Sedom's Verdict

  • Harav Yaakov Medan




With gratitude and in honor of the bar mitzvah, this year b'ezrat Hashem,
 of our twin sons, Michael and Joshua - Steven Weiner and Lisa Wise






Translated by Kaeren Fish



A.        Why Does God Consult Avraham? The Commentators Respond


            Before destroying Sedom, God says:


"Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will instruct his children and his household after him, that they should observe the way of God, to perform righteousness and justice, in order that God may bring upon Avraham that which He spoke to him." (18:17-19)


            How are we to understand this? The commentators fall into three main categories.


a.         Rashi and Rashbam connect God's consultation with Avraham with the promise of the land. Since God is coming to destroy this portion of land, which was promised to Avraham, He tells him the reason for it. As we know, in Sedom it was not only the people who were destroyed, but also the very land itself:


"…That all the land is burned with brimstone and salt; it is not sown nor does it bear, nor will any grass grow on it, like the overthrow of Sedom and Amora, Adma and Tzevoyim, which God overthrew in His anger and in His wrath." (Devarim 29:22)


            Rashbam goes on to explain that with the words, "In order that God may bring upon Avraham that which He spoke to him," the Torah refers to the inheritance of the land. The problem with this explanation is that there is no explicit mention here of the inheritance of the land.


b.         Ramban, Rabbi Yosef Bekhor Shor and other commentators explain that the story of God's consultation with Avraham concerning Sedom is meant to express Avraham's great spiritual stature following his circumcision: God does nothing in the world without notifying and consulting with him.


c.         Most of the later commentators (Abarbanel, Seforno, Malbim, Netziv and others, as well as Radak and Chizkuni on "for I know him") tend towards a third interpretation. God tells Avraham about Sedom so that on this basis Avraham will command his household after him to perform righteousness and justice; he will teach them about the punishment of Sedom and will warn them not to follow the path of wickedness. These commentators raise further ideas about what it is exactly that Avraham will teach his children concerning Sedom; we shall not elaborate here.


            But these explanations are likewise insufficient. On the one hand, it is difficult to read a warning of punishment to Avraham's descendants into the verses, as Radak and his school would suggest. The verses themselves, explaining why God tells Avraham about Sedom, exude love for and closeness to Avraham, rather than rebuke and warning. Indeed, this reflects the opinion of Ramban quoted above. But the commentators who adopt Ramban's approach fail to explain the nature of this special quality that the verses would attribute to Avraham, according to their view – his inclusion in God's deliberations and management of the world, and what need there is for it.


            The commentators devote little attention to the other questions presented at the outset; only Abarbanel addresses almost all of them, and solves them in accordance with his exegetical approach. But our final question – why Avraham fails to protest against the command to slaughter his son at Har Ha-Moriah as he protested against the verdict of Sedom – finds no response.


B.        Why God Consults with Avraham – A New Proposal


            In my view, the key to answering all these questions is to be found in a midrash quoted by Rashi:


"'As he sat' – The text says that he sat. He wanted to stand up, but God said to him: You sit; I shall stand. And you will thereby provide a sign for your descendants, that in the future I shall be present among the judges as they sit, as it is written, 'God stands amongst the Divine assembly.'" (Rashi 18:1)


            The accepted interpretation of God's "standing amongst the Divine assembly" is in accordance with Rashi and the other commentaries on Tehillim: that God is present in the counsel of the judges, to judge together with them, as one of them (or perhaps even as the President of the court). This would appear to be borne out by the continuation of the verse: "in the midst of the judges shall He judge" – that God Himself renders judgment among the other judges.


            However, this interpretation fails to explain the words of the Midrash Rabba quoted above. The midrash treats the word "standing" literally: in a Jewish court the judges sit, while God stands. But the President of the Beit Din sits, like the other members of the court; in fact, he is given the seat of honor. Furthermore, in the image created by the midrash, Avraham sits while God stands before him after He has come to his tent.


            It would seem that the midrash in our parasha is interpreting God's standing in Avraham's tent in the spirit of, "The two men who have the argument shall stand before God, before the kohanim and the judges" (Devarim 19:17). God, as it were, is standing before Avraham as a plaintiff standing before the judge.


            The parallel that we have noted throughout, between the angels' visit to Avraham's tent and their visit to Lot, supports our thesis. When God reveals Himself to Avraham, we are told: "as he sat AT THE ENTRANCE TO HIS TENT" (18:1). When the angels appear before Lot, we read: "Lot sat at THE GATES OF SEDOM" (19:1). This would suggest that Lot sits at the gates of Sedom as a judge, and Rashi indeed comments: "On that day they appointed him a judge over them."


