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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Genesis 18

 

 

Verse 1

Abraham Pleads for Sodom and Gomorrah - the Destruction (Genesis 18:1 to Genesis 19:38).

Genesis 18:1

‘And Yahweh appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre as he sat in the tent door on the heat of the day’.

Reference to Abraham as ‘him’, applied from the last chapter, shows that the covenant accounts have not been inter-connected without thought. It is clear that the site at the oaks of Mamre was the permanent site from which the tribe still operated (compare Genesis 13:18).

“He sat in the tent door at the heat of the day”. He was probably enjoying his siesta under some kind of cover and this was why he spotted the strangers. There is a deliberate contrast between Abraham who sits in the door of his tent, and Lot who sits in the gate of Sodom (Genesis 19:1), bringing out the choices the two men have made.

“Yahweh appeared to him”. It may be that at first he did not realise that the three men he saw coming included Yahweh in human form, perhaps the ‘angel of Yahweh’, so the writer lets us know Who it was Who was coming. But the narrative does not tell us when the fact dawned on Abraham. It could however be that it is intended to be indicated by the switch from the impersonal ‘they said’ to ‘he said’. That certainly drew attention to the fact that the leader of the three was someone special from Yahweh. Or it could have been when God reveals to him His plans concerning Sodom and Gomorrah. Whatever be the case the reader knows immediately.

The final purpose of their arrival is to bring judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah for their evil ways. This emphasises that Yahweh is ‘the Judge of all the earth’ (Genesis 18:25), not just of the tribe. The other two were angels who came as witnesses to demonstrate that the cities were being given a fair chance (Genesis 18:21-22; Genesis 19:1 on).

But the main purpose of the coming of Yahweh Himself is the confirmation of the covenant in respect of a son by Sarah, and, as we learn later, to give Abraham opportunity to intercede on behalf of any righteous people in the guilty cities. It this renewal of the covenant and the promise Abraham received about the cities which makes the writing down of the narrative necessary. The first is the treasured promise of a natural heir. The One Who can destroy Sodom and Gomorrah can surely produce an heir. The second is a record of Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham which will result in the deliverance of his nephew, Lot.

The fact that Yahweh comes to inform Abraham of what He is about to do, and that He allows him to be an intercessor (one who goes between) emphasises Abraham’s unique position in God’s sight. As the beginning of the new people of God he is introduced to God’s secrets, and given his first opportunity to influence wider events through intercession.


Verse 2

‘And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and lo, three men stood over against him, and when he saw them he ran to meet them from the tent door and bowed himself to the earth.’

Yahweh is accompanied by two others who, we learn later, are messengers of God (angels = messengers). ‘Three men’. We are intended to recognise that at this point Abraham does not know who they are. But he does recognise that their coming is important. They travel at the heat of the day and there was something about them that merited the direct attention of Abraham (Genesis 18:1).

It is probable that his men had alerted Abram to the presence of strangers, but of such an important kind that they merited Abram’s personal interest.

“Stood over against him”. There is an element of surprise here. He is made suddenly aware of them. This is partly already explained by the time of day. He has been dozing in the heat under his tent flap. But we, who have been told who they are, are probably intended to see here an element of the supernatural.

There is also here a deliberate contrast with Sodom. Abraham himself welcomes the men on behalf of the tribe, eagerly and rapturously and with all honour, and provides full hospitality. That he advances himself suggests that he saw them as important men.

“Bowed himself to the earth”, a traditional way of showing deep respect (compare Genesis 19:1; Genesis 33:3; Genesis 48:12). Hospitality was an important Eastern custom. Abraham does all that is right.


Verses 3-5

‘And he said, “My lord, if now I have found favour in your sight, pass not away I beg you from your servant. Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and you can comfort your heart, after that you shall pass on; because you have come to your servant”.’

Abraham addresses one of them, who clearly stands out from the others as their superior, with full Eastern courtesy. In contrast with Sodom his thought is only for the visitors’ welfare.

