|“The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” John Martin, 1852
Editor: One of our readers sent in the following question. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I am happy to attempt a response.
Question: Some of this non-violent God stuff is relatively new to me, and just curious how it would relate to stories like the flood or Sodom and Gomorrah? Would this be explained in any of your books?
Response: A good question and yes, we do ‘go there’ in A More Christlike God (in the section entitled “Unwrathing God”) though not with the specific instance of Sodom and Gomorrah. Let’s begin generally and work our way there.
If we start with the premise that God is only finally revealed exactly in Jesus (John 1:18, Hebrews 1:1-3), as perfect love seen most clearly on the cross (1 John 4:7-21), then everything else is filtered through that.
That Christ-centered theological filter requires us to reread stories like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in some cases, we can no longer receive the original telling as straightforward face-value propositions. Happily, we actually see both Jesus and Paul modeling this for us.
Derek Flood demonstrates Paul’s approach beautifully in an article entitled “The Way of Peace and Grace: How Paul Wrestled with Violent Passages in the Old Testament.” You can download the pdf here.
I also recommend his book, Disarming Scripture, the premise of which is that the Bible requires, invites and trains us to be faithful to Scripture by faithfully questioning it. Here is Brian Zahnd’s review.
As for specifics, on a story like the flood, there’s also a lot going on in the OT context that points this direction. Here’s a great short video we did with Matt Lynch that addresses that.
In the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the 10 plagues in Egypt, or the snake plague in Numbers, we have to take into account how the Jewish theology of the destroyer/Satan developed through the centuries within the Hebrew Scriptures.
In their earliest understanding, the destruction inflicted by the destroyer (or ‘destroying angel’) is synonymous with destruction by God himself. The stories sometimes use destroying angel and God interchangeably.
But there’s also a development where the destroyer and God are distinguished, probably to keep God’s hands clean from doing violence personally. So the destroyer comes to be seen as God’s hitman, sent from the courts of heaven to punish evildoers.
Still later, in Wisdom of Solomon 18, we see Aaron as a type of the Servant-Messiah coming to overcome the destroyer through nonviolent intercession. That’s a big development because it sets God against the destroyer (also known as ‘the wrath’) as an enemy.
Then by John 10:10, God himself (in the flesh) clarifies: “It is the thief who steals, kills and destroys. I come to bring life to the fullest.” He’s drawing a hard line of opposition. When you see destruction and death-dealing, that’s the thief. When you see human flourishing and life-giving, that’s the Lord.
Note well: The Father and Son are one. The Son reveals and serves the Father. And the destroyer is the enemy, not the servant, of God. Through the Cross, the destroyer is vanquished and driven out.
To remove any final doubts, you get to the book of Revelation chapter 9. Verse 2 tells us that a star had fallen from heaven to earth (traditionally Satan). It opens the pit of the abyss, a great smoking furnace, and horrifying demonic locusts emerge from the smoke (vs. 3). And then we read in verse 11:
“They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abandon and in Greek is Apollyon (that is, Destroyer).”
Who is the fallen angelic star, the king of the demonic hoards? Whether you read this narrative and its characters literally, prophetically or mythologically, could we agree on this: God is not the destroyer.
Satan (however you understand it) is the destroyer. And Satan is not God’s servant or hitman. Satan is the defeated enemy of Christ. For those who’d like to dig into this a little deeper, I recommend these articles by Richard Murray here and here.
So, that’s quite a development over about 1500 years of theology. That means we need to read those original stories in light of the fresh revelation of Christ and his apostolic spokesmen. Here’s a fine example:
Paul gives his commentary on the subtlety Old Testament destruction in 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 (NASB):
10 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.
6 Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” 8 Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. 9 Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents.10 Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
What’s going on here? Paul reminds his readers of the OT stories of destruction. He tells us why they are preserved as Scripture: as cautionary tales (vs. 11).
Notice how he tells them: he repeatedly uses the passive voice (they were laid low, they were killed, they were destroyed). He refuses to use “God” as the subject. That is, he resists ever saying, “God killed/destroyed them.”
In fact, even when the destroyer is not specifically mentioned in an OT destruction text, Paul assumes that when death comes, the destroyer is responsible.
Why not? Because in light of Jesus Christ, God is not the destroyer or death-dealer.
And even though the sin was against God (vs. 5) and even against Christ (vs. 4, and maybe vs. 9), the death-dealer is specified carefully: sin killed them, the serpents killed them, the destroyer killed them.
Let’s summarize the development of the God’s relationship to the destroyer over time.
Early Jewish logic:
1. We sin against God.
2. The destroyer kills us.
3. God is the destroyer.
Middle Jewish logic:
1. We sin against God.
2. The destroyer kills us.
3. God sends the destroyer.
Later Jewish logic:
1. We sin against God.
2. The destroyer kills us.
3. God rescues from the destroyer.
The tricky part is that sometimes we see later rabbis redacting the earlier script in retrospect, so that you get some or all of these different views showing up, even back to back, in the text.
The Destroyer and Passover
Compare these texts from Exodus 12 as an example.
Exodus 12:12-13 … I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments—I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
Exodus 12:23 For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to come in to your houses to smite you.
What’s so striking here is that the two views dramatically shift the meaning of “Passover.” In the first instance, “pass over” means God is doing the killing but will bypass the faithful Israelites and not smite them. In the second instance, “pass over” seems to be more like overshadowing with his protective presence!
Sodom and Gomorrah
Now to consider the razing of Sodom and Gomorrah. Regardless of what we think actually went down, how does the story describe it?
Genesis 19:24 Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, 25 and He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.
Genesis 19:13 For we [the angels] are about to destroy this place, because their outcry has become so great before the Lord that the Lord has sent us to destroy it.”
We need to use the principles of John 10:10 and 1 Cor. 10:1-11 to re-hear Sodom and Gomorroah such that God is neither the destroyer, nor sends the destroyer, but would rather save from the destroyer. Why? Because that’s what the New Covenant revelation of Christ has revealed about God. Is there evidence of that? There are hints it was heading there in Genesis 18:16-33 with the negotiations by Abraham to reduce the number of righteous in the city in order to save it. If anything, Abraham stopped the negotiations too early. God might have done what he did for Nineveh with Jonah … or at least the story of Jonah shows that it’s possible.
That’s the trajectory we normally take once we realize God is not the destroyer, nor sends the destroyer, but rather, sends the Messiah to rescue us from the destroyer.
I’ll give Wisdom of Solomon 18 the final word here. Excuse the old English, but it uses Aaron the intercessor to prefigure how God sends the Servant-Messiah to overcome ‘the destroyer’ and ‘the wrath’ (synonyms).
21 For then the blameless man made haste, and stood forth to defend them; and bringing the shield of his proper ministry, even prayer, and the propitiation of incense, set himself against the wrath, and so brought the calamity to an end, declaring that he was thy servant.22 So he overcame the destroyer, not with strength of body, nor force of arms, but with a word subdued him that punished, alleging the oaths and covenants made with the fathers.