Arguing with God (Genesis 18:22-33)

What is prayer? Does it make any sense to try to change God’s mind?

What do you do when you’re mistreated? Things get nasty when people take matters into their own hands to enforce their own justice (Genesis 4:23-24). It’s better to appeal to our sovereign’s authority (Genesis 4:26). But that only works if the king does something about the injustice.

“Why doesn’t God do something to stop the evil?” “How long, O Lord?” These are common complaints from those who call on God for justice (e.g. Job 7:19; Psalms 6:3; 13:1; 35:17; 89:46; 90:13; 94:3; Habakkuk 1:2; Zechariah 1:12; Revelation 6:10). Consider the alternative: what would it look like if God did act against those who cause harm?

In conversation with Abraham, the king mentions he’s in the area to investigate complaints against the residents of Sodom and nearby Gomorrah (18:20-21). Ominously, his attendants head off in that direction. Abraham is alone with the king (18:22). He’s worried: he knows the reports are true (Genesis 13:13).

Abraham brings his concern to the king. If the sovereign acts against evil-doers, what about the collateral damage?

Genesis 18:23–25 (ESV)
Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

This is a legal drama. In ancient times, the law was enforced by the king whose judgements maintained justice. The sovereign is investigating outrage against the cities of Jordan valley, and Abraham has weighed into the case. He seeks justice for the minority who may be harmed if the king acts against these recalcitrant communities.

Many voices are prosecuting the case against Sodom (18:20). Abraham’s may be the first voice in their defence. The king agrees to spare the entire community if he finds 50 people who do not participate in the evil (18:26). The defence counsellor has won the case.

Or has he? What if there’s not quite 50? Abraham presses further. It’s a bizarre scene: a human arguing a case with God! The defence counsellor—describing himself as “dust and ashes”—pleads that the wicked city won’t become dust and ashes! And yet the sovereign accedes: he’ll spare the whole place, even if they’re short a few.

But what if there’s still not enough? What if the king’s investigation turns up only 40? Only 30? Only 20? Only 10 people? Abraham keeps pressing his case. The king keeps granting his request (18:29-32).

We’ve just received the first transcription Scripture of intercession—a human pleading to the king on behalf of others. Does it help you know how to pray?

What’s your prayer when you’re treated unfairly? Do you cry to God for him to act against the evil people and give you justice? Good on you! That’s the best thing you can do when you’re feeling so hurt. Cry to God for justice: that’s exactly what Scripture asks you do to (e.g. Romans 12:19). That’s much better than taking matters into your own hands to repay evil with evil: that would show that you don’t have faith in God’s justice, and it would make you a pawn of evil. So go ahead and prosecute your justice demand to the king!

As you do, be aware that there may be an Abraham calling for the opposite outcome. It could be a mother or a grandmother speaking for the defence, asking the king to rescue the person who hurt you. Remember that Jim Carey movie where he received all those confusing and conflicting prayers? Was it Bruce Almighty?

There’s something powerful about people like Abraham who take the role of defence counsellor. It was the most evil moment of all history when earthly rulers condemned and executed Jesus. They lifted him up to public humiliation, on a cross hanging between heaven and earth. Right there, Jesus took the role of defence counsellor: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Some of this followers have taken the same role: “Sovereign, do not hold this crime against them” (Acts 7:60).

Can you get past your painful experience of injustice to take on the role of defence counsellor? It takes time. It’s a journey towards the restoration of God’s reign. Even if you’re not there yet, hold your confidence in his character: the judge of all the earth will do right.


What others are saying

Chip Ingram, Good to Great in God’s Eyes: 10 Practices Great Christians Have in Common (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012):

Great prayers can be dangerous. They boldly insist—in reverence—that God live up to his character. They have the potential to bring great delight to God’s heart, but they take us out of our comfort zone because they bring a demand to the all-powerful King. We know we have no right to demand anything of God, so it’s an awkward concept for us. But our prayers were never about rights in the first place. They’re about the God who has revealed his attributes and told us to rely on them. Great prayers require great courage because they boldly insist, in spite of natural reservations, on what God has said about himself.

Abraham demonstrated this kind of boldness when he interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord had told Abraham of the wickedness of those two cities and of his plans to destroy them. Certain that there was a handful of righteous people who lived there, Abraham got confrontational with God over the unfairness of sweeping away the righteous with the evil. “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Abraham appealed to God’s justice, reminding the Lord that unfairness is not part of his character. He called a time-out and argued that giving righteous people a raw deal wasn’t in God’s nature.

Can you imagine talking with the King of the universe like this?

William David Reyburn and Euan McG. Fry, A Handbook on Genesis, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1998), 407:

The expression judge of all the earth shifts the perspective from a small town near the Dead Sea to the whole world. A similar expression is used in Psa 94:2. The expression refers to the world-wide scope of God’s judgment and may require adjustments in some languages. For example, “You are the one who judges all the people of the earth, and so you are required to judge them justly” or “You are the judge over all the earth’s people. So you must judge them justly.”

Read Genesis 18:22-33.



Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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