18:17 ‘..shall I conceal from Abraham..” – ‘Since I have given him this land, including these Sodomite cities (10:19), is it proper that I carry out my plan without his knowledge? Furthermore, I called him Abraham the father of a horde of nations (17:5): should I then destroy the children (the Sodomites) without first informing the father who loves Me?’ (Rashi)
The prophet Amos similarly expressed it (3:7): ‘Surely My Lord Hashem/Elohim will do nothing without revealing His secret to His servants the prophets.’
From our verse we see why God reveals His ways to the prophets. The reason is so that they can interpret historical events to their peers, making history a teacher of the people. Abraham was not primarily a prophet to his own time – although he did proclaim the greatness of God. His primary function was to teach the way of Hashem, to the future descendants of Israel. In order that he might derive the appropriate lessons from the destruction of Sodom, God revealed what he intended to do. (Hoffman)
Also, had Abraham not been given the opportunity to plead for Sodom, he would have thought that the destroying angels had done their work without sparing any righteous people, or that God had acted through the strict Attribute of Justice without tempering it with mercy. Thinking it inconceivable that there were no significant numbers of righteous people even in Sodom, Abraham would have been deeply grieved.
18:18 Ramban interprets that God felt constrained to inform Abraham because, seeing that Abraham is destined to become a great and mighty nation, future nations will ask: ‘How could God have hidden this from him?’ or ‘How could Abraham have been so callous about his close neighbors that he refrained from praying on their behalf?’ He recognizes that I love righteousness, and he will charge his children to cultivate their virtues. Now, if there is a righteous cause to pardon the Sodomites, he will beseech Me to do so. If, on the other hand, they are completely guilty, he too, would desire that their judgment be carried out.
18:19 ‘For I have loved him..” – The literal translation is ..known him. The insight of know, as loved, follows Rashi who explains that affection is the secondary meaning of ‘know’, for one who loves another brings him close to himself and thus knows him well.
Hirsch’s interpretation also sheds some light. He explains that to know means to perceive. When the word refers to the relationship of a man to a woman, it designates the most intimate act of married life (4:1); concerning the relationship of God to man, it designates His special care, the special consideration of His protection or spiritual care.
There are those whose attitudes to God are merely casual, who allow other considerations to come before their obligations to God. Such people are under His general protection, but God leaves them to the haphazard twists of life.
But there are people who place themselves completely under God’s guidance and wish only to be His messengers on earth, leaving everything else to Him. God takes such people under His guidance and care. Hirsch accordingly renders this verse as ‘For I have given him My special care so that he will command his children…’
It is noteworthy that Abraham’s greatness is ascribed to his role as spiritual mentor of his future generations. Despite the many converts whom he and Sarah had brought under the wings of the Shechinah, it is not they who are mentioned in this testament to Abraham’s greatness – indeed, their belief in God did not survive the passing of Abraham. It is clear that Jewish generations are built primarily upon the constant dedication of parents in raising their own children to walk the way of God in charity and justice.
“…keep the way of Hashem..” – Hirsch explains that ‘the way of Hashem’ has a dual connotation: the way of God that He takes, and that which He wishes us to take. The two are really identical, since the way of good runs parallel with the way in which God leads and guides the world. That is why the way of the wicked clashes against it. As the prophet Hosea says in 14:10 – “The ways of Hashem are right, the righteous walk in them but transgressors shall stumble in them.”
“..doing charity and justice..” – The Talmud (Yevamos 79a) notes that the Israelite nation is distinguished in three ways: they are compassionate, bashful, and benevolent. The last is derived from this verse – to do charity.
Rambam says, “We must therefore practice the mitzvah of charity more than any other because it is the characteristic of the true descendant of Abraham.
Hirsch continues that here the concept of righteousness precedes justice. Sodom, too, had a kind of justice but it was far from God’s justice. Sodomite justice became a double edged sword which lives by the saying “I keep what is mine, you keep what is yours!’ It’s philosophy branded the needy as criminals endangering the public welfare. Rich men like Lot may be admitted, because they brought profit to the community, but ‘begging is prohibited’ and hungry unfortunates are jailed or told to move on. Thus, justice without ‘tzedakah’ (acts of charity) becomes perverted into cruelty and harshness. For this reason, in contrast, the testament of Abraham to his children stresses tzedakah before righteousness.