“My lord”. A customary way of greeting. ‘A little water --- a morsel of bread’. What is being offered is understated with true humility. It is a typical Eastern understatement. He intends to give them the best.

“Rest under a tree”. In contrast with Sodom they are quite safe from molestation here. His total concern is for their welfare.

“Wash your feet”. The washing of feet was a recognised luxury for the weary traveller whose feet were dirty and sand ridden, and probably very sweaty even in their sandals.

Genesis 18:5 b

‘And they said, “So do as you have said”.’

His offer is accepted in the spirit in which it is given. Their assurance here contrasts with the certainty they have in Sodom of mistreatment. But the brief reply, in contrast with Abraham’s effusiveness, brings out the supreme authority of the party. They represent themselves as superiors dealing with an inferior.


Verses 6-8

‘And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and fetched a good and tender calf and gave it to a servant, and he quickly dressed it. And he took butter and milk and the calf which he had dressed and set it before them, and he stood by them under the tree and they ate.’

That Abraham took charge of the proceedings demonstrates both his hospitality and the importance he placed on the guests. Again there is the contrast with the treatment the two angels would receive in Sodom.

“Three measures of fine meal”, that is, ‘plenty’. ‘Two’ would be ‘a little’ compare ‘two sticks’ - 1 Kings 17:12 - three is plenty. Abraham would not expect to give detailed catering instructions to his experienced wife.

It is Abraham himself who takes charge of the man’s side of things, the selecting and butchering of the calf, although the latter is fitly done by a servant. We note that Abraham’s humble ‘morsel of bread’ has in fact become a feast.

“They ate”. There is no pretence here. It is our inadequacy that makes us seek to ‘defend’ God’s otherness. God can do whatever He wants. In fact the eating is important. It demonstrates that the arrival of these clearly important men is with peaceful intent, for they accept Abraham’s hospitality. Not to have eaten would have indicated otherwise. It is possibly also intended to bring out Abraham’s unique relationship with Yahweh (contrast Judges 13:16).


Verse 9-10

‘And they said to him, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” And he said, “Why, in the tent.”

The question is still from the impersonal ‘they’. Abraham knows they are important but is not yet aware of the One with Whom he is dealing.

Genesis 18:10 a

‘And he said, “I will certainly return to you when the season comes round (or when the spring comes), and lo, Sarah your wife will have a son”.’

This is the moment when the leader of the three reveals Himself as a special messenger of Yahweh. The ‘they’ becomes ‘he’, and the promise of a son through Sarah is renewed. (‘When the season comes round’ may mean ‘when the conception matures into birth’, indicating that the child is already conceived).

Genesis 18:10-11 (18:10b-11)

‘And Sarah overheard in the tent door which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, and well aged. It had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.’

Sarah was possibly hidden behind the tent door listening in to what was said, or alternatively is standing in the tent door, visible but discreet, ready to watch over any further needs of the visitors. The writer then makes clear that nature had caught up with Sarah. Her periods had ceased. The birth of a son was seemingly impossible.


Verse 12

‘And Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “When I have grown old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”.’

The words she overhears make Sarah laugh to herself. The idea is preposterous. The pleasure refers to the pleasure of birth, the joy when a child comes into the world (compare Psalms 113:9; John 16:21). Her laugh is a mark of unbelief. The promises previously given have been quite clear (Genesis 17:19; Genesis 17:21).

It is probable that Sarah is not yet aware of who the visitor is. But her expression may have been enough to give away her amusement. There is a poignancy in her words. The word for ‘grown old’ means ‘worn out’. She is beyond usefulness. But with God no one is ever ‘too old’ to be used.


Verses 13-16

‘And Yahweh said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh saying ‘will I really bear a child, when I am old?’ Is anything too hard for Yahweh? At the set time I will return to you when the season comes round, and Sarah will have a son”.’

Nothing is hidden from God. The laugh, and the thought of the heart, is discerned. And it is answered. ‘Is anything too hard for Yahweh?’ Yahweh can do anything. The universality of this statement at this time is remarkable. Yahweh is seen as supreme and all powerful.

