Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Listening to Abraham-Listening to Yhwh: Divine Justice and Mercy in Genesis 18:16-33

Listening to Abraham-Listening to Yhwh: Divine Justice and Mercy in Genesis 18:16-33

MacDonald, Nathan
AN ABIDING vision of the task of the theological interpreter of Scripture, from ancient times up to the present day, has been the faithful listening to the voice of God in the words of Scripture. The changing shape of our interpretations witnesses to the difficulties that attend this task. A significant contribution to the difficulties comes from the nature of the biblical material. Which voice should be recognized as the authentic voice of God, or witness to God? A good example of this problem is found in Gen 18:16-33, the dialogue between Abraham and Yhwh over Sodom. Here the voice of Yhwh is clearly delimited, and yet Abraham speaks about an alternative vision of deity. To whom should the good reader of Scripture listen? To the voice of Yhwh, or to the voice to which Yhwh himself listens? Or both?

In the following pages, I want to suggest that interpreters have listened only to Abraham and have misheard Yhwh. Indeed, I want to argue that it is precisely because they have listened to Abraham that they have misheard Yhwh. ' Rather than survey every interpretation of Genesis 18, I wish to examine a single exposition in order to set forth my alternative reading. For this purpose, I have selected Walter Brueggemann's account as found in his commentary on Genesis.2 There are a number of reasons for selecting Brueggemann. First, Brueggemann has been more attentive than most exegetes to the problems of discerning the voice of God in the voices of Scripture, as his Theology of the Old Testament testifies.3 second, Brueggemann is an advocate of theological readings of the biblical text. Since Gen 18:16-33 is a significant theological text, which I wish to examine with theological questions foremost, Brueggemann makes an ideal dialogue partner.4 Finally, although the significance of the passage has been understood in a number of different ways,5 there is substantial agreement about the general direction of exegesis. Brueggemann's work, therefore, will provide a detailed example of what I take to be a typical exegesis of the passage. I will, however, interact at various points with other interpreters, as appropriate.

I. Brueggemann on Genesis 18:16-33

The dialogue between Yhwh and Abraham is located between the announcement of the birth of Isaac in 18:1-15 and the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in chap. 19. Despite a preference in his commentary for the final, canonical form of the text, Brueggemann considers the dialogue after treating Genesis 19, "because 18:16-32 seems to be a later reflection on the early narrative of 19:1-28."6 Historical layering of the passage allows the nature of the dialogue to be seen more clearly, for Gen 18:16-32 presumes the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the earlier story, we have a simple theology of divine retribution for sins; the dialogue offers a corrective to such moralism. "The argument of 18:16-32 seeks to break open the closed, fated view of the world given in 19:1-28."7 Although Genesis 19 still dominates the canonical form of these chapters, Gen 18:16-33 provides a critique that cannot be silenced.

so unacceptable to the early scribes, who reversed the subject and predicate.

In the dialogue, Abraham appeals to Yhwh's character and challenges the conventional view that a few guilty people should bring destruction on an entire city. he offers an alternative calculus, which gives the righteous the capacity to save the guilty. The dialogue explores the number of righteous people needed. "The process, like a barter in a Near Eastern bazaar, moves from fifty to ten." The numbers are not to be taken literally but are merely illustrative of the general principle that "one is enough to save."8

Having provided an* interpretation of the dialogue, Brueggemann then pursues in a number of different directions the subject of the new "righteousness" that Abraham has established with Yhwh. he touches on subjects such as vicarious suffering and Pauline teaching on righteousness before concluding with a reflection on the vocation of Abraham and that of the reader. Abraham is seen as a strident intercessor, and his role as God's theological teacher is emphasized.

[Abraham] does not flinch from urging God and even offering himself as a theological teacher to God so that God may think more clearly and responsibly about his own vocation. . . . Abraham disputes with God about the meaning of Godness. It is clear to both Abraham and to Yahweh (in that order) that God is not a tyrant but really God. And from that flows good news.9

It may justly be questioned whether Brueggemann's interpretation of Gen 18:16-33 is really "gospel." For it to be so, the voice of Abraham, the call to exercise mercy, must be recognized to be what Israel discerned, through the development of its traditions, to be in some sense the voice of God. In other words, the presentation of God in this passage must include the human voice of Abraham, for without this element God would be lacking in "Godness." It is not surprising, perhaps, that some interpreters have been less able to hear the good news. Norman Whybray, for example, sees the portrayal of Yhwh in this dialogue as an example of the "dark side" of Yhwh. For Whybray, this is an uncomfortable aspect of the OT that must be taken with all seriousness; but he recognizes that passages such as this one justify, for many, a modern Marcionism.10

Faced with this troubling passage, theological interpreters have a number of options. First, we may recognize, with Brueggemann, that Scripture contains a number of (often dissonant) voices, all of which contribute to what we must now hear as Scripture, and in which we should discern the voice of God. second, we may recognize, with Whybray, that in Genesis 18 Yhwh's dark side emerges, a troubling element which threatens other passages that suggest Yhwh's readiness to give blessing. Third, we may choose to reject the passage as Unholy Scripture. Each of these options strikes me as problematic (in different ways) for a Jewish or Christian appropriation of Scripture, and I propose an alternative understanding of the passage. Taking Brueggemann's interpretation as the point of departure, I suggest that he, with most other interpreters, makes three unnecessary assumptions about the passage.

