October 06, 2006

Genesis 16-18: I'll see your fifty...

Today's reading is Genesis 16-18 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage continues the Abraham story, discussing the circumstances around his son Ishmael's birth to Hagar, his second covenant with God and his renaming to Abraham, his hospitality to the three travellers, and his bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.

This last episode, which occurs in Gen. 18:16-33, raises a number of problems for believers in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. So, let us first have a brief summary:

Upon leaving Abraham's house, God sends several men down to Sodom, and Abraham accompanies them to see them on their way. God, who is planning on destroying Sodom and Gomorrah because they are wicked, decides to tell Abraham about his plans. Abraham, very humbly, asks God if he would spare the city if there are fifty righteous men in it. God agrees to this request. Abraham then begins to bargain God down: what if there are forty-five? Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? God agrees of all of this, telling Abraham that if there are even ten righteous men in the city, he won't destroy it. Then God leaves, and Abraham goes home.

We learn in our next readings (Gen. 19) that God does, in fact, destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. It turns out that the only righteous man in the city was Lot, Abraham's nephew, whom God saves.

There are traditionally two ways of reading this passage. The first says that God is omniscient, and therefore knew beforehand that there were not even ten righteous men in Sodom, let alone fifty. However, instead of telling this to Abraham outright, God toys with Abraham, letting him believe that he is having some effect on God's already-made decision. In fact, God knows he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, regardless of what Abraham says. God was not asking for Abraham's permission, or even his opinion, but merely informing Abraham of his intentions.

In this interpretation, God is manipulative and uncaring. He could just as easily have said to Abraham, "there is only one righteous man in the city, your nephew, and I will not spare the city for his sake." But instead he insists on leading Abraham through a meaningless charade. Abraham humbles himself and thinks he's helping his fellow men, but instead God is just toying with him. This is hardly the sort of God I'd want answering my prayers.

So we move to the second interpretation. This interpretation sticks closer to the literal meaning of the text. When God says he is sending men (well, angels) down to investigate the city, what it really means is that God does not know "whether [the men of Sodom and Gomorrah] have done altogether according to the cry of [their sin], which is come unto me." (Gen. 18:21, KJV) In other words, God doesn't know whether what he's heard is the truth. He doesn't yet know whether there are fifty righteous men in the city, or even ten. He's awaiting his angels' report. Abraham is able to bargain with God, because neither know the exact count of righteous men.

True, according to this interpretation God is not manipulating Abraham. He is conducting an honest bargain with him, where both sides are relatively equal (despite Abraham's self-humbling). But this is exactly where the problem enters the interpretation. Man is not equal to God. It is one of the pillars of Judeo-Christian belief that God is omniscient, all-knowing. If God did not know whether the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were as grievous as he thought, he's by definition not omniscient. Furthermore, under this interpretation, God allowed his opinion to be swayed by that of a mere mortal, albeit a righteous one. Considering that God is supposed to be wiser than any man, this prospect is a bit troubling. So, in the end, we're left with a God who is caring and reasonable, but far from the omniscient, perfect being he's reported to be.

Note the parallel here to Gen. 3:9, when God asks Adam, "where are you?" Proponents of the second interpretation would agree that God did not actually know where Adam was. Believers of the first would say God was just toying with the first man; he knew where Adam was all along.

Many Christians believe that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good). But, while God's omnipotence is not in question here, we must make a compromise with the other two. God can be omniscient but not omnibenevolent, because he toyed with Abraham while knowing there was only one righteous man in Sodom. Or he could be omnibenevolent but not omniscient, wanting to save Sodom but not knowing how many righteous men lived there. Either way, our triply-perfect God falls short somewhere.

Why would Biblical redactors include such a problematic passage, then? For one, it glorifies Abraham, the man who was able to converse with God nearly as an equal. For another, it shows the complete wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah: there was not even ten righteous men dwelling there! Finally, it might demonstrate a suitable way for approaching a conversation with God, in prayer for instance. Abraham is continually humbling himself and asking God not to be angry with him, and in the end God agrees to his requests. All these are useful functions of this passage.

But, in the end, it poses an insolvable paradox for believers in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. Based on this passage, God can't be all three.

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