Updated: Jan 24, 2022
Sin always has consequences. Sometimes more dramatic than others.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 18-19
God used Sodom as an important lesson for Abraham, teaching him that He holds people accountable for sin, but He also shows grace and mercy. Abraham learned the power of intercession and stepped into his role as the father of God’s people.
The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is immense, and their sin is extremely serious. (18:20)
This weekly post started as a resource for Bible study leaders; I am slowing adding older posts for reference.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
One of the first and most important rules of parenting is being consistent and persistent in punishment. If you let a child get away with something once, it’s a lot of work to convince them that “you’re really serious this time”. The same is true in a classroom, in a job, in the military, and so on. Share some stories about times you didn’t take someone’s threats of discipline seriously, then share some stories about some fierce discipliners. What was your relationship like with both groups? (Acknowledge that one can be too fierce.) God is eternity’s greatest discipliner. So, why do some people not take Him seriously? Because they think they’re “getting away with murder” down here, so why bother! 2 Peter 3 talks about this very thing, but he clarifies that God has a different sense of timing than we do. Once He passes judgment, there is no going back. That’s why He delays; He doesn’t want to send any of us to hell. He wants to give us every chance to repent. And that’s why we should take every disciplinary action from God very seriously!
Skittles and M&Ms.
This is a fun one that I’ve modified from the Quicksource resource. Get a bag of M&Ms and a bag of Skittles. Pull out a common color of both and put into a clear jar. In other words, a whole bunch of one color of M&Ms and then a few of the same color of Skittles. Then put one Skittle of a completely different color in there. Put it on the table and ask your class to identify the piece of candy that’s not like the others. Hopefully they’ll be able to see the different color Skittle! But then point out that there were actually quite a few that were different—you just couldn’t tell without taking a very close look! In Sodom, Lot kinda stuck out, but his family didn’t. How many people in Thomson would be “surprised” to find out that you’re a Christian?
Miscellaneous Questions to Get You Started.
Depending on what direction you take your lesson, one of these might work.
The lesson skips over the display of Abraham’s hospitality to the three strangers. Such hospitality is still a hallmark of Middle Eastern culture. Is showing hospitality important to you today? How do you demonstrate it?
Both Abraham and Sarah have now laughed at the possibility of having a son. Do you think it was sarcastic? Cynical? Wistful? Incredulous? How do you react when someone around you makes a bold proclamation?
Who is the most patient person in your family? What does it take to exhaust that person’s patience? If you’ve ever managed to do that, how did it make you feel?
Following David’s sermon on grief this past Sunday, one of the common stages of grief is bargaining. Have you ever bargained with God (said to Him “If…” or “But…”)? What is the difference between bargaining and interceding?
Who is the disciplinarian in your family? How do they typically discipline?
This Week's Big Idea: The Purpose and Power of Prayer
A cynic would say that Abraham was trying to manipulate God or bargain with Him in this passage. The lesson will clarify Abraham’s reasons, but that begs the question! I would guess that most of us believe that we cannot change God’s mind (nor would we want to!). We also believe that we can’t tell God something He doesn’t already know. So what is the purpose of prayer? Here is a brief summary of everything I believe the Bible teaches about prayer:
God would not tell us to do something for no reason; God told us to pray.
In prayer, we do not seek to change God’s mind but to discern His will.
God does not need us to act but delights to respond to our prayers.
God has uniquely blessed true corporate prayer.
You can check out the references listed below; it would seem that the primary purpose of prayer is to build our relationship with God through confession, repentance, thanksgiving, and discerning God’s will (through His Spirit). The Lord’s Prayer makes all of this very clear (Matt 6:5-15) and that is the model we should follow in our own prayers. He says that God knows when we’re praying for show, when we’re babbling aimlessly, and when we’re being hypocritical about forgiveness. His given model is: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” That will regularly be summarized by the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. All of our prayers should be characterized by each of these.
Here are the things prayed for in the Bible that God approved or answered: childbirth (Gen 20:17, 25:21), mercy (Num 11:2), protection (2 Ki 6:18), intercession (1 Sam 12:25), thanksgiving (2 Sam 7:18), preservation (2 Chr 6:28-31, 2 Chr 6:36-39, 2 Chr 7:12-16), confession (Neh 1:5-11), evangelism (Matt 9:38), unity (John 17), spiritual maturity (2 Cor 13:9), wisdom (Eph 1:15-19), boldness (Eph 6:19), government (1 Tim 2:14), patience (Jam 1:2-7), healing (Jam 5:14-16).
