For Writers: Making the Impossible Believable

In my Abraham series, I have included writing tips that are illustrated in Abraham’s stories. We came to the end of his story in my last post. This post continues that series, but it is all for writers. How can these stories help you improve your technique?

The challenge for any writer of fiction is to tell a good story that keeps the reader/audience’s attention from beginning to end. There is an unspoken agreement between the storyteller and the audience: They will suspend their disbelief for the duration of the story, as long as you keep it believable to them. The trick is to know what is believable and what is not to your audience. Or perhaps, whether you have made it believable to them.

As fiction writers, we sometimes create moments when we could easily lose the reader, because we stretched their suspension of disbelief too far. So we should always consider whether we have succeeded in making that moment of “impossible” believable. In that regard, I think we can learn a few things from the author of this saga I’ve been following for the last several weeks.

The author/editor of Abraham’s saga was most likely not so much an author as an editor. These stories had circulated orally for centuries before they were written down in what we call today the book of Genesis. So instead of creating these stories out of nothing, the writer decided to put the individual stories together into one narrative. It’s a little easier when you’re working with stories your audience is already familiar with and has accepted as part of their history. Still, there are moments when the author has to overcome the disbelief any rational person would have. Perhaps the greatest of those moments is how and when Isaac is born.

Here it is to review.

The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.

And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

(Gen 21:1-3, 7 NRS)

Remember, Abraham is one hundred, and Sarah is ninety-one. How did the author make that moment believable to his original audience?

Know Your Readers’ Expectations

The original readers of this story probably had heard these accounts of Abraham and his family before, but not exactly the way the author presented them in this written account. This author wanted to collect all those disjointed stories into one narrative. In sewing together these different patches, sometimes the seams show. While there are a few plot holes, his audience forgave him that. I think that is because,

  1. He ordered the individual stories in a way he knew would be satisfying to his audience. This is why it is good to know how to plot. The story arc this author used was familiar to his audience.
  2. Each genre carries certain expectations. These stories primarily come from the Origin Story genre, and they fit the expectations of that genre.

Expectations and believability for the reader/audience often depend on the genre. In a murder mystery, for example, the audience expects that there is a murder, and by the end of the story, the murderer is revealed and caught. In a fantasy, the audience expects there will be magic, sword battles, and mythical creatures. A dragon as the murderer in a modern mystery would not be believable. But in a fantasy? No problem. Knowing what your audience will accept, and what they won’t, is the first step to making your story believable to them.

Use Foreshadowing, Subtly

The author is skillful in how he uses foreshadowing. He doesn’t give away too much too soon. He used the genealogies to create just enough uncertainty that the reader could think they might be able to have a son, even at their advanced age, before telling us they were too old. God hinted to Abraham his son Ishmael would fulfill his destiny apart from him before it happened. If Ishmael was not the child of the promise, then who? His heir would come through Sarah.

And beyond this story, Isaac’s role in the story foreshadows many things that will happen later in the Torah.

  • Meetings at a well that lead to marriage (Jacob and Moses).
  • Wives who have difficulty conceiving and bearing a child (Rebekah and Rachel).
  • Wives giving handmaids to their husbands to conceive and bear a child (Rachel and her handmaid, Zilpah).
  • Parents’ favoritism or rejection leads to dysfunction among siblings (Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers).
  • Covenants that involve name changes (Jacob to Israel).

Foreshadowing, when used well, will help the reader/audience maintain their suspension of disbelief and accept the “impossible” as the natural outcome of your story.

Show the Heroes’ Humanity

When God appears to Abraham at ninety-nine years of age and says he will have a son with Sarah, who was ninety, “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” (Rom 4:19-20 NRS).

That’s the “hero of the faith” version, which is totally unreal and not how the story tells it originally. How did Abraham really react? “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (Gen 17:17 NRS), and that’s how any human with a brain would have reacted. Sarah also laughed, and who could blame them? Any of us would have laughed at that as well. They know as well as we do this is impossible.

