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The Ethics of Our Stories

  • The Ethics of Our Stories

    Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24
D'var Torah By: 

Our discussion here will focus on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. But before getting to the story itself, I wish to put a number of ideas in place. The primary goal of my discussion here is to show how, within biblical literature, one can find an idea and then its opposite in some other passage. In fact, this is so often the case that one should be particularly cautious when trying to summarize what the Bible "says" about any particular notion. We will consider one such case as it derives from this week's parashah: the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Another idea I wish to explore is what is commonly referred to by literary critics as ethical criticism. The word "criticism" here is a generic term for any critical approach to literature; the word ethics should be self-explanatory. Put together, we are talking about the ethics of reading literature within a culture. Just what does that mean?

As a distinct concept related to literature, ethical criticism emerged in the wake of the university curriculum debates of the 1960s and 1970s. In his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), Wayne C. Booth recalls how, in 1962, a black member of the University of Chicago faculty, Paul Moses, protested the teaching of Huckleberry Finn in a required undergraduate humanities course. Professor Moses felt that use of Mark Twain's book as part of "the literary canon" constituted a tacit sanctioning of its depiction of "Negroes" in nineteenth-century rural America. At issue were the overt and subliminal messages sent by Twain's classic. Professor Moses wanted his colleagues to consider what effect a given piece of literature has on the students when it, rather than something else, is listed as required reading. He pushed people to reflect upon the effect of their choices and their responsibility for that effect.

A heated debate ensued. No one wanted to censor the teaching of any piece of literature. Even so, people recognized that by establishing a curriculum, they were conveying something about the value of the works included, as well as those excluded. Was the curriculum meant to convey something exclusively about the literary or aesthetic aspects of a work, or should a work's ethical value factor into its inclusion or exclusion? This is no high-in-the-sky theoretical issue. Each of us confronts these ethical concerns when we think about what children should be exposed to at any given point in their development. As teachers and parents, we regularly censor works through our choices, even if that censorship is only meant to govern over a temporary period in a child's lifetime. Creating a course's "canon" is tantamount to expressing that some works have greater value than other works, at least in a given academic context. Shouldn't ethics be a significant criterion in that evaluative process?

There is yet another element involved with establishing the classic status of texts. Clearly, ancient sources are going to include ideas that we, today, consider reprehensible. For instance, the Bible does not protest the existence of slavery, polygamy is a cultural norm, the annihilation of indigenous cultures is portrayed as justified-to name just a few ancient practices we reject today. When we read passages that support such things, we must obviously pass judgment. Our rejection of such practices as no longer valid hardly seems controversial. But such examples are largely cut and dry. It is when we confront stories whose messages are ambiguous that the task of evaluating the ethics of a narrative becomes more difficult.

Parashat Vayeira includes more than its fair share of stories that raise ethical questions. Theparashah commences with a story about the cruel treatment of Hagar and Ishmael. It ends with God calling upon Abraham to sacrifice his son on an altar. One could write extensively about the ethical implications of both of these scenes. I wish to turn our attention, however, to the yet more complicated ethical problem raised by the Sodom and Gomorrah story. Not only does this story contain irresolvable indeterminacies, but its core message was readily rejected by another biblical writer.

God seems to recognize that God's plans for Sodom and Gomorrah may be cause for concern. God reflects, "Should I hide from Abraham what I am doing?" (Genesis 18:17). Given that Abraham is destined to instruct his descendants about what is "right and just" (18:19), God figures God needs to justify God's own borderline decision to destroy these two pagan cities. The pretext is that the sin of these cities is excessive, implying that God has no alternative but to destroy them. Details remain sparse. Abraham challenges God, pushing God to consider the presence of innocent people. Does the wickedness of even a majority outweigh the innocence of a (small) minority? He tests God's resolve by offering fifty innocent people as a number worthy of sparing the cities. Eventually Abraham gets God to concede to as low as ten: "'What if ten are found there?' And [God] said, 'For the sake of the ten, I will not destroy it'" (18:32). That would be the end of the discussion; God and Abraham part ways. Since the cities are destroyed, we are left to believe that ten could not be found. The potential for redemption through a changing of ways is never explored.

The story would have us believe that everyone was annihilated, including children. Are we to imagine that there could ever be a circumstance in which children are to be considered sufficiently evil so as to warrant a death sentence? What are we to teach regarding themeaning of this story? Abraham asks God, "Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" (18:25). Given the conclusion of the story, the lesson would appear to be that the destruction of the city was justified. If we do not sustain that perspective, then we must offer a tacit critique of God's character, which, incidentally, God seems open to given God's thoughts of concealing the plans at the beginning of the story.

