Abraham’s intercession for the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:23-33) must rank as one of the more enigmatic passages in Scripture. The people of Sodom were the epitome of cruelty and wickedness while Abraham was kind and righteous. Why would he pray for the preservation of such wickedness?
Our sages compounded the enigma when they taught that God chose Abraham precisely because of this prayer. The rabbis expounded on Psalm 45:8. “You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore has God, your God, anointed you with oil of joy from among your peers.” The Sages of Israel read these words as if God were addressing Abraham; “You have loved to justify my creations and you have hated to render them guilty it is for this reason that from all the generations since Noah that I chose to speak to you.” According to this reading, it was Abraham’s prayer on behalf of the Sodomites that set him apart from his peers.
The Torah itself leads us in the direction of this rabbinic teaching. The Torah introduces Abraham’s intercession for the people of Sodom with a reminder of the fact that Abraham was chosen by God (Genesis 18:17-19). The Torah is telling us that God’s blessing to Abraham is somehow related to the episode of Abraham praying on behalf of the wicked. How are these two concepts related to each other? And why did Abraham pray for the preservation of these cruel and unrighteous people?
It is clear and obvious that Abraham was not looking forward to the perpetuation of Sodom’s evil way of life. If Abraham was praying for the survival of the people of Sodom then he must have been thinking of their repentance. When Abraham appeals to God to spare Sodom for the sake of ten righteous people Abraham is arguing that these ten righteous people will eventually turn Sodom around. Abraham’s prayer is a belief in the power of good to prevail over evil. And Abraham’s prayer reflects a deep faith in the essential goodness of man that was created in God’s image.
This is not to say that Abraham was naïve. This is not to say that Abraham did not appreciate the depth of the Sodomite evil. The Torah teaches us that Abraham could not even tolerate possessing a shoelace from Sodom (Genesis 14:22,23). Abraham’s righteous soul recoiled from the wickedness of the Sodomites but this did not prevent Abraham from seeing them as God’s creations.
When Abraham saw the wickedness of the people of Sodom he saw people who were not being true to themselves. Since these people were God’s creations Abraham believed that God’s goodness must be an inherent part of them. And if they are exposed to ten righteous people then there is hope for their return to God.
Abraham’s belief in the inherent goodness of God’s creations and his belief that righteousness will ultimately prevail over evil is what made him the father of God’s chosen nation. God’s plan for His nation is that they carry the torch of righteousness through the corridors of history and in this way, bring the hearts of men back to God. When God was looking for a man to father this nation He was looking for someone who believed in His plan. And it was Abraham’s prayer on behalf of the people of Sodom that showed God that this was His man.