Sarah overhears three angels promise her a son
“Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” (Gen 18:14 NRS)

When the promise is fulfilled, we see Sarah’s humanity in her joy as she holds her newborn son. She lets us know everything she went through to get to this moment was worth it. The author shows their humanity in so many other ways as well. In contrast, Paul presents them as believing God, and it being accounted to them as righteousness (Rom 4:3, 9; Gal 3:6), as if this were a 24/7/365 reality. God said it. They believed it. And that settled it, once and for all.

That is not usually what a life of faith looks like, and Abraham and Sarah are prime examples. When God commanded, they obeyed. But for years, they struggled to understand what God really wanted from them. They said things like, “How do I know this is true?” (Gen 15:8). God said things that made them laugh. They wavered between belief and disbelief in the long time between promise and fulfillment.

Another thing to remember is even heroes have faults. I have talked about failings in the character of both Abraham and Sarah. Whatever character flaws your characters have, you don’t need to hide them. They make your characters more human. Some of the most fascinating characters are those who infuriate us one moment and inspire us the next.

Prepare the Reader for the Big Moment

Abraham and Sarah are going to have a son. That is the most crucial event of this story. It has to happen, and it’s impossible. Everyone knows it is impossible. So how can the reader believe it when it happens? In this case, they are all descendants of Abraham and Sarah, so they know it happened. The big question they had was not if but how.

Getting back to genre expectations, origin stories often involve interactions between human heroes and divine beings. In this case, when God announces the big moment to Abraham, God has already appeared to him twice. God has made big promises to him, but none of them can come true unless he has a son with Sarah. That is the one promise God absolutely must fulfill in this story. The rest can happen later, but this has to happen now.

The author has helped prepare the audience for this moment by how God has guided Abraham thus far. God only hinted at the promise before. They did not understand what God meant at first. Then, at this crucial moment, God promises much more specifically to both Abraham and Sarah. And when they actually did “weaken in faith” and “waver concerning the promises of God” momentarily, God made sure there was no misunderstanding this time. God made specific promises, not that this will happen sometime in the future. It will happen “by this time next year.”

They had hoped for this sooner. They had given up hope of it ever happening. But God keeps God’s promises at the time God chooses. And now, I, the angel of the LORD, am telling you, this is the appointed time.

Bring in an All-Powerful God

Origin stories often use a technique called Deux ex Machina, literally “God of the Machine.” Just when everything is lost, some divine being—a god, goddess, angel, etc.—swoops in and fixes everything. Today, that is considered an amateur move. This author avoids that pitfall, however, by having God appear to Abraham before this and make promises that are not specific enough. The audience knows more than Abraham and Sarah. They know God wants this to happen, even when Abraham and Sarah have given up on it.

This is God’s third visitation to Abraham, so the big pronouncement does not come out of the blue. It is consistent both with the previous appearances and what God has promised before. “I am El Shaddai,” God tells Abraham this time (Gen 17:1). That is a name Abraham has not heard before, so that alerts him and us the story is about to take an important turn.

This particular name is usually translated “God Almighty.” Another meaning I found was “God the Overcomer,” meaning that God can and will overcome any obstacles when it’s time to fulfill a promise. In this case, the obstacles were pretty significant. To review,

  • Though they were still in good health, the text makes it clear they were not having sex anymore. Not because they were unwilling, but because they were both unable.
  • The deadness of Sarah’s womb. She never had a child nor got pregnant, even when she was young.
  • Even if somehow God made her barren womb fertile, Abraham still had to rise to the occasion. That hadn’t happened in years, because (D’uh!) he was nearly a hundred years old.

But God addressed those objections even before Abraham had a chance to raise them by saying, “I am the God who overcomes every obstacle that exists and any that will exist.” And when God tells Sarah, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” that signals to her and the audience this is going to happen, in spite of any obstacles that would normally prevent it.

If your type of story allows it, you can bring in a god, goddess, angel, or superhero to make whatever needs to happen happen. Just be sure you’ve set the reader up to accept it, so you don’t look like an amateur.