II. The Assumption of Imminent Destruction

Two objections may be raised. First, the closest parallel to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not the Tower of Babel but the Flood.19 This is true, but all these parallels appear later on in the story of destruction. second, a more serious objection is that the reader has already been informed in chap. 13 not only that "the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against Yhwh" (v. 13), but also that Yhwh would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 11). Although, for the reader, the destruction of Sodom is an event waiting to happen, there is no prescription for how or when it should occur. Already in the invasion of the four kings (14:1-12), the reader was drawn to expect the imminent end of Sodom and Gomorrah, but on that occasion Abraham successfully intervened. The reader might wonder whether

Abraham will again mediate salvation in the face of this new threat. Why, then, have so many interpreters been convinced that Yhwh's words are an announcement of destruction? I believe that Westermann's comments may suggest an answer. "After the mere hint given in v. 17, 'what I am to do,' one expects some such statement as, 'Because the sin of Sodom is very great I will destroy the city.' Abraham's reply in v. 23b is something of this kind."20 Abraham's understanding of Yhwh's words is definitive; for him they are an announcement of destruction: "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? ... Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?" (vv. 23-25). Yet Abraham may not necessarily have listened well to Yhwh. Despite this possibility-or in view of our argument for the likelihood of this-most interpreters have been persuaded by Abraham's rhetoric.

III. The Assumption of Bargaining

A second assumption in Brueggemann's work is that the dialogue between Yhwh and Abraham is an act of bargaining. While many interpreters describe the discussion as "bargaining," "bartering, "or even "haggling, "Brueggemann paints a more vivid picture, comparing it to "a barter in a Near Eastern bazaar."21 In this section I will consider this suggestion, asking what Gen 18:16-33 means if we take this idea seriously, and whether the bazaar is the appropriate image for the dialogue between Yhwh and Abraham. I will highlight elements often missed in the examination of this passage.

The danger of impressionism is clearly present in the suggestion that the dialogue in Gen 18:16-33 is similar to the haggling or bargaining that go on in a Middle Eastern bazaar. Both commentator and reader may inadvertently smuggle into their understanding of the text a personal or secondarily mediated experience of "oriental" haggling, which is unlikely to be scientific and would reflect the perception of an alien participant or observer. Fortunately, "bazaar economies" have been the subject of anthropological research, and I offer a brief summary of that work in order to assess the claim that Genesis 18 is an example of haggling.22

Haggling is a form of economic exchange of nonstandardized goods. The focus of the buyer's energies is not on comparison of prices between sellers but on determining and obtaining a good price for the chosen object. Similarly, the vendor seeks to maximize profit in a sale, rather than being concerned with attracting customers through advertising. Thus, competition is located between buyer and seller, rather than between sellers. This relationship between buyer and seller is complex: although each party's gain is made at the other's expense, each needs the other to consummate the exchange.

An important component of the economy of the bazaar is an asymmetry of knowledge between buyer and seller, for the seller has an intimate knowledge of his goods and of the market. The seller seeks to take advantage of this and often employs various tactics, such as swapping goods or changing currencies, in order to confuse the buyer. The buyer's knowledge may be increased by various means, for example, by exchanging information about price with other buyers or breaking off a bargaining episode to explore other stalls. Since the price of frequently exchanged items, such as food, is well known, bargaining over them is limited. Bargaining over rarely purchased items will cover a greater price range and may be protracted.

Extravagant language and behavior often accompany the haggle: friendliness and expressions of affection may give way to ridicule and oaths. In the Middle East, the buyer may be addressed with kinship language and offered the item as a "gift." However, haggling is usually perceived as a practice that is socially negative; this is true of customers, traders, and anthropologists. For this reason, the practice usually requires a degree of social distance.

The technical rules of haggling are essentially universal. The buyer approaches the vendor, who gives the initial price; bids then alternate between the two and converge. If complete convergence is reached, the sale is consummated. In the haggle, backward moves are forbidden and accepted bids must be honored.

Haggling was certainly known in ancient Israel, as texts such as Genesis 23, judges 11, and 2 Samuel 24 demonstrate, and it is reasonable to assume that the author and intended readers of Genesis 18 would have been familiar with the practice. If we return to Gen 18:16-33, what bargaining elements are to be found? First, there is use of extravagant language. Abraham's speech has rhetorical flourishes, such as "shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right?" he abases himself before Yhwh, describing himself as "dust and ashes." His language suggests that the conversation is far from refined, with emotions close to the surface. Twice he says, "since I have undertaken to speak to my lord"; and twice, "do not be angry." second, this extravagant language suggests a distance between the participants that is characteristic of the bazaar. Yhwh is "the judge of all the earth," while Abraham is but "dust and ashes." Third, the difference in knowledge is consciously articulated. Abraham is unaware of the number of righteous persons in Sodom; each of his requests is hypothetical: "suppose." Fourth, the conversation between Yhwh and Abraham is one in which bids and acceptance of the offer alternate. The movement from fifty down to ten is calibrated to the downward movement of a vendor's offer in a typical haggle.

