The events of Chapters 18 and 19 apparently take place very soon after God’s appearance to Abraham in Chapter 17. Having just told Abraham he would have a son in a year, God appears to him again, but now in human form along with two angels. He repeats the message about the coming birth of Isaac but also informs Abraham that He (God) is on another mission – to see for Himself if the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great as to warrant their destruction. God’s first message is met with incredulity by Sarah and His second with panic by Abraham. How God interacts with both shows His great mercy, compassion, and justice.
Verse 1 seems to be a summary verse that describes the chapter – a device Moses uses several times throughout Genesis. The Chapter is about God’s appearance to Abraham at the place where Abraham lives – the oaks of Mamre. It very well could be that this is a Christophany – an appearance of a pre-incarnate Jesus in human form.
Abraham is sitting at the tent door (24 years in Canaan and he still lives in tents) in the heat of the day when he suddenly notices three men standing opposite him. It seems like they just appear – he apparently does not see them walk up from afar. He runs from the tent door (very out of character for a man of Abraham’s standing and age to run) and bows before them. He then says to one of them – note the singular address – “My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by.”
He seems to know who they are – or at least who the one he addresses is. The words translated “My lord” could also be translated “O Lord.” It is this address, his actions in running, and his later conversation with them that show he somehow knows that one of the men is God.
He tells the men to rest and he will have some food prepared for them. He says only that he will bring them some bread, but then oversees the preparation of an entire meal including a tender and choice calf (very costly) along with curds and milk. He brings the food to them and then respectfully stands by while they eat (God eats!) in case they need anything else. Abraham is extremely hospitable and humble throughout his interaction with the men (Heb 13:2).
As the men eat – or perhaps after they eat – they ask Abraham, “Where is Sarah your wife?” Abraham does not react at all to their somehow knowing his wife’s name (showing again that he knows who he’s dealing with). He responds that she is in the tent. Nothing is said as to why she is there and has not come out, even to serve them.
God (presumably it is He who speaks in verse 10 – notice the subject is plural in verse 9 but singular in verse 10) says to Abraham, “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.” It is hard to know exactly what He means when He says He will return to them next year, as He does not come back in the same form when Isaac is born. It could be that He simply means He will visit them in the form of granting them a son (see 21:1). His divine favor is what will return next year. That He says it will happen in a year means that this interaction takes place soon after the interaction in Chapter 17, since in both conversations God says the son will come in a year.
The author inserts a comment in verse 11. He says that Abraham and Sarah are old, advanced in age (the adjective used to describe Abraham way more than any other in Genesis is old) and Sarah is past childbearing (she is post-menopausal).
When Sarah hears God say she will have a son in a year – she is in the tent but apparently can hear the conversation – she laughs to herself (effectively the same reaction Abraham had when he heard the same news at the last conversation with God – 17:17 – Sarah, however, doesn’t laugh so hard that she falls down as her husband did – she’s better than him in that way at least). She then says to herself, “After I have become old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”
What she appears to be saying is that not only is she past menopause, but she and Abraham do not have relations any more. Thus to say that they will conceive a son is ludicrous because it is physically impossible on all fronts – neither of them is capable. However, if this is what she means it is confusing because of what we know about Abraham’s future. This story takes place roughly 38 years before Sarah’s death. After she dies – when Abraham is 137 years old – he will remarry and father SIX sons. That would seem to mean that he is not part of the problem here, even though she makes it sound as if he has as much to do with conception being impossible as she does (and it should be noted that the author of Hebrews refers to him being as good as dead – 11:12). Perhaps God miraculously intercedes so Isaac is born and does so again for Abraham when he remarries?