Have Your Heroes Make Missteps along the Way

It was twenty-five years from when God promised Abraham a son of his own issue to when Sarah gave birth to Isaac. When God first promised, Abraham had no problem believing it. He was still a “young man” of seventy-five. He and Sarah still were active in the bedroom. Sure, she was sixty-six and had not yet had a child. But if God promised he would have a son, he would have a son. God would do God’s part in fulfilling the promise as long as they did their part (keep having sex).

But after ten more years of trying, still nothing. Sarah concluded if Abraham was to have a son of his own issue, it would have to be through another woman. So she convinced her husband to go in to her handmaid, and he had a son, Ishmael. On the one hand, it was a misstep. They stopped believing that they would have a son together. On the other hand, this misstep was not a product of doubting the promises of God.

God had not yet promised that Abraham’s heir would come through Sarah. God only promised that he would have a son of his own issue. Sarah was seventy-six before she resorted to bringing in a surrogate. She had no reason to believe at that point there was any other way. They gave up only after giving every reasonable chance, and then some, for God to make it happen. And that makes the big moment even bigger.

Heroes Recognize the Moment When It Comes, Even after Hope Is Lost

God shows up again when Abraham is ninety-nine and says now is the time, and Abraham is elated. He jumps for joy that the hope he had been living for was about to happen. Sarah is ninety when God tells her this is it, and she forgets the deadness of her womb and her husband’s flesh. She believes immediately and does not doubt it, because God said it. You know I’m kidding, right?

Sarah and Abraham react the same way at first. They laugh, not for joy, but because the very idea is utterly ridiculous. They had given up on this happening years ago. If God wanted this to happen, God should have done it before now. But note that God did not say, “You don’t believe me? Then forget it. I won’t do this for you, because you doubted my word.”

Instead, God makes it clear this is no joke. For Abraham, God repeats the promise and lets him know Ishmael is not forgotten. God will make him a great nation as well. But his heir would come through Sarah, “by this time next year.” Then God appears again and repeats it so Sarah can hear.

Last time God promised this, God was totally vague about how and when it would happen. This time, God is totally clear. You, Sarah, will have a son by this time next year. And God says, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” When God makes a promise, nothing is too wonderful to prevent God from fulfilling it. God even incorporates their laughter into the promise by saying, “You will name him, ‘He laughs.’”

How did they recognize now was the time? God finally told them so. But did they believe immediately? No, they laughed. Even if they did, that was not enough to make it happen. If Abraham was not able, he was not able. If Sarah’s womb was barren, it was barren. There was nothing either of them could do to change it. The only thing they could do at this point was be open to the possibility. And that was all God required of them.

And there was one other way they recognized it was time. After all God did to tell them to be ready, there was one particular sign they needed to see. One day, for the first time in years, Abraham was able to get it up. Sorry for being crude there, but we’re adults. We know without that, there was no way God’s promise could be fulfilled. Somehow, God brought both their dead flesh back to life. Sarah conceived and bore a son at ninety-one, and they named him Isaac (“he laughs”).

Irony Makes for Memorable Stories

Sarah laughed again (Gen 21:6-7), but the meaning of her laughter changed from disbelief to joy. Isaac’s name means “he laughs,” to remind both Abraham and Sarah they once thought this was impossible. When a story turns in a way either the characters or audience doesn’t expect, that creates irony. I’ve talked in previous posts about how the author uses irony effectively. The irony happens when they go from laughing at God to laughing with God. For the Israelites who first heard this story, the irony was a reminder that their very existence was once considered impossible, just like Isaac’s.

As I’ve examined how the author used irony in Abraham’s story, I was struck thinking how many of my favorite stories, the ones I come back to time and again, make effective use of irony. And it is not just in this story. Across many different authors and thousands of years going back to when these stories were first told around campfires, the stories in the Bible use irony as much as O. Henry. When it comes to making the impossible believable in your stories, irony says to the reader, “I know you didn’t expect this. I know you thought this was impossible. Now, I just showed you it’s not.”

