Question: When Jehoshaphat king of Judah appealed for God’s help against the vast army from Edom he used God’s friendship with Abraham as a reason why God ought to help as if the friendship had some kind of leverage: “O our God, did you not drive out those who lived in this land when your people Israel arrived? And did you not give this land forever to the descendants of your friend Abraham?” (2 Chron 20:7). James in the New Testament also mentions Abraham’s friendship with God, saying Abraham was called God’s friend. I didn’t know that God had friends. What kind of friendship did Abraham and the Lord have?
Answer: An excellent friendship, let’s a take a look at some of the details of how it started and grew:
How many of Shem’s family made their way from Ararat (Gen 8:4) in the west to the eastern city of Ur after the Flood we can’t be sure about, but at the same time other people were travelling from the east to the city of Ur:
“And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven” (Gen 11:2-4 KJV).
A little prior to second millennium BC, the people of Sumer started to build towers, perhaps because they were afraid of another flood. They built quite a few towers that are known as “ziggurats.” There was a spectacular ziggurat at Ur and just like Genesis tells us, it was made of baked bricks. Each brick weighed as much as 33 pounds. The lower portion of the ziggurat, which supported the first terrace, would have used some 720,000 baked bricks, laid with bitumen, a naturally occurring tar most likely obtained from the banks of the river Euphrates.
The resources needed to build the ziggurat at Ur would have been immense and it was a long-term building project. King Ur-Nammu who founded the Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur, in southern Mesopotamia, as well as being famous for his legal code, was a prodigious builder. The most impressive monuments of his reign were ziggurats. He wished to build the greatest ziggurat yet built at Ur. Ur-Nammu started the project but died before it was finished. His son Shugli took the project over; it was being built around the time that Terah lived there. Yahweh has not been seen for quite some time, the last we read is that he closed the door on the ark, or we might say battened down the hatches. Then he spoke with Noah after he had disembarked, but that was centuries before. But now, in Terah’s time, suddenly Yahweh comes down to look at the city and the tower.
How long Yahweh walked and looked at the city we don’t know, it could have been days or weeks because the city was large: by the year 2030 BC Ur’s population had grown to around 65,000 inhabitants.
The remains of Ur have been subject to some extensive archaeological work that informs us that during the reign of its Third Dynasty the city had two-story houses; many houses had standardized dimensions. There were plumbing and sewage systems and even bathrooms in many houses. The streets had drainage and there was also, as Genesis points out, city planning. So along with the city’s wide-ranging legal system, which took care of civil and family law, it was a recognizable civilized city.
At some point Abram met Yahweh in Ur. When God speaks of Abraham later, in Isaiah 41:8, he mentions Abraham, adding the words “my friend.” Just like we might say to someone, “Hey do you know my friend Karl?” Abraham was Yahweh’s friend, and the friendship was struck up somewhere.
As Yahweh made his way around the streets of Ur he would have seen many of its inhabitants going about their business and Abram was one of them. Stephen in the New Testament explains that God first spoke to Abraham in Ur, which is referred to as “Ur of the Chaldees” quite often, and Chaldees is the Greek name for the Akkadian area. Akkad was a city northwest of Ur, and towards the end of the third millennium BC became the dominant political force in the area in what was known as the Akkadian Empire. It became known as the Babylonian Empire later. Nimrod, who was a descendant of Noah’s son Ham, was the leader of a kingdom that covered quite an area of Mesopotamia: Babylon, Erech (Uruk), and Akkad in the land of Shinar. People sometimes speak of the “Tower of Babel,” but Genesis never calls it by that name. Genesis chapter 11 speaks of a city and its tower, which was in a plain in Shinar. The Akkadians called the land Shumer and it looks like Shinar is the Hebrew equivalent.
We know that there were a lot of towers built at that time; Genesis picks one of them to make its point. The pursuits and pride of the people of Ur and surrounding cities were not pleasing to God. Pride in our own abilities and standing do not comprise of the humility that God requires from us, so God acted: he confused “their lip.”
