In every age, evil takes on a new name and a new face: Auschwitz, sexual abuse, Sodom, human trafficking. The personification of God in the Old Testament takes many forms, but goodness remains the same and unchanged: God who loves us and desires relationship with us. In Genesis 18, God is presented as examining the situation in Sodom and Gomorrah, saying: “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” According to the portrayal of God in Genesis, God does not prejudge the situation but comes to examine it personally.
The presentation of God as actively involved in many scenes in the Old Testament is not ultimately intended to create a notion of an anthropomorphic God, who literally walks among us, but to heighten the notion of the “personal God” who cares for creation and communicates the divine will to men and women. Yet in the same way, it indicates that human beings are intended to be in conversation with God, to make known the needs and desires of the human heart. As such, God does not simply make known a desire to crush the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, nor does Abraham simply turn meekly away from God, but a conversation is presented to us.
God and Abraham deliberate on the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, with Abraham negotiating on behalf of the soon to be destroyed cities, campaigning on behalf of the people of these cities. Abraham gently pleads his case, arguing downward the number of righteous people required to secure a reprieve for the notorious cities. Abraham asks that if only a few righteous people could be found, say 10: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty so that the innocent and the guilty would be treated alike! Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?”
As Genesis presents the interaction, God is prepared to be swayed and is persuaded by the intercessions of Abraham, accepting his pleas on behalf of the hoped-for righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah. The evocative scene points to the truth of the claim made by the great Jewish medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides, that God will never turn from a promise of mercy, but will rescind a promise of punishment. It points, that is, to the (inter-)personal nature of God, the justness of God, and the desire to turn from justice and offer mercy, if only the guilty turn away from sin and toward God.
Not only is God open to the intercessions of Abraham, we learn from Jesus in Luke 11 that God desires all of our intercessions, and even more our perseverance in prayer. God does not desire the death of any person— whether guilty or innocent—but wants us to turn our desires to God’s kingdom and orient our wills to God’s. We pray for the coming of the kingdom, for the perseverance to seek God at all times, night and day, and for the wisdom to know that “if you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” God desires that we, like Abraham, intercede with God, for this indicates our desire to claim our relationship with God and deepen it according to the contours of God’s ways and being.
At the heart of God’s way and being is the hope that we all find ourselves among the innocent, that we reject the false splendor of the guilty, a way of life suffused with sin, which is finally all that needs to be destroyed. If it was us God wanted to destroy, it could have been done long ago, in any way, for numerous reasons, but God desires us in relationship and life. It is for this reason that Colossians tells us that “even when you were dead in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.” Let the guilt go; God wants us to be the innocent.