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. A majority of commentators assume that Avraham was praying that even the sinners be spared. Thus, according to R"Y Bekhor Shor and others, Avraham was making a two pronged argument, appealing to Hashem's attributes of both justice and mercy. Avraham's stronger claim (invoking Divine justice) denounced collective punishment, while his secondary appeal (to God's attribute of mercy) was for collective salvation.
R. D"Z Hoffmann, in contrast, links Avraham's two objections, explaining that Avraham recognized that there was no middle option – either all would be saved or all would perish. Avraham was not arguing in principle against collective punishment, only requesting that in this case Hashem opt instead for collective salvation. Thus, Avraham bargained with Hashem to set a minimum threshold of ten for avoiding collective punishment and implementing instead 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 the more profoundly disturbing problem. Thus, a commentary from Qumran suggests that the entire discussion revolved only around sparing the innocent, and there was never any doubt that the evildoers would 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.
- According to most of these commentators, these words constitute an additional request, that Hashem save even the wicked.5 This is a plea for mercy, above and beyond the original demand for justice.
- Ran, Akeidat Yitzchak, Abarbanel, and R. D"Z Hoffmann, though, assert that this second argument is intrinsically connected to the plea to save the righteous. [See point below for elaboration.]
- 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)6 and that he also save the wicked (v. 24).7 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, Akeidat Yitzchak, and Abarbanel, the arguments are interconnected and all stem from one desire, that there be justice for the righteous. Avraham's request in v. 24 that also the wicked be saved is only for the benefit of ("לְמַעַן")8 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.9 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,10 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.11
- Justified – R. D"Z Hoffmann, though, asserts that Avraham did not object in principle to collective punishment,12 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.13
- 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.14
- Lot's family – Bereshit Rabbah and Abarbanel explain that Lot's family numbered ten,15 and it was them which Avraham's prayer had in mind.16
- 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,17 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.18
- According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, Akeidat Yitzchak, and Abarbanel,21 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,22 and thus Lot was saved23 because of his righteousness.24
- 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.
Specifically for the Wicked
Avraham was praying only for the sinners, being certain that Hashem would save the righteous even without any special supplication.
For the Physical Location
Avraham was praying that both the righteous of Sedom and the land itself (but not its evil inhabitants) be saved.
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.
- Also – R. Y"S Reggio understands it to mean "הגם" and that Avraham is saying, "Will you kill also the righteous?"47
- Anger – The Biur, instead, relates the word to anger,48 and has Avraham question why Hashem needs to act with His attribute of justice, which inevitably leads to collective rather than individual punishment.49
- In contrast to most commentators, Seforno50 reads these words of Avraham as a statement and not a question.51 The word "אַף" is understood as "even though"52 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...".53
- The Biur and R. Y"S Reggio assert that Avraham realized that Hashem meant to destroy Sedom via a messenger54 who would not be able to differentiate between good and evil.55 He, thus, requests that Hashem save the entire immediate vicinity of the righteous so that the righteous not perish together with the wicked.56
- 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 23.58 In verse 25, Avraham concludes that if his suggestion is not taken, injustice will be done.59
- 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 wicked61 if there were enough righteous people62 to merit this.63 Thus, Hashem was willing to not only avert collective punishment but also to collectively save.64
- 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.65
- "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.68
- "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.69 Hashem, thus, gave him an opening to pray on Sedom's behalf.70