Rashi notes that since the verse says ‘upon Abraham’ rather than ‘upon Abraham’s children’, we may learn that he who leaves a son as righteous as himself is as though he had not died. Therefore, Abraham himself – not spiritually dead because he left righteous children – will personally be the recipient of God’s blessings.
18:20 “..because the outcry..” – The outcry of its rebellion against God or the outcry caused by its violence.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) specifically relates this to the incident of a young girl (some say she was Lot’s daughter, Pelotis) who, in defiance of the laws of Sodom which forbade the giving of charity, once carried out bread concealed in a pitcher to a poor man. When the matter was discovered, they smeared her with honey and placed her atop a wall; bees came and consumed her. In the opinion of the Sages, this was specifically the cry of the young girl, cruelly put to death, which finally sealed the fate of Sodom.
The Talmud records many similar instances of the horrendous deeds of the Sodomites. To cite a few: They had beds upon which travelers slept. If the guest arrived who wished to rest, he was lead to one of the beds. If the guest was too tall, his feet would be cut off to make him fit; if on the other hand he was too short, they would stretch him out. They would kill and steal the money of wealthy men who entered their cities. If one laid out his fruits, they would each take a sample until nothing was left, claiming “I have taken only one.’
Also their laws were so unreasonable that the victim of a crime would often be fined! Also, adultery, incest, and other sexual deviations were the norm.
It was these cries that ascended to God, and which caused the Rabbis to exclaim: ‘The people of Sodom have no share in the World to Come.’
18:21 “I will descend and see..” – This is one of the ten instances that the Shechinah is recorded as having ‘descended’ into this world.
God obviously had no need to ‘descend’ in order to ‘see’ what was happening on earth. Rashi therefore explains as in 11:5, the Torah uses this expression to teach a moral lesson: A judge must not render a verdict in capital cases without personally investigating the matter.
Ralberg also explains the ‘going down’ in the sense of testing them once more by sending two angels to them in the guise of men (Chapter 19) and seeing how the Sodomites will treat them – thus, indicating that their doom was not yet finally sealed and they were given a final opportunity to repent.
“..in accordance with its outcry..” – Rashi continues by saying the literal translation is ‘her outcry’ – the cry of a certain girl whom the Sodomites killed in an unnatural manner because she had given to the poor. The sense, then, is that the girl’s cry ascended to God, and was indication of the city’s wickedness which had reached intolerable proportions. God therefore resolved to make a personal investigation of the facts.
Midrash states: ‘She cried out: “Sovereign of the Universe! Maintain my right and my cause at the hands of the men of Sodom!” Her cry ascended to the throne of Glory and God said: ‘I will descend and see whether they have done in accordance with her cry which has come to Me, and if they have indeed done everything implied by the cry of that young woman, I will turn its foundations upwards and the surface downward…’
According to Ramban, the words ‘I will know’ implies ‘I will show divine Mercy’, as it does in Exodus 2:25 where ‘and God knew’ means He directed His mercies upon the children of Israel because He was aware of their sufferings.
18:22 Although the angels who were to destroy Sodom had already reached their destination, Abraham still stood in prayer on the Sodomites behalf. This follows the Sages teaching (Berachos 10a): ‘One must not desist from prayer even when a sharp sword is upon his neck’.
18:23 Abraham Intercedes on Behalf of Sodom
In the following verses, Abraham exemplifies his new role as ‘father of a multitude of nations’ in its most noble form.
His intercession on their behalf demonstrates his cognizance of the need for both justice and mercy. He recognized that only through merit could the wicked be saved, nevertheless he felt anguish at the thought that human beings were about to perish. (Abarbanel)
It is this characteristic of Abraham – in contrast to Noah who held his peace when told of the impending flood – that has ennobled him as the compassionate Patriarch of the Jewish Nation.
