In trying to understand Avraham's prayer, commentators struggle with both the theological problems raised by Hashem's modes of justice and how to understand the relationship between Avraham's various requests. Some commentators are troubled most by the specter of collective punishment. Thus, according to R"Y Bekhor Shor and others, Avraham is making a two pronged argument, and Hashem acquiesces to both pleas. Avraham's stronger claim (invoking Divine justice) denounces collective punishment, while his secondary appeal (to God's attribute of mercy) is for collective salvation.
R. D"Z Hoffmann, links Avraham's two objections, explaining that Avraham recognized that there was no middle option – either all would be saved or all would perish. Thus, Avraham bargains with Hashem to set a minimum threshold of ten for avoiding collective punishment and opting instead for collective salvation. R. Hirsch also views Avraham's arguments as a single one, but he claims that, from the outset, Avraham knew that Hashem never intended to punish the righteous. According to him, all of Avraham's overtures were to request only that Hashem save even the wicked for the benefit of the righteous.
Others find the entire notion that sinners could go unpunished to be even more profoundly disturbing. Thus, a commentary from Qumran suggests that the entire discussion revolves only around sparing the innocent, and there is never any doubt that the evildoers will be obliterated. Similarly, the Ma'asei Hashem agrees that Avraham was not praying for the sinners, but he contends that Avraham's prayer was nonetheless a dual one, both on behalf of the righteous and that the land itself should not be destroyed.
Even for Sinners
Avraham asked for all of the people in Sedom to be saved if a quota of righteous was met. This approach splits, though, regarding for whom Avraham needed to actively pray:
For Both Righteous and Wicked
Avraham was praying for everyone in Sedom to be saved, both the righteous and the wicked.
"הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע" – All of these sources agree that Avraham is challenging Hashem's collective punishment3 of the virtuous,4 but they differ in their interpretations of the word "הַאַף":
Also – According to R. Yosef Bekhor Shor,5 "הַאַף" modifies the word "צַדִּיק" (not "תִּסְפֶּה"), and Avraham is asking Hashem, "[If the sinners are the ones responsible for the outcry] will also the righteous perish with them?"
Anger – Most of the other commentators6 assert instead that the word "הַאַף" refers to Hashem's anger,7 and that Avraham is asking that Hashem not allow His anger to cause the worthy to perish with the wicked.8
"הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם" – According to most of these commentators, these words constitute an additional request, that Hashem save even the wicked.9
Meaning of "לַמָּקוֹם" – This an example of metonymy, and the word refers to all of the people of the city, rather than to merely the physical locale itself.
Relationship between the requests in verses 23-25
Justice and mercy – According to most of these commentators, the various verses contain two distinct requests, that Hashem not destroy the righteous (vss. 23 and 25) and that he also save the wicked (v. 24).10 It is not clear why Avraham goes back and forth between these pleas for justice and mercy.
Justice for the upright – According to the Ran and Akeidat Yitzchak, the arguments are interconnected and all stem from one desire, that there be justice for the righteous. This is explicit in Avraham's plea in v. 23, and his additional request that also the wicked be saved (v. 24), is only for the benefit of ("לְמַעַן")11 the righteous. If the evildoers were all to be wiped out, the righteous whose livelihood depended on them would perish as well, and this, Avraham contends, would be an unjust equation of the worthy and unworthy (v. 25).
Collective salvation – Also according to R. D"Z Hoffmann, Avraham is really making only one request. Avraham thought that Hashem was judging the city as one entity, and that there were only two possible outcomes; it would either be wholly saved or completely destroyed.12 Therefore, he first points out the injustice to the innocent of totally destroying it, proceeds to ask that instead all be saved, and concludes by repeating the reasoning behind this request.
Unjustified – Most of these commentators would likely explain that Hashem had never intended to apply collective punishment in Sedom,13 and that Avraham was simply unaware of this. According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, Hashem would even have saved any individual righteous people from the destruction.14
Justified – R. D"Z Hoffmann, though, asserts that Avraham did not object in principle to collective punishment,15 and the entire dialogue was only about the threshold which needed to be reached to avoid its implementation. According to him, even in the end, Hashem agreed only to save all or nothing. If there would be ten righteous people, the city would merit collective salvation, but any less than ten would perish together with the wicked.16
Collective salvation – The commentators differ in how they justify the saving of the wicked:
Mercy – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, Ramban, and R. D"Z Hoffmann all assert that this salvation is an expression of Hashem's mercy.
Justice – Akeidat Yitzchak and Abarbanel, in contrast, maintain that in saving the wicked Hashem is merely being just to the innocent who would perish without the resources provided by their neighbors.
Repentance – According to Shadal, Hashem is willing to save the wicked if enough righteous are present, due to the hope that the latter will succeed in influencing and reforming them.17
Why does Avraham stop at ten? These exegetes offer a variety of explanations:
Lot's family – Bereshit Rabbah and Abarbanel explain that Lot's family numbered ten,18 and it was them which Avraham's prayer had in mind.19
Unfair – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, if there are so few righteous, it is no longer fair to request that their merits save the wicked. He assumes that, in such a case, Hashem would still save the deserving individuals,20 and only punish the rest of the city.
