Sodom and Gomorrah #6 (Genesis 18:27-28)
Abraham continues to teach us about justice and how to run a just trial. As we saw earlier, he started by presenting a moral argument. Once God has agreed with the principle that it is immoral to destroy the righteous together with the evil, Abraham changes his tone. Now, once the principle has been established, the negotiation of numbers follows.
The text in these two verses is straight forward. After all, as we discussed earlier, this entire chapter is a guide of how to run a just trial. Therefore, as a guidebook, the instructions must be clear and easy to follow.
We must not forget that at the time they did not have law schools, they did not have bar exams, and not even ‘how-to’ self-help books. If you wanted to be a just and moral judge or a lawyer, the Bible was your guide.
What does the Bible teach us about negotiation?
We have already seen in a previous post that Abraham starts with a general, moral principle that is beyond dispute. As it is a universal principle, even when standing in front of God Abraham is speaking authoritatively. After all, justice and moral are true and universal, regardless of who the judge is.
But as soon as God agrees, Abraham’s tone changes. Now he is not talking about morals and principles any longer. Instead, he is negotiating numbers. And the number that God will agree to depends not on principle, but on the grace of God. So Abraham changes his tone from authoritarian to humble and subservient. He makes sure that it is clear (to God and to us, the learners) that he makes no demands, that it is not a matter of right or wrong. Instead, he is asking for God’s mercy.
וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר
and I am dust and ashes
There are two other sophisticated, though subtle, techniques worth paying attention to. The first is the expression:
הֲתַשְׁחִית בַּחֲמִשָּׁה, אֶת-כָּל–הָעִיר
Will you destroy the entire city for five
Once the number fifty has been established between Abraham and God, Abraham uses it as a base line. From now on, he does not mention that the city is to be destroyed because of all the evil in it. His new position is that it is going to be destroyed because five righteous people are missing. This is a sophisticated shift of focus, which works in any type of negotiation. A useful tool for any negotiator; a must tool for any defence lawyer.
The second point is even more subtle. It is the way the Hebrew words for destruction are used. We have seen, in verse 21 that when God talks about destroying Sodom and Gomorrah he uses the word כָּלָה. The meaning of the world is to finish something, brings it to an end, makes it non-existent.
In verse 23, too, we saw that when Abraham asserts that it is immoral to destroy the righteous together with evil, he uses the word תִּסְפֶּה which, again, means to bring to an end.
In our verse, however, when Abraham is trying to defend the city, he is using a different word altogether: הֲתַשְׁחִית. This word does not have the feeling of total destruction; it does not mean to bring to an end. Instead, it means to spoil, to partially destroy, or to do something that reduces the value. Therefore, while negotiating on the number, Abraham is changing the narrative from annihilation to partial destruction.
He is aware that his chance of winning the case is low. But even if he loses, he hopes that the changed narrative will change the magnitude of punishment that God will rain upon Sodom and Gomorrah, from annihilation to partial destruction.
Does Abraham like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? Of course he does not. He does not defend them because he likes them. Surely, he knows they are evil. He knows they break the law. He defends them because, like any human being, they deserve the best defence they can get.
How often do we find ourselves judging others? How often have we sentenced them in our minds well before we have done all we could to defend them. Religious as well as secular, moral as well as evil, we all tend to judge others, often wishing we had the power to sentence them as well.
But here Abraham tells us to stop. Even the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, people that are obviously guilty, deserve the best defence they can get. And Abraham also gives us the techniques to defend them. Tools that must be in any lawyer’s toolbox. After all, we have the Bible in every court, we swear on it, so why not use the tools it teaches us to turn our courts and legal process just?