Around the same time Terah was getting mixed up with the polytheism of Ur. Later, in the book of Joshua, we are told that Terah worshipped other gods, (Josh 24:2). In the Genesis storyline as soon as Terah starts to get wayward God is ready to step in and redirect Terah’s son Abram to pick up the truth and run with it. Abram obeyed and became good friends with Yahweh in the process.
In Genesis 17:17 the Lord tells Abram that his wife Sarai was going to give birth. This is news to Abram who shows the relaxed friendship he has with Yahweh by falling down laughing as friends sometimes do in each other’s company.
Once Abram has recovered from his laughing fit he starts to reason with Yahweh. This is how Genesis puts it: “‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!’ Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.’
God continues, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham.” The Lord, who enjoys making a point by poetic wordplay, adds one letter to Abram’s name and the old meaning of “exalted father” changes to “father of numerous people.” The second half of Abram’s name will now be raham, which in the Arabic language signifies “numerous.” God’s half of the contract will be to make Abraham very fruitful - kings and nations will proceed from him. Then the Lord said, “As for you . . . You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you,” which was Abraham’s part of the contract. Abraham stood up and acknowledged his part of the agreement. When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.” Which means he ascended: allowing Abraham to see a little of what being God Almighty means.
Abraham spent a few days recovering from his operation and telling Sarah what her new name was and what God had said would happen. On one of those convalescing days, probably just as he was starting to feel normal again, round about midday Abraham sat outside the entrance to his tent, looked over and saw three men standing nearby. He immediately recognized the Lord, but this time there were two other men with him. He may have met the two men before in Ur, because a similar mission was in operation to what had previously happened at Ur. Abraham gathers himself and hurries over to where they were and bows low before them. Then he speaks, probably thinking of his quickness to seal the covenant by getting circumcised, and says, “If I have found favour in your eyes, please stay for lunch.” It was after all, lunchtime. The men agree and sit down under one of the trees, while Abraham heads back to the tent and probably says something like, “Sarah, Yahweh is here with two friends, can you make some nice lunch please? Serve that bread you make so well.” Sarah gets to work, Abraham heads for the door and turning says, “Oh Sarai, I mean Sarah, please make haste.” He then selects a choice tender calf and tells someone to prepare it. He then arranges for some water to be brought so his visitors can wash their feet, after which he brings out lunch along with some butter and milk. While they eat he stands close by in the shade of a tree.
It’s interesting for us to note that Yahweh and the angels were happy to eat, as if once they had taken the form of a man their bodies could take on nutrients and benefit from them. They ate some carbohydrates for energy, protein for muscle growth, and a little fat.
After lunch, sitting in the shade of the trees of Mamre the men ask where Sarah is. Yahweh and the two other men are now using Sarah’s new name. “She’s over there in the tent,” Abraham replied. The Lord then said, “I promise I’ll come back to you about this time next year, and your wife Sarah will have a son.” Sarah is listening to this: Sarah, a long-liver, still had beauty and strength but she knew that her time of fertility had past, so with a laugh to herself she made light of the prospect. So Yahweh said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too exceptional for Yahweh to do? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” The tone of this suggests the response was less a rebuke and more of a reassuring plea. All the same Sarah is worried that she is being considered the weak link in the chain and feels constrained to make an appearance and reassure everyone that she didn’t laugh. Yahweh knows better.
The men didn’t stay too long after this because they had business to attend to. They started walking towards Sodom, and Abraham, still a little sore, walked with them to see them on their way. In these middle chapters of Genesis we get to hear quite a lot of the dialogue between Abraham and the Lord. We may find ourselves wondering what they talked about at previous encounters with each other but here we find out how their conversation went. Yahweh said to his two companions, and of course Abraham could hear,
“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”
Then he gave some reasoning why he should be frank and inform him about the plan for the current mission: “For I know him that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” This statement is similar to what any of us might say, “Yeah, I know Jim, he’s a good guy, I’m sure I can trust him.” Abraham received the Lord’s endorsement in a similar way.
We are reading these words of what took place that day because of Abraham: he was from Mesopotamia, a people who were skilled in the art of writing, Abraham would pass on what he knew to his children, and they would value every word and pass it on to each successive generation all the way to us. Abraham is still instructing his children – “Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham” (Gal 3:7).
