In last week’s column, we saw how a feature of Abraham’s life was his confusion about God’s plan. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we encounter numerous examples of this phenomenon. One such episode is the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah.
God told Abraham that he planned to destroy these wicked cities, followed by the longest sustained prayer in the Torah. Abraham pleaded and argued with God, trying to reverse the decree. When all was said and done, the answer to Abraham’s prayers was a resounding “No.” Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.
All this begs the question. Why did God tell Abraham that He planned to destroy these cities? God knew that no prayers from Abraham were going to change His mind. What was the point of telling Abraham, causing him to pray, only to ignore those prayers?
Just before God told Abraham about his decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, the Bible tells us why God told Abraham his plan. While the Bible is filled with scenes of God speaking to people, it almost never tells us why God spoke to a particular person, why He decided to say what He said. And yet, here God does exactly that.
Now Hashem had said, “Shall I hide from Avraham what I am about to do, since Avraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of Hashem by doing what is just and right, in order that Hashem may bring about for Avraham what He has promised him.” Genesis 18:17-19
This passage is confusing. In justifying why God told Abraham about His plans, God reiterates Abraham’s covenantal mission to transform the world, bringing blessing to all nations on earth through the teaching of righteousness and justice. But what does this have to do with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? How does Abraham’s awareness of the impending destruction serve His mission? Was God setting up Abraham, causing him to pray to save these cities, only to destroy them?
Later in the story, on the morning after the destruction, we find Abraham returning to the place where he had prayed.
Next morning, Avraham hurried to the place where he had stood before Hashem, and, looking down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and all the land of the Plain, he saw the smoke of the land rising like the smoke of a kiln. – Genesis 19:27-28
Here, we find Abraham faced with the reality that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. Imagine what was going through his mind as he stood there surveying the destruction, watching as his prayers literally went up in smoke.
But the very next verse tells us that God, in fact, did answer Abraham’s prayers, even if Abraham himself was completely unaware.
Thus it was that, when Hashem destroyed the cities of the Plain and annihilated the cities where Lot dwelt, Hashem was mindful of Avraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval– Genesis 19:29
At first glance this seems like a minor concession to Abraham. After all, Abraham never once mentioned Lot in his prayers to save Sodom and Gomorrah. The decree to destroy the cities would not be reversed, but Lot, Abraham’s nephew, would be spared. Was this the answer to Abraham’s prayers?
The Bible goes on to tell us that Lot fled from the city with his family, his wife being killed along the way, becoming a pillar of salt as she hesitated and looked back at the overturned city. Lot escaped with only his two daughters to a nearby cave. There, Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had relations with him on successive nights. Both daughters became pregnant. Both gave birth to boys.
The older one bore a son and named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. And the younger also bore a son, and she called him Ben-ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today. – Genesis 19:37-38
The nations of Ammon and Moab would become enemies of Israel. How is this an answer to Abraham’s prayers? How is this a sign that God “remembered Abraham” during the destruction?
Although Ammon and Moab became enemies of Israel, many generations later the nation of Moab would produce a young woman named Ruth. Ruth the Moabite would selflessly join the nation of Israel after relocating to Bethlehem with her impoverished mother in-law Naomi. Ruth eventually married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of none other than King David.
King David, of course, was the beginning of the royal Davidic line that would ultimately produce the Messiah, the savior not only of Israel, but of the entire world.
Remember God’s explanation for why He told Abraham about His plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah?
Avraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of Hashem by doing what is just and right, in order that Hashem may bring about for Avraham what He has promised him.
Now it all makes sense. Abraham’s prayer to save Sodom and Gomorrah was motivated by his love and concern for all people. It was exactly this prayer that led to the birth of Moab, and eventually the Messiah himself.
We have all had the experience of praying fervently for something specific only to see our prayers rejected. It can seem to us that God is not even listening. Many people have a crisis of faith when they experience their prayers being rejected. But we must always remember what the Bible tells us,
Hashem is near to all who call Him, to all who call Him with sincerity. He fulfills the wishes of those who fear Him; He hears their cry and delivers them. – Psalm 145:18-19
From Abraham’s perspective, he tried to save Sodom and Gomorrah and failed. As far as he could see, the answer to his prayers was “no.” But beyond Abraham’s limited vision, his prayer was so powerful, and so successful, that it saved the entire world, even if Abraham himself had no idea.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. He is cohost of the weekly Shoulder to Shoulder podcast.