            Another parallel, similar to the one between the entrance to Avraham's tent and the gates of Sedom, is to be found in the Torah's discussion of a betrothed girl who has relations with someone else; this, too, appears in a judicial context:


"They shall bring the girl out TO THE ENTRANCE OF HER FATHER'S HOUSE and the men of her city shall stone her with stones, that she may die… You shall bring out both of them TO THE GATES OF THAT CITY, and stone them with stones, that they may die…" (Devarim 22:21-24)


            This parallel would seem to suggest that we may view Avraham, sitting at the entrance to his tent, as a judge, and God – Who comes before him – as the plaintiff, as it were.


            The midrash, in drawing the parallel between Avraham sitting at the entrance to his tent and the judges in whose counsel God stands, is connecting verse 1 – "God appeared to him" – with the story of Sedom. Upon this view, the revelation to Avraham is meant to tell him about the fate of Sedom. The story of the three visiting angels interrupts this matter, and after they leave, the Torah returns to the original subject – as R. Yosef Bekhor Shor explains.


            But while Radak and Abarbanel, who adopt this interpretation, explain that the revelation was meant to teach Avraham that he should warn his children and his household after him not to follow the ways of Sedom and Amora in order not to meet the terrible fate that befell these cities – i.e., God appears as the Judge and Avraham as one witnessing the judgment – the midrash would seem to present God as bringing the judgment of Sedom before Avraham, who sits as a judge at the entrance to his tent. God, according to the midrash, appears as a plaintiff against Sedom, suing over the cry of the city; God – the plaintiff – stands with the people of Sedom – the defendant – before Avraham, who sits in judgment. Avraham is required to come to a verdict concerning the punishment that God – the plaintiff – wants to bring upon Sedom.


            Chazal note the difficulty in presenting Avraham as a judge of God's actions. They interpret the verse, "Avraham was still standing before God," as a correction:


"'Avraham was still standing before God' – it should say, 'God was still standing before Avraham;' this is a scribal correction." (Rashi 18:22, based on the midrash)


            Nevertheless, the idea of God standing, as it were, before a mortal judge, before the judges of Israel, is to be found explicitly in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 6b):


"The judges should know Whom they are judging, and before Whom they judge, and Who is destined to hold them culpable…."


            Likewise, we may note Rashi's comment on Divrei Ha-yamim II 19:6 – "Your hearts should be, in each and every case, as though God was standing before you in judgment."


            Let us be more precise: God appears in Sedom's case not only as the plaintiff, but also as the judge, as Avraham declares: "Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?!" But at the same time, God's case is brought before Avraham, and his role is somewhat like that of an appeals court. Indeed, God accepts Avraham's opinion and ultimately declares, at the end of the session: "I shall not destroy for the sake of the ten!" (18:32).


C.        When Is the Fate of Sedom Sealed? The Commentaries' Position


            Our conclusion from the midrash – that Avraham sat on the seat of judgment concerning Sedom – brings us to understand Avraham's role in the argument differently than most of the commentaries. It also leads us to further conclusions as to the meaning of the entire episode.


            According to the commentators quoted above, God simply notifies Avraham as to what He is going to do to Sedom. He reveals to him the decree that has already been passed, in order that he will guide his household and teach them about sin and its punishment, because Avraham is the lord of the land, or God's close associate. Rashi writes: "Shall I then destroy the children without notifying the father, whom I love?" (18:17), and the other commentators concur with this interpretation. Ramban explains that Avraham could have changed the decree through his prayer (has the people of Sedom been deserving of this), but even he agrees that the decree had already been passed.


            The problem here concerns the meaning of the words, "I shall descend, then, and see whether it is as the cry that comes to Me that they have done – (in which case) to destroy; and if not, I shall know" (18:21), which would seem to imply that the fate of Sedom has not yet been sealed.


            Radak notes that Sedom's fate had already been sealed by the time God spoke to Avraham:


"Even though everything is revealed and known to Him, this is written in order to teach man not to be hasty in judgment."