So the Lord explained to Abraham that, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” This is a similar statement to when the Lord first went down to see the tower and the city the men of southern Mesopotamia were building, which is where he first met Abram, and so now we see how it could have happened. Yahweh had been a part of Abraham’s life for close to 30 years, they knew each other well. Yahweh lets Abraham know he wants to see how the people of Sodom will treat his two friends: will they welcome them or mistreat them? The cities of the plain were not far from the King’s Highway and travellers would stop at the cities looking for accommodation. It was probably these travellers and their families that had been robbed, abused, and even murdered that had appealed to God in prayer, which is why the Lord mentioned the “outcry” that had reached him.
The quartet has been walking southeast which descends towards the Dead Sea area. Tradition says Abraham walked as far as the village of Bani Na’im, which is about a walk of eight miles. This is where Yahweh and Abraham stopped, but the two angels continued on their way. Since the Lord had told Abraham his intentions for the day, and remembering what happened at Ur, he knew the Lord would act if he deemed it necessary. So Abraham drew close to Yahweh as two men do when they are about to talk about a significant decision—a two-man conference. Yahweh listened as Abraham made his point: “Will you actually destroy the righteous along with the wicked? Supposing there are fifty righteous ones within the city. Will you actually destroy it and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous that are found there? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous along with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike! The Judge of all the earth will do what is right, won’t he? . . .” Yahweh replied, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” Abraham continues to talk and Yahweh continues to listen, which tells us something about God’s willingness to hear what we have to say. Yahweh showed no signs of impatience even though Abraham was taking some time to get where he was going. He listened to each point Abraham made, and gave an appropriate response to each question. Abraham whittled the numbers of righteous people down to ten; he must have thought it was a job well done because there must surely be ten righteous people there. Abraham had been trying to secure Lot’s safety and feeling confident that Lot and his family would now be safe. Abraham made his way steadily back home and Yahweh went on his way.
It’s a good walk to the plains from the village of Bani Na’im, the path descends trickily downwards and the strong angels would negotiate the walk at a good pace, but it wasn’t until evening that the duo arrived at Sodom. Lot had been living there for about 18 years and was now an elder who sat at the city gates, which was customary. If Lot was round about the same age as Abraham he would by this point be in his late nineties. He was from the same strong stock as Abraham and was probably the oldest man in Sodom although he would not have looked it. It’s possible that Lot noticed that the two men approaching the town were companions of Yahweh, they would have something about them that he’d seen before, or he may have possibly met them before in Ur. In the Gospel of Mark an angel is described as a young man, it’s safe to assume that these two men also had a young appearance. Lot, who was old, gave the young men the same courteous greeting that Abraham had. Lot showed himself to be hospitable, caring, and righteous, so here was one righteous man, just nine to go to save Sodom. The two men politely refused Lot’s offer of accommodation saying they would spend the night in the town square. They wanted to check the place out and see how the majority of the citizens treated them. But Lot insisted, which is an interesting scenario to think about because it means that it’s possible for a man’s resolve to prevail over an angel’s point of view. Peter in the New Testament tells us that, “Even angels long to look into these things.” Angels seem to have the same inquiring minds that we have and can be influenced.
