To best understand the stories of the Torah, one should understand that they are stories. That is, one should read them as ancient morality plays where the focus should move, surprisingly, from God to human. The stories of Avraham need to be understood against the background of the opening myths of Adam and Noah. Adam, “the human prototype”, is created in a universe where both good and evil exist. (Why the universe needs to contain evil is the ultimate question, which can only be answered that infinity must by definition allow for infinite possibilities and permutations.) Once human evolves to having knowledge of both good and evil, an infinite range of choice between the two opens. Not surprisingly, “God despairs” of the choices humans make and decides to “start all over again.”
Noah enters the story as “a righteous man.” However, the story shows him as passive as well. While Adam is disobedient by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Noah is compliant by saving his family and animals to reproduce life after the flood. Yet, post flood, humanity descends into wicked behavior again, as Noah and his descendants have failed to be champions for justice. The notion that “God will no longer destroy the earth by flood again” lets us know that humans now have power over life and death, good and evil, on this planet.
Avraham, the spiritual father of our people, faces constant challenges as to what is right and just. One can question his behavior over the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael as well his taking his son Isaac as a potential sacrifice. Yet, in one of the most well-known passages of Torah literature, God informs Avraham that he “intends to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah”, for the sins of its inhabitants have come to God’s attention. (According to rabbinic understanding, the sin of Sodom is not what its name has become famous for, but rather its lack of hospitality.) Avraham challenges God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth judge justly?” As a result of their famous negotiation, God accedes to Avraham’s demand to make sure that the innocent are not swept away with the guilty.
This little drama acted out between Avraham and God is meant to be a morality tale for us. Sadly, most of us would still like to blame God for the world’s ills as opposed to taking responsibility for them ourselves. Avraham and Sarah, like us, witness a world in which life is not fair, in which wickedness abounds. They, like us, have choices to make — and in retrospect mistakes will be made. Avraham’s challenge to God – shall not the Judge of all the earth judge justly – is even more a challenge to the generations to come. Judaism teaches that we are God’s agents on earth. The innocent shall not be condemned, nor the guilty acquitted. In our creation, choices between good and bad are constantly in front of us. Goodness and justice are built into the universe, but require human agency to be activated.