Great Moments in Bible History
True friends are rare. They are not just people we have a good time with. They are people who know and understand us and yet still like us. We don’t need to put on an act with a friend. One of the most amazing statements about Abraham was that he was the friend of God (Isaiah 41:8). How can that even be possible? Usually friendship is between equals. There can be no more unequal friendship than between the God of the whole univererse and one of the humans that He Himself created. What does friendship look like between such unequals?
Shortly before He died, Jesus explained to His disciples that they were His friends. “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). What defined friendship for Jesus was telling His friends what was on His heart.
The time in Abraham’s life when God’s friendship with him is best seen is the time God discussed with him His plans regarding the city of Sodom. In our last issue we looked at the story of Abraham inviting three travelers to have dinner with him and then discovering that he was actually visiting with God. During that meal God gave his wife Sarah a promise that she thought was too good to be possible. After the meal the subject changed to something seemingly unrelated to the promise of a child. “Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom” (Genesis 18:16).
Our author then provides a unique glimpse into the mind of God. God asks Himself, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? ... For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” God is going to treat Abraham as a friend by telling Him His thoughts on a subject He knows Abraham cares about—the city of Sodom.
We first heard about Sodom when Abraham’s nephew Lot chose to move there. At that time our author told us, “Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Genesis 13:13). The city came up again in our story when it was conquered by some foreign kings. In that story Abraham attacked those kings and rescued the captured people of Sodom, including his nephew Lot. Now God tells Abraham that Sodom has gotten so bad that He is probably going to have to destroy it. Abraham was well aware of how wicked Sodom was, but his nephew Lot still lived there and Abraham cared about him.
What follows is a conversation between God and His friend about something they both care very much about. Abraham asks, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? ... Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:23, 25). The conversation that follows goes back and forth between Abraham and God. In the process Abraham learns something about God that goes way beyond the topic of Sodom. And he learns something about the purpose of his own descendants.
Just Ten Righteous People
Abraham was concerned that it would not be right to destroy a wicked city along with the righteous people living there. He asked God a “what if” question. “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” That would not seem fair. God replied, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” That must have encouraged Abraham. Clearly God is fair.
Then Abraham began to wonder. He knew his nephew Lot was righteous, but what were the chances there were 49 other righteous people in that rotten city? So he spoke up again, “Suppose five of the fifty are lacking.” God replied that He would not destroy the city if only 45 righteous people were in it. Abraham was still not satisfied. What if there are only 40? What about 30? He finally gets down to only ten. God promised that He would not destroy the city if He found ten righteous people living in it. Abraham did not try to go any lower. It was obvious that God was being more than fair to spare a wicked city simply because there were ten righteous people in it.
In the next chapter we will learn that, in fact, there were not ten righteous people in Sodom. There were not even half that many. So Sodom was destroyed, just as the Lord had indicated to Abraham. This raises the question, why is this conversation in the Bible? It is one of the longest conversations with God recorded in the Bible. Why report it if nothing came of it?
The story of a few righteous people living in a wicked society describes more than just Lot’s family. It describes Abraham and his descendants. When God discussed with Himself whether He should tell Abraham what He planned to do to Sodom, one of the reasons He gave for telling him had to do with his descendants. “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Genesis 18:19). Abraham’s descendants will be those few righteous people living in a wicked world. Their presence in that world will keep God from destroying it. Earlier in the book of Genesis the world got so bad that God destroyed it with a flood. He saved Noah and his family—only eight people—in an ark. Eight people were not enough to save a sinful world in Noah’s day. God intended Abraham’s descendants to be sufficient to save it in the future.
But why was God willing to spare the city of Sodom for the sake of only ten righteous people? Surely He could simply have told those righteous people to leave the city before the destruction hit. Isn’t that essentially what He did with Noah? God’s reason for sparing the city was not so that He would not have to disrupt the lives of the ten. It was for the sake of the city itself. Ten righteous people might be able to turn the city away from its wickedness. Their righteousness might “rub off” on enough other people in the city to cause it to change its behavior.
Jesus addressed this idea in His Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth,” He said (Matthew 5:13). In those days before the invention of refrigeration there were only a few ways to keep meat from going bad. One excellent way was to rub salt into it. Salted meat can last a long time. Jesus pictures His followers (Christians—the spiritual descendants of Abraham) as the salt that preserves this rotten world. They change the society they live in by living righteous lives.
What Can One Person Do?
It is common today for Christians to bemoan the rapidly declining morals of our society. But whose fault is that? If ten righteous people living in Sodom might have turned that city back from its wickedness, how much more should thousands of Christians be able to do in our society today? If our nation is getting worse instead of better, is it not an indication that the Christians living in it are not doing their jobs of preserving it?
Someone objects, “I’m just one person. What can I do with so much wickedness around me?” The answer is simple—live a righteous life. Jesus described such a life in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Righteous people are people who tell the truth, who do not hold grudges, who are not in love with money and the things money can buy, who pray because they love God, whose highest goal is to live like Jesus. A person who lives like that will make a difference in the lives of those around them.
May each of us truly be the salt of the earth.