Sodom and Gomorrah
The first side of the frame for understanding the story of the binding of Isaac is the narrative about how Sarah received the message that in her old age she would have a child, a segment I titled “Sarah Laughs” (SL). The second of the four-sided frame is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (S&G). It is revealing if we compare two themes in the two otherwise very very different narratives.
- In SL, Abraham hid from Sarah the news that God had promised that she would become pregnant and Sarah hides within the tent and eavesdrops on the discussion between Abraham and God’s messengers.
- In S&G, God asks (Genesis 18:17), “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”
- a) One can almost hear God chuckling to Himself fully aware of the irony when He asks the question (and He asks, in contrast to Abraham and Sarah who act) as if He were considering whether He should behave in the same way that Abraham and Sarah did.
- b) What considerations go into God offering an answer? Two factors. First Abraham is to become the forefather of a great and populous nation and a blessing for all other nations. Second, Abraham has been chosen to defend what is just and right as a condition of the first – becoming a father of a great nation.
- c) We do not get an answer. The question appears to be rhetorical since, when Abraham pleads with God to save the city if a minimum of ten just men can be found within its walls, Abraham has to know God’s intentions just to plead with him. The contrast stands out. While God is totally transparent, Abraham and Sarah hide.
- In SL, Abraham pleads with the three strangers to be their host.
- In S&G, Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the city if only 10 just men can be found who live there.
- a) Note the similarities between the two types of plea. In neither case does Abraham’s plea constitute begging. Abraham, in offering his hospitality to the three strangers in SL, does bow down and call himself a servant, but it is as a generous host. Secondly, both pleas are interpersonal; neither involves a formal, let alone written, petition.
- b) However, note the radical differences. In SL, the plea is an appeal both to the needs of the strangers and the demands of the norms of hospitality. Abraham entreats the three divine messengers in a most earnest and humble way. “My lords, if it pleases you, do not go on past your servant.” (18:3) In S&G, there is no bowing and scraping on Abraham’s part. Instead, Abraham does not even simply stand before the Lord; he approaches Him. Abraham walks towards God. He was being forward. There was no humility, no begging. Abraham’s intercession, his proposal, was an offer, a plea bargain.
- c) In SL, Abraham is successful – he gets the divine messengers to stop, stay and accept his hospitality. In S&G, Abraham is successful, not in stopping God, but in setting the conditions for a reprieve. Abraham does not achieve a stay of execution. Abraham does not even get God to send his angels to investigate. God announces: “I will go down to see whether they have acted in accordance with the complaints against the citizens.” (18:21) Abraham sets the conditions for a possible reprieve – if there are at least 10 just men in the town.
- d) Finally, in S&G, Abraham succeeds because of a rational argument rooted in the principle of proportionality. Even if only a few innocents are affected, no punishment should befall the city. But one need not be a purist. Nine innocents may be killed, Abraham establishes, but not ten. The principle of proportionality is determined by absolute numbers, not by a ratio. In SL, Abraham made an emotional appeal that implicitly evoked the principle of hospitality.
What is most noteworthy is that it is Abraham in both cases who establishes the rules of behaviour, not God.
What is the connection between humans hiding and God being transparent while, at the same time, humans are setting the standards for action rather than God? There seems to be no connection. For in one case, Abraham and Sarah (humans) hide and God does not. The second is not a contrast between human and divine behaviour, but between two different types of human behaviour apparently with the same designation.
However, on another level, there appears to be a connection. From God’s side, from the side of full transparency, we are dealing with either impossibilities (Sarah being attractive enough for Abraham to want to have sex with her and Sarah being able to bear children in her old age) or with normally unacceptable behaviour – destroying everyone in a city, infants and children as well, for the sins of their parents. However grave the sin, the destruction seems totally disproportionate.
In contrast, those who hide are fully understandable as actors, whether on the rational or the emotional plain. Their disbelief in the first case seems totally justifiable. Abraham’s offer of a plea bargain also seems to appeal to a higher sense of justification. But the evidence in the first case will be an event that seems impossible. The evidence in the second case – apparently no evidence is found to support Abraham’s conditions, that is, there are at least ten just men in the city – seems very likely, but proves to be impossible to find. These two expressions of the mixture of impossibility and implausibility, so characteristic of some of the best fiction, are what give each of the stories their power.
In the case of SL, the attitudes of Abraham and Sarah on first hearing the promise of a child is totally consistent, not only with their experience, but with ours as readers. In the case of S&L, Abraham’s plea seems most reasonable. It is God’s actions which come across as either totally impossible (SL) or totally unacceptable even if less than 10 non-sinning adults could not be found. If one thinks about it, God’s action seems totally unacceptable.
But why are supernatural events accepted in the first case but remain dubious in the second? The first operates in the realm of scientific possibility and, to go along with the narrative, one has to adopt Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s rule of thumb for the narrative to have any power – “a willing suspension of disbelief.” The second takes place in a realm in which evidence is required, not to support a fact and justify a belief, but to support an act and justify it.
Feasibility is operative in the first case. Desirability operates in the second. In the first, God’s actions disobey natural scientific law; what happens is biologically unfeasible. In the second, God’s action seems legally and ethically unnatural, not only with respect to the likelihood of finding ten innocents within the confines of a city, but with respect to natural ethical norms. In the two cases, the non-natural wins over the natural. But the non-natural in explicitly operating juxtaposed to natural scientific laws and natural ethical and legal norms.
In the SL tale, there are two human actors, Abraham and Sarah. In the S&G narrative, the tale of Abraham bargaining with God over standards for mass killing is succeeded by the story of Lot. Note the differences between the story of the strangers passing Abraham’s tent and the angels and their meeting with Lot.
Number of strangers 3 2
Location in front of a tent at the gate of the city
Appeal to self-interest feel refreshed so the angels can get
Method bow bow, face to the ground
Behaviour eat outside enter the tent
Staying overnight acceptance rejection
What follows is different in the two cases. In the first, Sarah equivocates. In the second, an intolerant mob comes on the scene and demands that Lot surrender the strangers. Lot pleads with the mob rather than for divine intervention. But divine intervention comes with a literally blinding light. In SL, there is a promise. In S&G, Lot and his family are offered an escape. In SL, Sarah greets the promise as if it is a joke. When Lot pleads with his sons-in-law to leave, they treat his insistence as a jest. In SL, there is no use of force. In S&G, the angels seize the hands of Lot, his wife and his two unmarried daughters. They are urged to flee to the hills. Lot agrees to go there, but only when the strangers promise that the town be made a sanctuary. Then the annihilation of the population, the city and the vegetation follow.
There are two other differences. Sarah looks back in time and regrets her initial response to the promise. Lot’s wife looks back in space and I s reified as a pillar of salt. Second, Sarah gives birth as a result of sleeping with her husband. Lot’s two daughters each give birth as a result of incest with their father and give birth to nations, not rooted in laughter (Yitzhac or Isaac) with both its negative and positive associations. However, the Moabites and the Ammonites by their very names cannot forget that they were nations born in sin rather than a divine promise, for mo-av means “from my father” and ben-ammi means son of my paternal kin.
When I come back to the story of the Akeda, I will try to use these differences to show how an understanding of the words that came before the Akeda throw light on the meaning of the binding of Isaac story. By then I will have depicted the other two sides of the frame.
With the help of Alex Zisman