Ep.018: Abraham Cuts a Deal with God

Hi, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me.”

Today in the book of Genesis we look at the story (chapter 18) where Abraham negotiated with God. One day, three strangers visit Abraham, and when they are leaving one of them turns back and says to him, “I’ve heard those cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are pretty evil. I think I’ll go down and check it out. I want to see if it’s as bad as they say it is.”

On hearing this, Abraham immediately assumes the Lord will conclude, “Yes, it’s pretty bad down there. I think I’ll destroy those cities.” So Abraham tries to head him off.  He says, “Uhhh . . . suppose you find 50 righteous people down there. Would you destroy the whole city, including 50 righteous people? That doesn’t sound like something the Judge of the Whole Earth would do.”

The Lord says, “Good point. If I find 50 righteous people, I’ll spare the whole place for their sake.”

So Abraham says, “Uhhh . . . what if there are 45 instead of 50?  Same problem, right?” And the Lord says, “Ok, for 45 I’d spare the city.”  Abraham keeps negotiating God down: What about 40 righteous? 30? 20? 10?” And the Lord says, “For the sake of 10 I will not destroy it.” Then he leaves. That’s the cliffhanger. Will the Lord find 10 righteous people and spare the city? Or will he find 9 or fewer and destroy it? And will those 9 righteous people get destroyed with the wicked? You can read the story and find out.

Meanwhile what can we learn about prayer from this story?

  1. First, our word prayer does not appear in the story. But if our idea of prayer includes a conversation or negotiation with someone called “the Lord” and the “the Judge of the Whole Earth,” then yes, this is a prayer. Maybe one type of prayer is just talking to the Lord about things like current events and his plans and yours.

  2. Second, does this story invite us to negotiate with the Lord? Last time the lottery got up to 50 million, I tried to negotiate with God. “God, if you give me the winning numbers, I’ll give you 10%.”  10% sounds pretty cheap, eh? Ok. How about 20%. Still not generous enough? 30%? 40%? Isn’t 40% how much personal injury lawyers charge? Surely the Judge of the Whole Earth wouldn’t charge more than a personal injury lawyer.
    Guess how much my prayer got answered?  That’s why I’m still living on a meagre pension instead of travelling the world in style.

Foolishness aside, consider other types of negotiating prayers: parents who say to God, “If you keep my children safe, I’ll go to church every week,” or “If you cure my partner of cancer, I’ll be kind to him and take care of him” or “If you help me get a raise, I’ll start tithing.”  Why do these prayers go unanswered?

In Abraham’s story, it’s God who introduces the topic to be discussed, not Abraham. That’s part of the problem with my prayer life. I really want to talk to God about the lottery, but when I pray, he introduces topics like, “Are you loving your neighbors?”, “Are you learning patience?”  Man, what is this about prayer? I have a whole lifetime to learn patience, but the lottery draw is happening this week already!

Further on in the Bible there’s the story of Job, who is famous for how much he suffered. Job said about God (Job 23:3-4):

If only I knew where to find him;
 if only I could go to his dwelling!
I would state my case before him
   and fill my mouth with arguments.

Job found that God was silent on the topics Job wanted to discuss. Job finally had to shut up about his favorite topics and start listening. There’s a lesson in that for you and for me.

Dear God, you are silent on so many of the topics we pray about. Help us to hear what you want to talk about. Help us listen to what you say. And when you are silent, help us wait in silence for you. Amen.

I’m Daniel on the Channel “Pray With Me.”

(For the best technical exposition of the Sodom and Gomorrah story in context, see http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/20090505120133469 (Robert Alter, “Sodom as Nexus: the Web of Design in Biblical Narrative.”)

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