It is immediately obvious, however, with this final comparison, that there are significant differences from a typical bargain. For one thing, there is no corresponding bidding from Yhwh's side. Although the conversation may alternate, the bids do not. In order to provide a correspondence with a typical bargain, we might expect Yhwh to have a price that slowly rises, corresponding to the increasing bids of a buyer. For the model of bargaining to make sense, then, Abraham must be the vendor and Yhwh the buyer. But such a reading is deeply problematic. If we listen to Abraham's rhetoric, how can we tell who is doing the buying and who the selling? If we read up to 18:25 with a typical model of bargaining in mind but with no knowledge of how the rest of the conversation proceeds, what might we expect to happen? Abraham's opening salvo of questions includes the implicit rebuke: "Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right?" Yhwh is being too harsh; his standards of justice are too stringent-or, to remain in the picture of economic bargaining, he is too expensive. Abraham's rhetoric requires that he be the buyer and Yhwh the vendor. Abraham offers to buy the city for fifty righteous.

One of the unresolved problems in the passage is Abraham's decision to begin with the figure of fifty. Various suggestions have been mooted.23 If Abraham is the buyer, the reason he begins with fifty is not as a tentative test of Yhwh's patience before dropping to a lower figure; instead, the logic of the bargain requires that what Abraham has offered is a low price. Behind this lie two assumptions. First, the buyer can pay the price he offers. second, he expects the vendor to suggest an alternative and higher price, and agreement to be reached somewhere between the two prices. In other words, the significance of the number fifty in my reading of the dialogue is that Abraham begins with a figure that is easily attainable. he anticipates that Yhwh, as the overbearing judge upon whom he is trying to impress a measure of proportion and reasonableness, will require a greater number of righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah in order to forgo destroying them. Abraham anticipates that Yhwh will come back with a figure of, say, two hundred. The bargaining can continue in the usual way and settle somewhere between the two numbers, maybe one hundred and ten. In the bargaining, both parties will hope to get a good deal. Yhwh will maintain an appropriate level of justice, and Abraham will hope to get a price for the city that is attainable and not beyond his (or rather, its) means.

The conversation between Yhwh and Abraham, however, does not follow along these lines. First, Abraham, though he is the buyer, begins by naming a price. second, in the dialogue Abraham's price moves progressively lower rather than upward. These points are connected because, while Abraham offers various prices, at no point does Yhwh offer any price for Sodom. In the absence of an initial asking price for the city, Abraham is forced to name a price. To each price that Abraham offers, Yhwh surprisingly acquiesces. This in no way accords with the principles of bargaining, and Abraham is unexpectedly found to be dropping his price. At first, Abraham reduces the number only by five, but, as Yhwh continues to acquiesce in the bidding, a greater boldness appears and the number is reduced by ten at a time.

Even at the end of the dialogue, when Abraham reaches ten, no figure is forthcoming from Yhwh. This raises what is, perhaps, the most puzzling element of the dialogue for the reader: why, in terms of the narrative and the characters portrayed, Abraham halts at the figure of ten. Surely, since Yhwh has named no price and has even agreed to only ten, Abraham could drop the figure still further? Gordon Wenham seeks an explanation in Yhwh's replies, in which he detects a perceptible cooling.

Abraham starts off with a confident appeal in vv 23-25 and ends with a hesitant "Do not be angry, my sovereign." On the other hand, while the LORD in each case accepts his plea, the tone of the acceptance perceptibly cools. he begins with the positive pair of words "If I find ... I shall spare." he ends with two more ominous pairs, "I shall not ruin it ... for the sake of." So it is not altogether surprising that Abraham ends his intercession where he does; the tone of God's replies conveys the feeling that he cannot be pushed much further,24

This is one possible reading of Yhwh's replies, but it is by no means the only one. Discerning the meaning and the tone of replies in a bargain is difficult, especially in a dialogue that is textually mediated, since much remains unexpressed or coded. An examination of Abraham's request and Yhwh's replies can suggest a different understanding:

Abraham's words, as we have seen, reflect the extravagant language of the bazaar, but there is no obvious heightening of tension or cooling in the replies of Yhwh. More significantly, the language that Yhwh uses in his replies to Abraham is not of his own creation but is provided by Abraham. To the initial request to spare the city, Yhwh agrees to spare it. Abraham then asks if he will ruin the city, and Yhwh replies that he will not ruin it. Though Abraham does not use the language of ruin in his last two requests, it is he and not Yhwh who has introduced this vocabulary earlier in the dialogue.

