s sometimes difficult to remember: the Bible is written as a family document, meant to bring us into an understanding of God as followers of Jesus. It’s the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; working in the history of mankind.
It’s not a list of frequently asked questions if you want God’s pat answer on something. God doesn’t work like that. Living in a world where we google something and get the answer the second we need it, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of how God works: over time, forming us instead of forcing us. If God just wanted to make us into something perfect, he would have programmed us like robots. His work is far more nuanced, born in free will and chosen. As it is, we work out the mind of God in prayer, study, scripture, and being a part of amazing and sometimes lunatic family we’ve been given: the church.
I say all of this because it’s important to remember who the audience is when we read scripture. It’s for seekers. We approach it with the help of the Spirit, as adopted sons and daughters. It’s not meant to be “weaponized” (as Brian Zahnd often puts it) and it’s not intended to be a trophy to show us how amazing we are. It’s a formative book, part of a bigger picture.
Instructions intended for the family should be read as such. We shouldn’t turn it on other people, try to use it to crush them. It’s not meant for them. It’s meant for us.
Which leads me to Sodom and Gomorroah.
What we usually hear
I’ve heard sermons on Genesis 18-19, where the story of the visitation and destruction of the two cities is contained. It’s certainly not an easy text. I’ve heard it used often to condemn homosexuals, and I’ve heard counter-arguments that the destruction is because of a lack of hospitality. What I want to submit is this: it’s not about the destruction.
Let’s not get mired up in the city. If this is a family document, then our focus isn’t the cities being destroyed, it’s the family. Lot is Abraham’s nephew, and Abraham is God’s covenant man.
The bigger story
This story has much broader reach than God showing up and burning down a city. It’s tied deeply to God’s forming of Abraham, because Abraham just doesn’t seem to be able to stop bailing Lot out of jams. In Genesis 13, Abraham gives Lot the pick of two different tracks of land to keep harmony between them (imagine that!) and Lot predictably picks the better of the two areas. That area contained Sodom. Abraham moved to Hebron (hence, “Hebrews”).
He definitely chose the land because it was the direction to go for being prosperous. It was more fertile, and had major cities located nearby. Genesis 13:12 says he “pitched his tents toward Sodom,” meaning that he moved to that area to be connected to these places.
Interesting that just after Abraham made this selfless and humble gesture, God told him that he would make a great nation of Abraham. I don’t think that’s coincidence.
Lot chooses prosperity and fares horribly. First he is swept up in a revolt among those kingdoms around him (including Sodom), and he and all his family are taken away, along with “everything they own” (14:12, NLT). Abraham shows up to save him.
Lot moves back to Sodom, which really says something. It was certainly a place focused on the sensual, but to go back there after living near it had resulted in your slavery? The whole mess happens because Sodom’s king is described as a “rebel,” and it doesn’t sound like that ever changed. Later in the story, we even see Lot sitting near the entrance to the city as the “two angels” approach. Pretty handy, since Lot invites them to stay at his house.
This is a good point to talk about those “two angels.” This part of the story starts in Genesis 18, where three men appear in a grove of trees, and Abraham shows them hospitality. The language gets a little uneven here, but eventually one of them is called, “The Lord.” The other two are never named as anything but angels. There are three of them… could this have been a manifestation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Calling them angels could have been an explanation for their otherworldly appearance, maybe their radiance. That’s pure guesswork, a little of my own imagination bleeding over. Either way, there was one “Lord” and two others.
The “Lord” has a conversation with Abraham about how many good people there are in Sodom, as the other two “angels” walk toward the city. After a series of discussions not unlike my four-year-old bargaining for more candy bars (except in reverse), The “Lord” agrees to spare the city if the other two members of his party can find ten righteous people in the city.
I don’t want to underscore the whole, “candy bars” conversation. This really is kind of a goofy talk they’re having. Maybe 50? 45? 40? And so on. Surprisingly, I think this is the meat of the story: Abraham is bargaining to save Lot again.
And he does.
Lot is spared and the city destroyed, but the spirit of the city never leaves Lot. Lot’s wife turns to look back and turns to salt; she simply cannot let the place go. In the course of the drama inside the city, Lot offers his daughters to the feverish Sodomites for substitutionary rape, and those same daughters get their father drunk and seduce him. They bear children as a result.
The time he has spent in Sodom has made Lot very much like it. It was impossible to get away clean.
And that’s the last we ever hear from Lot.
but back to Abraham
I say all this to come back to our favorite hundred-year-old patriarch, Abraham. Remember? The story is about God’s family.
The world is going to be the world. We can shout at it, berate it, even try to make it better. We will succeed sometimes. It’s still the world.
Abraham was hopelessly tethered to Lot, and Lot was tethered to Sodom. This is why preaching this text as a cautionary tale against a sinful world is not the point. The point is this: what God wanted to do wasn’t happening in Sodom. It was happening in Abraham, but Abraham wouldn’t be ready until he accepted that he was being truly set apart.
It’s interesting what is woven into this story, other than the destruction of a city which is basically a giant orgy. Three men show up. They’re divine. What do they say? They don’t start with “see that city? Gonna blow it up.” They start with, “Abraham, you’re going to have a child of your own.”
That’s really important, because Abraham has been told that for a while. Lots of times. He had even tried to help God along by having a son with one of his servants. That wasn’t God’s plan, though. Plan A was always Abraham and Sarah. His wife. Abraham didn’t seem to get this.
There are two dominant themes in this whole region of Genesis: God telling Abraham he will make a great nation of him, and Abraham’s relationship with Lot. Maybe they’re deeply connected.
What if Abraham doubting God, doing things his own way, was tied to his relationship with Lot? His nephew was certainly a distraction, and the cost for propping him up was great. What if that relationship needed to go away for Abraham to truly become “a great nation”?
That’s not to imply that Abraham became perfect after Lot disappears from the story, he didn’t. But two chapters after Lot disappears from the narrative, Isaac is born. Lot is gone and Abraham starts to become what God intended him to be.
The story is about God working among his people. He’s forming them INTO his people. We see this all throughout the rest of the Old Testament: God’s people are loved, but they’re always chasing after other things.
The end of Sodom wasn’t the end of the orgy. What did destroying it accomplish? Surely there were other evil cities in the world at the time, so if God was out to destroy evil, it seems he would have been much more thorough. There was a purpose to this destruction, and it was tied to Lot, because Lot was tied to Abraham. I can almost picture the 50/45/ 40/ etc. conversation from that perspective. The “Lord” is listening to Abraham desperately beg for the thing that’s keeping him from being what he is supposed to be, all the time thinking sadly, “Sure, Abraham. But I know how it’s going to go. And you’re missing the whole point. The reason I looked in the direction of that city in the first place is because you really can’t believe me until I take away the distractions. It’s not about them. It’s about me and you.”
The lesson for us as God’s family is this: God can work in anyone, but the faithful are the hands and feet of God. When we go off-course, it may not just be us who pay the price. We can bring destruction on others because we don’t believe God, because we refuse to live up to what God has made us. Sodom and Gomorrah are an extreme example, but God’s family had barely gotten started. The stakes were high, and Abraham was under very different standards than we are. God loved him. God called him righteous because of his faith. God did not let him drift aimlessly about. Part of Abraham’s formation was fixing his focus, and that is what God needed to accomplish.