Reprinted with permission from The Way Into: Encountering God in Judaism, published by Jewish Lights.
At the very beginning of human history, God goes searching for Adam. Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and have hidden among the trees of the garden. God will not let them hide. God wanders through the garden, calling out, "Where are you?" Shortly thereafter, Cain kills Abel, and God calls out to Cain, "Where is your brother, Abel?"
When we read biblical narratives of this kind, we should always ask: Why are the stories written in this way? These same stories could have been narrated in many different ways, but the Bible records these particular versions. In both instances, God uses the second person: "Where are you?" and "Where is your brother?" In each case the question is directed to an individual human being. These mythic narratives are designed to teach us something about the nature of the human being. They also teach us about the biblical image of God. This God relates to, addresses, commands, and negotiates with individual human beings. More important, this God cares about the destiny of individual human beings, of all human beings. For Adam and Eve and Cain are us. God addresses each of us as well: "Where are you?" "Where is your brother?"
The image of God in these stories is a "personal" God. God is portrayed as acting with intent, purpose, and concern toward and about individual human beings. God enters into interpersonal relationships. The term interpersonal relationship implies the presence of two persons. The only kind of god who would not be a personal god is one who acts blindly, by rote, without focus or intentionality, who mechanically follows a set of laws, whose mind never changes, who does not have a mind to change in the first place, who knows nothing about feelings, who does not have an inner life.
The personal God lives in a dynamic, ever‑changing relationship with people; the impersonal god knows nothing of relationships. This metaphor of a personal God is concretized in the many more specific biblical metaphors for God: God is a shepherd, a parent, a teacher, a lover, a sovereign, a judge, a spouse. These are all relational qualities: a shepherd needs sheep, a sovereign needs subjects, a lover needs a beloved. They all capture the sense that God is personally and intensely involved in relationships with people.
A striking character sketch of this personal God emerges in the story of Abraham pleading for the wicked inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16‑33). At the outset, God deliberates whether to reveal to Abraham God’s plans to punish the inhabitants of these cities for their sins:
"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.
The complex image of the biblical God that emerges in this passage captures everything we mean when we attribute personhood to God. God cares about society; God does not tolerate wickedness; but God has other commitments here, to do what is just and right. God also has a prior relationship with Abraham; Abraham has been "singled out" because he shares these commitments. These two impulses are in conflict, so God has to deliberate what to do and whether to invite Abraham’s reaction. Note that Abraham understands that he has not only the right, but indeed the obligation, to challenge God, which he then proceeds to do. Despite Abraham’s self‑abnegation throughout—he is but dust and ashes, he fears God’s anger—Abraham clearly knows his rights, appreciates his power, and is fully prepared to use it on behalf of innocent people. Even more, God and Abraham share a commitment to the moral law. That, together with their relationship, forms the basis for the entire story. Astonishingly, God welcomes Abraham’s challenge.
Consider the image of God portrayed in this story. God deliberates, is conflicted, has feelings, invites consultation, is willing to change the divine plan, is open to negotiation, and needs to be true to previous commitments. Above all, God has an intense relationship with an individual human being. This is what we mean when we attribute personhood to God.