From generation to generation, this and all the stories in the Bible have been passed down, because they are so memorable. They make us believe the impossible is possible. Or if not believe, they at least make us question whether “impossible” really is an absolute term. They open us, like Abraham and Sarah, to possibilities we had once dismissed. I think one reason is because this author and all the others represented in the Bible saw and highlighted the irony in the stories they passed down to us.

Whether or Not This “Really Happened” Really Doesn’t Matter

Anne Rice is a bestselling author who first became famous for her vampire novels. After a conversion, she turned her attention for a while toward religious fiction. In an interview, she said she used to have readers call her at 2:00 AM, begging her to reassure them that her vampires really were made up. In fiction, it doesn’t have to be real. It has to be believable.

Perhaps the same can be said of Abraham’s saga. I’m not saying it’s fiction. I’m saying it is an origin story. The reason we study origin stories is not to learn historical fact so much as to learn about the personality and culture of the people who produced those stories. What experts have found is they often began with some historical event. Over time, legends and myths grow around that event. Homer’s Iliad, for example, was once thought to be pure myth. Then archaeological excavations of the city of Troy revealed it was once a prosperous city that underwent siege and destruction around the same time as Homer said.

That does not prove that everything it says about the gods and goddesses and Helen’s abduction/escape launching a thousand ships all “really happened” as well. But it appears the whole saga began with a real event. Experts still study the Iliad to learn about the character of the people who produced those stories.

The Hebrew Bible was written primarily in what they called the land of Canaan. However, those authors were familiar with Babylonian myths. They showed some influences from ancient Sumerian and Akkadian sources. The story itself says Abraham immigrated to Canaan from cities in Mesopotamia. Could that point to a historic migration of people from Mesopotamia who eventually became part of the Hebrews and Israelites? He left the city and became a nomad and herder, so perhaps they were herders as well.

Tissot, the Caravan of Abraham
Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. (Gen 12:5 NRS)

What is most important in origin stories is usually the moral and theological lessons they teach. What lessons did this author want to teach?

  1. God called their ancestors to this land with the intention that they would inherit it.
  2. God chose them to bring justice, righteousness, and the fear of God to this land.
  3. God preserved offspring through their ancestors so that through them, at the right time, the Messiah would come into the world.
  4. Remember all of God’s promises, and make sure your children know them. One day, they will all be fulfilled.
  5. Remember “nothing is too wonderful for the LORD” when it is time to fulfill a promise.
  6. Do not despise the Ishmaelites, because God had a purpose for them as well.

So what about your WIP?

Do you know the expectations of your genre? Are you meeting them? If you want your readers to believe something impossible, how are you going to make it believable? If you do it right, they should see the “impossible” become “inevitable,” just as it was inevitable that Sarah have a son at the tender age of ninety-one.

For I Have Chosen Him – Sodom and Gomorrah part 1

In a previous post, I talked about the time the LORD visited Abraham and Sarah with two other unidentified men (Genesis 18:1-15). Later, the two are identified as angels (19:1). During that visit, the LORD reiterated the promise to Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son by this time next year. Sarah laughed because she was ninety years old. The LORD reprimanded her for laughing, which doesn’t seem fair because any one of us would have laughed too. But this let her know God was serious. God made a promise, and God will keep it.

Now I want to pick up from that point. The men are about to leave, and as Abraham walks with them, he learns the purpose of this visit to earth.

Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?

(Genesis 18:16-18 NRS)

Who is the LORD talking to? I would assume the two angels accompanying Him. It’s interesting that God raises this question with them while Abraham is listening. God reiterates the promise that he will become a mighty nation, and all nations of the earth shall be blessed in him. This is directly connected to the promise of a son through Sarah (18:10). It is strange, I know, that God waited until he was ninety-nine, and she was ninety, to do this. I’ve discussed the reasons why I think God fulfilled the promise this way.

