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"Bargaining with God"

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

Fresh off promising a son to Abraham and Sarah, God turns to the next matter on the day’s to-do list – a great outcry against the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. God sends heavenly gumshoes to investigate, but before they can even make their report, Abraham intervenes.

A watercolor painting of a person in prayer with their hands clasped near their face
[1] “Prayer” by Graham Dean

Genesis 18:22-33

June 19, 2022

Dr. Todd R. Wright


In the introduction to the book on which this sermon series is based, Great Prayers of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann says, “In the ancient world to which Jews and Christians are heirs, prayer is a defining and indispensable activity. As a result, Israel has collected its prayers in the book of Psalms.”[2]


But prayer refuses to be collected and confined. So Brueggemann continues: “Israel’s prayers regularly occur in the midst of narrative … Prayer is a vehicle whereby the power and compassion of YHWH [emerge] ... It is as though Israel cannot tell its story without reference to prayer … because Israel’s story has the presence and power of YHWH at its center.”


We will look at eight prayers over the coming weeks. We will begin with Abraham’s.

 

Fresh off promising a son to Abraham and Sarah, God turns to the next matter on the day’s to-do list – a great outcry against the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. God sends heavenly gumshoes to investigate, but before they can even make their report, Abraham intervenes. He asks, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”


On its face it does not sound like a prayer. There is none of the language of praise, or confession, or thanksgiving we are used to. It is more like a conversation with a friend. There’s even an undertone of rebuke. But make no mistake, this is a prayer … and it will inspire similar prayers:


Moses will convince God to not destroy the Israelites after the Golden Calf incident;


in the Psalms, many of the laments demand that the Holy make good on promises made;


and Job will spend much of the book spewing self-righteous accusations again the Divine.


Who can talk to God like this? The faithful can. We have that kind of relationship with God.

 

Abraham’s prayer does several interesting things.


He reasons with God that even in a wicked city there must be some righteous ones who fear God and honor their neighbors.


He reminds God that Divine power is tempered by mercy.


He even asserts that the presence of 10 righteous ones be enough to spare the whole city![3]


And he does this on Sodom’s behalf, even though he, as a neighbor, probably knows something about the wickedness that God will find there, whether that is social injustice or grinding oppression, economic exploitation or brutal violence against the weak.

 

And so, he prays. He confronts, he reminds, he bargains.


He does this because, as a friend, he has God’s ear.


He does this because he wants God to act like the God he has come to know – just, inexplicitly loving, capable of big ideas and adapting on the fly, and, most importantly, merciful.


But there is also a sense that the narrator has him doing this as part of his formation as a fit partner with God and as a leader of God’s chosen people – one who is concerned about his neighbors, who is bold enough to stand up to power, and, most importantly, who is driven by mercy.

 

Most of us have bargained with God on behalf of a loved one. We have prayed through the night for healing. We have offered ourselves as a substitute, so they won’t have to suffer. We have advocated for mercy they do not deserve, knowing we don’t deserve it either. We have made outrageous promises … and clung to hope that somehow God would hear our outcry.


But this “great prayer” challenges us to consider whether we would do the same for a place like Sodom, for a people who are rumored to have acted wickedly, for “the other.”


Ask yourself, who is Sodom in our context? (long, awkward pause)


Will you pray for them, like Abraham did?


You have God’s ear. You know the loving character of God. And doing so will serve to form you in the ways of mercy.


Will you? Amen

[1] “Prayer” by Graham Dean
[2] Here and below, from page xix
[3] A theological theory of transference that reaches its apex in the righteous
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