            Chizkuni and Ramban likewise grapple with this problem, each solving it in his own way. Both maintain that God had already reached His judgment, and His descent to observe Sedom was meant only to bear out the truth of His judgment in the eyes of man. Even Rashi, who maintains that the verdict of Sedom was not yet finalized, posits that its share of wickedness was complete; God still gave the city a final opportunity to repent:


"If they persist in their rebellion, 'destruction' is what I shall bring up them. But if they do not persist in their rebellion – 'I shall know.'" (Rashi on 18:21)


            Only Abarbanel (and, in a similar vein, Malbim) understands Sedom's judgment as not yet final. God descended to Sedom in order to test the people and view their actions. This descent is actualized in the arrival of the two angels in Sedom; they come to see how the people of Sedom treat their guests. Abarbanel writes:


"For this purpose God sent His angels there, to perform an experiment and a test, [to see] whether the people of Sedom would actually do what they had planned and agreed to do or not, for the matter was dependent on their actions."


            In other words, when God spoke to Avraham, the people of Sedom still had the power to steer their verdict in the direction of God's mercy, had they received their angelic guests properly. The angels were not originally sent with the mission of destroying Sedom. They were angels of mercy. They came to give Sedom an opportunity to follow the path of Avraham, to perform hospitality. It was only the wicked reception that the people of the city extended to the angels that sealed their verdict. It was this that changed the approach of mercy into strict justice.


"This was the sin of Sedom, your sister: she and her daughters had pride, they were sated with bread and peace and quiet, but they did not strengthen the hand of the needy and destitute." (Yechezkel 16:49)


D.        The Argument Over the Number of Righteous


            Whether we adopt the approach of Abarbanel or that of the other commentators quoted above, the emphasis is on the sin of Sedom and the consequent punishment. According to most of the commentators, the fate of Sedom is sealed because of the sins that preceded God's revelation to Avraham; according to Abarbanel, it is sealed once the angels visit there. The possibility that the righteous people of Sedom will save the city from its punishment appears nowhere. This possibility is nothing but an innocent hope that burns in Avraham, who is unfamiliar with the city and unaware of the behavior of its inhabitants. There are not fifty righteous people in Sedom, nor even ten. It is an altogether wicked place, and its punishment is determined accordingly.


            The problem here is that this conception pushes to the margins the argument-cum-negotiations between God and Avraham concerning the possibility of saving the city. Avraham is not asking that God forgive the sin of Sedom. He makes no attempt to judge the people of the city favorably, he does not ask God to be tolerant, nor does he try to bring the people of Sedom to repentance. The sole anchor of salvation to which Avraham ties his hopes is that the righteous people of Sedom will protect the city. If this possibility is not a realistic one, then what has Avraham achieved? For what reason does the Torah record, at such painstaking length, the claims that Avraham raises in defense?


            These questions, difficult to begin with, become more so in light of the approach that I introduced above, according to which Avraham sits in judgment, and in light of my opinion that the entire revelation at Elonei Mamrei was meant to include Avraham in the judgment of Sedom. If we adopt this approach, it is certainly very difficult to view Avraham's participation here as something marginal, unrealistic, misguided and ultimately ineffective.


            I propose, as does Abarbanel, that when God spoke to Avraham, the fate of Sedom was not yet sealed. God, by informing Avraham, "I shall descend, now, and see," refers to the descent of the angels to Sedom to test its inhabitants' measure of hospitality. Until the people of Sedom come to assault the angels, the city's measure of wickedness is not yet complete.


            In my view, this serves to explain the difficulty arising from the order of the verses, as discussed at the outset. The logical order of the verses would seem to be:


"The men got up from there and looked out over Sedom, and Avraham went with them to see them off." (18:16)

"The men turned from there and went to Sedom, while Avraham was still standing before God." (18:22)

"God said: Shall I hide from Avraham that which I am going to do?" (18:17)


But in the text, verse 22 ("The men turned from there and went to Sedom") follows immediately after the statement, "I shall descend, now, and see." In other words, it is the same event: God descends to Sedom (in the form of the angels' arrival) in order to test them and evaluate their actions.


            The full order of events is therefore as follows: the angels look out over Sedom, then God hears the cry of the city and wants to descend to see and test them. Then the men turn to go towards Sedom in order to test the city, and Avraham comes to appeal the verdict.


            However, contrary to Abarbanel, I believe that the people of Sedom were not tested through their treatment of guests – or, at least, that this was not what sealed their fate. In my understanding, Avraham was well aware of the nature of Sedom's inhabitants. Chazal expound at length, in the Midrash, on an earlier test performed in Sedom – not by God, sending His angels, but rather by Avraham himself, who sent Eliezer to test the people of the city. Although he knew them, Avraham brought his claim before God that the entire city should be saved on account of the righteous people in its midst.