The problem, of course, is that this story is part of our canon. Unlike the curriculum debates, where people could more or less randomly include and exclude titles based on any array of pretexts, we have inherited our canon and it is not about to change. So we are, in fact, forcedto read this story and to evaluate how we will use it. Personally speaking, I cannot resolve the ethical implications of this passage. What was the author trying to convey by portraying God as callous or by showing Abraham's initial assertiveness give way to cowardice in not insisting that surely a single innocent child will be present? Apparently, another biblical author was equally disturbed by the implications of this story, and he composed a book that presents a strong alternate to the approach in Genesis.

The Book of Jonah offers an extended ethical critique of the themes of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. In Jonah, an Israelite prophet is sent to convince a people of a foreign citythat they should save themselves by altering their behavior. As in our Genesis story (Genesis 18:20-21), the wickedness of the city dwellers had presented itself to God (Jonah 1:2). In Jonah, the prophet is told to proclaim before the city dwellers that their city will be destroyed in forty days' time. Very few details are provided as to how Jonah's words are received, but the people of Nineveh simply respond with belief in God. "They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth" (3:5). The king of Nineveh himself decrees, "Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. Would that God turn and relent, foregoing his anger so that we won't perish" (3:8-9).

Here then is a point-by-point comparison of these two stories:

Proposed Destruction of a Pagan City

  • God tells Abraham of God's plans to destroy two pagan cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, so that Abraham will be able to teach what is right and just.

  • God tells Jonah of God's plan to destroy a pagan city, Nineveh, as punishment for their unethical behavior. God wants Jonah to motivate the people to repent, so that God's planned punishment will be unnecessary.

The Jew's Reaction

  • Abraham senses such destruction is unjust, since there should be some minimal number of innocent people present. He argues God down to considering a mere ten inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah as worthy of saving the city.

  • Jonah believes the city should simply be destroyed, so he attempts to flee from his assignment on the open seas. His action endangers the innocent people on the boat with him. He has himself thrown overboard, ostensibly to bring about his death.

God's Actions

  • Abraham's attempt to assuage God ends abruptly at ten. The author does not have him push God further to consider even one innocent person, nor is repentance ever entertained as an option. Abraham departs, and the fate of the city is left as it was first planned.

  • Jonah is miraculously retrieved from the ocean's depths by a fish, and he is forced to appear in Nineveh. He informs the people of their future.

Story's Conclusion

  • The people of Sodom and Gomorrah continue in their iniquitous ways, and the cities and all of its inhabitants are annihilated.

  • The people of Nineveh go into mourning, and public repentance at a mass scale takes place. The planned punishment is now unnecessary, so the city is spared.

Looming over both narratives are the following questions: What is just punishment? Is repentance always acceptable? To what lengths should we go to avoid punishments that have irreversible effects? Justice in the Jonah story means saving the people from their destiny. Justice in the Abraham story means punishing those who deserve punishment. In Jonah, God stands for justice; in Genesis, Abraham appears to be the voice of justice, unless, of course, we accept the premise that Sodom and Gomorrah were fundamentally irredeemable (which is surely the attitude of the writer). In Jonah, God rebukes Jonah's insensitivity over the destruction of Nineveh: "Should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?" (4:11). No such expressions are spoken by God concerning Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis.

My purpose here is to highlight just how important it is to evaluate the ethical implications of all texts, whether they be canonical or not. As is so often the case, within Hebrew Scriptures one can find two stories that explore the very same underlying theme, but from opposite perspectives. This is why overarching attempts to teach what the Bible says are deeply flawed. Is the Genesis story's message more intrinsically biblical than the Jonah story's message? That is, should we focus primarily on the notion that there are intractable forms of moral turpitude that require the annihilation of an entire civilization? Or are we supposed to rebuke the Jonahs of this world who hold that there are times when destruction is to be preferred over repentance?

These questions deserve to be the focal point of our religious reflection. They are the very questions that prompted an author to compose Jonah.

David H. Aaron received his doctorate from Brandeis University and ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati. At the time of this writing in 2008, he was professor of Hebrew Bible and History of Interpretation at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati. His most recent book at that time was Etched in Stone: The Emergence of the Decalogue (T & T Clark, 2006). You can contact him at

© 2008 David H. Aaron

Reference Materials: 

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 85–110