Vayera: Outweighing the majority

scales of justiceJustice has consequences. Even God had to learn that.

In Vayera, God has just about had it with Sodom. It was “an outrage…and their sin so grave.” (Gen 18:16) God sent messengers to Sodom and Gemorrah, and after stopping by Abraham and Sarah’s for some rest and a meal, they head on to the wicked cities.

And then comes what I think is among the more curious moments in the story. We read, “Now Adonai said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keept he way of Adonai, by doing what is just and right, in order that Adonai may bring about for Abraham what God had promised him.” (Gen 18:17-20)

God wonders if Abraham should be clued in on the impending destruction of an entire population. God second-guesses, and then apparently decides to bring Abraham in to the plan. But instead of what God may have expected, as in, “Yeah, sure God, go for it!”, Abraham boldly goes where no man has gone before. Abraham stands before God and says there may be innocent people there, people who don’t deserve to be destroyed, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty…Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen 18:23..25) Unlike Noah before him, who said nothing when he learned of God’s plan to destroy human lives, Abraham confronts God. What about fifty innocents? God agrees, if there are fifty innocents, the cities would remain. Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? And each time, God agrees not to destroy for their sake. The merit of the minority would outweigh the sins of the majority, but there is a limit to how many people in a minority can outweigh cumulative evil. Apparently, there weren’t even ten innocents in Sodom and Gemorrah, because God went through with the destruction, and Abraham went home.

Lot and his family were saved, so either there really weren’t any other innocent people in Sodom and Gemorrah, or a, handful of righteous people died among all the nasty ones. By holding a metaphorical mirror up to God, Abraham made God realize that there were consequences to the Judge of the Earth executing (literally) judgement. God was about to act in the name of justice; Abraham reminded God about mercy. Even if a sentence is carried out, a judge should always consider the consequences of the actions first.

Martin Luther King Jr said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If there is one place where we turn our backs on justice, it is easier to allow it to happen elsewhere the next time. Abraham wanted to make sure God knew that, too. It’s too easy to allow innocents to get swept up in our reaction to bad things happening. Real justice requires patience, responsibility, and turning away from blind action. We want to wipe out wickedness, start all over, punish and move on. But if even the Judge of the Earth needed to be reminded of consequences, how much more so do we?

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