            Rashi explains the calculation of the number of righteous people on whose behalf Avraham presents his claim. When he pleads for fifty, he refers to the possibility that there are ten righteous people in each city of the Sedom district. When he asks on behalf of forty-five, he has in mind nine people in each city, with God joining them to form a "minyan." When he reaches the number forty, he is thinking of saving only four cities, and likewise when he speaks of thirty, twenty, and ten. From this, it would appear that just as he hoped that forty-five righteous people would save five cities, he likewise calculated that thirty-six could save four cities, with the addition of "the Righteous One of the world" – God Himself. Likewise, twenty-seven could save three cities, eighteen could save two cities, and (as Rashi notes) nine could save one. In Rashi's view, Avraham did not ask on behalf of eight, because Noach and his family numbered eight, and their merit was not enough to save the world.


            In my view, this explains Avraham's claim as to "righteousness and justice." If God would destroy righteous people together with the wicked – according to his argument – Divine justice itself would be harmed; hence Avraham says, "Will the Judge of all the world not perform justice?" God wants to reveal to Avraham the "path of God, to perform RIGHTEOUSNESS and justice." The righteousness is that even when there is less than a minyan of righteous people in each city, God – Who is the Righteous One of the world – will join them to form a quorum, saving the wicked Sedom and its environs from annihilation.


            As I understand it, the nine righteous people on behalf of whom Avraham asks that Sedom be saved are Lot and his wife, his two married daughters and their husbands, and his three unmarried daughters: the two whom Lot wanted to send into the hands of the mob in order to save his guests, and his other daughter, Plotit, who was killed on that day by the people of Sedom for having given some of her bread to a poor man. It was because of Plotit's cry that God descended to judge Sedom. The Midrash recounts:


"Rabbi Yehuda said: It was announced in Sedom that anyone who gave bread to a poor or needy person would be burned with fire. Plotit, Lot's daughter, was married to one of the prominent men of Sedom. She saw a certain poor person on the street in the city, and her heart was anguished. What did she do? Every day, when she went out to draw water, she would bring in her jug some of whatever she had at home, and she would feed this poor man. People asked: What does this destitute person live on? And when the matter became known to them – they brought her out to be burned. She said: Master of the Universe, do justice for me! And her cry came before the Throne of Glory.

At that moment God said: 'I shall descend now [and see], if the people of Sedom have done as the cry of this girl – I shall overturn its foundations.' The text does not say, 'according to their cry,' but rather 'according to her cry' [in the Hebrew, the reference is ambiguous – it appears to refer to the city, but may in fact have some other feminine singular object]." (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayera 83, and also, in somewhat different form, in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 25)


            Thus, Lot's family numbered nine. With the addition of the "Righteous One of the world," they were a "minyan," such that Sedom could be saved in their merit.


            In my view, God accepted Avraham's judgment – for He had appointed him a judge by coming to his tent. Moreover, although Plotit had died (without Avraham's knowledge), and although Lot's wife, his married daughters and their husbands were adherents of the way of Sedom, and although they were not worthy of having Sedom saved in their merit – nevertheless, God would show favor to Sedom even for the sake of Lot alone, and all because of the principle that Avraham invoked in his judgment. Proof of this may be brought from Tzoar, a city that had been saved in the merit of the righteous man who fled there, even though he had none of his party with him (except for his two unmarried daughters):


"He said to him: I have accepted this thing, too, that I will not overthrow the city concerning which you have spoken. Make haste and flee there…" (19:21-22)


E.        When Is the Fate of Sedom Sealed? My Position


            We may therefore say that Sedom's test with regard to the angelic guests was a success. One Sodomite put his life on the line and invited them into his home. This righteous man, Lot, had the power to save the entire city.


            But then comes the story of all the people of the city surrounding the house. Abarbanel, as we mentioned, concludes that the city's measure of wickedness was complete when they demanded, "Bring them out to us, that we may know them" (19:5). In my view, it was not at this point that God finally decided to destroy them. Even at this low point, the angels did not declare that the destruction was imminent. Rather, the fate of Sedom was sealed over a different sin:


"[The people of Sedom] said: Move away! And they said: This one came to sojourn with us, and has become a judge! Now we will do worse to you than to them." (19:9)


It was then, and only then, that the angels act:


"The men put forth their hand and brought Lot into the house to them, and closed the door. And they struck the people at the door of the house with blindness, from young to old, so they could not find the entrance. And the men said to Lot: Who else do you have here? Son-in-law and your sons and daughters and whatever you have in the city – bring it out of this place, for we are going to destroy this place." (19:10-13)


