An Essay on Exegesis, Genesis 18

William Elkins, Drew University

A Literal Title?

How might an essay on Genesis 18 be titled? The title is important. It locates us. It often expresses the literal sense of the passage, and it places us at a particular place and time. But the subtitle is also important. It catches the eye and provokes the imagination. Try these: “They Who Laugh Last Laugh Best,” or “Divine Justice at a Deep Discount.”

In the New Revised Standard Version of the Scriptures the editors often title each chapter. The title for chapter 18 is “A Son is Promised to Abraham and Sarah.” This title notes one aspect of the literal sense. The problem, however, is that it does not indicate the complexity or embody the mystery of this chapter.

In one sense , exegeting Genesis 18 is analogous to one of those New Yorker cartoon caption contests in which “an illustrated portion of a cartoon” is presented and the readers “try to write a caption that completes the cartoon.” This would appear to be a simple exercise. The cartoon is right there on the page. However since the cartoon can be read from a number of perspectives, it is multiply ambiguous. In addition, since our sense of humor is often off line when we exegete scripture, we are left with a prosaic title and the literal sense of one limited perspective. We miss the strangeness of trying to capture and caption something that just does not make immediate sense in logic or wit. Moreover, if the urbane style of New Yorker can stump us, the theological subtleties of Genesis may be quite beyond our grasp. Of course, we cannot discount the possibilities of revelation to inspire limited interpretations for a community of readers. A closer reading of Genesis 18 in light of Elliot Wolfson’s interpretation suggests the following subtitles: “No Body, Non-Sense” or “No Body Gets Out Wholly Alive.”

The subtleties of Genesis 18 may be indicated by a few simple questions. In addition, these questions may clarify some of the difficulties for an exegesis of the scriptural logic (theologic) of this passage.

(1) Was the stranger of the promise laughing or not when he replied to Sarah’s fearful denial that she laughed on hearing the promise?

(2) Was Sarah’s laughter more realistic and revealing than Abraham’s silence on hearing the stranger’s promise?

(3) Is Abraham’s argument with God over the fate of Sodom an indication that he has finally understood the theology supporting the promise of the stranger?

(4) Is the abrupt end of Abraham’s argument with God over the fate of Sodom an indication of the paradox of divine justice: the impossibility of measuring the infinite demand/gift of justice/mercy?

(5) Is the end of Abraham’s argument and his return to silence and to his home an indication that some embodiment is necessary for God’s for justice/mercy?

A Homiletic Exegesis

It is often a rhetorical mistake to mix the real and the fantastic. Yet this story does just that. It mixes new life with those who live under the shadow of death. Old men and women do not have children. The stranger’s promise that Sarah will bear a child is simply fantastic. It’s far beyond belief, so Sarah laughs. But is her laughter a bitter laugh like the laughter that undercuts all our efforts to get things right in the processes and politics of a Humpty Dumpty world (where we all fall down and where all the kings horses and all the kings men can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again), or is it the laughter of wonder like that which startles us into joy at the appearance of a loved one walking out of hell? In Genesis 18 these questions are entirely undecided. But is this a problem?

It is clear that we ordinarily don’t mix categories. Old is old and young is young. There is nothing new on this aged earth. Yet God does get in the mix. God transfigures things that before the action of God we could not imagine being any other way. We know that old men and old women will not become the fathers and mothers of a great nation. In one sense our narrow certainty and the limits of our imagination constitute an Egyptian captivity. Moreover, when everywhere is an Egypt we do not hope or laugh; we cry. But when the God of the Exodus hears us and brings us out of Egypt “by signs and wonders” we will sing and laugh. We do not, however, laugh fully or for all times. Somehow, in all times and places, we carry an Egypt with us. In history it is undecided whether we will learn the recreating/resurrecting logic of God’s wonderful works. It is, however, vitally important that we learn something of God’s divine comedy, since God’s story is what makes our lives dramatic and blessed.

