16 The men rose from there and went over to look out over Sodom. Abraham went as an escort to send them off 17 when YHWH thought, “Shall I conceal from Abraham what I’m about to do? 18 Abraham will certainly become a great nation, mighty in numbers and all the earth’s nations will be blessed through him. 19 I have known him so that he will instruct his children and his household to keep the way of YHWH—to do what is right and just—so that YHWH shall do for Abraham everything spoken concerning him.” 20 Then YHWH said, “The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and their offense is grave! 21 Now let me go down and see. If they have caused the cry that has come—destruction! If not…. I shall know.”
22 The men turned from there and walked toward Sodom, but Abraham stood in front of YHWH. 23 Abraham stepped forward and said, “Will you really wipe out the innocent with the guilty? 24 Perhaps there are fifty innocent in the city? Will you really wipe out the place and not save it for the sake of fifty innocent people in it? 25 May you have a curse if you do this. Will not the judge of all earth do justice?”
26 YHWH said, “Should I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will forgive all for their sake.”
27 Abraham spoke up, “Since I’ve already ventured to speak to my Lord, even though I’m just dirt and ash, 28 what if the fifty innocent lack five people? Will you destroy the whole city for the five?”
The Lord said, “I will not bring ruin, if I find forty-five.”
29 Once again Abraham spoke, “Perhaps there will only be forty.”
The Lord said, “For the sake of forty, I will do nothing.”
30 He said, “May you not be angry with me and let me speak. Perhaps there will be thirty there.”
The Lord said, “I won’t do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Since I’ve presumed to speak, my Lord, what if twenty are there?”
The Lord said, “I shall not destroy, for the sake of twenty.”
32 Abraham said, “Be not incensed with me, my Lord, as I speak just one time more. What if ten shall be found?”
And the Lord said, “I will not destroy for the sake of the ten.”
33 YHWH went off after speaking with Abraham and Abraham returned to his place.
The mirage shifting between Abraham’s hosting one or three persons continues in this section. There is also a shift from an internal conversation within the three or the one to an exclamation.
Returning to the place where Lot chose the Valley of Jordan, where Sodom is located, Abraham and guest(s) look out over the Valley.
Thinking to YHWH’s self, an important question of transparency is considered. With an already formed picture of destruction, the question is about sharing such a decision and its implied consequence to a covenant partner.
A key question for a hearer of this tale is whether this is an internal moral dilemma being worked out about the worth of a partner who does not reflect the fullness of the agreement or is it a teaching opportunity to further instruct Abraham regarding his role in a larger communal setting. How is Abraham to deal with a kingdom like Sodom represented by their king and his backroom bargaining with Abraham about the commodification of people? Does the sign of the rainbow extend to this particular? How are mercy and justice to be lived in what we know of a real world and the variety of people within it?
The context of a direct comment about the offense of Sodom is parallel to Babel—in both, G*D says, “Let me go down and see.”
The back and forth dialogue or bargaining is not a typical narrative style for the bible. Moses will have a similar interaction on behalf of the Israelites as Abraham is having about the people of Sodom.
“Innocence” is not only a moral quality but a legal judgment about guilt. Finding a line of distinction between the two is important. In some sense, Abraham argues morality/righteousness while G*D is working on a legal sentence.
In the end the legal judgment comes down to sentencing guidelines. If X number of citizens are found to act morally, all will be reprieved. If less than X, then destruction for all.
At this point readers are asked to consider midrash stories such as the legend of the lamedvavniks (36 unknown people who do mercy and justice in unnoticeably small ways, as well as large, and for whom the world continues).