Sodom and Gomorrah #2
The first part of the Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18, the Bible tells the story in an atypical, most straight-forward way. It is non-ambiguous and visual. It is written as if directing a play, or a guidebook. The question is why? Why does it use such simple language? After all, ambiguity is the Bible’s way to ensure that it remains relevant throughout the generations, where each generation can adjust the text to be relevant for era.
Therefore, whenever the text is simple and clear, the Bible is telling us something beyond era and circumstances. It is telling us something eternal. In this story it teaches us how to run a just trial. But this is not all.
In the previous verse God demonstrated how a judge should go and check the evidence. Here we continue to receive instructions of how to run a just trial. It starts with the three messengers that visited Abraham are now leaving the court to investigate the situation. Once they have left, Abraham, representing the defendant, approaches the bench. Whether it is a human acting as a judge or God Himself, justice and proper trials must come first. Everyone is subject to the law. Nobody is above it.
This is what the Bible teaches us over and again. This is the power of the justice-based culture that the Bible instils. Everyone is subject to the law, and as grand as the one you are facing might be, you should insist that justice must be held. After all, whoever you might be facing, it cannot compare to Abraham challenging God.
Abraham teaches us how to run a just trial
Like any good defence lawyer, Abraham shows us that once he approaches the bench, he needs to present his most compelling argument. He is not pleading the innocence of his ‘client’. He knows that the defendant is guilty of horrendous crimes. But guilty or not, they still deserve the best defence they can have, and Abraham must do all in his power to save them. This is his strongest argument: “It cannot be that everyone in these two cities is evil. Are you going to kill these innocent or even righteous people because they live among the evil ones?”
This is a strong argument. It is a moral dilemma that every generation faces. This is a dilemma that even today we face regularly. What collateral damage is justified? This is a moral question so important that the Bible puts in the simplest of words. This is a question that whatever the circumstances might be, in whatever generation we may live, we must never fail to ask ourselves. Can we justify punishing innocent people just because they live among evil ones? And this is what this chapter of the Bible comes to bring to our attention.
The fact that even the king must be subject to the law is what the crusaders discovered when they reached the Holy Land. In Europe of the time, everyone was subject to the whims of the king. But having seen a system in which the law is above the king, things had to change at home as well. The returning knights forced king John of England to change his ruling, and in 1215 he signed the Magna Carta – the seed of human rights as we all enjoy today.
By the way, if you are interested in the moral question of collateral damage (outside the Bible), I can recommend the excellent academic paper by David Lefkowitz. You can download it free here. For full disclosure, I have no connection to David and know nothing about him, other than this paper.
You can see here the text of the Bible (Genesis 18) both in Hebrew and in English: https://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0118.htm