In Parashat Vayeira we read about God’s destruction of the evil city of Sedom. We also read about Avraham’s involvement in the matter:
Now the LORD had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham 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 the LORD by doing what is just and right, in order that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.” Then the LORD said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? (Bereishit 18:17-23)
Why did God tell Avraham that he was planning on destroying Sedom? God also told Noach many years prior about the future destruction of the world, and Noach built an ark as per God’s direction. But God doesn’t really tell Avraham how he is to react to the news about Sedom, which leaves us wondering why tell him at all?
Once Avraham hears about what will occur, he “came forward and said.” Rashi, quoting from the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 49:8), suggests that Avraham’s reaction was to come to the defense of Sedom. As a man who lived his life for others, who had a deep care and compassion for all living beings, he did not want to see death and destruction. So he prays on their behalf, and he negotiates with God, trying to find just cause to spare their lives.
According to this approach, Avraham was not successful. Ultimately Sedom was destroyed and people died.
Ibn Shuaib has a different read of the story. God never intended for Avraham to save the people of Sedom. And even Avraham may have never had the expectation that he would be able to change the course of events.
Ibs Shuaib offers four options as to why God told Avraham about the plan for Sedom:
All the people of the world knew that Avraham was God’s chosen one, his confidant and right hand man. Therefore, had Avraham not been told in advance of God’s plan, people would have questioned whether Avraham was really on the inside track with God. A comparable example would be a CEO informing (not asking) his Board of Directors about a decision before going public with it. If the Board of Directors are unaware of the decision before it hits the newspapers, people will question their involvement and trustworthiness within the company.
People might blame Avraham after the fact for not coming to the defense of Sedom and not trying to save them. By having the conversation recorded in the Torah, it is clear that Avraham tried to save them (unlike Noach in his generation.) But the goal was not a successful plea, it was just any plea. A comparable example would be a criminal accused of a heinous crime, for which everyone knows he is guilty and the evidence being overwhelming. He is a assigned a public defender not to win his innocence, but rather to go through the formality of a proper trial.
Ultimately Avraham is the Landlord of the Land of Israel. The people of Sedom, while technically not under his authority or jurisdiction, live in his land. Therefore God feels the need to inform the Landlord before evicting tenants.
God praises Avraham for teaching his children about what is “just and right.” As such, the destruction of Sedom is an important teaching moment about the balance between the righteous and the wicked, and reward and punishment.
All of these explanations have one thing in common. The goal of the conversation was not to have Avraham successfully plea on behalf of the people of Sedom. The goal was for Avraham to struggle with it, take ownership of it, learn from it, and teach his children as a result.
Rabbi Joshua ibn Shuaib (1280-1340) was a Spanish Torah Commentator and Kabbalist. He was a student of the famed Rashba, and teacher of Rabbi Menachem ben Aaron Ibn Zerach. Ibn Shuaib quotes extensively from the latter part of Tanach as a means of expressing the core values of each Torah Parsha. He seamlessly weaves together the rationalist interpretations of Rambam and the mystical interpretations of Ramban into his own commentary on the Torah.