“At the set time” compare Genesis 17:21. This passage assumes the existence of the covenant in Genesis 17.

So the promise is sure. Sarah will have a son. The partly direct, partly indirect method of first referring to Yahweh and then speaking in the first person is reminiscent of the angel of Yahweh (compare 16:10-11). But Abraham is too important in God’s eyes for His approach to be described as anything but direct. Thus we have ‘Yahweh said’.

Genesis 18:15 a

‘And Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”, for she was afraid.’

Her fear arises from the fact that the man knows her thoughts, and that what she had done was a breach of etiquette. It is stressed by the fact that she interrupts the men in conversation, another breach of etiquette, for she is not sitting with them. But she is becoming aware that the One Who is speaking has the power so to speak and the power to punish. She tries to cover up her failure. She has laughed at the representative of Yahweh. But she cannot deceive God, nor can we.

Genesis 18:15 b

‘And he said, “Oh no. But you did laugh”.’

The words appear a little harsh. But God wants her to know that nothing is hidden from Him. And He wants her to face up to her unbelief. It will be better for her if she does. Sometimes God has to be cruel to be kind.

Genesis 18:16 a

‘And the men rose up from there and looked towards Sodom.’

Knowing the final result our hearts chill at the words. But the incident is perfectly innocent to Abraham. It simply means that that was the direction in which it was clear they were going.

Genesis 18:16 b

‘And Abraham went with them to bring them on their way.’

He is the perfect host to the end. He had no other purpose. But how important it was for Lot that he should do so. On such a small courtesy can depend lives.


Verse 17

‘And Yahweh said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what am doing? Seeing that Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him. For I have known him to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Yahweh, to do righteousness and justice. To the end that Yahweh may bring on Abraham what he has said concerning him.” ’

This is probably the time at which Abraham becomes aware that this is not just a messenger of Yahweh, but Yahweh Himself.

Nothing could more reveal the importance of Abraham in the purposes of God than this stated intention of Yahweh. Abraham is so involved in God’s plan for the future of the world that he is deserving of knowing what God will do. God has, as it were, taken Abraham into partnership, albeit as a very junior partner. God does not hide His secrets from His prophets (Amos 3:7), and as Genesis 15 has made clear, Abram is a prophet.

The particular covenant of Genesis 12 , rather than the wider covenant of Genesis 17, is in mind here as befits the previous mention of the special heir. This is a codicil to Genesis 18:14. It confirms that a great and mighty nation will arise from Abraham through Isaac, and that all the nations of the world will be blessed through Abraham, and his seed, through the chosen line. This latter promise is significantly only stated elsewhere in Genesis 12:3, which is pre-Ishmael, Genesis 22:18 where it is directly related to the incident with Isaac, and Genesis 26:4 where it is promised to Isaac. It is thus never directly related to the wider covenant of Genesis 17.

The covenants are clearly distinguished. This particular blessing is to come through the seed of Isaac, not of Ishmael. Thus, while Ishmael is to be blessed as Abraham’s seed, God’s purpose for the world will be achieved through Isaac’s seed.

Incidentally this brings out how ancient the covenant in Genesis 17 is. Such promises would never have been conceded by later Israel.

“For I have known him ---”. The word to ‘know’ means more than just intellectual knowledge. It is constantly used of personal relations between a man and a woman (Genesis 4:1 and often) and here it signifies that Yahweh has entered into a special relationship with Abraham. He has chosen him and set him apart in His purposes.

His purpose in setting Abraham apart is also stated. It is that he might so teach and order his family and family tribe to keep the way of Yahweh that they ‘do righteousness and justice’. It is this that will bring about the final blessing. Thus morality and ethics is set at the heart of the covenant with Abraham. But it is a morality set in what Yahweh Himself is, for it is ‘the way of Yahweh’. It is their personal response to Him and what He is that will bring the blessing to the whole world.

To ‘do righteousness’ is to follow the covenant completely, to ‘do justice’ is to deal with all failures to observe the covenant requirements. But the context of God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah brings out that these requirements are ethical and are demanded of all not just those in the covenant. The covenant stipulations are merely a mirror of what God requires from the world.

