The Logic of Mercy

by Lois Tverberg

Thus it came about, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot lived. – Genesis 19:29

In the book of Genesis, we are introduced to many biblical ideas that have transformed all of humanity. We often don’t think about how radical and surprising they are. One idea that was shocking in its time was that one powerful God created the world, and that this God was moral and demands morality of His people. This was radical and different than the pagan idea that there were many gods, and none of them cared what humans did.

Another surprising idea that comes from the Bible is that mercy is shown to the guilty for the sake of an innocent person. If you think about it, this is quite illogical. We don’t give a gift to one person because we appreciated what someone else had done for us. But yet we have gotten used to the idea that God will pardon many because of the faithfulness of just one or a few.

One example is that when Abraham begged God to spare Sodom, he assumed that God would spare an entire city for the sake of even 10 innocent people in it, and God agreed. He didn’t just ask God to remove the innocent and then punish the rest (which would be logical), he asks God to pardon everyone for the sake of just a few. This really is extravagant mercy, to release everyone for the sake of just a few.

When the angels went to Sodom, they couldn’t find even ten people which would spare the city from its fate. But God did save Lot and his family, although the Bible hints that they weren’t much different than the Sodomites. Lot had become a community leader and his children were intermarrying with the population.

Interestingly, as it says in today’s verse, God didn’t save Lot’s family for their own sake, but for the sake of Abraham, who had been faithful to him. Once again we see this “illogical” logic, that for some strange reason, because of the merit of the a faithful person, sinners are pardoned because of it.

It is as if God gradually preparing his people to understanding his future great act of redemption in Christ, whose righteousness was conferred on us, and we are pardoned for his sake.

Thank goodness for God’s illogical mercy!

Heroic Chutzpah!

Abraham before Sodom

by Lois Tverberg

Abraham came near and said, “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? – Genesis 18: 23- 25

Abraham before SodomWhen we read the story of God and Abraham discussing the fate of Sodom, we are shocked at the fact that Abraham is so brash as to challenge God’s decision. He even dares to suggest that God needs to abide by the rules that he gave to men – that if we are to deal justly, so should he! How can he speak this way to God?

Interestingly, this story has several comments from Jewish understanding that show that they see Abraham’s actions in a very positive light. His boldness with God is a sign of his tremendous trust of God – Abraham is like a little boy who keeps pulling on his father’s coattails. Even though his father seems stern, the little boy knows that his dad is utterly kind and gentle at heart, and he can be a little bold in begging him for a treat.

Also, it is noted that for some mysterious reason, God wants us to plead on behalf of sinful people. He says in Ezekiel, “I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one.” (Ezek. 22:30) God does not want us to stand by passively and watch judgment come on others. He wants us to intercede, both telling them to repent, but begging God to be merciful.

In fact, the greatest heroes of the Jewish people are Abraham, who pleaded for the people of Sodom, and Moses who pleaded for the Israelites. When they had abandoned God’s covenant and were in danger of being destroyed, they begged God to relent from judgment. Two other figures, Noah and Jonah, heard of God’s judgment and didn’t bother to pray for mercy for others. Noah built his boat and saved his family, and Jonah even got mad when God had mercy! These two figures never were as highly regarded in Jewish thought.

Interestingly, we can see that Jesus fits into the first category of being truly heroic when he pleaded for mercy at his crucifixion, because “they did not know what they were doing.” And finally, by bearing our sins himself, he was the ultimate hero in gaining mercy for sinners.

Photocred: James Tissot

Lot’s Choice

Lot leaves Sodom

by Lois Tverberg

Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, toward Zoar. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD.
– Genesis 13:10-12

Even though the Lord makes Abram wait for years to have the thing he most longs for, a son, God starts to bless Abram materially immediately by multiplying his flocks and Lot’s too. At a certain point, Abram’s and Lot’s families have to part ways because their flocks are too large for the land that they have for them.

In this story, the difference between Abraham and Lot’s character becomes very obvious. Abraham graciously offers Lot first choice of the land, and Lot immediately takes advantage of the offer to choose the best and nicest for himself. In doing so, he abandons Canaan, the land God promised them in order to choose what was, in his opinion, better.

Interestingly, Jewish commentaries point out that the way Sodom is described is a subtle commentary on what it is really like. It looks like the “garden of God,” meaning the garden of Eden. They point out that even though Eden was paradise, it was the place of human disobedience from which humans finally were exiled. Sodom will be the same way – it is a place of great disobedience to God from which Lot will have to leave when God’s judgment comes. Next, Sodom is compared to the land of Egypt in beauty. But the Egyptians were known for their sexual immorality, and Abram feared that they would kill him to get his wife. That is another picture of Sodom, which is known for its sexual perversion. This is a hint, once again, to what Sodom is really like.

Then, Lot gets pulled in entirely into the life of Sodom – when he moves there, he doesn’t just camp away from people where his sheep can graze, he moves close to the city people who are known for their perversity. Lot was even involved in city affairs, “sitting in the gate” (the community center of the city), fully a participant in an evil culture.

Lot leaves SodomLot was truly foolish. He abandoned the good things God had offered to choose something that at first glance seemed better. But while it was attractive on the surface, underneath its appearances, it was a place of sin and rebellion. Not only did he choose it, he sank deeper and deeper into sin once he had moved there. Because of Lot’s foolish choices, he lost all of his inheritance, all of his wealth, and he even lost his wife when he had to flee. Unlike Abraham who lived not by sight, but by clinging to God’s promises, Lot ran after what looked good on the surface, even though it would later cost him dearly.

Aren’t our own choices too much like that sometimes?

photocred:  Wellcome Images