A biweekly column about Jewish things.
No one was tested more harshly than Abraham. His second most famous trial is prologue to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. God decides that he will not conceal his plans. The House of Abraham is to steward God’s ways, the ways of “righteousness and justice.” The horrors of the cities have reached heaven. The cities will be destroyed. The three messengers of God (Abraham’s erstwhile guests) are dispatched to execute the sentence. But Abraham remains before the Lord.
When God tests Job with the profoundest anguish, Job laments that “man will not be acquitted against God” (Job 9:2). For each of Job's claims, the Divine respondent has an answer. Abraham, by contrast, does not sue God in the Heavenly Court. He impugns the Heavenly Court. “Will not the judge of the world do justice?” (Gen. 18:25). Will God punish the innocent together with the wicked? Job is confounded because he does not know why he suffers. Abraham is confounded because he sees clear as water that God intends to take innocent blood.
God replies to Abraham’s admonishment, “if I find within Sodom fifty righteous ones, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” Maybe God meant for Abraham to believe that Divine justice would abide forty-nine innocent deaths. What about forty? Abraham stops at ten. But isn’t one innocent death intolerable to Abraham? Did Abraham think God couldn't have saved fifty righteous men as easily as he eventually saves one? Had he simply lost the nerve to go lower?
There is another way to read this dialogue. Suggesting that the whole city––the wicked and innocent alike––will be saved for the sake of fifty, God rebukes Abraham for insufficient faith in Divine mercy. In his righteous zealotry, Abraham rushed to judgment. It was not God’s purport for Abraham to talk him down from killing innocent people. God’s reply indicates not that the innocent will avoid destruction if only there are enough of them, but rather that if there are enough good men the city is not irremediably wicked.
Which is why Abraham stops at ten. If there is a righteous quorum in Sodom, then decency is still publicly acceptable, and so the Sodomites are not incurably wicked. Perhaps they are only very incontinent, like mafiosi who still go to church and refer obliquely to their syndicates as “this thing of ours.” Maybe it is still reasonable to hope, so that mercy can stay the execution of justice without also mocking justice.
God introduces this affair to Abraham because Abraham is to be the chief agent of justice on earth. God’s partial acceptance, partial rebuke of Abraham’s righteous passion at the start of their dialogue, and Abraham’s generous response, suggest that the justice of God and Abraham is conceived in mercy.
It is of course dumbfounding that the man who accuses God of intending to take innocent blood also goes without protest to sacrifice his treasured, innocent son. Only once Abraham raises the knife does the angel declare that Abraham truly fears the Lord. Sacrificing Isaac can be the final test only because it demands the full measure of devotion. Man is God’s junior partner in creating a more just world. But God’s final test indicates that Abraham’s faith is worthiest when it is sacrificial, not creative.
Justice, mercy, wisdom—these perfect things of God’s that God wanted for Abraham to introduce into the world are the diverse refractions of a simple Infinite. But men cannot apprehend the Divine essence. When we imitate God, we have no choice but to do it piecemeal, since we are complex and he is not. But men can apprehend the Divine will. Paradoxically, Abraham is closest to God when, in Kierkegaard’s phrase, he goes “no farther than faith”—when he simply, merely, obeys the command.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.