Two Pleas or One?
The second half of Bereshit 18 recounts how Hashem takes Avraham into His confidence, sharing His intent to scrutinize Sedom's conduct. This elicits not merely a simple prayer from Avraham on their behalf, but an astounding fire and brimstone condemnation1 of the implied2 and impending Divine judgment:
(כג) וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע.
(כד) אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּהּ.
(כה) חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע חָלִלָה לָּךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט.
(23) And Avraham came close and said, "Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked? (24) Perhaps there are fifty righteous within the city, will you destroy and not spare the place because of the fifty righteous who are in its midst? (25) God forbid to do a thing like this, to kill the righteous with the wicked, and the righteous will be like the wicked, God forbid, the judge of all the land will not do what is just?
A glance at these verses reveals their perplexing structure. The first and third verses (23 and 25) appear to demand simply that Hashem save the innocent and avoid the collateral damage of "צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע".3 Had Avraham sufficed with only these two verses, his protest would have read seamlessly and it would have constituted a readily comprehensible plea to avoid collective punishment. Sandwiched in between them, though, is verse 24 which, at first glance, looks like an appeal to Divine mercy to spare the entire city, including its wicked, because of the putative virtues of the righteous.
Why does Avraham interpose this middle verse, thereby interrupting and undercutting the much more powerful argument of the surrounding two?4 Why did he not wait to first get a positive nod on the clearer issue before proceeding to the more controversial one?5 Is Avraham's petition a dual themed one, or is it possible that all three verses are really part of a single line of reasoning? Or, in other words, is Avraham pleading for justice, mercy, or both?6
Collective Punishment vs. Collective Salvation
Hashem does not (at least overtly) reject Avraham's reasoning, but rather seems to acquiesce to at least part of it. Thus, identifying what Avraham did or did not argue for (and understanding the Divine response) becomes not merely a textual question, but also one with fundamental philosophical consequences. The subsequent verses make clear that, at a minimum, Hashem agrees to avoid collective punishment in a case where there is a group of ten innocent people.7 But does He accept Avraham's apparent second appeal for collective salvation, i.e. that the wicked should be saved along with the righteous? Interestingly, Yechezkel 14 seem to explicitly rule out such a notion:8
(יג) בֶּן אָדָם אֶרֶץ כִּי תֶחֱטָא לִי לִמְעָל מַעַל וְנָטִיתִי יָדִי עָלֶיהָ וְשָׁבַרְתִּי לָהּ מַטֵּה לָחֶם וְהִשְׁלַחְתִּי בָהּ רָעָב וְהִכְרַתִּי מִמֶּנָּה אָדָם וּבְהֵמָה. (יד) וְהָיוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה בְּתוֹכָהּ נֹחַ (דנאל) [דָּנִיֵּאל] וְאִיּוֹב הֵמָּה בְצִדְקָתָם יְנַצְּלוּ נַפְשָׁם נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יֱ־הֹוִה. (טו) לוּ חַיָּה רָעָה אַעֲבִיר בָּאָרֶץ וְשִׁכְּלָתָּה וְהָיְתָה שְׁמָמָה מִבְּלִי עוֹבֵר מִפְּנֵי הַחַיָּה. (טז) שְׁלֹשֶׁת הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה בְּתוֹכָהּ חַי אָנִי נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יֱ־הֹוִה אִם בָּנִים וְאִם בָּנוֹת יַצִּילוּ הֵמָּה לְבַדָּם יִנָּצֵלוּ וְהָאָרֶץ תִּהְיֶה שְׁמָמָה.
These verses amplify the question: Does Avraham really argue for collective salvation, and if yes, does Hashem accept or reject Avraham's position?
Choosing Sides Between Hashem and Avraham
Regardless of the position taken on the questions above, the reader of the Torah's account is faced with the difficult theological challenge of reconciling the seeming contradictory between the opening stance of Hashem Himself (the ultimate source of righteousness and justice), and that of His loyal servant Avraham (chosen by God precisely9 because he stood for these very same values). Specifically, one is left to wonder:
- Is it conceivable that Hashem had originally intended to eliminate even the righteous and that He agreed to spare them only as a result of Avraham's intercession?10 Or, alternatively, is it possible that Avraham simply misunderstood the Divine plan?11
- Why does Hashem feel compelled to even consult with Avraham?
- What conclusion is reached by the end of this dialogue? Does Avraham's protest achieve any of its goals?
- If, in the end, it turns out that there were no righteous people in Sedom anyway, why does Hashem cause Avraham to go through all of these motions in vain?12 And why does the Torah feel the need to record this story replete with all of the back and forth of the exchange?
Other Points to Ponder
There are additional seemingly minor details of the story, but which have major impacts on some of the positions taken by the commentators:
- The words "הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה" are repeated in both verses 23 and 24. But how does the word "הַאַף" fit in this context?
- "צַדִּיק" appears in opposition to "רָשָׁע" in verses 23 and 25, but while "רָשָׁע" connotes a sinner or wicked person, the meaning of "צַדִּיק" is less clear. Does it refer to an innocent person who is merely not culpable, or to a righteous person with special merits who might also be able to have a good influence on his neighbors?
- While in verses 23 and 25, Avraham refers to the people in Sedom and employs the terms "צַדִּיק" and "רָשָׁע", much of the subsequent dialogue speaks of the fate of the geographical location, discussing "הַמָּקוֹם" and "הָעִיר". Are these terms simply metonyms for the inhabitants of the city, or is there more to them than meets the eye?