And here are the “conditions” listed in the Bible: being right with others (Isa 1:15, 1 Cor 11:13, 1 Pet 3:7), repentance (Isa 19:22), intentionality (Jer 29:12, Matt 6:5-15), humility (Dan 10:12, 2 Cor 12:7-9), agreement among believers (Matt 18:19, Acts 1:14), faith (Matt 21:22, Jam 1:6-7), sincerity (Mark 12:40), persistence (Luke 18:7, Acts 6:4, Rom 12:12), honesty (Luke 18:13-14), in the Spirit (Rom 8:26, Eph 6:18), humility (2 Cor 12:7-9), joy and thanksgiving (Phil 1:3-5, 4:6), reverence (Heb 5:7), with right motive (Jam 4:1-3), righteousness (Jam 5:16).
I think we can put that spirit into a few key questions:
Are we intending to pray according to God’s will? (Are we me-focused or other-focused; have we repented of our sin; do we believe our request is righteous; will we accept “no”?)
Are we trusting God with the outcome?
Are we in agreement or at odds with fellow church members?
When you dial into Abraham’s request, you will see that everything about it was biblical, right down to his boldness. You see, God didn’t need Abraham to hold Him back or change His mind. God wanted Abraham to grow in his responsibility for the lost world around him. Mission accomplished.
Bonus Big Idea: Who Is Lot?
Sadly for him, pretty much everything we know about him is bad. He seems to have a father-son relationship with Abraham after his father died, which is otherwise fine. And through Abraham’s leadership, Lot was blessed with large herds, so much that they have to split up. Abraham demonstrated his humility by offering Lot first choice. Lot demonstrated his bad decision-making by taking that offer rather than deferring. Then, he went for the nicest-looking land (leaving Abraham with something less), but land that also included the city of Sodom.
[***Aside: isn’t that a lesson in itself? Would you take a choice that involved some superficial upside, but also the continuing presence of great sin? A lot of us do that through either our friends or our jobs.***]
Finally, Lot discovered he was not self-sufficient, needing Abraham to rescue him from captivity.
Not surprisingly, that episode caused Lot to move from living outside the city of Sodom to living inside the city walls where he thought he would be safe. He had enough sense to try to protect the angelic visitors to Sodom, but then made the incomprehensible (though culturally acceptable) offer of his daughters to the mob in exchange. Later, in hiding in the mountains, those same daughters drug him into incest. Out of those acts came the Ammonites and Moabites, two great enemies of Israel. Note, though, that one Moabite, Ruth, would be the great-grandmother of King David.
The New Testament mentions Lot twice: Luke 17 and 2 Pet 2:7. Luke doesn’t talk about Lot the man, and Peter primarily says that Lot must have been righteous based on God’s decision to rescue him. I’ll stick with Peter’s characterization, but I think that Peter is being extremely generous with the facts we have about Lot.
Part 1: Man’s Sin (Genesis 18:20-21)
20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is immense, and their sin is extremely serious. 21 I will go down to see if what they have done justifies the cry that has come up to me. If not, I will find out.”
You will need to start by at the very least summarizing all of chapters 18 and 19 for your group. Abraham is sitting in the entrance of his tent (in the shade) during the heat of the day when he sees three visitors and shows them appropriate hospitality (in extreme contrast to the reception they will have at Sodom). One of the visitors tells Abraham that he will have a son in a year’s time (to which Sarah laughs). And then the texts shifts and identifies the speaker as the LORD. God then has an internal dialog which tells us that He has a “teaching moment” for Abraham, which is where we pick up our lesson.
In these two verses, God explains why He has to bring judgment to the earth: sin. The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great that God must directly intervene in their history. Why tell Abraham this? The reason given in the previous verses is so that Abraham will understand and teach his children that sin has consequences and that no one can escape judgment. Remember that Abraham is still “getting to know” God and every exchange they have shows him just a little more about the God he now worships. That must certainly be true. But I think there is another reason: Lot. God knows that Abraham feels responsible for Lot; starting with Sodom (and know that they deserved it!) engaged Abraham emotionally. God clearly wanted Abraham to “intervene”, else He would not have said anything. This would become a foundational lesson about the intersection of sin, judgment, repentance, mercy, and intercession. But Abraham had to want to jump in of his own accord, else he would not have learned this lesson.
Did God need to “go down to see” for Himself? Of course not. But don’t you think that phrase would have heightened the tension for Abraham? He knew what went on in Sodom; he knew what God would find. I’m sure that quickened his pulse!
What would the cry/outcry be? It could be that victims’ families were crying out to God, it could be that victims were literally crying out for help, or it could be the righteous few crying out for justice. The thing you will want to make clear to your group is it didn’t take these cries for God to know what was going on. This is another anthropomorphism in the line of the parable of the persistent widow. God wanted Abraham to know that He would mete out justice as appropriate.
This is a tough thing to discuss: what are the societal sins that have driven you to despair? Perhaps America is not “as bad as” Sodom, but we have real issues. The matters of abortion, child abuse, sex slaves, and exploitation of underprivileged make me very, very upset. This is difficult to talk about because you could easily get stuck here! The point is—in keeping with last week’s lesson about persistence in prayer—that we must continue to pray for and seek God’s solution to these crises.
Aside: Abraham’s 3 Visitors at Mamre
Most Christians believe that Abraham was visited by three angels (one being an archangel), a matter that seems easily confirmed by Gen 19:1. But at least some believe that the Trinity itself visited Abraham in human appearance. One of the most famous of the Orthodox icons (and in my opinion just about the most beautiful painting ever) is Andrei Rublev’s Trinity. As with all icons, Rublev intended it as a teaching tool for his illiterate neighbors and thus packed it with layer upon layer of meaning. Everything from the gestures to the colors to the background was intended to teach his people the doctrine of the Trinity. Of course, none of what he painted is actually found in Genesis 18! It is all symbolism collected from throughout the Bible. I will say this, though—just because two of them men were called “angels” in chapter 19 does not mean they were not the Son and Spirit. There was no doctrine of the Trinity in Moses’ day (when this was written down), so what else could Moses have called these two visitors?
Part 2: Abraham’s Intercession (Genesis 18:22-25)
The men turned from there and went toward Sodom while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Abraham stepped forward and said, “Will You really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are 50 righteous people in the city? Will You really sweep it away instead of sparing the place for the sake of the 50 righteous people who are in it? You could not possibly do such a thing: to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Won’t the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
You should know that the “haggling” goes on and Abraham “talks God down” to just 10 righteous people in Sodom. I talk about this very, very important exchange below; God does not need His mind changed, but Abraham does need to grow into his role as the father of the chosen people. Abraham is continuing to realize that life isn’t just about him, that he has a responsibility for the welfare of everyone around him. And this “victory” of instant response for his intercession for complete strangers will embolden him to continue to seek justice and mercy.
So, Abraham is standing with God, watching the two men walk to Sodom. He knows what they are going to find, but he also knows that his nephew’s family is there. Abraham is not just worried about his relatives (because there are only 4 of them, and he never gets below 10). Abraham’s exchange with God is very straightforward. Abraham believes that he is pushing his luck with God by making his appeals for mercy on the righteous, and his word choices are almost humorous. The truth (as we know it today) is that God loves to hear us appeal to His nature in our prayers. That’s what we learned in Hebrews 4: God loves our bold appeals to His justice and righteousness because that means we are in tune with who He is and what He does. Of course He will honor those prayers!
But the important thing for us to remember is that Abraham didn’t necessarily know that yet. He’s still getting to know God, what kind of ethic He has. In Abraham’s mind, he is taking a real risk interceding for those people. That’s how we know this is a real turning point in His life. He wasn’t sending an army out to rescue Lot from bandits, he was standing before a deity putting his soul at risk. And thus God teaches him that though He will always take account for sin, He will also be ready to extend grace (whether they ask for it themselves or not).
About this passage, someone asked a great question: “What did God teach Abraham that’s applicable to our relationship with the world today?” Wow. Think about this. We’re talking about the most depraved town we know of. Yet God would still have shown mercy to them (nevermind that He couldn’t find 10 righteous people in it!). For whom have we stopped interceding because we think they’re too wicked? For whom have our prayers stopped rising to God because we don’t think they’re worth it?
Aside: Can We Change God’s Mind?
There are a few places in the Bible where it really seems to read that someone changed God’s mind. This “haggling” in our passage about Sodom is one of the big ones. The other big one is where Moses pleads with God not to destroy the Israelites (cf. Ex 32:12). We also have instances of God regretting an action (making people, Gen 6:6-7; making Saul king, 1 Sam 15:11; destroying Jerusalem, 2 Sam 24:16). But then we have very clear statements saying that God does not repent, regret, or change His mind (Num 23:19, 1 Sam 15:28-29). What are we to do?
Open theists and process theologians teach that God does indeed change His mind as He learns new facts to affect His decision-making. Sometimes those new facts come from us in our prayers.
Here’s the problem with that teaching and the reason why anyone would suggest such a thing in the first place: the Hebrew text uses the same word in each one of those passages! Naham is a very old root word which properly means “to sigh.” Just as today a sigh can indicate many different emotions, so it could then. This word is used to mean “to be sorry,” “to pity,” “to console,” “to rue,” “to repent,” “to regret,” “to be moved to pity,” “to suffer grief,” “to comfort oneself,” and more. When we covered the Flood, I called God’s “regret” an anthropomorphism—something to help people relate to God (and something that would more properly be understood as “grief”). As in our passage, God is not surprised or taken aback by man’s sin. But the exchange did teach Abraham the importance of teaching repentance and interceding for sinners.