God asks (rhetorically) if God should hide God’s plans from Abraham, then answers.

“No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

 (Gen 18:19 NRS)

Abraham is God’s covenant partner, the one God chose to build God’s own nation out of, and therefore, God chooses to share God’s plans with him. This is the most important Bible verse you have never heard of. God promised here and other times to make Abraham a great nation, and through that nation, all nations of the earth would be blessed. But God never specified what that blessing would be until now. Here in this verse, we learn why God approached Abraham and made covenant with him. Why it was so important that he have a son with Sarah. Why he called Abraham to become the founder of a great and mighty nation.

Do you see the answer? That he (Abraham) may charge his children and his household after to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.

God wanted Abraham to teach righteousness and justice to his children and his household. Righteousness and justice are two of the most important words in the Old Testament, and they are often paired together. They were the standard by which all nations were judged, both by the people and God. Does the nation act with justice, in its laws and how it enforces them? Do its people know and do what is right (called righteousness)? That is how you know it is a nation that keeps the way of the LORD.

But much of the world does not know or follow the way of the LORD. Injustice, corruption, exploitation, and oppression are the norm for them (as we will see in Sodom). How can God teach them? By building up and blessing Abraham, a man who has just treated him with righteousness and justice. A man who was kind to strangers and aliens, probably because he was a stranger and alien himself. A man who showed the LORD and his two companions exemplary hospitality. God wants this man, who knows the way of the LORD, to teach it to his children and his household, so they can be an example to the world around them. The nations of the earth will see, through Abraham and his seed, what it means to do righteousness and justice.

When God made covenant with Abraham, the goal all along was to establish righteousness and justice in the earth. Abraham and his seed were the vessel God chose to teach and do it. You may argue with me that Abraham wasn’t always righteous and just, and neither were his descendants. But you cannot deny that was God’s goal in calling Abraham and his descendants to be God’s people. How do I know? It says so right in that verse: That he may charge his children and his household after to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.

God did not only say that to Abraham. God said it several times in the Torah and the Prophets. That was the purpose of God in delivering the seed of Abraham from bondage in Egypt. That was the purpose of all those 613 commandments in the law of Moses. That was the purpose in establishing Israel as a nation. When Israel did not live up to that purpose, God punished them, first by splitting the nation into a northern kingdom (called Israel or Ephraim) and a southern kingdom (called Judah). When they still did not follow the way of justice and righteousness, God handed over both of the kingdoms to foreign powers. God looked for justice from them but saw bloodshed. God sought righteousness but heard a cry of distress (Isaiah 5:7).

I said before I am interested in learning these characters’ motivations, including God’s. Now you know the primary motivation driving God in calling Abraham and visiting him and having him do all these crazy things: to establish righteousness and justice through him, his children, and his household, so they can bring that blessing to all nations.

Changing the Mood: You’re up, King James

Normally, I don’t use the King James Version as my base text. But I really like how this next scene reads in the KJV.

And the LORD said, “Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.”

(Gen 18:20-21 KJV)

Okay, right now, you’re probably thinking, “What do you mean, ‘I will go down now and see…and if not, I will know’? You’re God. Don’t you know everything?”

The traditional understanding of God is that God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. I believe that, but the fact is when you read the Bible, there are some stories where God appears not to be omniscient. I don’t recall who said this, but I agree with someone who said, in effect, we should read them as imaginary stories to make a theological point. As such, we should not expect it to follow perfect doctrine. Instead, we should ask, what is the theological point?

Map showing Sodom and Gomorrah location
Sodom and Gomorrah were on the southeast coast of the Dead Sea

Remember God said righteousness and justice were the reason God chose to make covenant with Abraham. Then God said, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, because their sin is very grievous. Therefore, the sin should be read as injustice and unrighteousness. God chose to share this information with Abraham. How will Abraham respond?