No chance of reform – Shadal suggests that less than a quorum would stand no chance of reforming the evildoers, and thus the entire reason for sparing the wicked would not apply.
No need for the wicked – Akeidat Yitzchak asserts that Avraham could not ask for either too many or too few to be saved. If there were a significant portion of righteous in the city, they would no longer be dependent on the wicked, thereby eliminating the justification for saving them. However, if on the other hand, there were merely a handful of righteous, they could easily flee, and then, too, there would be no need to save the wicked.21
Final outcome – Although Hashem granted Avraham's request, there were not enough righteous people in Sedom to warrant its implementation.22 However, the Akeidat Yitzchak suggests that Avraham's prayer did succeed in saving the city of Zoar, as Lot's migration there (19:18-23) completed the quorum of ten righteous people needed to save that city.23
Why was Lot saved?
According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, Akeidat Yitzchak, and Abarbanel,24 although Hashem was not willing to save the city if there were fewer than ten righteous people, he was willing to save the individuals who were worthy,25 and thus Lot was saved26 because of his righteousness.27
R. D"Z Hoffmann, in contrast, asserts that even the righteous were only to be saved if there were ten or more. Though Lot was not corrupt, to escape collective punishment he would need a special miracle. This he merited only for Avraham's sake.
Why does Hashem consult with Avraham about Sedom? According to the Tanchuma, Hashem, in his infinite mercy, was actively inviting Avraham to defend the city, hoping that he would provide a reason for its wicked to be saved.28
Specifically for the Wicked
Avraham was praying only for the sinners, being certain that Hashem would save the righteous even without any special supplication.
"הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע" – R. S"R Hirsch29 explains the word "תִּסְפֶּה" as to punish30 and suggests that Avraham is pointing out that killing the sinners would cause also the righteous to be unjustly punished. After working hard (albeit unsuccessfully) to reform the wicked,31 it would be distressing for them to see them nevertheless perish.
"הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם" – R. Hirsch distinguishes between the terms "לְמַעַן" and "בגלל", asserting that the former means "for the sake of" rather than "because of". Thus, Avraham was praying that even the wicked people be saved so as not to cause undue suffering of the righteous,32 but he was not suggesting that the merits of the righteous serve to protect the evildoers.33
Meaning of "לַמָּקוֹם" – This approach maintains that "לַמָּקוֹם" is a general term for all of the people of the city.
"חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע" – This sentence is problematic for R. Hirsch, since it implies that Avraham is bothered by the possibility that the righteous will actually be killed themselves (and not merely distressed by the deaths of others).34
Relationship between the requests in verses 23-25 – The three verses all constitute one request and refer only to the injustice that would be done to the righteous through the destruction of the wicked.
Collective punishment – According to R. S"R Hirsch, Avraham is not arguing about the injustice of collective punishment; it was obvious to him all along that Hashem would not kill the righteous.35
Collective salvation – According to R. Hirsch there is also no collective salvation. Hashem agrees to save the wicked under certain circumstances, not because they are part of the collective,36 but because the very presence of righteous people proves that the wicked tolerated them and thus were not totally corrupt.37
Why does Avraham stop at ten? R. Hirsch asserts that Avraham understood why Hashem was willing to save the wicked, and realized that if there were less than ten righteous, the fact that they were tolerated is no longer such a merit for the wicked, since it is likely that they simply dismissed them as insignificant.38
Final outcome – Though Hashem accepts Avraham's prayer, apparently there were not enough righteous people to be found to enable the wicked to be spared.
Why was Lot saved? R. Hirsch writes that Lot was "only with difficulty worthy of salvation". It was Hashem's attribute of mercy rather than justice which saved him.
For the Physical Location
Avraham was praying both for the righteous of Sedom and for the land itself (but not its evil inhabitants) to be saved.
"הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע" – Radak understands "הַאַף" to mean "הגם" and that Avraham is questioning if killing the righteous with the wicked is also part of the sentence of the wicked.39
"הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם" – According to all of these sources, these words represent a second request, that Hashem should not destroy the city itself.40 However, these commentators differ in their understanding of Avraham's reasoning. Radak asserts that Avraham was requesting that the physical city be spared due to the merit of the righteous people, while the Ma'asei Hashem maintains that Avraham did not think it was fair that the righteous should lose their land.41
Meaning of "לַמָּקוֹם" – This approach holds that "לַמָּקוֹם" means literally the place itself.42
Relationship between the requests in verses 23-25 – According to these commentators the verses contain two different requests, that the righteous be saved (vss. 23 and 25) and that the land not be destroyed (v. 24). According to the Ma'asei Hashem, the common denominator is the demand that justice be done for the worthy people of the city. However, it is unclear why Avraham goes back and forth between his different requests.
Collective punishment – This approach might maintain that Hashem had never planned to collectively punish Sedom, but rather that there were simply no righteous people to save.43 Avraham, however, was unaware of this reality and mistakenly thought that Hashem was going to unjustly destroy them and their land.
