At this time of year we are reminded of the many things that we can be thankful for. Many of these involve family, friends, good food and fine homes to gather in. Most of us will even consider how fortunate we are to live where we do rather than the many places on earth where life is much harder.
For now, let’s consider something about God’s nature that we might not normally notice. A couple of stories might illustrate what we’re getting at here. The first story involves a visit by God to Abraham, during which God informs him of a very real threat to his nephew, Lot. The threat was that God Himself was considering whether to destroy all the cities of the Valley of Siddim, where the cities of Sodom and were located, because of the absolutely heinous way they treated the weak and helpless among them (among other sins).
Abraham, realizing the threat to his own brother’s son, asks God whether He would spare the city if He discovered 50 right-living people within Sodom’s gates. God responds in the affirmative. Abraham then begins a round of what can only be described as haggling with God to get the number down. After a while the reader can’t help grinning at Abraham’s tactics. In some ways the story has the feel of a child bargaining with an indulgent parent. God doesn’t seem to put up much of a fight as he lets Abraham bargain him down to only 10 righteous people. What Abraham is really after is the safety of his nephew, so he has reason to believe he has accomplished this via the indirect means of his bargaining.
What we often miss in this quasi-humorous account is the extreme ease with which God adjusts the threshold of His intolerance downward. The city probably had tens of thousands of inhabitants, yet God will be satisfied to let it be if only 10 people should prove worthy. He seems okay with a ratio of less than one righteous person in a thousand. That doesn’t seem to fit the stereotype of a harsh, judgmental God who is just itching to zap the unrighteous at the drop of a hat. There is ample further evidence in the Bible of the “indulgent parent” side of God for those with eyes to see.
The scene shifts to the viewpoint of the two angels who carry on to Sodom. Their job seems to be to investigate the reports that have reached God’s court about the extreme behaviour of the inhabitants. They seem to be fully empowered to act on God’s behalf to nuke the cities if their observations warrant it. As they prepare to spend a night in the streets, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, offers them hospitality to prevent them from suffering the inevitable harm that would come to them at night there. In a scene reminiscent of a black-and-white monster movie, a mob of townspeople surround Lot’s house and threaten carnage unless the visitors are handed over to them. It becomes clear to the angels that only Lot’s family is worthy. They save this family by blinding the mob. Since the city falls far short of the 10 righteous people, the cities of the valley must be destroyed for the good of the rest of human civilization.
Even though saving Lot’s family falls outside the purview of their instructions, the angels give Lot the opportunity to gather the rest of his family out of harm’s way. When the family fails to show up, and Lot is hanging back, the angels literally drag Lot, his wife and the two daughters still living at home out of the city to save them. They tell them to head for the hills, but Lot insists on letting them go instead to the next small town to be safe. The by-now-exasperated angels agree to let this town survive the coming destruction for the sake of Lot’s family.
If I were one of those angels I would be tearing my metaphysical hair out over the hesitations and downright stubbornness of Lot. It might have been tempting to just let him fry. We are not told why they bend over backwards to make sure Lot survives the holocaust. It may have to do with Abraham’s worries about him. It may have been the fact that this family was willing to put their lives on the line to protect them before they were aware of the angels’ power. Or it just might be that God’s approach to human beings had rubbed off on them. In any event, the grace extended to them was far-reaching.
Glimpses of this can be seen at times when Israel was disobedient to God’s covenant with them. For instance, the ink was barely dry on the covenant at Sinai when they started making a golden calf and claiming that IT had brought them out of Egypt! They managed to violate the most important commandments in less than 40 days! Worshipping another god. Making a graven image of another god. Taking God’s name in vain (by giving the idol God’s identity as Israel’s deliverer). I think I could understand how this might peeve the Almighty more than just a little bit. God bent the very laws of time and space to rescue this ungrateful people????
The rest of the history of ancient Israel shows them as basically disobedient with brief periods of return to God and His covenant. Finally, after centuries of this treatment, God must close down Israel’s nationhood and deliver them back into captivity (just as He had originally found them in Egypt). So, really, is the God of the so-called Old Testament the kind who zaps first and asks questions later, or does He really have that quality of patience that is quaintly referred to as “longsuffering” in older translations of the Bible?
There is no difference between the Old Testament God and Jesus in terms of patience with humanity’s sinfulness. Jesus says as much in Matthew 5:43-48. His disciples are admonished to love their enemies in order to be “sons of your Father in heaven.” We are to know God the Father’s basic orientation to sinners because he causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
Wait just a second there, isn’t that just a bit unfair to the righteous?
That depends on whether you want people wiped out or saved, doesn’t it? If God were willing to wipe out the few good for the sake of the many evil, the good would be in deep, deep trouble. The Apostle Peter has these words of comfort for those who are tired of the evil and oppression in the world, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance… Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.” (2 Pet 3:9,15 NIV)
We can be thankful (both good and evil!) that God consistently is willing to put up with the evil for the sake of the few.