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With Whom Shall We Bargain, If Not “God?”


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In the book of Genesis in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, Abraham dares to haggle repeatedly with Yahweh; attempting to spare the city of Sodom from utter destruction. He ultimately fails in his efforts; but not before getting his god to compromise again, and again, and again (Gen. 18:16-33). One can hardly keep from chuckling, as he risks divine wrath, and intercedes and negotiates for the sake of those few inhabitants who are willing to do the right thing.

First the entire city will be spared if fifty righteous people can be found. Then it’s forty-five, then forty, then twenty. “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more,” he says. “Suppose ten are found there?” Yahweh concedes. In the end, all it would have taken was ten righteous folks to be found, and all of Sodom would have been spared ruination.  

One might suspect or assume that if such an imagined deity had the power to wield fire and brimstone, such a god might have been omniscient, as well; knowing there weren’t even a mere 10 righteous folk in the entire city. But, in the story, Abraham doesn’t test his luck any further, risking divine intemperance.

But what if he had? Could everyone in such a wretched place have been saved if just one inhabitant was willing to do the right thing?

Bargaining, with Pre-Conditions

By the time we get to Matthew’s gospel, the need to barter doesn’t seem to even be on the table. Want something? Want anything? The assurances attributed to the Jesus character in this gospel story says if you want anything at all, all you need to do is ask. “Ask, and it’ll be given to you.” (Mt. 7:7-11) The only hitch and implied pre-condition is this: Be righteous, by doing the right thing.

Two millennia later, since that gospel story attempted to relay such assurances, we seem to have reached a point in this tattered and weary world that we’ve made for ourselves that even expedient politicians dare to utter the obvious. Namely, that those long-uttered and futile intercessory “thoughts and prayers” that used to suffice are not enough to save us from ourselves; and the loathsome, misbegotten and often violent behavior by some among that occurs again and again.

Yet the increasing cries of protest, shouting “enough is enough” to the onslaught of wickedness we repeatedly inflict upon each other are also shown to be insufficient when it comes to any measurable change for the better.

So, if thoughts and prayers (of petition or intercession) cannot produce any salvific change when uttered to an imagined divine – who for anyone with eyes to see, or ears to hear is too deaf, indifferent or impotent to intercede — then with whom can we bargain, or utter any plea for help? Are we – so to speak — caught between the devil and the deep blue sea?

Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

I don’t want you but I hate to lose you
You got me in between

the devil and the deep blue sea
I forgive you ’cause I can’t forget you
You got me in between

the devil and the deep blue sea
Song by George Harrison, 1991

The origin of this familiar saying is uncertain, with multiple possible interpretations. Some refer to its original meaning being derived from the edge of a sailing ship’s deck; when sailors risked their lives to seal a leaking hull just above the waterline.

Others think a similar phrase might harken as far back as Greek mythology; when the classic image of the watery depths symbolized mystery, chaos, disorder and the unknown. Homer’s Odyssey, for example, refers to Odysseus being caught between Scylla (a six-headed monster) and Charybdis (a whirlpool).

Certainly, such symbolism is equally present in Genesis; with the creation myth, and the watery abyss from which the created order arose. And the psalmist’s plaintive warnings repeatedly allude to the lurking leviathan of the deep.

Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might; 

you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;

you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. (Psalm 74:2-14)

But probably the most common and familiar use of the phrase is something akin to the one about being stuck between a rock and a hard place. No matter which way you turn, or however hard you try, nothing’s going to change, and it’s of no use trying.

George Harrison’s whimsical song quoted above is one way of expressing this.  But when one dares lift one’s head, to take a look at the world around us these days, is this not an apt description of where we find ourselves?  That’s when I turn back to that old imaginary tale in Genesis; with Abraham stiving to find a way to spare the same sorry world in which we still find ourselves.

But instead of trying to bargain in vain with an imaginary god — without success — is the deeper lesson that might still hold a kernel of wisdom be found in the underlying question posed earlier: Could everyone be saved if just one inhabitant was willing to do the right thing?

If so, what is such a right thing?

Living in Sodom

Here’s a new rendition, or variation, of the old bargain Abraham once tried to strike with his god. In this version, we’ll ask those adamant gun right advocates who recently decried the passage of an anemic gun control measure that fails to include raising the age limit of any American wishing to purchase an assault rifle; with which one could proceed to massacre a huddled mass of innocents in a school classroom.

I’d pose the question: Would you have been willing to ban all assault weapons for everyone if the nineteen children and two adults killed in Uvalde, Texas could have been spared?

If yes, then how about ten?

If yes, how about just one child’s life? Or, if not, why not?

What is the right thing to ask of ourselves and each other; so that what we really want might surely be given to us? What is the right-eous thing to do to save us from our own self-destruction?

© 2022 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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