It is still odd, however, that Abraham should break off the discussion at this point. Why not pursue the argument beyond ten? Since Yhwh does not break off the conversation, we are left with the impenetrable thoughts of Abraham's mind. Perhaps, having begun at fifty persons, with ten Abraham has received far more than he expected; he is now at the limits of satisfaction in fleecing his opponent, the level at which embarrassment is the stronger emotion. After all, haggling satisfies only when there is a genuine disagreement about the price. Or perhaps ending at this incomprehensible point reveals a confusion in Abraham's mind that the progressive reduction in his pleas obscured. What is the purpose of this contention with Yhwh when its original aims have been lost sight of?25 However the number ten might be explained, its chief significance seems to lie in the fact that this is a number of Abraham's choosing.

We may now return to the question of whether the dialogue between Abraham and Yhwh may appropriately be described as "haggling." An affirmative answer is hardly possible, for there are too many anomalous features. Nevertheless, the comparison with haggling proves useful in capturing significant aspects of Genesis 18. As we have noted, the parameters of the dialogue over Sodom are entirely dictated by Abraham. he decides where it begins and where it ends, and he provides the vocabulary of the conversation. Yhwh is not proactive; instead, he reacts to each request by acceding to it. To the question, then, of whether there is haggling in Genesis 18, one might, perhaps, say yes, but haggling seems to be the intention of only one of the participants. Abraham sets up the exchange in such a way as to emphasize the distance between himself and Yhwh. It is his language that is extravagant; he is the one who requires Yhwh's justice to be quantifiable.

On the other hand, Yhwh refuses to participate in this game. There is no extravagant language; instead, Yhwh acquiesces in a straightforward manner. To every bid that Abraham lodges there is only a divine yes and never a no. The parameters of the argument are set by Abraham, and Yhwh only responds to them. Where Abraham emphasizes the distance between himself and Yhwh, affirming the asymmetry of knowledge that is characteristic of the bazaar, Yhwh seeks to undermine it. That an imbalance exists is certain, as has already been seen in the announcement of Isaac's birth (18:1-15); but Gen 18:16-33 begins with a conscious decision by Yhwh to overturn that disparity. Abraham is not to be kept in the dark, but is to be made party to the divine counsel. If we listen to Yhwh's answers apart from Abraham's requests, it is like listening to a different conversation.

If we wish to preserve the analogy of haggling, it might be better to speak of Yhwh's subversion of the pattern of haggling. Yhwh's opening soliloquy (18:17-19), in which he emphasizes that he will not hide from Abraham his intent toward Sodom and Gomorrah, expresses his desire to remove the asymmetry of knowledge between the parties that makes haggling not only possible but rational. Abraham, however, acts as though this significant move has not been taken. He continues to work within parameters that are obsolete, and it is perhaps this confusion that leads him to conclude at the perplexing figure of ten. If one were to search for a parallel other than haggling, comparison might be made to a child persistently testing parental boundaries, whether real or imagined.26 The appearance of parental education in v. 19 makes this a suggestive parallel.

IV. The Assumption of a Shared Concern with judicial Principles

A final assumption that Brueggemann makes is that Yhwh and Abraham are both concerned with judicial principles. Yhwh is associated with the harsh judicial principle of retributive justice, which receives narrative articulation in Genesis 19. Abraham, on the other hand, is the voice of the writer, a creative theologian, who advocates a different "righteousness." In this dialogue, Abraham is Yhwh's teacher. In support of such a reading, Brueggemann appeals to the tiqqûn sôpërîm in v. 22. According to an early Jewish tradition, the narrator envisaged Yhwh standing before Abraham, a portrayal that seemed impious to the scholars and was thus altered so that Abraham stood before Yhwh. The original text placed Yhwh in a position subordinate to Abraham, stressing Yhwh's accountability to Abraham and need to learn from him. Verse 19, too, depicts Abraham as a teacher of "justice and righteousness"-a portrayal that Brueggemann describes elsewhere as "an extravagant credentialing of Abraham, perhaps the most extravagant of all of Scripture."27 Support for Brueggemann's understanding might be found by comparing this with other instances of such questioning in the OT. Job 38-41 and Jonah 4 both portray Yhwh questioning his servant, and in these encounters it is the teacher who questions the learner.

On closer examination, however, Brueggemann's reading of Genesis 18 is less compelling. First, the emendation of v. 22 cannot be accepted. Not only can no support for this reading be found in the versions; it appears, too, that the tiqqûn soperim-as Carmel McCarthy has argued-represents not an ancient tradition but the midrashic conjecture of some rabbis.28 second, although the credentialing of Abraham is indeed striking, it does occur on the tongue of Yhwh and includes a mention of the "way of Yhwh." How strange that Yhwh must be taught about the very way he himself has been speaking a few verses earlier!

