Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 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?” The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?” “If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.” Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?” He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.” Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?” He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?” He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
We all struggle with prayer - the discipline to find a regular routine, to resist the temptation to think we’re simply talking to ourselves and the logical paradox that we often seek to change the mind of the All-Powerful. These days we’re inclined to see prayer as an attempt to change our minds and attitudes rather than God’s. In this passage, however, we see Abraham bargaining God down; Abraham’s cheek changes God’s mind.
God had decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. We don’t know why but the die is cast. We know their sin is grievous and the author of this story has God deciding to pop into the cities and see if things are as bad as they seem. Whatever happens in the next chapter, it’s clear that God had, in the author’s mind at least, decided to do away with these detestable cities.
Abraham is then cast in the role of haggler - what if there were 50 righteous folk in the city? What if there were 45? Or 40? Or 30? Or 10? Abraham bargains with God and the writer doesn’t suggest that God minds. We’ll turn back to Sodom tomorrow but I wonder if this is an early attempt to understand prayer. I wonder if this is how we often pray ourselves - bargaining, hoping to get a better deal or change God’s mind.
For me prayer is attuning myself to God, taking time to reflect and change my mind and attitudes. Of course in moments of desperation we all ask for things - recently one of my dogs was very ill and I found myself asking God to make him comfortable and ease his sufferings (Ben got better). We should, I think, resist Abraham’s example of bargaining with God but, instead, seek to find out God’s will rather than seek to change it!
Teach us, Good Lord, to pray and to trust in You;
help us to learn your Will
and give us grace to accept it.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston works with four churches in and around Glasgow