Let’s take a look at the story of Noah, alongside the account of the incident at Sodom.
The stories are closely related, and are meant to be read together. In each, we have one man singled out for his righteousness, Noah and Abraham. They dwell in a sense apart from their fellows.
Abraham does not take up residence in Sodom; that privilege belongs to his nephew Lot, a man of middling virtue. Both accounts begin with wickedness. “And the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.” (Gen. 6:2)
I take it for granted that we are not talking about ordinary marriage here, but a sort of generalized debauchery: the Hebrew word for “wife” is the same as is used for “woman.” The evil of the debauchery is, however, more profound than mere sensuality. It bespeaks a deranged soul: “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5).
By the time we arrive at Sodom, the imagination of man has now hit upon the unnatural: “Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them.” (19:5) It is remarkable that Lot offers the men, not a male servant, whereof no doubt he had plenty, but his “two daughters which have not known man.” (19:8) He is thus appealing, feebly enough, to their shame rather than to their shameful predilections.
The Curse of Ham by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov, c. 1850
In both stories destruction comes from above. In the story of Noah, it comes as rain – the rain that in Scripture usually denotes blessing. Our Father in heaven, says Jesus, sends rain upon the just and the unjust. The rain here may suggest a reversion to chaos, an obliteration of boundaries: the firmament that separates the waters above from the waters below.
But the story also expresses God’s tender regard for the animals, provided for in the ark; most suggestive, of the life-giving power of water and of divine blessing, is the image of the dove returning to the ark, with the olive branch in her beak.
When we move to Sodom, the animals are nowhere to be seen, and what comes from heaven is not rain, but fire. Dante understood the fire as symbolizing the majesty of God, offended directly by the blasphemy of unnatural sexual vice. Sodom is an inverse holocaust: the fire makes uninhabitable the land where no true sacrifice to God was made.
In both stories, God makes a promise. In the story of Noah, the promise is absolute; in the story of Sodom, it is conditional; yet the mercy of God is seen more profoundly in the latter. When the rains cease, God sets his rainbow in the heavens, as a pledge that never again will he send a flood to destroy all flesh.
But there is no rainbow over Sodom. Instead we have Abraham acting as an intercessor. It is the first act of intercession in Scripture, and evidently it meets with God’s approval; indeed it is the effect of God’s grace. Abraham here pleads not for the sinner – that mercy has not yet been definitively revealed, though it has been suggested by God’s having clothed Adam and Eve. He pleads for the righteous men.
Perhaps there are fifty? God agrees not to destroy Sodom for the sake of the fifty. Whereupon Abraham, patron of poker players, proceeds to talk God down to ten. Well, there are not ten righteous men in Sodom, but the Lord does save Abraham’s sort-of-righteous nephew and his dubious family.
Both stories end with a suggestion of moral decline. Noah grows a grapevine and gets a bit totty from the drink. He seems innocent enough about it. He lies down in his tent, and is “uncovered” (10:21), which may well happen to a sprawling fellow wearing only a tunic. His youngest son Ham sees his father’s nakedness and tells his brothers about it, evidently with a note of ridicule and impiety.
Lot and His Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi, c. 1635
They respond by laying a garment upon their shoulders and walking backwards into the tent, that they might not see Noah so compromised, and they gently cover their father’s dignity. Noah blesses them for it, and curses Ham.
But the story of Abraham, as before, is more complex. We encounter the same separation of Abraham from Lot. Once Sodom is destroyed, Lot does not return to Abraham, his unknown intercessor. Perhaps Lot has a little bit of the Mrs. Lot in him; he retires to a nearby cave with his two daughters.
Their souls too have been scorched by living in Sodom. They get their father drunk so as to commit incest with him, to preserve his seed. From those unions are derived the hated Ammonites and Moabites. That is not how Abraham is going to be the father of a great nation.
The stories teach us that the way of God is not the way of man, for there is a way that seems good to the heart of man, but it leads to destruction. He who would save his life must lose it, says Jesus, and that applies to Noah, obeying the word of God and entrusting himself to a mere wooden vessel – like the wicker basket that held the baby Moses, floating upon the shallows of the Nile; the Hebrew word is the same.
It applies to Abraham, entrusting his entire life, day by day, to God; not sailing like Noah upon the waters for certain months, but becoming the essential pilgrim, praising God, and seeking all good things from Him alone.
We verge here upon the inner harmony of love and the abundant life. That brings us to the three angels who come to visit Abraham. More about them soon.