In today’s first Mass reading, taken from the Book of Genesis, Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. God is determined to destroy the city because of having heard of the gravity of the sin of the people there. When God tells Abraham His plan, Abraham challenges him not to “sweep away the innocent with the guilty,” and proceeds to haggle with God. Will you spare the city if you find 50 innocent people there? Great, then will you spare it if you find 45? Terrific, what about 40? Wonderful, do I hear 30? Abraham doesn’t cease his argument until God agrees that if there are ten innocent people in the cities, the cities will not be destroyed.
Scripture scholars and others have written a lot about this passage. Some call it the first instance of intercessory prayer. Some suggest the point is to demonstrate that God always acts justly. Some point out that the purpose of the dialogue was not to change God’s mind but to help Abraham grow in his understanding of God.
There is something else that puzzles me, however. Four chapters after this episode in the Book of Genesis (Chapter 22) is the episode where God instructs Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a holocaust. God gives no explanation or reason. He just says, “do it,” and Abraham proceeds to follow the instructions he has been given.
In today’s passage, Abraham puts his all into an argument with God aimed at saving a depraved city, a guilty people. Yet when God instructs Abraham to take his only son, who he loves more than anything and who presumably is innocent of any wrongdoing, and kill him, Abraham raises not a word in protest.
How do we explain the difference in Abraham’s behavior? Is it that he knew he was being tested when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac? Did he feel some greater responsibility toward an entire population of people than toward his son? Is there something in how God spoke to him in one instance that is different from the other? Is there something else? And, if Abraham’s behavior in the two situations can not be reconciled, which of them are we to take as the better reaction? Just a few questions to ponder today.