“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”: a meditation on Genesis 18:22-33

The following reflection on Genesis 18:22-33 comes from the handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 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? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

18:32: “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it”: Undoubtedly, Abraham’s chief concern is not so much with God’s justice as a general principle as for the safety of his nephew Lot, who lives in Sodom. Surely, Abraham reasons, God won’t “sweep away the righteous with the wicked.” But exactly how confident would Abraham be in Lot’s own righteousness?

Abraham himself, you may recall, didn’t earn justification before God through his own good works but through faith: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Unless Lot was likewise justified (and where’s the evidence?), we should be unimpressed that Lot is relatively more righteous than the citizens of Sodom! Scripture tells us why:

“None is righteous, no, not one… no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10, 12).

“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3)

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

“For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:6).

In Jesus’ parable of the two debtors and its application to Simon and the prostitute (Luke 7:36-50), Jesus doesn’t deny that Simon is relatively more righteous than the woman. But it doesn’t matter: each owes a debt before God that he or she is unable to pay. The woman realizes it; Simon doesn’t. Therein lies the problem.

But maybe Abraham knows that Lot isn’t righteous. Maybe he’s counting on someone else’s righteousness to save his nephew. Otherwise, why not simply ask God—who would be unjust to “put the righteous to death with the wicked” (v. 25)—to rescue only the righteous in the city? If Lot and his family were among the righteous, then so be it. But that’s not what he asks. He asks, ultimately, if God would destroy the city for the sake of as few as ten righteous. God answers “no” before abruptly ending the conversation.

Yet we the readers might continue this thought experiment: “Suppose there were fewer than ten… Suppose, in fact, there were only one righteous person in the city? Would God destroy the city for the sake of one?”

But we Christians already know the answer to that question, don’t we?

Because, regardless whether Lot, his wife, and his two daughters were righteous, we sinners know ourselves. We know our own hearts. We know that if God were destroying cities because of the unrighteous living within it, we certainly wouldn’t be the basis on which the city is spared! Right? We would need someone else to be righteous for us!

And here’s the good news: Our Lord Jesus is that one righteous man!

He is the One on account of whose righteousness we will be saved. All we need to do is “move in with him” and “live with him.”

I can tell you how to do that!

6 thoughts on ““Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”: a meditation on Genesis 18:22-33”

  1. Another very good post! However, I am not sure that I totally agree across the board. I do think there is a place in scripture for the idea of “relative” righteousness making a difference. For example, consider Noah. God specifically selected him and his family to be saved from the Flood because he was “righteous.” But he wasn’t totally righteous, of course, because he got so drunk that he took his clothes off! (I must confess to being “blacked out” drunk once myself–though fortunately I did not undress! Unlike Noah, though, I don’t recall a thing that happened while I was “out”!) Similarly, we see that David was “a man after God’s own heart” and therefore selected to have the Messiah’s lineage run through him, but he committed adultery and had a man murdered! In the case of Lot, I do think that Abraham had Lot particularly in mind with his questions. And, God demonstrated his agreement with Abraham about not treating the righteous like the wicked because he rescued Lot out of Sodom before he destroyed it. (There is a New Testament reference to Lot being “righteous” but I can’t recall where it is offhand.) So, while it is certainly true that “none of us is righteous, no not one,” that is more in the “ultimate” sense that none of us is “good enough” to merit eternal salvation in our own right. It doesn’t mean, I don’t think, that God does not take into account “relative” righteousness in how he deals with us as a general matter.

    1. You’re probably right about the role of “relative righteousness,” at least in the OT (even as it clearly teaches original sin, human depravity and justification by faith alone), but it doesn’t detract from the larger point: This episode points toward Christ as our righteous representative. And even if Lot was considered “relatively righteous,” it’s curious that Abraham speaks of God’s saving the entire city based on someone else’s righteousness. Why was Abraham concerned with the fate of the wicked citizens of Sodom? Again… I think the Holy Spirit wants to use this passage to point to Jesus and say something universal about atonement through him.

      1. I’m not really sure how concerned Abraham was with the “sodomites” survival. Note that he says God should not treat the righteous and the wicked in the same fashion. In my opinion merely, I don’t think Abraham considered the option that God would “pull Lot out” of Sodom when God destroyed it. I think Abraham wanted to make sure Lot was not destroyed. In any event, I agree with myself 🙂 (and your “probably right”) that relative righteousness plays SOME role in how God deals with us (I think post-OT as well. “The fervent prayer of a ‘righteous’ man avails much,” James says.)

      2. But in the NT, James’s “righteous man” would still be a believer in Jesus (right?), even as his “relative righteousness” does “avail much.”

      3. Yes, totally has to be a believer. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God,” Hebrews 11:6.

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