But does God laugh for the liberation of God’s people? Does God laugh for the renewal of life? Does God laugh with Sarah? Did God laugh when he contradicted her fearful denial? “But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ for she was afraid. He said, “‘Oh yes, you did laugh'” (Gen 18:15).

As noted, in the text the answers to these questions are undecided. Although I cannot but imagine that God did laugh in a wonderful way (“Is there nothing too wonderful for God?”), there is no evidence for this, except the name of Sarah and Abraham’s son: Isaac, traditionally identified with God’s laughter. The problem, however, is whether God is laughing at Sarah (since she bitter that no life is in her yet she does not understand her real situation before God), for her (since she cannot yet laugh in wonder at the gift of God), or with her (since she has just seen beyond the limits of her dead end categories)? All this is undecided, yet perhaps there is a point to the uncertainty. Songs that express the covenant may begin with a peal of laughter that breaks from and into the tension between despair and hope. Our hope may begin with the laughter of God and end with us sharing that same joy. The covenant promise is that God will do a wonderful thing for God’s people and, despite all the troubles we have and will see, they who laugh last laugh best.

But this is not the whole story. What do we do with the incongruity of Abraham arguing with God? Given the unbalanced relation between the wonderful power of God and ordinariness of Abraham’s potentialities, isn’t this scene too close to a joke (a child arguing with a storm devastating a city ) for us to take comfort in this situation? Even if, all things considered, the situation is not humorous (given the prospective fate of Sodom), the situation is rhetorically odd. Given Abraham’s intense deference toward God, why would Abraham risk an argument with the Judge of the World? Why would he have any interest in disputing the balance between righteousness and sin? What is the advantage of calling God to have mercy on everyone in Sodom when five hundred or five thousand would seem to be too little to balance the concentration of sin that constitutes the city of Sodom? Finally, and more importantly, why did Abraham stop at ten, when he appears to have God locked down into the divine logic of a slippery slope?

“Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”(Genesis 18:25).

The reduction of the number of the righteous sufficient to save the city from fifty to forty-five, to forty, to thirty, to twenty, to ten forces us to ask, why did Abraham stop at ten? Is it simply a need for a minyan (an odd possibility in the narrative world)? Why not just continue the countdown? Why not continue to discount how much justice is needed? Why not argue that the righteous Judge should spare Sodom even if there were “nine, eight three, two” persons or even “one” righteous person there? Why cut the argument short when Abraham seems to be working out the wonderful mystery and mercy of divine justice? Moreover, why is Sodom destroyed?

It may be the case that any form of justice, to be divine, must be perfect as God is perfect. So Sodom must be destroyed. Yet given the wonderful power of God to bring life from death (a child from two bodies as good as dead) then it may be possible that one just person may be enough to balance the difference between the infinite requirements of divine justice and the burden of human history. Why not simply create righteousness from nothingness?

Of course the argument does not end here (with the one or none) and though Christians might try to find in this type of scriptural logic the themes that begin to shape a theology of the resurrection of those made righteous from the dead, this would take the intertextual possibilities of this passage beyond its limits. All we know from this passage is that “the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place” (18:39).

A Scriptural Possibility

What is the significance of Abraham’s concern with the balance of the just and the unjust in Sodom in relation to God’s justice? What is Abraham doing when he is arguing with God? Why is Sodom destroyed?

One possibility is that he has finally gotten the point of the promises of God: God can do wonders. If God can fulfill God’s promises through the fructification of Sarah and Abraham so that they become parents of a new nation, why can’t God take the smallest number of the just as grounds for saving thousands of the unjust? Moreover there may be a deeper personal and scriptural logic behind Abraham’s debate with God: if God can make Abraham and Sarah bear life, why can’t God make Sodom righteous? If so, then Abraham’s argument with God is an attempt to push and test the logical and performative limits of the wonderful power of God. If God is merciful to Sodom then this is further proof that the promise of God to Abraham and Sarah will be fulfilled. However, if God does not save Sodom when the just are discounted at a drastic rate, then God’s mercies to Abraham and Sarah may require some substantial response, or (in the worst possible case) be illusionary.

