THE TRIAL OF
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
You may not have previously thought about the judgment of
Abraham Goes to
"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
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
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:
the LORD loved
"And David reigned over all
"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
"And the LORD said, Because the cry of
Here God states that a "cry" against
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
· 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. ; ).
Similarly, the best guarantee of a fair trial for
Abraham for the Defense
God's public announcement of the indictment against
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
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
Abraham is concerned that the facts of the case be
thoroughly investigated, and in particular, that the number of innocent people
The Trial and its Aftermath
Genesis 19 opens with two angels arriving in
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
However, what starts out as a quiet evening is interrupted
by a riot in the streets of
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
As Abraham had assumed,
Lessons from the Trial
As we have seen, God intended the trial of
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
The cataclysmic sentence of
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
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,
File translated from