The habits of modern Christians run towards history: it is a lens through which we see the world. We see a world of cause and effect, and, because the past is older than the present, we look to the past to find the source of our present. Some cultures have longer memories than others (America’s memory usually extends only the the beginning of the present news cycle). This same habit of mind governs the reading of Scripture. For many, the Scriptures are a divinely inspired account of the history of God’s people. That history is read as history, believed as history, and applied to the present by drawing out the lessons of history. Any challenge to the historical character of an account is seen, therefore, as an assault on the authority and integrity of the Scriptures themselves. But this radical historicization of the Scriptures is relatively new: there are other ways of reading that often reveal far more content of the mystery of God. There is an excellent example in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He establishes a point of doctrine through an allegorical or typological reading of the story of Sarah and Hagar. We might ask, “How can you say that Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia? Where did you get all this?”
His points are clearly not found within historical account. The meaning lies in the shape of the story itself, Christ’s Pascha being the primary interpretative element. Christ is the Child of Promise, the first-born son who is offered, and the ram who replaced him. Abraham’s efforts to create his own version of a fulfilled covenant (having a child by Hagar), is thus seen as unfaithfulness, the rejection of Christ.
I am here offering a similar meditation on the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – a non-historical reading that offers insight into the mystery of Christ and the way of salvation.
Remove Sodom and Gomorrah from the realm of historical speculation for a moment. What we have is the account in Genesis 18. God appears to Abraham as three angels (the account moves strangely between singular and plural references – the Fathers saw this as a foreshadowing of the Trinity). In the course of His visit God speaks:
“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.”And the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know. Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD.
Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah begins:
And Abraham came near and said, “Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? So the LORD said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.” Then Abraham answered and said, “Indeed now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five?” So He said, “If I find there forty-five, I will not destroy it.” (Gen 18:17-28 NKJ)
The conversation continues until the Lord promises to spare the cites even if only ten righteous are found.
The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are the world in which we live. They are very similar to the description of the world in the Genesis account of Noah:
Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the LORD said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Gen 6:5-7 NKJ)
Christ compares the world of Noah to the world of our age (Luke 17). In the same place Christ compares Noah’s world, the world of Sodom, and the world at the close of the age (the present).
We see Christ in the story of Sodom. Just as in story of the Flood, the righteous in Sodom are saved (Lot, his wife and his two daughters). St. Peter compares the souls in Noah’s ark (eight souls) to those of us who are saved in Baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21).
But we should think to place ourselves within the story as well. For we are not living at the time of the destruction of the world, but at the time of Abraham’s intercession. In the Genesis account, the men (angels) “turn away from there and went toward Sodom” (just so the angels will act at the close of the age – Matthew 13 – and interestingly, the angels are concerned not to destroy the wheat). But the remarkable turn in the Genesis story begins precisely at this point. Though the angels have turned away, Abraham “stands before the Lord.” And there he begins his prayers. While he prays, the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah waits – it hangs in a balance. Will the Lord spare the cities for the sake of 50 righteous? 45? 40? 30? 20? 10? It is with fear and trembling that Abraham is bold to bargain with God. It is with fear and trembling that he asks, “Will the Lord destroy the righteous with the wicked?”
But he does not ask the Lord to destroy the wicked. He asks the Lord to spare the wicked because of the righteous. It is little wonder that Abraham is called God’s “friend forever” (2 Chr. 20:7). We live at the time of the intercession of the saints. The cry of “how long, O Lord” (Rev. 6:10), uttered by the martyrs beneath the throne of God, must be placed alongside the prayer of Abraham, “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?”
I find it interesting that in our day and time, many Christians number themselves among those who call for the destruction of the wicked. Had we endured martyrdom, such a prayer might have the tone of righteousness. But we do better to stand with Abraham and pray that God spare the world of the wicked on account of the presence of the righteous. This, it seems, is the heart of prayer in the lives of the saints.
This reading of Genesis 18, also points to the deeply important role in our salvation played by the intercession of others (both the living and those who have died). The Orthodox faith teaches that our intercessions continue beyond death (like those of the martyrs in Revelation). We ourselves are beneficiaries of the patience of God, whose mercies are supported by the prayers of the faithful. The dynamic within the story of Genesis moves the center of action away from a pre-determined fatalism (wickedness must equal punishment), and places it within the life of God’s people. This reading also shifts the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from the pages of moral debate and to the place of the heart (where the story has always belonged). Whatever the wickedness that was present in those cities, Abraham prayed.
Many Orthodox services conclude with the petition: O Lord, through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us, and save us! Even so.