Where does Brueggemann find the basis of his interpretation? It is, again, in Abraham's words. As we have seen, according to Abraham, Yhwh has made an unjust decision to destroy the city. Abraham takes it upon himself to advocate justice, rebuking Yhwh with the exclamation "far be it from you," and even asking "Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?" In the dialogue that follows, the patriarch attempts to set a more equitable standard. The words of Abraham suggest that he and Yhwh share a common concern, the nature of true justice. Yhwh has a deficient understanding, which can be corrected through the patient questioning of his teacher.

"Doing justice and righteousness" is an active attempt to negate the forces of injustice, equivalent, as Moshe Weinfeld has argued, to enacting "social justice."31 This activity is characteristic of the divine king (Ps 99:4; Jer 9:24) and was to be exemplified also in the human king, whether real (2 Sam. 8:15 || 1 Chr 18:14; 1 Kgs 10:9) or idealized (Jer 22:3; 23:5). The meaning of doing justice and righteousness is clearly indicated in places where it is related to deliverance from oppression and violence (Ps 103:6; Jer 22:3, 15-16; Ezek45:9).

Understood in these terms, the concerns of Yhwh and Abraham appear to share elements in common. Both Yhwh and Abraham are concerned with two particular groups of people, the innocent and the oppressed, which may substantially overlap. Yhwh and Abraham differ only in the manner in which the concern is expressed: Yhwh speaks of social justice, Abraham of judicial procedure. Such relative concordance would be out of keeping with the rest of the passage, where Abraham has fundamentally misunderstood Yhwh's intentions. Two significant verbal parallels-one well known and the other, to my knowledge, unnoticed-will show that the difference between Yhwh and Abraham is more radical.

The parallel between Ezekiel 18 and Genesis 18 has often been taken as evidence that both are concerned with replacing notions of corporate responsibility with that of individual responsibility; but recent work on Ezekiel 18 raises questions about this interpretation.32 It has been argued that Israelite law already recognized the principle that responsibility did not extend through generations (see, e.g., Deut 24:16). Furthermore, Ezekiel, though he rejects intergenerational responsibility, nevertheless addresses not individuals but Israel as a corporate whole and demands communal repentance. Ezekiel's specific aim in his parable was not to subvert traditional notions of responsibility but to remove the grounds for moral disengagement by the Israelites. Yhwh judges each generation according to its own deeds; thus, the prophetic imperative to a people who believe they can excuse themselves of any blame is "Repent" (Ezek 18:30-32). In Ezekiel 18, the "way of Yhwh" is Yhwh's willingness to forgive the Israelites despite their own and their fathers' sins.

These verbal parallels allow a number of observations to be made. First, as was also the case in Ezekiel 18, Genesis 18 contains elements that are both "corporate" and "individual." Abraham seems to be concerned with righteous individuals, but he appeals for corporate forgiveness based on these individuals.35 The simple evolutionary trajectory from corporate responsibility to individual, such as Brueggemann's interpretation reflects and so much modern OT scholarship posits, cannot be maintained. In Genesis 18, as in Ezekiel 18, the intent is not likely to proclaim an alternative idea of divine retribution.

A second observation: at the heart of Psalm 103 and Ezekiel 18 is the character of Yhwh, and in particular the affirmation that he is a deity who forgives. This is the way of Yhwh. To recognize this is not to deny important differences between these texts. In Ezekiel 18, forgiveness can occur when the people repent in response to the prophetic message. Psalm 103 stands closer to Genesis 18 because, in both, forgiveness occurs through the intervention of a prophetic mediator. The links between Genesis 18 and Psalm 103 confirm the supposition of many commentators that the dialogue between Yhwh and Abraham is a prophetic intercession: Yhwh has decided to examine the conduct of a city with the possibility of judging it; and Abraham, like the prophets, is given insight into the plans of Yhwh in order that he may make intercession.36

The programmatic function of this passage for Israel's subsequent history is made clear in 18:17-19. At this decisive juncture, Yhwh begins to reveal his plans to his chosen servant for the first time. From this point on, Israel, through its prophets, will be given privileged access to Yhwh's counsel. Abraham is commissioned to teach his children the way of Yhwh, but the patriarch must first learn it himself. That he does learn Yhwh's way-that is, the forgiving mercy of Yhwh-is clear from all subsequent intercessions; but the anomalous course of this first intercession suggests that this exchange is a learning incident. The dialogue begins with Yhwh's indication that he is about to go down to discover the truth about Sodom's deeds. Punishment is by no means certain, but it is a distinct possibility. Abraham is given the opportunity to intercede for the city; he is treated as Yhwh's partner and told of Yhwh's plans, and he is then allowed to make his own contribution. Unlike Moses, Amos, and the other prophets, however, Abraham does not appeal to the mercy of God and ask for full forgiveness; instead, presuming Yhwh to be a harsh judge, he prepares to barter with him. His strategy is undone by Yhwh's persistent acceptance of Abraham's offer; Yhwh turns out to be far more merciful than Abraham imagines. Drawing the line at ten indicates not only the depth of Sodom's sin but also that Abraham has not plumbed the depths of Yhwh's grace.