The young men were eventually persuaded and accepted Lot’s invitation and ate supper with him and his family. But Lot wasn’t the only one who had spotted the young men because a rabble had assembled outside his house. In fact, these angels had made a big impression on the whole town. Word had quickly spread that there were some extremely good looking, handsome, and well-proportioned young men visiting the town. The crowd was made up of both young and old who had become inflamed with lust and were shouting to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to appeal to them; he shut the door behind him. He’d seen this before and knew that they wouldn’t be persuaded by reason. This was the “outcry” that had gone up to the Lord and it was why he was coming down to see it for himself. The men of Sodom were hell-bent on getting their way. Lot tries to make a deal with the men, his two virgin daughters instead of the two men. This was Lot’s way of trying to placate the men. It seems a ghastly deal, but we can see a little of what was going through Lot’s mind. That his heavenly visitors should be abused was unthinkable, particularly as they were under the protection of his roof, so he took the drastic and warped step of offering his daughters to the lecherous men. The daughters were at least from earth and it would be a crime against human beings, but if the men of Sodom abused the angels it would be a crime against heaven. Lot’s attempt to appease the men incited them even more. “Stand back!” was their menacing reply. The two angels who were listening to all this behind the door quickly opened the door and pulled Lot back inside. Genesis tells us that the mob moved forward to break down the door. The Sodomites were then struck with blindness. That means darkness fell upon them so they could not see to find the door. Evening had already fallen and as we have said, the whole Dead Sea area lies between two tectonic plates that are pushing together. The area forms part of the Great Rift Valley, the deepest and most spectacular scar on the planet’s surface. The two plates are moving in a general north-northeast direction, but the Arabian Plate is moving faster than the African Plate. The grating together of the plates often causes seismic activity, which has been common throughout history right up to today. The deepest land trench on the globe lies at 1,300 feet below sea level and had already started to billow some plumes of dust as the men of Sodom searched for the door to Lot’s house and gave up.
The two angels knew now what was going to happen to the city: the men of Sodom had sealed its fate by their gross outrageous behaviour. The angels walking into the town had been a test, they were even prepared to stay in the town square, but Lot knew it would be far too dangerous for them there. But even in the safety of Lot’s house the two angels were still sought out by the town’s people who wanted to abuse them. The two angels asked Lot if he had any other people in the town who belonged to him. “Yes,” he replied, “I have two future sons-in-law.” So, that’s Lot and his wife, two daughters, and two men who were espoused to his daughters, that is still only six people, not yet ten. Sodom would not be spared. Lot got a torch and made his way to where his daughters’ boyfriends lived and told them that the two men who were staying with him have said that Sodom is about to be destroyed so flee for your lives. They couldn’t believe it and thought it was some sort of joke. When Lot got back home the two angels probably told him to get some sleep because he’d have to be up early and get moving. As dawn broke the angels told Lot to hurry and take his family and get to high ground.
Lot lingered; after all, he was about to leave all his earthly goods. The previous evening Lot insisted that the angels could not stay in the public square, but now the tables were turned, the angels insisted he could not stay in Sodom. These were strong angels who couldn’t easily be resisted, one angel grabbed Lot in one hand and his wife in the other, the second angel had a daughter in each hand, and they dragged the family out of the town. It appears that the angels weren’t about to let the Lord down, they were determined to do the task assigned to them, even if the earthbound humans were making it difficult for them. The family was taken to relative safety but there was still some way to go. Lot and his family are told to continue to flee and not to stop anywhere in the plain, not to linger or look back, they are told to get to high ground. It looks like the original trio of Yahweh and the two angels had regrouped and were now back together: Lot had originally called the two men “my lords” (Adon) when they entered the town, which is a term of respect that may be addressed to men, but now he calls one of them Adonai—the title reserved for God.
Lot asks if he can avoid the climb. Ezekiel tells us that a part of the sin of Sodom was being arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned. Perhaps a little of the ways of Sodom had infiltrated Lot’s life, particularly the “overfed” part. Whatever the reason, he didn’t want the long climb. The hills to the west of the Dead Sea rise less steeply than the hills on the east but the climb is still well over 1000 meters. Lot pleads his case, “Your servant has found favour in your eyes, and you have shown great kindness to me in sparing my life. But I can’t flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I’ll die. Look, here is a town near enough to run to, and it is small. Let me flee to it—it is very small, isn’t it? Then my life will be spared.” Lot’s power of persuasion worked once again: “Very well, I will grant this request too; I will not overthrow the town you speak of. But flee there quickly, because I cannot do anything until you reach it.” Yahweh’s friendship with Abraham was revealing itself. The Lord felt constrained to withhold sentence until Lot had reached safety. He took into account Abraham’s intercession for Lot, because Yahweh takes friendships seriously. Yahweh was a good and faithful friend to Abraham. We can see here a little of the importance of prayer. Even though ten righteous people had not been found, Yahweh was not about to let his friend Abraham down.