And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD. And Abraham drew near, and said, “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

(Gen 18:22-25 KJV)

God did not say God would completely destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, but somehow Abraham inferred it. Abraham uses God’s concern for justice and righteousness in interceding for the city. God never told Abraham God is the Judge of all the earth, but again, somehow Abraham has inferred that as well. As such, [far be it] from thee…to slay the righteous with the wicked. Because shall not the Judge of all the earth do [what is] right(eous)?

And the LORD said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.”

(Gen 18:26)

Imagine you are in a situation where you have to tell your boss something, but you know if you offend him/her, you may be fired. Now imagine you have to tell this to a king who, if he doesn’t like what you are saying, could say, “Off with your head.” That is how Abraham speaks to God, and it is effective.

Notice how Abraham is so tactful with God. Calling him the Judge of all the earth. Saying that be far from thee to do what is unrighteous. Some would call this flattery. I look at it as appealing to the better angels of God’s nature (which I know is a theologically incorrect statement, but you get what I mean). And he adds that he himself is but dust and ashes. Flattery (or appealing to better angels) mixed with self-loathing usually made a king more favorable to you.

And Abraham answered and said, “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five?”

And he said, “If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it.”

(Gen 18:27-28)

So even though the city has thousands of people, Abraham is still not sure the LORD will find that many. He begins the process of bringing that number down, still being tactful.

And he spake unto him yet again, and said, “Peradventure there shall be forty found there.”

And he said, “I will not do it for forty’s sake.”

And he said unto him, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: peradventure there shall thirty be found there.”

And he said, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.”

(Gen 18:29-30)

Abraham seems to sense he is close to pushing his argument too far, so he says, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak. It’s like he’s asking permission because he’s afraid God will get angry if he keeps this up, but he keeps it up anyway. I love how Abraham is both deferential and persistent. This is why I like reading this scene in the King James. The formal, old-fashioned language seems to fit that mood.

And he said, “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there.”

And he said, “I will not destroy it for twenty’s sake.”

And he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there.”

And he said, “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake.”

And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.

(Gen 18:31-33)

So Abraham has successfully negotiated generous terms for Sodom and Gomorrah with the LORD, the Judge of all the earth. The LORD only has to find ten righteous in the city, and despite the outcry of injustice and unrighteousness, the LORD will spare the whole city for the sake of ten righteous. Cities were smaller then than today. But still, Sodom probably had thousands of inhabitants, maybe up to ten or twenty thousand. Surely, there are at least ten righteous in even the most wicked city, right? Especially knowing Lot is there. Besides my nephew, the LORD only has to find nine more righteous. How hard could that be?

That is probably what Abraham thought. However, this is written to people who already know how this story ends. They know Abraham had to negotiate that number down even further than that. Despite Abraham’s intervention, Sodom and Gomorrah are doomed.

Why Did He Stop at Ten?

It’s clear Abraham had experience in negotiating with earthly monarchs. His flattery mixed with self-loathing is perfect for that. And the smartest thing he did was before he started negotiating specific terms, he appealed not only to God’s greatness and majesty as the Judge of all the earth. He also appealed to what God himself said was his concern regarding Sodom and Gomorrah: righteousness and justice. Is it righteous or just to slay the righteous with the wicked? Of course not. Surely, you as the Judge of all the earth will do what is just, won’t you? I see a lot of similarities with how Abigail negotiated with David to stop him from killing every male of her household.

In addition, before Abraham knew of God’s plans regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, God spoke of Abraham as a partner with whom he would not take such action without first telling him. That may have been because Abraham’s nephew Lot was in Sodom, and God did not want to take action that would affect him without warning.

Abraham and Lot separate
“Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. 9 Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” (Genesis 13:8-9 NRS)

God just acknowledged a special relationship with Abraham, so Abraham knew he could push his argument a little farther than was comfortable.