An objection to this interpretation readily presents itself. Genesis 19:29 concludes the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah with the observation: "when God destroyed the cities of the plain, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities where Lot lived." Surely, the plain sense of this verse is that Abraham's intercession achieved something. Before mentioning possible solutions, we should observe that the verse is not easy to fit into any interpretation of these chapters. The salvation of Lot and the destruction of the cities are not what Abraham envisages in his dialogue with Yhwh. One approach, which circumvents this problem, is found in Brevard S. Childs's study of the Priestly writer's usage of the phrase "God remembers." Childs observes that "the object of God's remembering is either the recipient of the covenant (Noah, Gen. 8.1 ; Abraham, Gen. 19.29) or the covenant itself."40 The verse would then have in view the relationship between Yhwh and Abraham in Genesis 17; Yhwh rescues Abraham's relatives for his sake. Though this would have the virtue of explaining why Abraham, rather than Lot, is remembered, I think it is more likely that the verse refers to the dialogue in chap. 18. However, the fact that Abraham is being taught by Yhwh need not make the intercession any less genuine or its effect any less real. Comparison may be made to Moses in Exodus 32, where it appears to be Yhwh who opens up the possibility of intercession and forgiveness. Though the initiative lies with Yhwh, Moses still must intercede.41 It is a consistent aspect of the biblical portrayal of the relationship between God and human beings that human response is crucial. Genesis 19:29 affirms that Abraham has genuinely been made party to Yhwh's decisions and may have a role in shaping them. The tragedy is that, in comparison with the intercessions of other biblical prophets, Abraham's for Sodom and Gomorrah might have saved the cities had he asked for mercy. The irony is that Abraham gains what he requests: the righteous are not treated as the wicked.42

A third observation may be made on the parallels to Genesis 18. We have noticed that both Psalm 103 and Ezekiel 18 are concerned with "justice and righteousness." In Ezekiel 18, it characterizes the activity of the righteous person, who shows compassion to the poor; in Psalm 103, it characterizes the action of Yhwh in his merciful forgiveness of Israel. In Genesis 18, however, it both characterizes Yhwh-it is "his way"-and is to be taught by Abraham to his descendants. If, as we have suggested, Yhwh is Abraham's teacher, then the dialogue at Mamre is an important moment in the moral education of Abraham. It is the moment when Yhwh seeks to instruct Abraham about "his way," and the dialogue is an interactive lesson in which Abraham learns the extent of Yhwh's mercy toward his creation, so that Abraham and his descendants may follow in that same way.

V. Genesis 18:16-33 in Early Exegesis

Our analysis of Gen 18:16-33 has been undertaken in dialogue with modern critical interpretations. I have sought to offer a fresh reading of this passage that departs from the reigning interpretative paradigm; and, further, I have claimed that this is a more compelling theological interpretation. Confirmation of the latter claim would require some contextualizing of this interpretation within the wider interpretative tradition, for, on most accounts of the nature of a theological interpretation, faithfulness-to God, the Scriptures, tradition-is valued over novelty, however much the latter might be promoted in the academy. Briefly, then, I wish to examine some of the concerns of early exegesis.

Gaining a sense of how the dialogue between Abraham and Yhwh was understood by early Jewish and Christian writers is not a simple task, because they were frequently more concerned with other elements in Genesis 18-19.43 A significant interest of ancient interpreters was God's descent to investigate the sins of Sodom (18:21), which seemed prima facie to jeopardize God's transcendence and omniscience. Against the heretics, earlier Christian interpreters consistently affirmed God's omniscience, as did their Jewish counterparts (e.g., Origen Hom. in Gen. 4.6; Gen. Rab. 49:6).

Thus, early interpreters worked with a different set of assumptions, and the non-negotiable affirmation of God's omniscience has two significant effects on the interpretation of the dialogue. First, it seems to minimize any genuine divine responsiveness, since God was already aware of the two cities' wickedness (Josephus A.J. 1.11.3 §199; Ephrem the Syrian Comm. in Gen. 16.1). God's condescension to the human need of discovery is justified in a number of ways: as a divine example to human judges (Ephrem the Syrian Comm. in Gen. 16.1), or for the purpose of a final offer of forgiveness if Sodom and Gomorrah should repent (Origen Hom. in Gen. 4.6; Gen. Rab. 49:6; Tg. Neof. 18:21; Tg. Ps.-J. 18:21). Second, divine omniscience excludes the possibility that God might learn from Abraham. Instead, as an early Syrian commentary notes, "he said these things ['I will go down and see'] in order to rouse Abraham, that he should learn his mercy."44 This extension of mercy to the many on the basis of the righteous few provided good grounds for moral exhortation to Christian communities in pagan settings (Ambrose Abr. 1.6.48).

Brueggemann seems to me to present a modified version of the first consequence of God's omniscience in such a way as to dispense with the second consequence altogether. The God of the dialogue cannot be fully responsive, because the God of the earlier tradition is already determined to destroy the cities. However, the lesson that Abraham teaches God mitigates this harsh portrayal. My reading attempts to present a modified version of the second consequence of God's omniscience, but with the loss of the first consequence. That is, God teaches Abraham about divine mercy in a dialogue in which, since Abraham is a prophetic mediator, the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah is genuinely at stake.