Now Yahweh reveals His full purpose to Abraham.


Verse 20

‘And Yahweh said, “Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great and because their sin is very grievous I will now go down and see whether they have totally done according to its cry (ze‘aqa) which has come to me, and if not I will know”.’

The cry of those who have suffered in Sodom and Gomorrah, like the cry of Abel’s blood (Genesis 4:10), has reached God. It is the cry of the land itself as it swallowed up their blood and has witnessed extreme sin beyond the imagination of men (‘its cry’). As the next chapter makes clear no stranger was safe in their streets, no woman could preserve her virtue. They had become utterly bestial. The Hebrew word for this ‘cry’ is ze‘aqa which is a semi-technical legal term referring to a strong cry for justice. Compare its use in Habbakuk 1:2; Job 19:7.

We have learned earlier that the iniquity of the Amorite was not yet full (Genesis 15:16). It is clear, however, that the iniquity of the men of Sodom is, such were their evil ways.

This is specific anthropomorphism. God is of course aware of the truth. That is why He has come. But He wants Abraham to be aware of what is about to happen before it happens. Thus will he be able to intercede in such a way as to deliver his nephew and any other righteous men and thus will he and his people learn the lesson that will result from the appalling event to come. It is for Abraham’s sake that the delay has taken place.

But God also wants Abraham to know that He gave Sodom and Gomorrah every chance. He is concerned for Abraham to know the full truth about the situation so that he will be satisfied that Yahweh has done what is right.

In a sense this is a microcosm of the great Day of Judgment. Again God will already know everything, but the Day is necessary so as to confirm to all beings that God has dealt justly.

“I will now go down”. This echoes Genesis 11:7. It is His angels who go in person as witnesses to the evil of the cities. But the all-seeing eye of Yahweh will go with them, ‘going down’ to see the situation after He has left Abraham and returned above.


Verse 22

‘And the men turned from that place and went towards Sodom, but Abraham yet stood before Yahweh.’

The repetition of their advance on Sodom (compare Genesis 18:16), now more specific, represents their inexorable approach to its judgment. It is intended to intensify the drama.

It is a sign of Abraham’s worth that he is concerned for his neighbours, and willing even to risk the displeasure of Yahweh in order to help them. Even while they go towards Sodom, Abraham pleads for Sodom as he stands on the mountainside looking down on the cities of the Plain before him (Genesis 19:27-28). For as he looks down on the doomed cities, how can he fail to be stirred?


Verses 23-25

‘And Abraham drew near and said, “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked? It may be that there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you consume, and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are in it? Far be it from you to behave in this way, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous will be as the wicked. Be that far from you. Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” ’

Although unaware of it the one who is being tested here is Abraham. Will he be concerned for his neighbours who are outside the covenant? But Abraham reveals that he has the right instinct and an understanding of God’s character. He knows that God is merciful and will not be unfair in His behaviour towards men. Thus he makes this the basis of his plea. Can a righteous God destroy fifty righteous men in order to bring His judgment on the remainder? Never, says Abraham, it is impossible. Surely He Who is the judge of all the earth must do what is right. Only the guilty must suffer. The righteous cannot be treated in the same way as the wicked.

In view of the belief of the day in the solidarity of communities, so that they were seen as one in guilt or innocence, Abraham’s view is refreshing. He separates the individual from the community. (Compare Ezekiel 18:20 etc). He believes that in the end every man is responsible singly before God.

It is telling that Abraham nowhere tries to plead that Sodom as a whole is not worthy of the punishment they are to receive. He is too well aware of what goes on there. But he cannot believe that there are not some who deserve mercy, and he hopes, in achieving mercy for them, to achieve mercy for all..

It is significant that Abraham sees Yahweh as judge of all the earth. To him there is but one God Who is over all. But equally significant is his confidence in the ethical nature of God. He knows God must do what is right, that He is unfailingly a righteous God. It is to his credit that his concern is not just for Lot. His concern is for Sodom as a whole. (The gods of the nations could not have been appealed to like this. Their standards were similar to men’s and their portrayed behaviour often worse).


