Does God Haggle?
There is a clip from a Monty Python movie that has created a catch-phrase within my family, “Don’t you want to haggle?” The clip features a merchant and a buyer who is in a hurry to evade Roman soldiers. The buyer just wants to quickly buy a beard for a disguise, but the merchant wants to engage in the custom of “haggling”. It is a humorous scene, but the buyer’s life is at stake.
In the Genesis 18 text there is a strange scene, set in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God and Abraham appear to be in a dialogue similar to two people in a marketplace haggling over the price of melons. The object of the haggle is the residents of Sodom, which include Abraham’s nephew, Lot and his family.
Does Abraham actually have to engage in haggling with God for the lives of his family and the residents of Sodom? Does God have to be cajoled to act justly?
John Walton, in his commentary on Genesis, points out that the haggle between Yahweh and Abraham is not for the purpose of convincing God to lower the price of justice. The purpose is to engage Abraham in a consideration of God’s justice and mercy.1
Examine the Text
18:20-21 God hears the outcry, spurred by injustice, echoing from Sodom and Gomorrah. God goes down to investigate the cause of this outcry. Abraham is not told about this because God did not know what was happening, rather God wants to demonstrate to Abraham the thorough character of his knowledge and integrity.
God hears the cries of those suffering injustice, and moves to intervene. It is God’s justice that moves him to act against systemic and stubborn sin. Sodom and Gomorrah have become symbols of impenitent sin, and their fall with a manifestation of divine justice.
Since Abraham was the friend of God and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him, he was allowed the high privilege of learning something about God’s principles in dealing with those nations.
The issues at hand are more than just broken sexuality and violence. Other sins are listed in Ezekiel 16:49, Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
18:22-32 Abraham asks an important question: Will God destroy the righteous with the wicked?
This questions possibly reflects the kind of heart God wanted to draw out of Abraham; a heart that cared so much for people made in the image of God that he worked hard to intercede on behalf of a city that deserved judgment. To be used of God for the purpose of blessing others, requires a compassion for those who are lost.
Abraham also wrestles with the premise that the righteous (if they exist) are treated the same as the wicked. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? Abraham’s understanding is that God will be faithful to his character by doing what is good and totally above reproach.
He had confidence that the Judge of all the earth would do right. He does not plead that the wicked be spared for their own sake, or because it would be severe to destroy them. His request is for the sake of the righteous who might be found among them. Somehow, in Abraham’s thinking, he believes that even a few righteous can have a redeeming, salvific effect on the wicked. This seems to foreshadow the Intercessor who would come in grace and truth and by his own righteousness, become an atoning sacrifice for those who were condemned in their sins.
There is a sense in which all this negotiation seemed to be in vain. As Genesis 19 reveals, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. There were not ten righteous people in the city. Abraham, indeed, failed in his request for the whole place, but Lot’s family was delivered miraculously (mostly). It seems that there are limits to Abraham’s ability to mediate grace to a hostile, inhospitable, wicked majority. God has a limit to how long he will allow sin and its injustices to go unchecked. Genesis 6:3 reminds us that God will not always strive with man; there is a point where God must act in judgment because he is just. However, God’s justice coincides with his mercy toward the repentant.
For this is what the high and exalted One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. I will not accuse them forever, nor will I always be angry, for then they would faint away because of me— the very people I have created.’
Justice is integral to God’s character of Holy Love. There is a sense in which God simply forgiving or decreeing salvation is not a possibility, given his justice. If he didn’t punish sin, – and by implication, sinners – he would not be true to his own character. God has the prerogative to deal with his creation according to the strictest terms of his justice. Yet, the justice of God is fully displayed by being intertwined with his own love and compassion.
The rescue of sinful humanity is ultimately fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, where the justice, mercy, and grace of God is displayed in its incarnate fullness. Thus, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provided the means by which God administers justice and mercy: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21; see also Romans 5:18–21; 1 Peter 2:23–24).
1. John H. Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), p.475
Bibliography: NIV Cultural Background Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016 Walton, John H. The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.