VI. Conclusion

The dialogue between Yhwh and Abraham is one of the densest passages in the Book of Genesis, touching on many significant theological themes. At its heart are the character of Yhwh and the problem of listening to Yhwh. I have suggested that Yhwh's voice has not been heard aright, because we have been too taken with the voice of Abraham. Abraham's response to Yhwh results from misunderstanding Yhwh's words. The problem of recent exegesis, as exemplified by Brueggemann, is that we have listened to Abraham listening to Yhwh, rather than the other way around. If we listen to Yhwh, we learn that Abraham's exchange with Yhwh teaches the kind of response expected from Yhwh's elect so that the divine blessing may be mediated to the nations (12:1-3).

1 While differing in certain ways from the recent work by W. J. Lyons (Canon and Exegesis: Canonical Praxis and the Sodom Narrative [JSOTSup 352; London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002]), my argument is not too far removed from Lyons's suggestion that Abraham's response to Yhwh's words is incoherent. I am grateful to Dr. R. W. L. Moberly and the Biblical and Theological Seminars at St Andrews for comments on earlier versions of this paper, and also to Dr. and Mrs. J. Bentham for their help.

2 W. Brueggemann, Genesis (IBC; Atlanta: John Knox, 1982) 162-77.

3 W. Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).

4 What a "theological reading" should be and how it is defined over and against other types of interpretation would require a lengthy discussion. In short, what I understand by the term is a reading that attempts a critical engagement with the central subject matter (Earth's die Sache) of the biblical witness: God and his relationship to his people and to the world. It takes seriously the claim of Jewish and Christian communities that Scripture is both from and about an extratextual and extracommunal reality known as God. It presumes (reflective) speech about God to be possible and necessary, resisting the temptation to transform such speech into (mere) history of religions, sociology, or rhetoric, even thouph these discinlines nlav an imnortant ancillary role.

6 Brueggemann, Genesis, 163. One can only assume from the commentary's introduction that this is because Gen 18:16-32 is one of the "few places in which source analysis might. . . change . . . things greatly" (p. 6).

7 Brueggemann, Genesis, 167.

8 Ibid., 172, 173.

9 Ibid., 176.

10 N. Whybray, " 'Shall Not the judge of all the Earth Do What is just?': God's Oppression of the Innocent in the Old Testament," in "Shall Not the judge of all The Earth Do What is Right?": Studies on the Nature of God (Festschrift J. L. Crenshaw; ed. D. Penchansky and P. L. Redditt; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2000) 1-19, here 17.

11 Many scholars could be quoted, for example, J. Blenkinsopp ("Abraham and the Righteous of Sodom," JJS 33 [1982] 119-32, here 122): "the divine decision to destroy the entire city"; F. O. Garcia-Treto ("Crossing the Line: Three Scenes of Divine-Human Engagement in the Hebrew Bible," in Teaching the Bible: The Discourses and Politics of Biblical Pedagogy [ed. F. F. Segovia and M. A. Tolbert; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998] 105-16, here 110): "an unquestionable fait accompli, that is, his decision to destroy Sodom"; or Whybray ("Shall Not the judge ... ?" 5): "God has determined to destroy Sodom."

12 Brueggemann, Genesis, 163.

13 see, e.g., C. Westermann, Genesis 12-36: A Commentary (Continental Commentaries; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985) 285-87.

14 see J. Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975) 212-15.

16 see Lyons, Canon, 175.

17 Westermann, Genesis 12-36, 289.

18 The recognition of Yhwh's investigation as prejudicial is found in some recent work. J. K. Bruckner (Implied Law in the Abraham Narrative: A Literary and Theological Analysis [JSOTSup 335; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001]) understands Gen 18:16-33 as pretrial, while 19:1-11 is the actual trial, with 19:13 the judgment. see also Lyons, Canon, 175-76.

19 Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 42-43.

20 Westermann, Genesis 12-36, 289.

21 Again, in this Brueggemann is far from unique: "he reminds us of a haggling shopper, or merchant, in a Middle Eastern bazaar" (M. Roshwald, "A Dialogue between Man and God," SJT42 [1989] 145-65, here 154); "by having everyday life scenes of the market place in its background" (Ben Zvi, "Dialogue," 36); "it is the sort of bargaining carried on today in Near Eastern bazaars" (J. R. Lundbom, "Parataxis, Rhetorical Structure and the Dialogue over Sodom in Genesis 18," in The World of Genesis [ed. P. R. Davies and D. J. A. Clines; JSOTSup 257; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998] 136-45,here 141); "just another bout of male bargaining" (P.R. Davies, "Abraham and Yahweh-A case of Male Bonding," Bible Review 11 [1995] 24-33, 44-45, here 32); "bartering scene" (L. A. Turner, Announcements of Plot in Genesis [JSOTSup 96; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990] 80).