It looks like he stopped at ten because he was afraid of making the LORD angry. However, there is no indication in the text that the LORD was getting angry. Each time he asks, God says, “I will not destroy it for thirty’s sake…for twenty’s sake…for ten’s sake.” It doesn’t say God spoke angrily or looked angry. It just says God said it. Abraham’s fear might have come from his dealings with earthly monarchs, whose anger was deadly and could flare in a second. If so, this is a great use of irony from the author. The courtly experience that made Abraham a successful negotiator with God Almighty also made him stop short of where he needed to end his negotiation.

It’s like looking for righteousness and justice in Sodom and Gomorrah.

What Is the Theological Point?

I said earlier, this should be read as an imaginative story with a theological point. So what is the point? Here is what I see.

  • God wants people to treat each other with righteousness and justice. When they do not, God gets angry. Because the cry of injustice is great against Sodom and Gomorrah, God has come to investigate before passing judgment. When God punishes a people or a city, it is not on a whim. It is because their injustice and unrighteousness have become so great to make it irredeemable.
  • God’s mercy is great, but so is God’s justice. God seems to want Abraham to give a reason why Sodom and Gomorrah should be spared. Abraham gives a good reason. It is not righteous and just to destroy the righteous with the wicked. As long as there are a certain number of righteous people in the city, you should not destroy it. And God agrees to those terms. They just needed ten righteous people, or maybe righteous men (see Translation Notes), and the city would be spared. In the minds of the audience, if there are not ten righteous in the whole city, they probably deserve to be destroyed.
  • Part of the role of a prophet is to intercede for those marked for destruction. God calls Abraham a prophet (20:7). When we read the prophets, we see them at times petitioning God to change God’s plans for destruction. Moses did the same. And sometimes, God listened and spared the people.
  • A few righteous people might be enough to save even a wicked city. This is a long standing tradition in Judaism. God does not want to destroy the righteous with the wicked. Therefore, even a relatively small number of righteous people can stop the LORD from destroying an unjust people. Because of them, God’s patience is long. But earlier, God told Abraham when the iniquity of a people is complete, they are marked for destruction (Gen 15:16). If that is the case in Sodom and Gomorrah (and the audience knows it is), they are doomed.

For Writers: Irony

As I pointed out, the author makes excellent use of irony in this scene. How do you keep the reader or audience engaged when they already know the ending? Irony is one method that works well in that situation. In literature, there is verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony.

Verbal irony is when the intended meaning of a word or phrase is the opposite of the stated meaning. For example, in Robin Hood, what do they call the biggest Merry Man? Little John. And I think Pilate was being ironic when he posted the sign on the cross that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” There is actually a double irony here. While he thinks he is being ironic, the audience sees it as the truth.

Situational irony is when the characters and audience know the irony of the situation. One good example is “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, arguably the king of irony. In this story, a young wife and husband have no money to buy Christmas gifts for each other. The wife sells her hair, so she can buy a gold chain for her husband’s watch. The husband sells the watch, so he can buy combs for his wife’s hair. When the gifts are revealed, both they and we see the irony. Or in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge says,

“Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The characters are in danger of dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean. Again, the characters and the reader both see the irony.

Dramatic irony is when the audience knows the irony, but the characters do not. For example, Juliet says this to her nurse after seeing Romeo, “Go ask his name: if he be married. My grave is like to be my wedding bed” (Act 1, Scene 5). The audience knows she will indeed die on her wedding bed, but Juliet, of course, does not.

I would call this scene with Abraham and God dramatic irony. Abraham does not know the irony (yet), but the audience does, because they know Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed. This bit of irony makes you wonder, What if Abraham had kept negotiating? Could the city have been saved?

There is also irony in that God wanted people to do righteousness and justice. In the next scene, however, the audience knows God will encounter the epitome of injustice and unrighteousness in Sodom. Abraham showed proper hospitality to God, but in Sodom they practice gross inhospitality. So the irony continues into the next scene.

When they already know the ending

One thing writing coaches have taught me is you don’t want to give away the ending. That takes away the tension for the reader. Will Sodom and Gomorrah survive God’s judgment? No. What else do you have?