Even though Sarah laughed and spoke only to herself, God asks Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?’ Is anything too difficult for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year; and Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah hears the question and panics (this is a device Jesus will use several times in His earthly ministry – answer people’s thoughts – the reaction is always the same – absolute panic by the one whose thoughts are revealed). She tries to cover (she apparently comes out of the tent after God asks Abraham the question) and says, “I did not laugh.” Her reaction is totally understandable. Anyone who has ever muttered a critical remark to himself can sympathize with the emotion that comes over Sarah as she tries to recover.
The picture here is interesting. The fact that she comes out of the tent at all – assuming that is what happens – makes her look guilty (as well as making it obvious that she’s been eavesdropping). Seems like she would have been better suited to just stay in the tent and let Abraham deal with the question. Her reaction also begs the question of whether or not Abraham has told her about his latest conversation with God. Does she already know that God promised a birth within a year? Also – does she know Abraham fell down laughing when God told him? Which also brings Abraham’s thoughts into the picture. What is he thinking, knowing how he reacted? Is he a little sheepish listening to her deny doing the very thing he did? And can we assume that since they have been married for probably over 70 years and that he’s very familiar with her perspective on all of this, that he knows absolutely that she’s lying?
God does not buy her story – He is, after all, omniscient – and makes that very clear in no uncertain terms. He simply says to her, “No, but you did laugh.” In one simple statement he absolutely lays her out. Sarah’s stomach has to be in knots. He doesn’t argue and doesn’t become angry at being questioned. He simply says with full authority that she’s lying and He knows it. And she does not respond at all. There is nothing more to say. He promised, she laughed, He called her on it, she covered, He exposed her completely. It is now time to move on.
[It is interesting to consider that in both cases of Abraham’s and Sarah’s reactions – both effectively disrespecting God by their skepticism – God does not truly rebuke either one (as opposed to Gabriel’s interaction with Zacharias when he does not believe his wife will conceive – Luke 1:20). He seems to accept their unbelief as just part of the equation. Their response does not affect His plans at all. They do not have to believe for Isaac to be born. Though He challenges Sarah more than Abraham, in both cases He is ultimately compassionate and understanding. They are 99 and 89 years old and have been waiting for an heir for 24 years – He obviously knows this. And by not punishing them for their unrighteous laughter He shows them mercy and love and understanding of their weakness.]
Before moving on in our study, however, there is something not to be missed in this exchange between God and Abraham and Sarah. It is God’s rhetorical question, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” These are essentially the same words Gabriel will use to tell Mary that she will give birth even though she is a virgin (Lk 1:37). In both cases they are words that cannot be taken out of context. They apply to all things at all times. There is nothing too difficult for God because God created all things and is above all things and is the reason for all things (Col 1:16-17). If God created the circumstances then He is master over the circumstances. If God created time then He is master over time. If God created all people then He is master over all people. Nothing is too difficult for the One who transcends all things.
Also, by making this statement to Abraham and Sarah after Sarah points out all the reasons they cannot conceive, He shows them their focus is all wrong. They look at themselves and their circumstances and conclude that His promise is impossible. He tells them to look at Him instead. If they look at their ages and bodies, then yes, it is impossible for them to conceive. But God effectively says that their bodies and ages are irrelevant. “I’m God. I created your bodies and I control your age and I am the Lord of time. IS ANYTHING IMPOSSIBLE FOR ME?” We shortchange our kingdom effectiveness when we spend more time looking at ourselves and our circumstances than at God. Look at God. Focus on God. Fill our eyes with Him. Then – and only then – can we begin to fathom how nothing is impossible for Him.
After God finishes with Sarah, the men begin to leave and Abraham walks with them to send them off. Amazingly, the author gives us insight into God’s thoughts. As He walks with Abraham, God has a debate with Himself over telling Abraham what He is about to do. He decides to tell Abraham His plans because “Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed. For I have chosen him in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him. It is hard to know what this means exactly, but it could be that since Abraham is God’s main representative on earth for righteousness and justice that God wants him to know what He is about to do in the name of both.
