This week’s portion is indeed a mysterious one. Who are Abraham’s visitors? Did Elohim change His mind when prompted by Abraham’s request? Didn’t Elohim realize Abraham’s faithfulness without asking him to sacrifice Isaac? Why did Elohim even ask for that sacrifice when His condemnation fell on Canaan for their use of human sacrifice?
One could spend a lifetime researching these questions, and there are many more in this passage. Yet in the midst of the spiritual conundrums there are other lessons that can often get lost in the big questions. Twice in this parsha is Abraham contrasted with someone. First, with the inhabitants of the city of Sodom. Then, with his nephew Lot.
The first contrast is remarkable, but easy to overlook in the larger context of the story. Consider the following passages concerning Abraham and the citizens of Sodom.
Now Yahweh appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. When he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth, and said, ‘My Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please do not pass Your servant by.’Genesis 18:1-4
Before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house; both young and old, all the people from every quarter; and they called to Lot and said to him, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have relations with them.’Genesis 19:4-5 NASB
Abraham’s response upon seeing strangers was to stop what he was doing (possibly in the very act of communing with Elohim – 18:1) in order to greet and see to the needs of these men. They weren’t at that time even guests, for he had to persuade them to stay and join him in a meal. Yet, because of his generosity of spirit they stayed and ate.
In stark contrast the men of Sodom (note that it wasn’t just the immature young, but those who should have walked with the wisdom of years) sought only their own pleasure. What’s more, they sought it at the expense of the stranger. Those who had no standing in their city, who were in need of the greatest protection were sought out to be used.
Consider the second contrast in the passages below when Abraham and Lot are faced with the destruction of the five cities of the valley.
Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?Genesis 18:24-25 NASB
Now behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have magnified your lovingkindness, which you have shown me by saving my life; but I cannot escape to the mountains, for the disaster will overtake me and I will die; now behold, this town is near enough to flee to, and it is small. Please, let me escape there (is it not small?) that my life may be saved.Genesis 19:19-29
When faced with the same news both men risk the anger of Elohim by making requests that seem outside the bounds or propriety when speaking with the Master of the universe. Yet, in neither case, was Elohim upset, and in fact capitulated to some degree for the sake of these righteous men.
However it is interesting to note the direction of their requests. Abraham’s concern was for the righteous within the city; he was looking to the needs of others. Lot, on the other hand, made the request on his own behalf. We can’t be too hard on Lot. Not only did he seek to tell others of the impending destruction (v. 14), his life was in imminent danger, whereas Abraham was a safe distance away. It should also be noted on Lot’s behalf that his response of hospitality toward the heavenly messengers was the same as his uncle’s.
While neither men sinned in their response, the contrast is an important one to note. First, because we are reminded that our Elohim is gracious to His servants. He understands our strengths and weaknesses, and isn’t upset when we ask for compensations for our flesh. Second, we are reminded of the words of our Master Yeshua:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves;Philippians 2:3 NASB
Much like Sodom, our world is imploding in on itself, and the days are evil. How will we respond to those around us? Will we respond with a view toward others, or towards ourselves? Will the stranger be invited in and given food, or will we find opportunity to exploit their weakness and need?
You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.Exodus 23:9 NASB