Tuesday, September 29, 2009

God's Humorous Theodicy

The second most humorous passage in the bible, according to this critic, is Abraham's bargaining on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. But there is a great lesson to be learned from this encounter.

In Genesis 18, as you recall, God is threatening to destroy Sodom. Abraham asks a rhetorical question: "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" He then spices it up with what sounds a bit impertinent: "Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!"

God responds with the statement: "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake."

The reader begins to chuckle here, and in doing so may, as I did, miss the point. God is not merely promising: I will spare the righteous. He is saying much more. He is saying that if the righteous are found, he will even spare the wicked on their behalf. The wicked shall, from that moment forward, owe their lives to the existence of the righteous.

The hilarious bargaining then ensues:
27Abraham answered and said, "Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there." 29Again he spoke to him and said, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it." 30Then he said, "Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there." 31He said, "Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it." 32Then he said, "Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it." (Gen 18:27-32)
God, like a divine Diogenes, sought these ten righteous men. Apparently he didn't find them.

Abraham was not a strong enough negotiator. No Teamster was he. He could have negotiated God down to one. For the lesson here is not that there may have been seven or nine righteous, though definitely not ten, but that none were righteous. No, not one.

I used to think of it this way: everybody in Sodom was wicked, all were lost. Unsaved. Reprobate. Unbelievers. Whatever term you like. But that is not necessarily the case. There may have been many saved people in Sodom—and they were annihilated along with the lost. But on that day no righteous man died. That, in fact, has happened only once.

Abraham's question to God was essentially the same as Rabbi Kushner's "Why do bad things happen to good people?" For Abraham asks, in effect, surely a holy God will not kill the righteous along with the unrighteous? God's answer to Abraham is: I won't. His answer to Rabbi Kushner is: They don't.

Number one goes to that rascal Gideon. When the angel of the Lord (which is a theophany, see Judges 6:23) first appears:
And the angel of the LORD appeared to him [Gideon] and said to him, "The LORD is with you, O mighty man of valor." (Judges 6:12)
Now our complete picture of Gideon tells us that in all likelihood the last thing he considered himself, at least at that time, was a man of valor. You can easily imagine him replying: "Are you talking to me?" It is like when someone would address the Three Stooges as "gentlemen."

But an even funnier exchange occurs just a bit later:
And he [Gideon] said to him [the Lord], "If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speaks with me. Please do not depart from here until I come to you and bring out my present and set it before you." And he [the Lord] said, "I will stay till you return." (Judges 6:17-18)
Here Gideon asks God to stick around while he runs inside to get something, God answers, probably tapping his feet: "Go on, take your time. I'll wait." You just have to love it.

Gideon returns and God displays his pleasure with Gideon's gift by, um, burning it to ashes.

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