Hoffman notes however, that to Noah the decree had already been decided ~ “The end of all flesh has come before Me…behold I am about to destroy them from earth (6:13)”. No room was left for intercession, and indeed Noah maintained his silence because he thought the decree was irreversible. However, to Abraham, God merely said that ‘because the outcries of Sodom were great’ He would ‘descend and investigate further’, thus affording Abraham the opportunity ~ as a father of a multitude of nations ~ to intercede on their behalf.
This is the first time we find one man praying on behalf of another. Thus, Abraham mustered all his inner resources to intercede on behalf of the Sodomites.
Abraham pleaded that it would be proper ~ according to the Divine Attribute of Mercy ~ that God should spare the entire group of five cities if they contained fifty righteous men. Furthermore, it would be inconceivable in any event ~ even according to His Attribute of Justice ~ that He slay the righteous along with the wicked (v25) for if so, ‘the righteous will be as the wicked’ and people will say it is vain to serve God. This is the significance of the double use of ‘it is sacrilege to You’ (v25). Once for the Attribute of Mercy and once for the Attribute of Justice, for actually there are two pleas in the following verses: a request that the entire city, including the wicked, be forgiven for the sake of the righteous, and that at the very minimum, the righteous be spared and not be stamped out along with the wicked. Ramban concludes that God conceded that He would deal mercifully. He notes that God’s Name is significantly written here as Hashem (signifying Divine Mercy), while Abraham addressed Him throughout the dialogue as Adonai (My Lord) signifying Divine Justice. From this we infer that Abraham was under the impression that they would be judged only by Divine Justice.
18:24 “..in the midst of the city..” – i.e. righteous people who are openly God-fearing. In other words the righteous must be ones who fear God not only in the safety and privacy of their homes, but ‘in the midst of the city’ playing a prominent part in public life and exerting their influences in its many fields of activity. Only in such a manner, and not by remaining anonymous, could these righteous hope to possess the spiritual merit of saving the city. If a moral climate of a city is such that it forced its righteous into seclusion, then that city is not worthy of being saved by virtue of a handful of men, who lead a secluded life within it.
Hirsch stresses the parallel between the deficiencies of Sodom and those of Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the First Temple. There, too, righteous people were not ‘open’; they failed to fulfill their responsibility to influence their fellow man. Thus, in Sodom as well, a person more righteous than his fellows could not earn salvation by withdrawing into his own private existence. In Jeremiah 5:1, Radak comments that no one could be found ‘who acted justly and seeks the truth in the streets of Jerusalem’, for the righteous were forced to remain inside by the animosity of the wicked. Therefore, there was no hope for the Holy City.
Abraham knew very well that there were no truly righteous people in Sodom. If Lot was the greatest among them – and Abraham was painfully aware of Lot’s shortcomings – how righteous could the others be? However, Abraham was also convinced that no matter how immersed Lot had become in the evil ways of Sodom, he could not have become deserving of destruction.
Abraham thought that there must be others who were similar, people who submitted to wrongdoers as long as they were flourishing, but who could be saved. If Sodom were punished rather than destroyed, perhaps there were people who could take the lead in achieving repentance. (Sefer HaParshios)
18:25 And should you maintain that the righteous cannot save the wicked, why, then, should you kill the righteous? Even if my prayer prevails upon You to spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous, surely You will at least spare the righteous. That they be spared is not a matter of special favor, for it is only justice that the presence of a significant number of righteous should be a reason for clemency. (Rashi)
“to do such a thing” – The Torah does not say ‘this thing’ but ‘such a thing’ implying – do neither this or anything like it – even of a lesser nature. (Midrash) For example, were God to determine that the Sodomites deserved not total annihilation but punishment, these words would imply that God should not even afflict the righteous along with the wicked. Each person has his own measure of guilt and should be punished only equivalent with his own wickedness.
“..righteous and wicked fare alike..’ – Ramban: ‘And if two are treated alike, people will say: It is vain to serve God.’ And if this comes about, Free Will and service of God will cease, and heresy will flourish in the world. (R’Bachya) For although the righteous will undoubtedly receive their due reward in the Spiritual World, nevertheless their punishment will have an adverse effect in This World. (Da’as Sofrim)
‘Shall the Judge of all the earth..” – Malbim notes: You are the Judge over the entire earth and You must therefore scrutinize the righteous men of Sodom in comparison with their wicked contemporaries. It is not proper for them to be swept away by the general destruction seeing that within their own environment they are considered righteous.