God tells Abraham that the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. In Ezekiel 16:49, it says that Sodom had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. The word for outcry is a word typically used of the oppressed and those who are unjustly treated (Ex 22:22-24, Amos 2:6-8). It is likely that God means Sodom and Gomorrah are places of oppression and injustice and the outcry of those who are mistreated has reached Him. On top of this, the cities are filled with people whose sins are exceedingly grave.
As a result of the outcry, God wants to visit the cities to see for Himself if things are as bad as they seem (21). This is a difficult verse to fully understand. First, God obviously does not have to visit somewhere to understand what the full situation is. Second, as the story proceeds we find that He does not in fact go at all (although perhaps sending His angels serves the same purpose). What He probably means by saying that He is going down to see the cities is that He is going to destroy them. He is going to visit them but His visit is going to be much different than His promised visit to Abraham and Sarah. He goes to visit His wrath upon them. This would explain why Abraham reacts as he does to God’s words.
The two men with God leave and proceed to Sodom. Abraham stays with God and asks Him a question that shows he understands that God plans to destroy the cities. He asks if God will sweep away the righteous with the wicked. He then asks that if God were to find fifty righteous within the city, would He still destroy it?
Abraham’s question is revealing. Notice that he does not argue at all with God’s assessment that the sin of the cities is exceedingly grave. Also, by starting with just 50 people – no way to know how many people live in Sodom – he shows that he understands how few any righteous in the city would number. It is also interesting that only Sodom is mentioned (and the angels will visit only there). Gomorrah is declared to be just as evil, but apparently Sodom is the main city of the two.
Abraham ends his plea by saying, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” He shows beyond any doubt that he knows who he addresses. It is also worth noting that he appeals to God’s justice in pleading for a city being punished for its injustice. Sodom and Gomorrah treat the poor unjustly and oppress the weak, but Abraham asks for God to excuse them for the sake of a small group of righteous who may live in the city.
God replies immediately and accedes to Abraham’s request. “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account.” “I will do exactly what you want. If there are fifty righteous in Sodom, then all of Sodom will be spared.” In this exchange it is important to remember that God negotiates from a position of strength. He knows exactly how many righteous are in Sodom – likely just one (Lot – and he is questionable). Abraham probably knows the answer too, but he is definitely in the weaker position as God’s omniscience is hard to overcome in an offer/counteroffer situation.
Abraham sees he has success with his first request but also knows there is no way there are fifty righteous in Sodom. So if he wants to save the city – and obviously what he really wants is to save Lot (though interestingly, he never mentions him in the conversation) – he needs to lower the number. He asks God for patience and asks for the same allowance for forty-five people. God says yes. Abraham goes back again and asks for forty. God agrees. Abraham asks for thirty. God agrees. Abraham apologizes profusely and asks for twenty. God says no problem. Finally, Abraham begs for all kinds of forgiveness for his impudence and asks for ten. God says yes even to this – “I will not destroy it on account of the ten.”
That ends the conversation. But what seems to be understood by both is that there are not going to be ten righteous people in Sodom and the city is a goner. However, what is also understood is that Abraham’s goal in trying to save the city is to save Lot, and God knows exactly what Abraham’s wishes are. By telling Abraham that He will spare the city for ten righteous, God shows him He will in fact save Lot. He will not save the city, but He will save the one Abraham actually cares about.
This conversation shows God is a God of justice and is greatly concerned with justice in His creation. He promises to protect the righteous because it would be unjust to punish the innocent (even if, as in this case, they are far outnumbered by the wicked). But He will ultimately destroy the cities because of their oppressive treatment of others. Throughout the Bible it is very apparent that there are three things God seems to hate more than any other: worship of other gods, broken covenants, and unjust treatment of the poor and the weak. The God of perfect justice hears the cries of those who are treated unjustly and will make it right – either in this life or the next.
“You shall appoint for yourself judges and officers in all your towns which the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deut 16:18-20)
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but do to justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:31-46)