God: A Great Personality

The biblical God is a God we can relate to.

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"Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him." (Genesis 18:17‑19)

First, we are granted a glimpse into God's thought processes: God is conflicted. The conflict is presented as an internal question that reflects a tension within God between two contradictory divine impulses: God's anger and God's concern with doing what is "just and right." God is ambivalent about what to do with these people. To this ambivalence is added a further concern: God cannot act unilaterally without consulting Abraham. After all, Abraham is here in the first place because God commanded him to break with his past and embark on a new relationship with this God. God and Abraham are partners in this new enterprise; they share a commitment to doing what is "just and right." These are the distinctive qualities of the "way of the Lord," to which both God and Abraham are equally committed. That's why God needs Abraham's approval before acting.

The exchange that follows begins with the statement that "Abraham came forward," hardly a physical move on Abraham's part, for this God is not visible in space. To "come forward" to this God is to encounter, to challenge, to share feelings, to engage. Here, it is a challenge: "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?"

Abraham does not challenge the reality of the people's guilt. What he does challenge is God's moral judgment, God's readiness to obliterate the innocent together with the guilty. Abraham believes that some of the inhabitants of the cities are innocent. The core of his challenge is that God cannot act this way because of God's own commitment, enunciated in God's internal deliberations at the outset, to do what is "just and right." "Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring about death upon the innocent as well as the guilty…Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?" (18:25). Indeed, it was God's concern for doing what is just and right that led God to invite Abraham's reassurance in the first place, but Abraham does not provide that reassurance. Instead, he claims that for God to destroy the innocent is manifestly unjust. Abraham calls God to account because of everything he knows about his God, because of their relationship, and because of their mutual commitment to justice.

Then follow the negotiations: If there are fifty…forty-five…forty…thirty…twenty…ten innocent people, God cannot destroy the cities. Then the two partners separate: God "departs," and "Abraham returns to his place." The exchange is over. There are no winners or losers here. Both God and Abraham win: God was willing to consider Abraham's argument and, even more, to renounce punishment, but there were no innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah.

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Dr. Neil Gillman

Dr. Neil Gillman is Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.