Innocent by Association
I have a relative who spent time in jail because he was with a group of people who robbed a convenience store. It didn’t matter that they testified he had no knowledge of what they were doing. He was with them – guilt by association.
I wasn’t at the trial, but I seriously doubt that any lawyers suggested that the other people be acquitted because there was an innocent person with them – there is no “innocent by association” in our system of justice.
And yet, that is precisely what Abraham asks God for in Genesis 18.
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?”
If you’ve read the story you know (and if you haven’t, check out the rest of Genesis 18) that this leads to a really interesting “negotiation.” In truth it isn’t a negotiation, God never counters. Abraham asks God to show mercy and God agrees. Then it just stops at 10. God never said, “Okay, 10, but that’s my final offer.” Why not keep pressing to 1?
One possible reason is that the numbers aren’t the point. This passage makes us uncomfortable because it seems like Abraham is teaching God about righteousness…so we explain it away. There are plenty of statements made (I’ve made several myself) about how God already knew Abraham would ask these questions. Giving Abraham a chance to stand up for others was God’s plan all along. But there’s 2 problems with that theory.
1. It makes God deceptive. He basically lied about his plans to Abraham in order to goad him into standing up for others.
2. The text itself never says anything to support this theory. From the perspective of the story, God was fed up and was ready to destroy everyone in the city (if “what he’d heard” was true…which is another interesting tidbit.)
Perhaps the “negotiation” ends abruptly because its really just beginning. The Bible doesn’t seem nearly as uncomfortable as we are about presenting God as one whose decisions can be swayed and mind can be changed by the pleading and reasoning of people. Moses did it a few times (see Exodus 32:9-14; 33:1-17), Abraham does it, the prophets repeatedly tell Israel that God will relent (see Hosea 11:8-9) if they’ll cry out in repentance and learn to seek justice rather than rebellion (see Isaiah 1…and the rest of Isaiah).
But, back to the matter at hand.
What Abraham asks isn’t merely the deliverance of the righteous, but the deliverance (at least for now) of the entire city on account of the righteous. This isn’t the way the legal system works now, and it wasn’t the way it worked then. Guilt seems to have a wider circle of influence than innocence. And yet, one reason that this conversation in Genesis 18 is so important is that it points to a day when that will no longer be the case. In a way, this conversation is foreshadowing.
What did “the visitors” find in Sodom? They found a man who immediately offers them hospitality (in a very similar fashion to the way Abraham had received them outside the city). They also find a violent mob meaning to do them harm. Then this valiant and hospitable host steps out to stop the crowd and offers himself in their place, right? Nope, he offers the crowd his daughters. This is complete speculation, but I wonder if things would have turned out differently if Lot had offered himself as a sacrifice? Perhaps this would have been the righteousness that God was seeking in order to relent. Maybe not.
The speculation doesn’t really matter because Lot doesn’t offer himself, he offers his daughters. The visitors pull him back into the house and tell him to get out of the city.
In Romans 5, Paul picks up on this theme when he says that just as guilt came into the world through one man, now rescue has as well. The innocence of the one has finally spread to cover the guilt of the others. Unlike Lot, Jesus offered himself to the angry mob.
Genesis 19:27-28 is an incredibly depressing statement and yet it seems to be filled with meaning and significance:
Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the LORD. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace.
Abraham saw no life, no deliverance, just death and destruction. I think its interesting that the story comments that he went and stood in the place where he’d stood with the Lord the previous day. From Abraham’s perspective this must have been devastating – Even after an encouraging conversation, God has not delivered the city. What hope is there?
And yet the next verse is like postscript ending to a movie that lets you know without doubt that a sequel is planned:
So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.
The blessing of Genesis 12 which promised that others will be blessed through Abraham is starting to become a reality. The conversation is far from over…it is, in fact, just beginning.