“Then Abraham … said ‘Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’” (Genesis 18:23-25).
You remember what happens next. The Lord agreed that for the sake of fifty innocent people he would not destroy the cities. Abraham obviously knew how bad those cities were because he then begins to lower the number of people for whom God might spare the cities. He asks if God would spare the cities for the sake of 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, then 10 people. In each case God agrees that He would spare the cities for those smaller numbers. Then Abraham stops!
Many readers of the Bible have wondered why Abraham stopped at 10 people, and some have even written that the Patriarch “ran out of steam” as it were – that he lacked faith to continue to plead for fewer than ten people. Others have thought that perhaps Abraham thought that if there were fewer than ten righteous people, perhaps there was no excuse for those cities.
This kind of speculation forgets an important detail in the story. Notice that immediately after Abraham pleaded for ten God answered: “‘For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.’ When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home” (Genesis 18:32-33). Notice that it was God who ended the conversation – before Abraham could plead any more. Given the pattern he had utilized, it is likely that Abraham might next have pleaded for the sake of five people, but God knew that there were fewer than five righteous individuals in the two cities and He chose to spare those very few - the family of Lot (Genesis 19) – and to destroy the cities of sin.
There are a great number of things we can learn from this story. Not only does the episode show obvious things such as the seriousness of uncontrolled sin and its potential for judgment, but we see much regarding the mercy of God and the effect of even a few upright people in protecting communities from judgment. We see in this story God’s willingness for His people to pray for those who are in dire danger – no matter what their moral state – and perhaps we see the desire of God to look for and to see the compassion of his servant Abraham in this situation. And remember that Abraham did not plead that the righteous would have opportunity to vacate the cities, or to be miraculously protected from the destruction – he clearly was pleading for the cities and their inhabitants as well as any righteous citizens.
God doubtless knew that Abraham would have continued to plead for those cities if even fewer than ten righteous people were to be found in them, but knowing His own purpose God ended the conversation when Abraham got as far as ten. Nevertheless, it’s something we might ask ourselves: would we have gone as far as Abraham? At what point would we have stopped asking for mercy on others?