For instance, why does the Lord make particular mention of Sarah’s laughing when just a chapter earlier Abraham received no direct rebuke for his identical laughing? Relatedly, why is it that Sarah is not sitting with Abraham and the Lord rather than hiding behind the tent door, presumably preparing the meals that Abraham has commanded her to prepare? The Lord even refuses to speak directly with her at first, talking instead with Abraham and later only speaking with her through the tent door.
More vividly questioning the moral status of the Lord is his impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He apparently feels some type of shame in regard to the act, wondering whether He should tell Abraham about the plan (I admit that it is unclear, at least in the King James Version, exactly why it is that the Lord does not want to speak with Abraham about His destructive activities.)
More importantly, the fact that Abraham negotiates with the Lord seems to suggest both that the Lord was previously going to destroy the town regardless of at least some of the righteous persons within it and that the Abraham, not the Lord, is the chief agent responsible for the mercy shown in this situation. Why would the Lord destroy any innocent persons, presuming that He has the power to destroy the wicked without simultaneously destroying the innocent? Even granted the legitimacy of capital punishment (a grant many would be unwilling to make), the Lord’s apparent lack of concern for those not worthy of death seems morally inexcusable. Why must Abraham persuade the Lord to save their lives? That the Lord is willing to renege on His intended destruction of the righteous after Abraham’s pleading, often cited as an example of His mercy, seems to my lights less like mercy than the concessions of a sovereign somewhat, but not altogether, persuaded of the ethical problems posed by his actions.
And we have not even considered that the traditional “reason” given for God’s decision to destroy—at least the traditional reason accepted by the LDS edition of the scriptures (see Gen. 18:20 fn. b)—is something that, while we may even agree is morally offensive, we surely do not see as meriting the death penalty. It looks, then, like we have a misogynistic God preparing to kill at least some righteous individuals in order to punish their neighbors for deviant but in all probability non-lethal sexual practices.
All of the above I consider the reductio ad absurdum of this way of reading scripture. But I find myself at a loss as to how to read this chapter otherwise. (Here I call upon your help.) And because of this loss, I am unclear as to how the four questions suggested in our methodology can be answered through this chapter.
We do learn something about the nature of faith from Abraham’s example in this chapter. Abraham teaches us, at least implicitly, there is some kind of moral standard outside of God’s actions, a moral standard that humans have the ability to call upon when questioning God. He rhetorically asks: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” We also learn something as to how this questioning is to proceed: Abraham humbly but boldly calls upon the Lord, even offering rhetorical questions which serve to remind the Lord of His goodness. This episode also gives hints at the possibility and nature of theology: Abraham’s response to the Lord’s intentions seems like a kind of theological response in which Abraham informs the Lord (at least so it seems) that it would not be proper for him to kill the righteous with the wicked, a response which perhaps gives part of the impetus to the “perfect being” theology we usually associate with Greek influences or the scholasticism of Aquinas or Anselm. If Abraham can do theology, and can use that theology to call God to account, perhaps this front is not as bleak as we may otherwise suppose.
Regarding our third question, how our family relationships shape our relationship with God and the kind of theology we pursue, I don’t believe this chapter gives clear suggestions in this direction. Abraham’s relationship with God still seems much different from Sarah’s relationship with God, and there is not much suggestion that they have any kind of “joint” relationship to God. Moreover, Abraham’s theological questioning of God does not involve Abraham telling God that one of the righteous men in Sodom, Lot, is his kin. All that seems salient to the Lord is righteousness, and the salience of even that feature has already been called into question. If Abraham’s familial relationships play a particular role in his relationship with the Lord or in the covenant the Lord has made with him, that role does not seem to be clearly demonstrated here. Abram apparently deals with the Lord on his own, without his wife, and without his kinsman Lot.
This conclusion serves as yet another reason to find something deeply flawed and problematic about this way of reading the chapter: I want Abraham to be the paradigm example of the centrality of faith and family. What do we do if the text simply doesn’t describe him thus, at least according to our own standards and seemingly “common sense” notions?
Through the above, my question that I hope will guide discussion for the week has become clear: “What is the ethical status of the agents of the story of Abraham, in particular of the Lord, in Genesis 18?” This question is admittedly presumptuous: who are we, and more importantly who am I, to judge God? But I sincerely hope to follow Abraham’s example in righteously questioning God, looking for the God of love in places where something different seems to appear. I hope that these comments will be understood as I intend them, that is, as an example of one flawed way of reading the scriptures, a way that I think is commonly presupposed but generally not followed through to its logical extremes. As I said above and in my email, I’m not sure how else to read such a text. I know that others have ideas in these areas, and I look forward to hearing your suggestions. I appreciate your willingness to help me work through these difficult issues and these sometimes troubling passages.