Verses 26-28

‘And Yahweh said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city then will I spare all for their sake.’

Yahweh confirms Abraham’s faith in His justice. If there are fifty righteous within the city all will be spared lest the fifty righteous be thought to be unfairly dealt with.

Genesis 18:27-28 a

‘And Abraham answered and said, “See now, I have taken on me to speak to the Lord, who am but dust and ashes. It may be that there will lack five of the fifty righteous. Will you destroy all the city for lack of five?’

Abraham is aware of his temerity in speaking up and abases himself to Yahweh. For ‘dust and ashes”, a token of unfitness and unworthiness, compare Job 30:19. But it is noticeable that here he refers to Yahweh as ‘the Lord’. He is Lord of Creation, Lord of Egypt, Lord of Sodom, Lord of Abraham, Lord and Judge of all. Who then is he, Abraham, to dare to question him? There is nothing brazen about Abraham’s response. He recognises with Whom he deals. The title used emphasises this. It suggests the approach of a suppliant to one who judges. Abraham is not approaching Him as Yahweh the covenant God, for Sodom is not within the covenant, but as ‘the Lord’, the One Who is over all.

Genesis 18:28 b

‘And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find there forty five”.’

Again Yahweh accepts the principle. If there are any grounds for mercy He will show it.


Verses 29-32

‘And he spoke to him yet again and said, “It may be that forty will be found there.”

And he said, “I will not do it for forty’s sake.” And he said, “Oh, let not the Lord be angry and I will speak. It may be that there will be thirty found there.” And he said “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” And he said, “See, I have taken it on myself to speak to the Lord. It may be that there will be twenty found there.” And he said, “I will not do it for the twenty’s sake.” And he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once. It may be that ten will be found there.” And he said, “I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake.”

Each request of Abraham, torn in his heart as he looks down on Sodom and considers its fate, receives a similar response, until even Abraham is satisfied. He dare go no further. Surely there must be ten there? If not they can deserve no mercy. Some have questioned stopping at ten. But ten represents at the most two families. If there is only one family that is not unrighteous, and that composed of sojourners, (and Abraham is aware of that one family), he knows there can be no plea. Sodom deserves its fate.

The whole passage is important. It emphasises God’s justice in dealing with Sodom as He does. God does not want to destroy but He has no alternative. Abraham’s very plea finally demonstrates that it has gone beyond the possibility of redemption. One day God will have to make the same decision about the world. At present God deals with the world on the same basis, sparing the many for the sake of the few. But one day He will call time. Then He will take out the few and His judgment will come.

But Abraham’s request is satisfied in one way. While the Lord will not spare the city he will save ‘the righteous’. The next passage reveals this in the deliverance of Lot. Yet Lot is only righteous in that he has not gone beyond the borders of acceptability. He has sat in the gate of Sodom, sharing its environment and even possibly its rule as a city elder. He has condoned the behaviour of the people of Sodom by his silence. He has remained among them in spite of their behaviour, not in order to evangelise them but in order to share their wealth.

Would then the Lord have destroyed Lot with the city had it not been for Abraham? The question requires no answer. Yahweh knows that His servant Abraham will not fail the test (the test is for Abraham’s sake). He has thus purposed to save Lot, undeserving though he is. The question is not the deliverance of Lot but the destiny of Sodom.


Verse 33

‘And Yahweh went his way as soon as he had left communing with Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.’

Yahweh does not go down to Sodom. When Yahweh, or the angel of Yahweh, leaves the presence of men, where He goes is never described. He passes into the unseen world. What a remarkable picture this gives us of Abraham’s position before Yahweh. Yahweh had been here to commune personally with Abraham. Sodom is left to his angels.

“And Abraham returned to his place.” His place is in the land where God has placed him. He has no desire to be in Sodom. And he is satisfied that he has done all that he can for Sodom, and that God will do what is right. Now he can only wait and see.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 18:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/genesis-18.html. 2013.

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Saturday, July 4th, 2020
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13
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