However odd these considerations may be, they make some theological sense in the context of what the stranger implies about the nature of God. The stranger asks, rhetorically, “is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” The implied answer is: No ! God is wonderful. There is nothing that can prevent God from bringing about all that is good and just. So, the limits of age, hope, of bitterness, the self-limitations of our foolish laughter, our whistling in the dark under the shadow of death, these conditions will not ultimately limit God from making both creation and God’s people signs of God’s Shalom. But given the very real limitations of his life Abraham might be naturally interested in the limits of God’s mercy. He wants to know how wonderful God is and he wants to know whether or not God be will be limited by anything at all.

The simplest statement of this argument is that given God’s mercy to Sarah and Abraham, the salvation of Sodom is a hope filled possibility. However, the passage stops short of God stating that Sodom will be considered righteous and saved. Why? There is, of course, a difference between old age and sin. Moreover, since Abraham’s argument with God may be read as Abraham testing God, this may prevent the text from pressing the logical limits to this argument towards a violation of the name and nature of God. As Elliot Wolfson notes in his detailed and nuanced interpretation of the theological and philosophical implications of circumcision, there must be a place for righteousness and often this involves bearing the marks of righteousness. In some sense, righteousness cannot be created out of nothing. However, the fact that God continues the argument with Abraham is certainly a sign that the righteousness of God is mercy, so the children of Abraham can’t keep from pressing God on the relation of and limits to God’s mercy and righteousness. God must have a place for righteousness but God can make a place for God’s righteousness. Thus, the Christian Church, as one of the Children of Abraham, follows Paul in making a place for righteousness by holding the virtues of faith, hope, charity to be marks of God’s presence. In this way the church becomes the body of Christ as God marks the church with signs of God’s presence in Christ, through the Spirit.

However, Genesis 18 does not conclude where the more intensely logical of the Children of Abraham might press it. It ends where it ends and presumably this where God wants it to end. “And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place” (18:33) Abraham goes home “to his place.” God sets the limits of mercy, so there are limits to justice that Abraham must accept. He has his place and the Sodomites have their place and they are different. Moreover, the fate of Sodom will be decided by God, not by Abraham. Semiotically, this may imply that some conditions (some signs) cannot be changed or transformed. Given a certain depth of sin, fewer than ten righteous will not be enough to balance the demands of God’s justice with the depths of God’s mercy. The world must make a place for God to be revealed and Sodom is not it. In the final analysis, however, the scriptural possibilities of the way God identifies God – “is there nothing too wonderful for the Lord?” – seem to cut thorough the grain of this argument to reveal the possibility of a deeper scriptural logic: the sin of the world, the condition of those outside the covenant, even death, will not limit the mercy of God to make creation and his people holy to God. This is the preferred reasoning of the Church as one of the Children of Abraham. However, no matter how vital this is to the Church, the scriptural logic detailed Elliot Wolfson must introduce a dialectical tension into this tradition of interpretation.

As noted above, Elliot Wolfson argues that there must be some location that is circumcised (circumscribed) to make place or provide a means for God to manifest Godself. The circumcision of Abraham prepares him to receive a sign of God’s presence. This may be a possibility for Sodom. Fifty, or forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, even ten may mark a place for a manifestation of God, but without someone being just, without community that makes a place for justice, there is no body to make sense of the signs of God’s presence. In some sense, despite the mercy of God, the difficulty for Sodom is that there are not enough just bodies in the body politic for God’s mercy to take hold. The difficulty that this argument introduces is that for Christians is that this emphasis on embodiment is difficult to accept in its literal sense. The doctrine of the resurrection and its implications for righteousness of the gentiles mitigate against an emphasis upon the necessity of physical signs for the embodiment of God’s effective presence. For example, Paul’s letter to the Romans (2:25-29) argues that circumcision is not necessary if Christians keep the law. Moreover, for Paul, true circumcision is a matter of the heart: “it is spiritual and not literal” (2:29). For Pauline Christians, spiritual circumcision results from appropriating of the spirit of the resurrected Christ “descended from David according to the flesh (who) was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:3).