            The people of Sedom intended not only to do evil to the guest, but also came to do evil to Lot, the only righteous man among them, for having welcomed guests hospitably. They no longer recognize his citizenship or his status as a judge; they declare, as though he were a stranger, "This one came to sojourn" – in the finest tradition of Sodomite treatment of strangers and wanderers. With their own hands, the people of Sedom sever their connection with Lot. Lot would be forced to leave, to flee the city, even were it not about to be destroyed. The angels, in pulling Lot towards them and closing the door, are merely giving expression to the existing situation – the barrier that has suddenly sprung up between Lot and his townspeople. Lot leaves the city no longer a judge and no longer a citizen with equal rights. It is on this point that Sedom's fate is sealed. Not a single righteous person is left in the city.


            I draw a sharp and clear distinction between the filling of the cup of wickedness of this city of blood, and its final verdict. These two – the sin and the judgment – are separated by Avraham's claim concerning the righteous people to be found there. So long as these are in its midst, God must not destroy it.


            According to my understanding, Sedom's measure of evil was complete already twenty-five years prior to its destruction. The text tells us, "The people of Sedom were exceedingly evil and sinful to God" (13:13); immediately thereafter, we read of the war of the kings and the fact that the five cities of the plain fall into the hands of Kedarla'omer and his partners. Sedom and its environs are saved from the fate they deserve in the merit of the "one who sojourns among them" – Lot. Avram, who hears that his nephew has been captured, pursues Kedarla'omer, and in the act of saving Lot he also restores the women, the people and al the property to the king of Sedom. God shows favor to Sedom because of Lot, who dwells there. Now that the cry of the city has risen, God once again agrees to show favor because of the righteous man in its midst. But the people of Sedom, who twenty-five years earlier had accepted Lot to live with them, now banish him. And when not even the single hospitable person who once lived there is left in the city, it no longer has any protection: "for we are going to destroy this place" (19:13).


F.         Verdict for the Individual and Verdict for the Public


            What we have said above would seem to solve another problem. God wants to destroy the entire city of Sedom, with no distinction between righteous and wicked, and this indeed is what Avraham argues: "Will you destroy the righteous together with the wicked?" But in Avraham's "judgment" the justice meted out seems no less distorted: "Will you destroy and not show favor to the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people who are in its midst?" (18:24). Seemingly, the proper solution would be to put to death the wicked people and to save the righteous, as indeed we read ultimately at the end of the story: Lot is saved while the city is destroyed. This simple solution is not raised by either God or Avraham! God and Avraham share the view that there is one verdict for the city as a whole, with no distinctions to be made.


            The problem of the relationship between the collective and the individual exists in any ruling pertaining to the public; I shall not elaborate on this issue here. Suffice it to say that the same judgment applies to the entire collective. So it is in the mitzva to wipe out Amalek: the individuals are judged as part of the collective to which they belong, and so it is in all the prophecies with God's decrees on the nations because of their sins. As an example, we may consider the judgment of Ninveh in the Book of Yona. Had the inhabitants of Ninveh not repented, the city would have been overthrown, and "more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who did not know their right hand from their left, as well as much livestock," would have died (Yona 4:11). God has mercy on them only after the people of Ninveh engage in repentance. Likewise the judgment of Sedom, except that instead of repenting, they sink even deeper into their corruption. God and Avraham agree that a single verdict applies to the entire city, but God judges it according to most of its inhabitants, while Avraham argues for the measure of compassion – that God should show favor even for a small minority – and his argument is accepted.


            The unacceptable solution – to save the righteous man by removing him from the city and separating him from its wicked people sentenced to death – is one that represents neither the measure of justice nor the measure of compassion. It was the solution created by the people of Sedom, who raised a barrier between themselves and the single righteous man among them. It was also the solution created by the visiting angels, who took the line adopted by the people of Sedom a step further: they pulled Lot to their side of the divide, closed the door, and thereby drew an eternal separation between Lot and the people of the city.


            I have treated this matter at length in order to clarify the enormous weight that is attached to Avraham's claim that Sedom should be saved for the sake of its righteous inhabitants. This argument was a realistic one, and on the basis of it the city was to be saved. Avraham's judgment is a true one. Concerning Sedom's verdict, Avraham sits in judgment at the entrance to his tent, at the time when God is revealed to him at Elonei Mamrei, standing before him like a person standing before a judge.


(This is a portion of a longer shiur that can be found here: