by Doug Ward

One of the most popular genres of fiction, in both visual and print media, is the courtroom drama. A good story of this type keeps us on the edges of our seats.

Excitement builds as the witnesses are questioned and the evidence is presented. With the jury, we try to decide whether the defendant is innocent or guilty of the charges, and, in the latter case, what the appropriate sentence should be.


Besides being entertaining, courtroom dramas can raise serious questions about justice, so they are not necessarily a waste of time. The administration of justice is an important subject; consider, for instance, the amount of space that the Bible devotes to it. From the time when the blood of Abel, the first murder victim, "cried out" to God (Gen. 4:10), justice has been a major concern for human society.


The book of Genesis, the very first book of the Bible, describes a series of events that could rightfully be termed a courtroom drama. God, the "Judge of all the earth" (Gen. 18:25), is the main character in this drama. The patriarch Abraham also plays a significant role, as does Abraham's nephew Lot. On trial are the now infamous ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.


You may not have previously thought about the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah as a courtroom drama. Nonetheless, a detailed study of Gen. 18-19 carried out by biblical scholar James K. Bruckner [1] demonstrates that a "juridical" approach to the interpretation of these chapters is both appropriate and helpful. To see what insights result from such an approach, let's take a fresh look at this familiar episode from the life of Abraham.


Abraham Goes to Law School

"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers," instructs Hebrews 13:2, "for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." In this verse, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews undoubtedly had in mind the examples of Abraham and Lot recorded in Gen. 18-19.


The eighteenth chapter of Genesis begins with Abraham showing generous hospitality to three strangers who are passing through (18:1-8). These strangers turn out to be special messengers from God. They bring the message that Abraham and his wife Sarah will soon be parents of a son (18:9-15), as God had promised years earlier (15:4-5).


The strangers also have another, less pleasant, task to carry out. God decides that Abraham should be informed about it too:


"And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him" (18:17-19).


God had established a special relationship with Abraham. Through Abraham and his descendants, God would bless the entire human race (Gen. 12:1-3). One aspect of that blessing involved Abraham's teaching "the way of the Lord" to his family. So God intended the trial of Sodom and Gomorrah to be a learning experience for Abraham. Abraham would learn something essential about "the way of the Lord" from these events and would then pass that knowledge on to his children. As a result, his children would be equipped to "do justice and judgment."


The Hebrew phrase translated "keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment" in verse 19 can refer to general obedience to God. However, this phrase can also have a more specific technical meaning in certain biblical contexts [1, pp. 89-91]. In particular, when rulers are said to "do justice and judgment," the phrase often refers to the administration of proper legal procedures. Here are some examples:


"... because the LORD loved Israel for ever, therefore made he thee king, to do judgment and justice (1 Kings 10:9).


"And David reigned over all Israel; and David executed judgment and justice unto all his people" (2 Sam 8:15).


"The king's strength also loveth judgment; thou dost establish equity, thou executest judgment and righteousness in Jacob" (Ps. 99:4).


"The LORD executeth righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed" (Ps. 103:6).


"Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth" (Jer. 23:5).


Although Abraham was not a head of state like David or Solomon, the context suggests that doing "justice and judgment" has a similar judicial connotation in Gen. 18:19. What God intends Abraham to learn from the investigation of the cities of the plain specifically involves the proper administration of justice. Indeed, notice that Abraham's discussion with God in verses 23-32 deals with questions of due process of law.


A Public Trial

God, as magistrate, begins the pre-trial proceedings with an announcement that serious charges against Sodom and Gomorrah have been filed:


"And the LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know (Gen. 18:20-21).


Here God states that a "cry" against Sodom and Gomorrah has reached him. Bruckner explains that the Hebrew words for "cry" in verses 20-21 are "technical terms of legal complaint, requesting deliverance" [1, pp. 91-92]. He adds, "These terms are typically used to present the outcry of a maltreated marginalized individual within a community as evidence in legal cases" (p. 143). When these words are used in the Hebrew Scriptures, they often describe complaints that are directed to God as the supreme judge (Gen. 4:10; Exod. 3:7; Exod. 22:23; Isa. 19:20). In this case, the gravity of the complaint leads God to make an indictment and authorize a formal fact-finding process.


Recognizing Gen. 18-19 as a courtroom drama can help us answer a question that has puzzled many readers of Gen. 18:21: Why would an omniscient God need to "go down" to determine the truth of the charges? In considering this question, let us keep in mind that God is using the trial of Sodom and Gomorrah as a vehicle for teaching Abraham and his descendants about proper judicial procedures. So God is not carrying out his investigation because he lacks knowledge. Instead, he wants to illustrate how a trial should be conducted, for the purpose of educating Abraham and those who will come after him. As we read further, we will see that God designs the trial of Sodom and Gomorrah so that it will include these important characteristics:

It is conducted in public.

The verdict will be based on eyewitness testimony rather than hearsay.

It includes the testimony of more than one eyewitness.

Bruckner points out that traditional Jewish exegesis of these verses has recognized God's role as Teacher. One midrashic source comments, "This teaches that a judge must scrupulously examine a case before pronouncing judgment" (Genesis Rabbah 49.6, quoted in [1, p.145]).


Christian tradition sees an additional detail that shows the extent of God's commitment to carry out a fair judicial process. The text of Gen. 18-19 seems to indicate that two of Abraham's special visitors are angels who go on to investigate matters in Sodom (18:22; 19:1-2), while the third one, referred to in Gen. 18:22 as "the Lord," stays behind to hear Abraham's concerns. It could be, then, that one of Abraham's visitors was a Christophany-i.e., a temporary, pre-incarnate appearance in human form of the One who later became Jesus Christ.1 If so, God may be emphasizing the importance of basing legal judgments on firsthand evidence. The New Testament states that Jesus' experiences on earth prepared him in a special way to be our Intercessor and High Priest (Heb. 2:18; 4:15). Similarly, the best guarantee of a fair trial for Sodom and Gomorrah would be for the judge to ascertain, though direct sensory experience, what was going on there.


Abraham for the Defense

God's public announcement of the indictment against Sodom and Gomorrah invites concerned parties to get involved in the proceedings. Abraham quickly takes advantage of this opportunity. His nephew Lot lives in Sodom, and he is apparently at least somewhat familiar with the nature of the charges, since he does not ask God what "grievous sin" has allegedly been committed. And so Abraham "came near," as Genesis 18:23 tells us. Again, the Hebrew phrase for "came near" has a technical judicial meaning [1, p. 96]. Today we would say that Abraham "approached the bench" (p. 147) as an advocate for the defense.


Abraham asks God, "Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?" Bruckner [1, pp. 96-98] notes that in this legal context, a better translation would be, "Will you destroy the innocent with the guilty?" Abraham, in other words, is not concerned with the question of whether anyone in Sodom and Gomorrah is sinless. Instead, he is wondering about the fate of those who are innocent of the charges in question.


In any case, Abraham is making an assumption that may strike many readers as unusual. Although nothing explicit has been said about what sentence will be imposed if the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah are found guilty, Abraham assumes that the sentence would involve the total destruction of those cities (18:24). It should also be noted that God says nothing to contradict that assumption. We will return to the question of the possible meaning of Abraham's assumption later in this article.


Abraham is concerned that the facts of the case be thoroughly investigated, and in particular, that the number of innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah be determined. God, who must be pleased with Abraham's vigorous and persuasive advocacy, agrees that the cities will be spared if at least ten innocent people are found in them. With these pretrial discussions complete, it is time for the trial to begin.


The Trial and its Aftermath

Genesis 19 opens with two angels arriving in Sodom to gather evidence firsthand. The presence of more than one witness is consistent with the principle later codified in Deut. 19:15: "One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established."


As Bruckner observes [1, p. 150-152], Gen. 19 presents the evidence to the reader without editorial comment, as in a courtroom. Like jurors in a courtroom, we can listen to the testimony and draw our own conclusions.


First we observe the behavior of Lot, who meets the angels at the gates of the city (19:1). Like his uncle Abraham, Lot is a gracious host. He invites the travelers into his home for a meal and a good night's sleep (vv. 2-3).


However, what starts out as a quiet evening is interrupted by a riot in the streets of Sodom. An angry mob surrounds Lot's house and demands that he release his guests to them (vv. 4-5). Verse 4 emphasizes that this mob includes the entire population of the city, everyone except for those who are inside the house.


Lot then steps outside and attempts to reason with the crowd at his door. He begs them to change their minds and abandon their plan to violently assault and abuse the strangers (vv. 6-7). But the Sodomites derisively dismiss Lot's pleas. Who is he, a relative newcomer to their city, to stand in judgment of them? They mock Lot for calling their behavior "wicked" and threaten to treat him even more wickedly (v.9).


These threats of the crowd essentially constitute a confession of guilt. The whole population of the area stands in defiance of God; there are not even ten innocent men to be found. The angels immobilize the mob with blindness and pull Lot back inside the house (vv.10-11). Sufficient evidence has been presented, and the verdict is clear. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah assert that no one has the right to judge them, but like everyone else, they are subject to the judgment of their Creator.


As Abraham had assumed, Sodom and Gomorrah were sentenced to utter destruction. The few who were innocent were given an opportunity to flee the area and escape to the nearby village of Zoar. Then the sentence was carried out (vv. 12-25).


Lessons from the Trial

As we have seen, God intended the trial of Sodom and Gomorrah to be a learning experience for Abraham and, ultimately, for the whole human race. At the conclusion of this courtroom drama, we should then consider the lessons we have learned. Here I will highlight three sets of lessons.


One set of lessons is about justice and proper legal procedure. Just legal decisions are based on direct testimony from multiple witnesses, presented at a public trial. Every effort should be made to determine the truth and avoid the possibility that the innocent are falsely convicted.


A second set of lessons is about the source and content of the law upon which just legal decisions are based.

The people of Sodom believed that "might makes right" and asserted that no one could dictate morality to them. But right and wrong are not determined by the force of a mob or by popular opinion. Instead, they come to us from the God of Abraham, the Creator and Judge of all.


The cataclysmic sentence of Sodom and Gomorrah seems to imply that God's basic principles of morality are somehow hardwired into his creation. The offense of these evil towns was so great that creation itself was affected. As the Promised Land would later "spue out" the Canaanites for their great sins (Lev. 18:28), the cities of the plain had to be incinerated in order for creation's equilibrium to be restored. When Lot's wife was turned to salt (Gen. 19:26), she was not being punished for a quick, curious backward glance; instead, she had lingered too close to the site of a cataclysm that was inevitable and unstoppable.


Finally, there are lessons about the character of God, upon which his law is based. When helpless victims cry out for justice, God hears and comes to their defense. He brings justice but does not delight in punishment. (The trial of Sodom and Gomorrah was a final opportunity for repentance as well as a model for fair legal procedure.) His desire is for us to heed his loving instruction and pass it along to future generations.


1. James K. Bruckner, Implied Law in the Abraham Narrative: A Literary and Theological Analysis, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 335, Sheffield Academic Press, London, 2001.


1For further discussion of Christophanies, see the article "The Angel of the Lord" in Issue 11 of Grace & Knowledge.

Issue 23


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
18 Feb 2007, 14:33.