Proper 12 • Genesis 18:(17–19) 20–33 • July 25, 2010
By Dr. Jeffrey A. Gibbs
The text presents two particular problems for interpreters. The first is the question of how “AD Christians” read the “BC Old Testament.” The second pertains to the whole issue of prayer in general, and intercessory prayer in particular. I will comment on the latter problem first.
It is dangerously easy to take “promises” regarding prayer out of context, even when they occur in direct discourse about the subject. James 1:6–8 is a prime example: “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” In isolation these words drive to despair, for who can banish all doubt from his mind when he prays? But verse 5 actually sets the stage, and takes away most of the difficulty: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” This is a teaching about praying to God for wisdom; given the character of God, I do not doubt that he will answer this prayer. So, it will be extremely important to read the text that describes Abraham’s “negotiating prayer” in its Old Testament context, rather than assuming too quickly that this narrative teaches about prayer in general.
In answer to the first question, I would highlight the importance of reading the OT typologically. To be sure, there are times when OT figures are exemplars, and we may mutatis mutandis apply truths and lessons from their lives to our own; see Hebrews 11. Nevertheless, the fundamental “move” of reading OT texts locates them in the history of salvation, and sees them in light of the one who is the antitype and fulfillment of the entire OT. Samson, for example, is not “Joe Israelite” with whom each Christian today may identify. Rather, Samson is a deliverer of Israel, and a small (though deeply flawed) type for whom Jesus, deliverer par excellence, is the antitype.
Abraham’s uniqueness is everywhere in the context. He will be the father of many nations (17:5); with him God first makes the covenant of circumcision (17:9–14). God uniquely promises a son to him and aged Sarah (17:15–21). In a unique way, God visits Abraham, and repeats the promise (18:1–15). In the history of God’s ways in the world, Genesis 18 presents Abraham in his uniqueness as one whom, unworthy though he was, God had chosen and through whom God would work.
If this is the case, then a typological reading of this text, that finds ultimate fulfillment and meaning in Christ who is “greater than Abraham,” is appropriate for Christian preaching. The task, then, is to discern the nature of Abraham’s prayer, what it says about him and about the world and about God himself, and then to find a valid application in the person and work of Christ Jesus for us and for the world.
Because of Abraham’s unique place in history, God makes known to him the plan to visit Sodom and Gomorrah, and to judge them in righteousness. Abraham pleads with God on behalf of the righteous in these two cities. Abraham’s prayer assumes that God loves the righteous, that is, those who trust his word and keep his covenant in response. While the wicked deserve to be punished, it would not be right for punishment to fall indiscriminately upon righteous and wicked.
Remarkably, however, there is room for Abraham to plead that God’s love and care for the righteous “overlap” graciously upon the wicked, so that for the sake of only fifty … no, forty five … indeed … only TEN righteous ones, God will hold back his judgment. Not only does Abraham believe firmly in the justice and mercy of the God; he also clings to the mystery of divine grace whereby the guilty do not always receive what is due them. God grants his prayer and promises that if ten righteous are found, then Sodom and Gomorrah will be spared.
So, then, the significant themes of the text have to do with Abraham’s knowledge of God’s character, and his desire to intercede for the righteous, and for God to do what is right. This is Abraham, who is God’s “friend” (2 Chr 20:7; Is 41:8; Jas 2:23) as one chosen for a crucial role in the history of God’s salvation in the world. His intercession is informed, and effective.
In typological terms, Christ is the unique chosen one of God, and his intercession flows out of his perfect knowledge of the Father. Even more, Christ alone makes the Father known to men and women (Mt 11:25–27). Even more than interceding for the righteous, Christ intercedes for all, though none deserve his intercession: Peter (Lk 22:31–34) as well as those who crucified him (Lk 23:34). The unbelief and wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah serve as archetypes, but “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Rom 3). Greater still is the intercession and work of Jesus on behalf of the world. God’s judgment fell upon him, so that it need not fall upon us.
This reading from Genesis 18 could lead the congregation into a renewed sense of the world’s and their own fallenness. Specific application should be made, and not just to matters of sexual temptation and sin; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 reminds us that there is no distinction in God’s sight between homosexual (and heterosexual!) sin and things like greed or the practice of reviling others. Even as the sermon could call all alike to humble silence before the justice of God, so even more could the good news of Jesus, one “greater than Abraham,” turn all in faith and gratitude to Christ, his atonement, his resurrection, and his intercessor before the Father.