Daily Meditations

Abraham at the End of the World

By Father Stephen Freeman, January 24, 2015 

This is an exercise in the Orthodox reading of the Scriptures. My thoughts frequently return to this story and this line of thought. This article is greatly expanded from an earlier version.

The habits of modern Christians run towards history: it is a lens through which we see the world. We see a world of cause and effect, and, because the past is older than the present, we look to the past to find the source of our present. Some cultures have longer memories than others (America’s memory usually extends only to the beginning of the present news cycle). This same habit of mind governs the reading of Scripture. For many, the Scriptures are a divinely inspired account of the history of God’s people. That history is read as history, believed as history, and applied to the present by drawing out the lessons of history. Any challenge to the historical character of an account is seen, therefore, as an assault on the authority and integrity of the Scriptures themselves. But this radical historicization of the Scriptures is relatively new: there are other ways of reading that often reveal far more content of the mystery of God. There is an excellent example in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He establishes a point of doctrine through an allegorical or typological reading of the story of Sarah and Hagar. We might ask, “How can you say that Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia? Where did you get all this?”

His points are clearly not found within the historical account. Their meaning lies in the shape of the story itself, Christ’s Pascha being the primary interpretative element. Christ is the Child of Promise, the first-born son who is offered, and the ram who replaced him. Abraham’s efforts to create his own version of a fulfilled covenant (having a child by Hagar), is thus seen as unfaithfulness, the rejection of Christ.

I am here offering a similar meditation on the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – a non-historical reading that offers insight into the mystery of Christ and the way of salvation.

Remove Sodom and Gomorrah from the realm of historical speculation. Instead see with me, Genesis 18 as a parable of the end of the age (which includes our time as well). For, as Christ Himself notes, the end of the age will be “like the days of Sodom and Gomorrah.”  God appears to Abraham as three angels (the account moves strangely between singular and plural references – the Fathers saw this as a foreshadowing of the Trinity). In the course of His visit God speaks:

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.” And the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know.” Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD.

Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah begins:

And Abraham came near and said, “Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? So the LORD said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.” Then Abraham answered and said, “Indeed now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five?” So He said, “If I find there forty-five, I will not destroy it.” (Gen 18:17-28)

The conversation continues until the Lord promises to spare the cities even if only ten righteous are found.

The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are the world in which we live. They are very similar to the description of the world in the Genesis account of Noah:

Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the LORD said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Gen 6:5-7)

Just as Christ compares the world of Noah to the world at the end of the age (Luke 17), so he also compares the end of the age to the days of Sodom and Gomorrah. But in the story of this Divine visitation we not only see the Trinity pre-figured, but the Church as well. There are the Oaks at Mamre, always understood as a type of the Cross. There is a Eucharistic meal, in which three loaves of bread and a calf (cf. the “fatted calf”) are prepared and set before these Divine visitors. There is also the Mother of God, prefigured in Sarah, who will bear a child even though she is beyond the years for such a thing. So, gathered there beneath the Tree, God sits down with man and sups with him (Rev. 3:20).

As the mystery continues to unfold, two of the three strangers go on towards Sodom (which represents the world in its fallen state). Historical interpreters laugh at the “primitive” character of the story when they hear God saying that He is going to Sodom to see for Himself whether what He has heard is true. But we see a deeper mystery. The Father sends the Son and the Spirit into the world for judgment:

And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: (John 16:8)

Modern critics see this visit as primitive. It is more accurately seen as an expression of the inherently personal work of God. He does not see and judge us from afar, but comes among us as His own.

And we see the nature of the Church in its relationship with God. For the Lord says to Himself:

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation…

The Church is not ignorant of God’s work in the world and His hidden purposes. Rather, He leads us into all truth (John 16:13).

But the greatest mystery in this story unfolds as Abraham takes up the priestly ministry of the Church and intercedes before God. This is by far the most astounding manifestation of the righteousness of the great Patriarch.

Though two of the angels have turned away, Abraham “stands before the Lord” (the essential work of the priesthood). And there he begins his prayers. While he prays, the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah waits – it hangs in a balance. Will the Lord spare the cities for the sake of 50 righteous? 45? 40? 30? 20? 10? It is with fear and trembling that Abraham is bold to bargain with God. It is with fear and trembling that he asks, “Will the Lord destroy the righteous with the wicked?” In this intercession, Abraham takes up the role of mediator, something that Job longed to see as recorded in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX):

‘Would that our mediator were present, and a reprover, and one who should hear the cause between both.’ (Job 9:33)

The Elder Sophrony saw in this verse the description of the essential work of the priestly Christ, the very work that is given to us in our priesthood.

Abraham’s intercession reveals the very heart of the Church’s prayer. The righteous man lives side-by-side with the wicked, but he doesn’t despise them or pray for their destruction. Instead, he recognizes the coinherence and communion of all humanity – “Will the Lord destroy the righteous with the wicked?” We are with the wicked. We do not have a life apart from them, for we are with them. And this presence becomes the fulcrum for the salvation of the world. “I will be with you,” Christ promises (Matt. 28:20). Or as we remember in the services of the Church:

God is with us! Understand you nations and submit yourselves for God is with us!

It is interesting in our day and time that many Christians number themselves among those who call for the destruction of the wicked. Surrounded by evil, our fears lash out with violent thoughts. We refuse to be with the wicked. And though Abraham and Lot had gone their separate ways, Abraham didn’t set himself as being above him – nor even above the wicked who dwelt in the cities. For though his prayer is for the righteous – he pleads through them for the wicked.

This is not only the prayer of the Church, it is the ministry of the Church as well. We are called to be the righteous-with-the-wicked. Our lives in their midst are for their salvation. This principle can be extended. For the wicked is something of a relative category. Even within the Church, some of us must always admit that our lives are more like those of the wicked than the righteous. But the principle is that the wicked are always being saved by the righteous. This “pyramid of salvation” extends throughout the world up to the supreme and primary example in which Christ, the only righteous One, saves the wicked, which is us all. We are taught to pray for our enemies not as a moral requirement, but so that we might be like our heavenly Father, or in this case, like our father Abraham, who was like our heavenly Father

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: (Luke 6:35)

This patterned principle is essential to a right understanding of the faith and our life in the world. Like the account of Abraham and God in Genesis 18, the Church is a Eucharistic Community. Gathered under the healing shadow of the Cross, in union with the most Holy Mother of God, the Church shares in the banquet that is our very life. And there we learn God’s most intimate plans, and by union with His compassion, we learn to pray for the whole world and share in the mediating priesthood of Christ. This is what love looks like.

Many Orthodox services conclude with the petition: O Lord, through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us, and save us! May God number us among such holy fathers!

~Father Stephen Freeman, Glory to God in All Things, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/01/24/abraham-end-world/.