But for some kinds of writing, you can’t avoid the fact that the reader knows the ending. The audience already knows the ending in this case, but the author manages to keep them engaged. I think that is because of the levels of irony he has built in. When we see Abraham come so close to saving Sodom and Gomorrah, it makes their ending even more tragic. Not necessarily a shame, but tragic. So here are a few links to help you learn more about it.

Definition of Irony

Definitions and Examples of Irony in Literature

Three Types of Irony.

What is the effect of situational irony?

What impact does the irony have upon the reader?

Translation Notes

…to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice;

(Gen 18:19 NRS)

Two of the most important words in the Hebrew Bible are tzedakah (righteousness) and mishpat (justice). They are often paired together.

Righteousness generally means doing what is right, or conducting yourself rightly with other people and with God. I think that is likely what it means here. Abraham did what is right by welcoming the strangers and showing hospitality. However, there is another meaning Holladay’s Lexicon gives for this verse particularly: Justice (of a human judge) Gn 18.19.

Mishpat is normally the word for justice, but sometimes tzedakah can mean justice as well. In fact, when paired together, they are synonymous. But that note “of a human judge” might explain why God is discussing God’s plans with Abraham. God wants to see how Abraham responds, because if he and his household are to keep the way of the LORD, they must know how to do righteousness and justice. God allows Abraham to play the role of an advocate for a moment to see how he will apply righteousness and justice to this situation.

Mishpat can mean justice in a general sense. It also often has the connotation of legal proceedings and lawsuits being brought to court, as in the Justice system. This would further indicate Abraham’s role as an advocate in this case. He did well as a righteous advocate. Unfortunately, he just did not know how bad things had gotten in Sodom.

Did Abraham Mean Ten Righteous Men or Ten Righteous People?

And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?

(Gen 18:23 KJV)

Abraham uses tsaddiq to refer to “the righteous.” The word is masculine in form. That in itself does not mean he was referring to men only. A masculine form sometimes includes male and female. Those in a man’s household—wife, children, servants, and slaves—were extensions of him (18:19), so their righteousness was tied to his. All of Abraham’s household was bound by the covenant he made with God (17:10-16). What does that mean in relation to this? Did each person of a household  (men and women, free and slave) count indivitually, or did it have to be ten righteous free men? Since this was a patriarchal society, I tend to think it was free men only.

On the other hand, if each member of Lot’s household could potentially count towards the “ten righteous,” Abraham might have thought Lot’s household was enough. Lot’s household and possessions became so great that he and Lot had to separate (Gen 13:5-9). Lot chose the fertile land of the plains of Jordan and ended up in the city of Sodom (Gen 13:10-12). Lot had herdsmen for his flocks. If they could count toward the ten, all the more likely the city would be spared. Could his wife and children count? He had two daughters. Sons would have been better, but perhaps they could still count toward the ten.

Maybe Abraham stopped at ten because he was thinking each member of Lot’s household would count. He did not know, however, even if they counted, Sodom was doomed. And this would be one more layer of irony.

According to the Cry

I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me

(Gen 18:21 KJV)

7278  צְעָקָה

. cry of wailing, call for help Gn 1821; loud & bitter cry.

Holladay, p. 309.

The cry, in Hebrew tze`akah. I amplify this as “a cry of distress,” because that is usually the meaning of tze`akah.

Notice there is only one letter difference between this and tzedakah (righteousness). Isaiah (5:7) used this in his pun where God looked for righteousness (tzedakah) but heard a cry (tze`akah). A lack of righteousness allowed oppression, affliction, and injustice to flourish, which led to a great cry from the people. Notice the similarity in language when God calls Moses.

And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians

(Exo 3:7-8a KJV)

I have seen the affliction of my people…and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters…I am come down to deliver them…. The word for cry here is tze`akah as well.

In Egypt, God saw the afflicition the Israelites suffered. God heard their cry. God came down to deliver them. It is the same pattern when God spoke to Abraham, to Moses, and to Isaiah. Remember this when we explore the story of Sodom and Gomorrah next week.