22 A more detailed summary will be found in my essay, "Abraham's Purchase of the Cave of Machpelah and Anthropological Theories of Exchange," in Anthropology and Biblical Studies: The Way Forward (ed. M. I. Aguilar and L. J. Lawrence; Leiden: Deo, forthcoming 2004). A fuller bibliography will be found there, but note the following works: J. Alexander and P. Alexander, "Striking a Bargain in Javanese Markets," Man 22 (1987) 42-68; R. Cassady, "Negotiated Price Making in Mexican Traditional Markets: A Conceptual Analysis," America Indigena 28 (1968) 51-79; F. S. Fanselow, "The Bazaar Economy or How Bizarre Is the Bazaar Really?" Man 25 (1990) 250-65.

23 see especially L. Schmidt, "De Deo": Studien zur Literarkritik und Theologie des Buches Jona, des Gespraches zwischen Abraham und Jahwe in Gen. 18 22ffund von Hi l (BZAW 143; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1976) 151-56.

24 Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 51 (Wenham's ellipses).

25 see Lyons, Canon, 211-14.

26 I am grateful to Bruce Longenecker for this suggestion.

27 W. Brueggemann, "A Shape for Old Testament Theology II: Embrace of Pain," CBQ 47 (1985) 395-415, here 409.

28 C. McCarthy, The Tiqqune Sopherim and Other Theological Corrections of the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament (OBO 36; Freiburg: Universitatsverlag, 1981) esp. 70-76. McCarthy notes that Gen 18:22 does not appear in the earliest lists of the tiqqune soenm (Sifre, Mekhilta, etc.), but only from the Tanhuma traditions onwards. Noting the lack of support in the versions, in contrast to some of the other tiqqune sopeRiIm (e.g., Zech 2:12), McCarthy argues "that it was in the light of the haggadic interpretations of Gen 18:1, where the LORD showed his condescension by standing while Abraham sat, coupled with the obvious difficulty encountered by the actual form of v. 22, that the inspiration for the interpretation of Gen 18:22 in a similar manner, and ultimately as a scribal emendation, was born" (p. 75).

29 see P. Bovati, Re-establishing Justice: Legal Terms, Concepts and Procedures in the Hebrew Bible (JSOTSup 105; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994) 188.

30 Bruckner, Implied Law, 101; cf. Bovati, Justice, 171.

31 M. Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1995); contra Bruckner, Implied Law.

32 See P. Joyce, Divine Initiative and Human Response in Ezekiel (JSOTSup 51; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989); J. S. Kaminsky, Corporate Responsibility in the Hebrew Bible (JSOTSup 196; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995).

33 Psalm 99 refers to Yhwh's speaking to Moses, Aaron, and Samuel from the pillar of cloud. In the case of Moses, this seems to be a reference to Exod 33:9 (A. A. Anderson, Psalms 73-150 [NCB; London: Oliphants, 1972] 697).

34 L. C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (WBC 21; Waco: Word Books, 1983) 18.

35 Lyons (Canon, 186-93) sees this as evidence of incoherence in Abraham's thought.

36 Genesis 18:22-23 suggests that Yhwh opened the possibility for Abraham to discuss the matter with him. Comparison may be made, in this respect, with Exod 32:7-14. " 'Let me alone that I may consume them'. The effect is that God himself leaves the door open for intercession. he allows himself to be persuaded. That is what a mediator is for" (B. S. Childs, Exodus [OTL; London: SCM, 1974] 567).

37 Westermann, Genesis 12-36, 291.

38 Note the similarities of Lot's request to Amos's intercession in Amos 7:1-6.

39 Comparison may be made with Gen 15:1, where the word of Yhwh comes to Abraham in a vision. Although receiving visions was part of the prophetic office, this passage lacks the element of intercession that Gen 18:16-33 and 20:7 have in common.

40 B. S. Childs, Memory and Tradition in Israel (SBT 37; London: SCM, 1962) 43.

41 See n. 36.

42 Of course, the portrayal of Lot and his daughters in the story is ambiguous. Nevertheless, the contrast between the Sodomites and hospitable Lot suggests that the author understands Lot as a member of the "righteous."

43 See J. A. Loader, A Tale of Two Cities: Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament, Early Jewish and Early Christian Traditions (Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 1; Kampen: Kok, 1990). Josephus's truncated retelling of the dialogue is instructive in this respect (A.J. 1.11.3 §199).

44 A. Levene, The Early Syrian Fathers on Genesis: From a Syriac MS. on the Pentateuch in the Mingana Collection; the First 18 Chapters of the MS. Edited with Introd., Translation and Notes, and Including a Study in Comparative Exegesis (London: Taylor's Foreign Press, 1951) 91. Others saw here a demonstration of God's mercy for Abraham's benefit. Chrysostom writes: "the Lord's goodness is immense, and he often finds his way to grant salvation to the majority because of a few just people" (Hom. in Gen. 42:19; cf. Origen Hom. in Gen. 4.6).


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