Part 3: God’s Grace (Genesis 19:12-16)
Then the angels said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here: a son-in-law, your sons and daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of this place, for we are about to destroy this place because the outcry against its people is so great before the Lord, that the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law. “Get up,” he said. “Get out of this place, for the Lord is about to destroy the city!” But his sons-in-law thought he was joking. At daybreak the angels urged Lot on: “Get up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city.” But he hesitated. Because of the Lord’s compassion for him, the men grabbed his hand, his wife’s hand, and the hands of his two daughters. Then they brought him out and left him outside the city.
The lesson passage skips over the very disturbing episode of the attempted gang rape (I talk about that below), which is understandable. The people of Sodom demonstrated their wickedness. What I find important about the verses in our passage is that Lot has to be prodded to think about others, whereas Abraham’s first thought was of others. Lot repeatedly gets stuck on his own needs. I’m not sure if he’s not taking the threat seriously, or if he’s so surprised that he can’t get his head together. Probably, I would have left him there! That’s why God didn’t send me. God showed grace not only to Lot, but also to his family. By no virtue of their own (obviously)!
Really, the powerful words of this exchange speak for themselves. Your mind probably wanders to the same questions mine does: why would Lot hesitate? why would he want to go to Zoar? why is his family such a mess? We aren’t going to know the answers, but I think the point is to highlight God’s true mercy. And I also think that Abraham knew all this about Lot and Lot’s family, what a screw-up he was. But that didn’t stop Abraham from interceding for Lot with all his heart. Who have you stopped praying for? Do you do as good a job of interceding for others as Abraham did? I challenge your group to make a list of people who need intercessory prayer (and let’s start with forgiveness, mercy, and second chances). You don’t have to list them by name, but I want you to come up with people that perhaps you’ve stopped praying for for any reason. As we said last week, don’t limit God!
The other thing to take away from this lesson is the imminence of God’s judgment. Sodom and Gomorrah got what was coming to them, and Jesus pointed them out as an example—but it will even worse for those who know about Jesus and still rejected Him! We should have urgency about our intercession and our witness. The kingdom of God is near!
Aside: A Pillar of Salt? Really?
We have had to deal with skeptics galore in these first few chapters of the Bible! It is not uncommon to hear someone call the idea of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt a fable. After all, they say, salt from the Dead Sea regularly collects on debris to form grotesque figures (some of those figures are pretty creepy). Therefore, this is just like any other fable that tries to give a supernatural explanation for a natural phenomenon.
This, like every other skeptical view, isn’t really seeking to disprove the Genesis account, only to say that they don’t believe it happened. That makes it a weak argument; if God can raise Jesus from the dead, why can’t He turn someone into salt?
It does raise the question, though—why salt? It does seem odd considering this is the only time God takes this kind of action. They’re close to, but probably not on, the Dead Sea. They might be rather far away from the salt formations. So, why would God choose salt? I can’t help but chuckle that New Agers consider salt and sulfur 2 of the 3 primal elements, but I’m sure that’s a coincidence. Rather, I say God chose salt because it wouldn’t burn in the firestorm (Lot would see what happened to her) but it would dissolve in the next rainstorm (other people didn’t need to see her; just her family). I could be wrong.
Closing Thoughts: Talking about Sodomy vs. Homosexuality
In my reading, defenders of homosexuality argued that the "sin of Sodom" was not homosexuality but wickedness and inhospitality, and they take offense that "sodomy" (which has a connotation of being any "sexual crime against nature") is applied to a consensual, monogamous, same-sex relationship. Practicing homosexuals, understandably, want to distance themselves from other acts of sodomy such as child-rape and bestiality. Especially if you have a practicing homosexual in your group, I would be careful not to draw those parallels because they would significantly distract from the real conversation.
By dictionary definition, "sodomy" is a sexual act that cannot lead to procreation. Like it or not, homosexual acts are by definition sodomy. We can acknowledge that consensual homosexual activity is not other heinous acts identified as sodomy, but it is still sodomy, and it is still expressly condemned by God Almighty (see Lev 18:1, 18:22, 20:13, in particular).
All of that said, the argument that the real sin of Sodom wasn't homosexuality but wickedness and/or inhospitality isn't compelling. The "wickedness" that Lot begged the mob from (Gen 19:7) was their desire to have sex with the male-appearing angelic visitors. The "inhospitality" of Sodom condemned in Ezekiel 16:49 was their "abominable" activity, otherwise used of sexual perversion. Both 2 Peter 2:6-7 and Jude 7 specifically connect Sodom's destruction to their homosexual behavior. Yes, the men of Sodom were violent and inhospitable, but those things were also tied to their homosexual practice.
Lest certain Christians get haughty here, let’s remember that everything from viewing pornography to lusting after someone to mistreating our spouse is in the same category as all sexual sin.