Parshah Commentary for Vayera

18 Oct

Divine reward and punishment are major themes in the Bible. It is one of the major focuses of the book of Deuteronomy, as well as most of the books in the Prophets. Many of the prophets receive their calling from God in order to warn the Israelites to repent or else they will face God’s wrath. Even some non-Jewish civilizations are send a messenger to tell them to acquiesce to God’s will or else. In the book of Genesis, though, the standard sequence of events leading to Divine punishment is different than it is in the rest of the Bible in one very striking way: There is no warning. God just swoops in and punishes humanity’s wrongdoings with no appeal. This week’s parshah is a turning point that will shape God’s relationship with humanity for the rest of time.

At this point we have seen one previous examples of God punishing humanity on a large scale: The story of the Noah’s flood. God made an effort to save the few righteous people on the Earth, Noah and his family, and seems to have simply condemned all the others to die with no warning.

A few generations have passed since then, and there are now two cities called Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah are all acting wickedly. They take advantage of the poor and the weary, stealing, killing, and raping without a second thought. The only reason that Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family do not suffer a similar fate when they move there is because of the military protection of being a relative of Abraham, whose might was well known in the land after the War of the Five Kings (Gen. 14). Lot’s family’s move to this den of iniquity has created a situation similar to that of the flood: One family of righteous people living among sinners so awful that God has chosen to destroy them.

This time, though, God does something differently. Before destroying the cities, God informs Abraham of His decision, and Abraham does something unprecedented in human history: He begins to argue with God! “What if there are fifty righteous people in the cities? Surely You wouldn’t destroy fifty righteous people because of the way their neighbors are acting?!”
God agrees and says that if there are fifty righteous people in the cites, He will spare them. But even though God has conceded the point, Abraham keeps pressing. “What if there are forty-five righteous people in the cities? Surely if You would save fifty, You wouldn’t destroy forty-five just because a mere five are missing?!” God concedes the point again, but Abraham keeps going, right down until the case of ten righteous people in the cities. Unfortunately there were not even ten righteous people between the two cities, and so God destroys them (though he rescues the righteous people, Lot and his family, first), but Abraham’s willingness to argue on behalf of his fellow man has restored God’s faith in humanity.
This was the second time God had decided to destroy people for their sins, and twice so far, no one had stepped up to help those people. Noah, knowing full well of the fate that would befall the rest of the world, never once tried to warn the rest of his generation to change their ways. Now Lot, a righteous man, has come to live in a city full of wicked people, and while he and his family have remained righteous themselves, they have not lifted a finger to try to change those around them. But now Abraham has advocated sparing even the wicked people of a city so that they might repent, and on his merit, God changes the way He deals with humanity. From now on, God will warn humanity to change their ways, giving them a chance to repent and avert punishment. We must be like Abraham. It is not enough to be righteous ourselves, but we must do what we can to help others be righteous as well.

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