Collective salvation – According to this approach there is no discussion of collective salvation by either Avraham or Hashem; both believe that the sinners need to be punished and that it would be unjust for them to be saved.44
Why does Avraham stop at ten? R. Yehuda HeChasid and Radak assert if there were less than ten righteous people, there would no longer be any justification to save the land.45 Regarding the salvation of the righteous, though, it would not matter how many or few there were; each individual should be saved for his own deeds regardless of the presence of others. The Ma'asei Hashem, in fact, asserts that Avraham had planned on asking Hashem to save even one, but Hashem ended the conversation before he could.
Final outcome – Though Hashem agreed to Avraham's request, the land and people were destroyed since there were no righteous people.
Why was Lot saved? Radak and the Ma'asei Hashem both maintain that Lot was not righteous and was saved not due to his goodness, but out of kindness to Avraham.46
Why does Hashem consult with Avraham about Sedom? These commentators could explain like RashbamBereshit 18:17About R. Shemuel b. Meir that Hashem told Avraham about Sedom because Hashem was going to destroy land which belonged to Avraham.47
Only for the Righteous
Avraham was praying only for the righteous, that they should not be punished due to the rest of the people's sins.
"הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע" – All of these sources assume that Avraham is protesting the injustice of killing the righteous together with the sinners,50 but they disagree regarding the meaning of the word "הַאַף".
Also – R. Y"S Reggio understands it to mean "הגם" and that Avraham is saying, "Will you kill also the righteous?"51
Anger – The Biur, instead, relates the word to anger,52 and has Avraham question why Hashem needs to act with His attribute of justice, which inevitably leads to collective rather than individual punishment.53
"הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם" – These commentators all agree that this sentence is a continuation of Avraham's original argument, but they differ in their specific understandings of the verse:
In contrast to most commentators, Seforno54 reads these words of Avraham as a statement and not a question.55 The word "אַף" is understood as "even though"56 rather than "also" or "anger", as above. Thus, Avraham is telling Hashem, "Even though you do not plan to save the wicked due to the righteous, it is still unfathomable that you should kill the righteous with the wicked...".57
The Biur and R. Y"S Reggio assert that Avraham realized that Hashem meant to destroy Sedom via a messenger58 who would not be able to differentiate between good and evil.59 He, thus, requests that Hashem save the entire immediate vicinity of the righteous so that they not perish with the wicked.60
Meaning of "לַמָּקוֹם" – Seforno explains "לַמָּקוֹם" to refer to all of the people in the city,61 whereas the Biur and R. Y"S Reggio explain it to mean the people in the specific area inhabited by the righteous.62
Relationship between the requests in verses 23-25 – According to this approach, all three verses form a single argument that justice demands that the righteous not be killed with the sinners.
According to Seforno, verse 23 is Avraham's opening question and then verses 24-25 together act as a reinforcing statement. In them Avraham reiterates that although he does not expect the sinners to be saved, nonetheless the righteous should not die.
The Biur and R. Y"S Reggio instead read verse 24 as a suggestion of how to implement the justice requested in verse 23.63 In verse 25, Avraham concludes that if his suggestion is not taken, injustice will be done.64
Collective punishment – According to the Biur and R. Y"S Reggio,65 Avraham erroneously thought that Hashem meant to collectively punish the city. In reality, though, Hashem knew all along that there were no righteous to save, and thus He had no qualms about sending a messenger who would destroy indiscriminately.
Collective salvation – These sources divide in their understanding of the role of collective salvation in the story:
According to Seforno, the Biur, and R. Y"S Reggio, even though Avraham only spoke about saving the righteous, Hashem responded that He would be even willing to save the wicked66 if there were enough righteous people67 to merit this.68 Thus, Hashem was willing to not only avert collective punishment but also to collectively save.69
According to 4Q252 and the HaRekhasim Levik'ah, in contrast, neither Avraham nor Hashem looked to save the sinners, as they did not deserve it. In fact, it is probably a discomfort with the concept of collective salvation that motivates their entire read of the story.70
Why does Avraham stop at ten? The fact that Avraham stops praying at ten is difficult for this position, since they view it as unjust for even one virtuous person to be punished undeservedly.
Final outcome – Seforno asserts that the Divine messengers are sent to verify whether there are any righteous. Upon concluding that there are not, they destroy the city.
Why was Lot saved? According to R. Y"S Reggio,71 Lot was not a sinner per se, but his choice to leave Avraham and dwell amongst the corruption of Sedom made him deserving of some level of punishment.72 Due to Avraham's merits, though, Hashem decided to spare him completely.
Why does Hashem consult with Avraham about Sedom?
"לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט" – Seforno explains that Hashem wanted to teach Avraham about his attributes of both mercy and justice. Wherever there is a quorum of righteous who might be able to lead the wicked to repent, Hashem is willing to grant them a stay. If not, though, justice will be carried out.73
"הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל" – The Biur and R. Y"S Reggio assert that since Avraham was to become the father of a well known nation, Hashem did not want future generations to complain that Avraham had not attempted to avert the disaster.74 Hashem, thus, gave him an opening to pray on Sedom's behalf.75