Abraham came near and said, “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it?  “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”  So the LORD said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account.”  And Abraham replied, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes.  “Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, will You destroy the whole city because of five?” And He said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” He spoke to Him yet again and said, “Suppose forty are found there?” And He said, “I will not do it on account of the forty.”  Then he said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak; suppose thirty are found there?” And He said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”  And he said, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord; suppose twenty are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the twenty.”  Then he said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the ten.”  As soon as He had finished speaking to Abraham the LORD departed, and Abraham returned to his place.  Gen. 18:23-33

The remainder of chapter 18 shows Abraham seemingly trying to reason with God about the destruction of the righteous along with the wicked with regards to Sodom and the surrounding cities.   According to Robert Alter’s commentary, the terminology used in the Hebrew implies that of a courtroom scene.  Notice Abraham’s demeanor as the conversation with God continues, he gets more sheepish and afraid to continue as he goes on.

This is a passage that we find interesting topically, but becomes fascinating when you delve deeper.  What did this conversation even occur?  What was Abraham’s chief concern, that he would be so bold as to plead with God?

Was it Abraham’s expectation of mercy from a God who was ready to execute judgment?  Abraham likely realizes he may not have the power to change God’s mind, but perhaps Abraham is looking for peace of mind himself – that he wants to believe God’s mercy can trump his judgment except in the worst of cases – and hopefully Sodom isn’t this bad.

Was Abraham merely concerned for the safety of Lot, and not necessarily the others?  Various commentaries I’ve read mention that 10 is a base unit for a society, and we are dealing with five cities of the plain (Sodom and Gomorrah were just the two major cities).  So by Abraham starting with the number 50, he may have been inquiring from God if he would spare a given city if that city had at least ten people in it.  The bargaining also stops at ten.  This would seem to imply that Abraham does have a genuine concern for the sinners in those cities, hoping the merit of the few could cause the rest to be spared.

It is quite curious that Abraham does not bring up Lot, who lives in Sodom.  Obviously Abraham is concerned for Lot’s life, as Abraham spent a good portion of his life raising Lot.  Perhaps Abraham does not know if Lot is considered wicked or righteous in the eyes of God, and feels approaching God about Lot directly may not be the best angle, thus he avoids mentioning Lot altogether.  In this case his argument with God may have merely been to hope God would change his mind to save Lot’s life based on hoping there were enough other righteous people in the doomed cities.  We must remember that Abraham already intervened to save Lot once (Gen. 14), and perhaps felt this was Lot’s due judgment, as we see Abraham does not attempt to physically interfere with trying to save Lot again himself.

Or yet still, was God testing Abraham’s sense of righteousness?  Whether Abraham would say “sure, let them all burn!” or searching Abraham’s heart to find if it contained compassion?

In the end, God saved Lot and most of his family, appeasing Abraham’s concern.  This alone does not reveal to us if Lot and his family were actually righteous, or if God was just using the convenience of moving them out of the city to procure their lives (save for Lot’s wife who turned back.) Ultimately 2 Peter 2:7-8 in the New Testament tells us that Lot would have been counted among the righteous.