Let's consider how Abraham starts the famous conversation after he learns that God is considering wiping Sodom and Gomorrah from the planet:
23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 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? 25 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?”This is absolutely fascinating to me. Check out that language: "Far be it from you!" Twice! Asking if God will "do right!" Let's be frank about what Abraham is doing here. As best as I can figure, he is judging God. He is accusing God of doing something wrong (or potentially wrong, at least) by destroying the two cities. From my perspective, of course, this is an absolutely ludicrous thing to say, as it's God who defines right and wrong, not us. But Abraham doesn't seem to see any irony in his own words. I imagine that Abraham is legitimately and emotionally grieved and angered by God's plan.
Why? Well, Abraham's nephew Lot and his family are there, for one thing. Perhaps Abraham is being totally upfront with his argument - he just doesn't like the idea of whole cities getting judged and destroyed, when innocent people (relatives of his or otherwise) might get caught in the crossfire. Abraham apparently imagines that God has not thought of this already, and this provokes righteous anger in Abraham. "HOW DARE YOU" he is basically saying to God. That's a pretty serious thing to say.
Now, notice how God reacts. If you've read the book of Job, you might imagine that God will respond with two chapters or more of "putting Abraham in his place," reminding him who is actually sovereign, and who is not. But that's not what he says:
26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”Well, gee. All right, then. That was easy.
Perhaps a little too easy.
Notice that immediately Abraham is not satisfied with this:
27 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, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”I find this humorous, although I suppose I shouldn't, as the subject matter is pretty awful. But nonetheless, I have to imagine that as easily as God agreed, the first thought passing through Abraham's mind must have been, "Uh oh... what if there's not fifty righteous people? Fifty's an awfully big number... maybe it'd be safer to try 45." (Notice how he backs away from his earlier tone and becomes a touch more humble - is he realizing he might have overstepped his bounds a bit with his previous tirade?)
And again, God agrees easily, but even that's not good enough. And so he "negotiates" God down step by step - 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally 10. And each time, God agrees simply and calmly without argument or criticism.
In the next chapter God rains burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Apparently 10 wasn't a low enough number.
I have heard people in various Sunday School classes and so forth make the case that this is a prime example of intercessory prayer changing God's mind. While there are other Bible stories that demonstrate this, that's not what this particular case is, I don't think. Rather, this is a prime example of God gently and mercifully changing Abraham's mind.
Abraham did not trust God. He lashed out in anger at God, morally judging his intentions. He believed himself to be a better arbiter of good and evil than God. But over the course of the conversation, without God having to say even one single cross word - simply by agreeing with Abraham over and over - Abraham starts to gradually realize that God might have a far better idea of how many righteous people there are in the cities, and whether they deserved destruction, than Abraham. Maybe God already stayed his hand for a very long time for the sake of innocent people (recall how the Israelites couldn't enter the Promised Land until the sin of the Canaanites was complete). Maybe Abraham started to realize that God's justice and wisdom and mercy is beyond ours, and that Abraham wasn't telling God anything he didn't already know.
In the next chapter, God (rather forcibly) leads Abraham's relatives out of the city before destroying it, explicitly for Abraham's sake. God took care of Abraham, even though I would've thought God would've been insulted and angered by Abraham's lack of trust.
And honestly, that's kind of convicting to me. I hear people judging God all the time - and I don't mean just people understandably caught up in the emotions of grief, or people honestly wrestling with questions. I mean people just straight up accusing God of doing wrong - the things he allows, does, or doesn't do. "Far be it from you!" and so forth. My gut-level reaction to this is to want to respond with mockery and sarcasm. It's so obviously foolish and self-defeating. I want God to "speak from the whirlwind" as he did at the end of Job, putting everybody in their place.
But that's not always what God does. I'm not even convinced that's mostly what God does. He didn't with Abraham, after all. He responded gently, quietly, with mercy, allowing Abraham to work things out on his own. It's possible that there are cases where we need to rebuke judgmental thinking about God, but I suspect there are more cases where we need to respond with the mercy and patience and understanding that God showed.
What do you think?