Saturday, November 04, 2017

When Abraham and God Negotiate

In this week’s Torah portion, two negotiations occur. First, God and Abraham debate the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Second, Abraham and Abimelech, king of the southern region of Gerar, reconcile the ruler’s transgressions. After Abraham misguides the king to think of Sarah as his sister rather than his wife, the king conjugally pursues her, accidentally laying with a married woman. In the first vigent, God wants to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and the wicked people dwelling in them. On the contrary, Abraham raises doubts about God’s generalization of this population, asking if God would spare but five kind people in the city if they were found. God views five as too few, so Abraham starts again with sparing forty kind people, then thirty, haggling with God all the way to ten. God sends angels to search the cities prior to their destruction, ultimately only saving Lot and his family in respect of them being Abraham’s kin. In contrast, Abraham responds to the sister-wife controversy by acknowledging his errors, apologizing to Abimelech and exonerating the king’s name before God. The gentlemen settle the dispute in recognition of Abraham’s mistakes and the king’s fear of God.
Assuming human authorship of the book of Genesis begs the question of how these narratives find space in this holy book and about the significance of their juxtaposition. If God ultimately decides to obliterate Sodom and Gomorrah, why does the author feature Abraham questioning God’s choices? Perhaps, this writer deliberately casts doubt on God’s will. After all, God promises to Noah never to destroy the Earth again about ten chapters prior to these events. In both ancient and modern contexts, this story fails to match our understanding of God, justice, and repentance. While God is omnipotent, God chooses to guide humans toward righteousness rather than dismiss them as beyond repair. In today’s world, many cities teem with wicked people who abuse one another and who manipulate systemic inequities to further rupture the world and taint the work of creation. However, God in 2017, in most mainstream Judeo-Christian contexts, opts to not intervene directly in these affairs, especially not with an action as drastic as comprehensive destruction.
The second negotiation, thereby, serves as a challenge and a correction of the former negotiation and outcome. While the author chooses not to categorize God’s actions with Sodom and Gomorrah as outrightly immoral, the writer juxtaposes this choice on which Abraham casts doubts with a very different type of reconciliation. Abraham wrongs Abimelech, and while this portion concludes with the binding of Isaac, the pinnacle symbol of Abraham’s faithfulness and servitude to God, the sister-wife narrative portrays Abraham as a flawed human being. In his failing, though, Abraham acknowledges his follies, and he ultimately resolves the dilemma by appealing to God’s good and forgiving will. By starting with Sodom and Gomorrah but continuing with the sister-wife conflict, the author admits that God’s actions in the former story are doubtable. Reading these stories together provokes thought whether God’s initial punishment was too harsh, too near-sighted, or plainly unfair and wrong.
As Abraham indicates, God’s mistake may lie in scapegoating and destroying an entire city of people where even five pious, gentle souls may dwell. Conversely, focusing on a minority that wreaks havoc among a cluster of well-intentioned people equally prejudices and devalues the whole population.  In addition, this biased framework of thought lays at the crux of what those with power and authority have debated in our political age. Some people with immense influence classify the people of the Arab World and Latin America as a modern incarnation of the peoples of Sodom and Gomorrah, using extreme examples to generate an opinion about their merit. Just as easily, though, one could examine parts of the legacy of white, Judeo-Christian supremacy - the Crusades, enslavement, the era of Jim Crow, Japanese internment - and call us equally deranged or violent, misshaping or expansively extrapolating the reality and actions of many of us and our ancestors.

The Torah portion concludes with a powerful symbol. Abraham lays with his servant, Hagar, and they bare Ishmael, which means literally  in Hebrew “God listens.” God, Abraham, and Sarah value Isaac in the story more than they value Ishmael, yet Hagar and her infant are not rejected as lacking worth.  Ishmael, though impure from the perspective of this story, wanders with his mother, eventually, in accordance with God’s will, developing into another numerous and blessed people. We, as humans made in the image of God, err too. Perhaps, we also fail to see and “listen” to those around us, jumping to call for one another’s destruction or denied right of entry too soon.

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