18:26 “..then I would spare the entire place..” – God thus answered that He would go even beyond what Abraham requested. ‘If fifty righteous people were found in Sodom, I will not only forgive the sins of the four other cities, I will even spare the entire place – even the surrounding villages for their sake.’ (Radak)
18:27 God acquiesces to Abraham’s petition. Abraham realizes, however, that his first request would achieve nothing because fifty righteous men would not be found in Sodom. But, encouraged by his success, he petitions further and begs God’s indulgence.
Although I am unworthy, my intention is not to dispute You. but merely to resolve my personal questions regarding Divine Justice and to fathom Your methods. (Sforno; Radak)
“..although I am but dust and ashes.” – The sense of this verse then following Rashi: ‘Behold, now, I desired to speak to You because I have known from personal experience how, were it not for Your mercies, I would have been by now but dust and ashes.’ To dust by the kings (Chapter 14) and to ashes by the furnaces of Nimrod (11:28) had it not been for Your mercy.’
Abraham stressed his unworthiness in this way to eliminate any possible notion that he considered himself worthy and righteous enough in God’s eyes to pray on another’s behalf. He therefore stressed that he felt compelled to present his pleas to God in spite of his unworthiness.
God said to Israel: I delight in you, because even as I bestow greatness upon you, you humble yourselves before Me. I bestowed greatness upon Abraham, and he said ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ Upon Moses and Aaron and they declared (Exodus 16:8) ‘Yet what are we?’ Upon David and he declared (Psalm 22:7) ‘But I am but a worm, and no man.” (Chullin 89a)
18:28 “What if the fifty righteous people should lack five?’ – According to the Midrash, Abraham’s question literally means: ‘What if there would be lacking the entire fifty righteous and there would be no more than five? Abraham’s expressed intention being: Would you destroy the entire city despite the five? God therefore told him following the Midrash: ‘Revert to the beginning ~ to a number closer to your first and count down more gradually ~ it is too great a jump as five are too few a number to save the cities’. God made this clear to him by His specifically worded response which completely clarified the double meaning: “I will not destroy if I find there forty-five” ~ not the give you suggest. (Radak) Abraham therefore worded his following petitions more carefully, gradually lowering the figures to forty, thirty, twenty, and then, finally ten.
Note also, that here God did not specify that the righteous had to be within the city, influential and prominent in public life. God indicated that He would not measure righteousness by this criteria as Abraham requested. He would not destroy even if there were five lacking.
18:29 Since Abraham was encouraged by God to continue his supplication, Abraham seized the opportunity and pleaded further.
God indicated to him in each instance that he might plead further, but at a gradual rate. Abraham pleaded further while reverently begging his indulgence before each new request.
18:32 Why ten? The Midrash notes: So that there might be sufficient a number for an assembly, a quorum, of righteous men to pray on behalf of them all.
Some suggest that Abraham did not consider it necessary to ask for less than ten. He thought that Lot and his wife along with his four daughters and sons-in-law, totaling ten, would be sufficiently worthy to save the town. But he was mistaken in thinking they were righteous.
“I will not destroy on account of the ten.” – Because Hashem did not wish Abraham to intercede further, the Holy Presence and Spirit of Prophecy departed from him as soon as Abraham finished his last plea. Abraham understood that it was God’s will that he pray no further.
“..Abraham returned to his place.” – During God’s revelation to him, Abraham ceased to be a physical being, rising to a level of prophetic spirituality. With the departure of the Shechinah, Abraham returned to his physical realm.
Abraham could have been expected to be distraught. He had prayed and won God’s pledge to spare a wicked population for the sake of only ten people, only to discover that all of his prayers had been in vain because their was no semblance of righteousness in any of the five cities. Nevertheless, ‘Abraham returned to his place’. He did not grieve over his failure for he had full faith that whatever God did was merciful and just.