For Christians, the doctrines of resurrection of Christ’s body and the church as the body of Christ have displaced an emphasis upon the necessity of other embodied signs for the manifestation of the presence of God. The antinomian implications of this displacement have been terribly problematic. Scripturally, however, the argument of Romans leads Paul to state that Abraham was considered righteous “before he was circumcised.” Moreover, the implications of the resurrection are read back into the story of Sarah and Abraham. For Paul, the flesh of Abraham and, by implication, the flesh of Sarah’s womb, was “as good as dead” (Romans chapter 4). For Paul it is Abraham’s faith in the promise that is a manifestation of righteousness for which circumcision was the sign or seal. In Elliot Wolfson’s interpretation of Genesis, this is simply not the case. In order to receive a sign of God, in an analogy to the way Abraham welcomes the three strangers, his circumcision has prepared a place for a manifestation of the divine. Circumcision is a place of hospitality, a sign of an open possibility, through which God may work wonders.

So what should Christians do with all this? To say the least, an emphasis upon circumcision introduces a deep dialectical tension into the body of Church (as the body of Christ) by revealing a pervasive tendency to disembody the spirit of God. However, if we take the above exegesis of Genesis 18 together with the argument of Professor Wolfson’s paper as locating a dialectical tension between embodiment and a scriptural logic that displaces limits to God’s mercy, our scriptural reasoning may benefit from three possibilities:

The first , following the logic of Wolfson’s argument and the implications of Abraham’s argument with God, is that some sign is necessary for the wonders of God. Some sign, some body, is necessary for a wonderful transformation or renewal to take place. For Christians this implies that although we have been given the spirit of Christ, if there is no body shaped by this faith, then there is no sense or meaning to our faith in Christ as a manifestation of God.

The second , following the logic of God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham, is that every sign is incomplete and futile until it is completed through the wonders of God. Whether we are circumcised or not, God will open a new future, one that we could not imagine in and through the present form of our flesh. Thus the flesh of Abraham and Sarah was as good as dead in terms of the possibilities and limitations of the world. However, from the perspective of the promise of God, their lives were, as Paul notes, futile only in and through the hope that the promise provided. Every sign is incomplete outside the wonders of God.

The third hermeneutic possibility is the recognition that no sign is absolutely opaque . The wonder of God will break through and transform the limits of our world through the renewal of our lives. For Christians, our faith in the resurrection of the dead implies that not even hell is outside the transformative mercy of God. There may be little or no justice in Sodom, Sodom may be hell, but it can be saved.

These three points are not lost to Christian life and doctrine. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Sanctorum Communio emphasized that the church was a fact of revelation. As a revelation of God, it is complete, effective, and yet at the same time the church will be completed in history. Moreover in The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together he emphasized that being part of the church required that Christians practice obedience in particular ways. One of those disciplines was daily prayer directed toward the interpretation of scripture. For Bonhoeffer, the church circumscribes and shapes our actions because, baptized into the body of Christ and shaped by the Spirit, Christians are marked by the disciplines that bear the marks of cruciformed scriptural interpretation.. To be the church, the church requires the embodiment of Christ formed church disciplines.

In the final analysis, however, when Christians are presented with the scriptural dynamic embodied in Genesis 18 and the wonderful argument developed in Elliot Wolfson’s paper, we are reminded of a deep dialectic that mitigates against our tendency to dematerialize the Spirit of God. Christians need a place to embody signs of God’s presence. The scriptural logic of Genesis 18 calls us to mark the body of the church and our lives with church disciplines that prepare for manifestations of the Divine. Our hope, like the hope of Sarah and Abraham, is that through the prayerful interpretation of scripture we may discover the renewal of our bodies and communities beyond the limits of our physical (and political) imaginations and that we may laugh together with the joy of God. In the end, prayer and study may become the essential preconditions forming the hope of all the Children of Abraham: scriptural reasoning will prepare us for manifestations of God.

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