This relationship which God has extravagantly blessed us with challenges the understanding of God’s immutability. Indeed, in the story, it seems (at first glance at least) that Abraham is swaying God’s mind. Many, if not most, ancient and medieval Christian thinkers assert that a facet of the divine is changelessness. This makes sense because the perfect cannot be changed; if it could, it would not be perfect. However, I think that assigning platonic categories of perfection to God is a silly exercise because God is beyond our concept of perfection.* God is more than perfect because God subsumes the category of perfection into God’s being. That is why God can send a son to earth against all the rules of fashionable Greek philosophical discourse of the time. God is other, but God is present at the same time. What we call Providence, as theologian Paul Tillich says, is the intermingling of our actions and inactions with God’s directing creativity. Part of this directing creativity is responsiveness to prayer. Tillich says that “every serious prayer contains power, not because of the intensity of desire expressed in it, but because of the faith the person has in God’s directing activity—a faith which transforms the existential situation” When Abraham says “Far be it from you to do such a thing” (which might more expressively be translated: “How dare you!”), he is engaging in this kind of prayer. The relationship he has with God, more than the words, is the important factor in the exchange.
While it might seem that Abraham is using his close connection with God to sway God’s mind, God seems to let the exercise go on to expand Abraham’s mind concerning justice, righteousness, and sin. Abraham’s thought experiment is flawed to begin with because there is no way to separate the righteous and sinful. Even in generations to come when it was possible to be “righteous under the law,” people kept the temple in business by sacrificing to restore their righteousness. Later, Paul reflects this reality when he says, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). But Abraham’s seems to say, “For argument’s sake, let’s say there’s a clear distinction between the righteous and the sinful.” God humors him thus far.
Next, Abraham makes an outrageous claim that would make any level-headed person cry foul. He says, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Abraham is outraged that the righteous would be swept away with the wicked. However, he is perfectly content with the wicked remaining unpunished if even ten righteous people are found in the city. Surely, this is not justice—the wicked go unpunished for the sake of the righteous, the wicked don’t get what they deserve! Now, we all know the end of the story—Sodom gets utterly destroyed. But leaving that aside for a moment, let us pause and reflect on God’s mercy as this story elucidates it. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. It seems that as Abraham lessens the number of righteous needed to save the city, the mercy (rather than the justice) of God expands to greater and greater levels. If only ten are found, you won’t destroy the city? Heck, what about one? We never get that far, but it is not unimaginable. By the end of the story, it seems that the ten righteous are on vacation, and the city is destroyed anyway. But the extravagant claim about God’s mercy still stands, though Abraham can’t see it because of his preoccupation with justice.
This story is finally about two things that relate to each other. The first is the human inability to comprehend God and God’s action in the world. The second is the realization that humans are always in the presence of God, participating in that same action. C.S. Lewis says: “The freedom of God consists of the fact that no cause other than Himself produces His acts and no external obstacle impedes them—that His own goodness is the root from which they all grow and His own omnipotence the air in which they all flower” Our incomprehension stems from the actions of God having God’s freedom as their basis and warrant. We are in God’s presence because of God’s goodness. We participate in God’s freedom even when (or especially when) we question God as Abraham does. We participate in God’s goodness when our actions bring about the justice, mercy, and grace of God. And we participate in God’s omnipotence when we are blessed with those briefest of glimpses of God’s directing creativity, which spur us to greater action and greater love.
* A fair number of 20th century theologians say something similar, though I doubt they use the word “silly.”