A cursory look at the Book of Genesis reveals an all-knowing and omnipresent God. A God who created the universe by His Word; in fact, a transcendent God. This understanding is well attested by the church fathers, and theologians of the church throughout the centuries. However, upon closer examination, some parts of the Genesis narrative reveal a different kind of God altogether – a God who responds to and with His people; a God who can change His mind and genuinely be surprised; a God who discovers new things in relationship to His creation, a God who seeks information; a God who acts in relation to human decisions, and who adapts his course of interaction in response to circumstances. Thus, a plain reading (or a literal understanding) of the different Genesis stories leads to a slightly different understanding of God. Why is this so? While God remains omnipresent, omniscient, and transcendent, in order to understand him better with our human knowledge, biblical authors made use of anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object) in presenting God; as such, illustrating a close relationship of God with His creatures, far from being a transcendent God alone.
This anthropomorphic representation of God is what we see in the First Reading (Genesis 18:20-32); depicting a God who proposed to go down and confirm the allegations made against Sodom and Gomorrah; a God who has come to seek information or to confirm a fact; a God who changes his mind at the intercession of a just man – Abraham (a man who loves his “brothers” and intercedes for the people). These anthropomorphic representations of God enabled Abraham to dialogue and plead with Him persistently in a friendly manner. This friendly dialogue is understood as the first “solemn prayer” (solemn dialogue) recorded in the Bible; a prayer for the sparing of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here, Abraham acts as an advocate or a defence lawyer. He introduces an ethical dilemma before God and makes it specific. He picks a number — fifty in this case — and asks God if he will fail to forgive the cities for the sake of fifty righteous people. By raising the issue of fifty righteous people, he allegorically “draws a line in the sand.” Will God cross that line and commit the injustice of destroying fifty righteous people?
We see that Abraham begins with supposing fifty righteous persons in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and then he ends his approximation abruptly at ten. Why didn’t he end with the number five or one? What significance did this number have in his time? Were these numbers just a random selection, or did they have some cultural, historical, or theological meaning? How does the inter-textual study of these numbers within the Pentateuch illuminate this text? According to Amos 5:3, we see that the number “fifty” represents half of a small city (hundred); hence Abraham might be hypothetically expecting an equal number of wicked and righteous in the city. It would be more fitting to suggest that in Abraham’s social context; perhaps these two numbers represented the sizes of the two smallest groups in descending order. The number ten represents the smallest number to make a group; this highlights the fact that even a very small number of innocent men is more important in God’s sight than a majority of sinners and is sufficient to stem the judgment. Little wonder the number ten was used to designate Abraham’s tithe to Melchizedek – ‘a tenth of everything’ (cf. Gen.14: 20) – “the smallest of everything”.
Returning to our focus, we see that the only reason Abraham can appeal to Yahweh’s mercy is because of what Abraham knows about Yahweh’s character. Yahweh can be merciful because He is righteous and just. Put differently, Abraham understands God as one who will act justly and righteously, and that understanding emboldens Abraham to dialogue the way he does. By so doing, we could say he stands as one in power (a prophet) and makes good use of his prophetic power in praying for the safety of others. Put differently, in interceding for Sodom, Abraham is portrayed as fulfilling a role particularly associated with prophets (see Exodus 32-34; 1 Samuel 12:23; Amos 7:1-9; Jeremiah 14:7-9, 13; 15:1). Here Abraham is not praying for his own people (he does not mention Lot) but for Sodom, and this makes this episode unique among prophetic
intercessions. Little wonder God calls Abraham a prophet in Gen. 20:7 – a privileged and a powerful intercessor who stands before God and therefore, inviolable.
Dear friends, this has a lot to do with us whenever we pray. The Gospel Acclamation says: “The spirit you received is the spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Rom. 8:15). In this same Spirit, we equally make good use of our prophetic power to pray and intercede for our “brothers and sisters”. Little wonder, Christ (in the Gospel Reading – cf. Lk. 11:1-13) in teaching his disciples to pray, said: “OUR FATHER”; this shows that, while praying, we bear in mind that God is the Father of all, and we are to pray not only for ourselves, but also for all others, just as Abraham did in the First Reading.
In his dialogue with God, Abraham applies a good sense of politics, reminding God who He (God) is – “the Judge of all the earth”; the one who loves righteousness and hates wickedness (cf. Psalm 45:7). “Will the one who requires righteousness and justice from others fail to act righteously and justly himself?” Having reminded God of who He (God) is, Abraham now remembers who he (Abraham) is. He is dust and ashes — formed from the dust of the earth and destined to return to dust. This is analogous to the way Christ taught us to pray. After saying “Our Father”, He went on to say “Who art in heaven”, “Hallowed be thy Name”, “Thy Kingdom come”, “thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”. This is a clear indication of acknowledging who God is; the One who lives and reigns in Heaven, in our hearts, the Supreme Judge of all the earth. After this, we now remind God who we are (mere mortals in constant need of His daily care and support; sinful men in need of his forgiveness), as such, we say: “Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses…”
Dear friends, God did not counter Abraham’s inquiry concerning the fifty righteous people, not a single one of Abraham’s requests meets with the slightest resistance. Fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, even ten. Does this teach us of persistence in spite of the difficulties around the request we seek?
Like Abraham, we are called to dialogue with Him in a friendly way in prayer and acknowledge His worth and our sinful state, certainly (as stated in 2Chronicles 7:14), “He would listen from heaven, have mercy on us, heal our land, and grant our humble request.” This sentiment is not disconnected from the Responsorial Psalm [137(138):1-3,6-8]: “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.”
In conversing with God in prayer, we have to bear in mind that he is a merciful God, just as Abraham acknowledged; a God who is ready to forgive us our sins when we turn to him with a sincere heart. In fact, God’s mercy outstrips our expectations, for mercy is His attribute. This is what the Second Reading (Col. 2:12-14) clearly points out. Part of the text says: “He has brought you to life with him, he has forgiven us all our sins. He has overridden the Law, and cancelled every record of the debt that we had to pay; he has done away with it by nailing it to the cross.”
Above all, as the children of Abraham, we are called to be agents of blessing to all of the nations of the world. Praying for the good and the justice of our rulers and nations is a primary dimension of the Church’s social and political vocation. God has set us apart to seek His mercy for the sake of others.