Genesis 18: Sacred separation

I just realized that I never published this one and so skipped Genesis 18.  Please forgive the oversight and the lack of posts over the holidays.

In Genesis 18, Abraham says to God: “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” And God answered: “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”  Hearing that the Lord planned to destroy Sodom and Gomorra, Abraham pleaded for mercy on behalf of the innocent there.  Surely Lot’s family and friends would constitute 10 people who feared God.  This conversation is a good example of intercessory prayer.  It gives a glimpse of the friendship between God and Abraham.  They’ve had several exchanges at this point, but this is the most familiar.  Abraham entertains a theophany, God in human form, with rest and refreshment.  Then God reveals His plan to Abraham.  By doing so, He gives Abraham a chance to intercede, to pray for the people of S & G.  He also prepares Abraham for an important lesson about the corrupting effects of embracing a sinful society.  In the end, it would be clear that S & G had corrupted even Lot’s family, and Lot had lost literally everything.  Abraham would understand the importance of separation and distinction, an important thing for God’s people then and now.  

I didn’t expect my meditation on this reading to go in this direction.  Separation is not the first thing that comes to mind here.  Yet it is an important concept which has a role in this passage.  What does biblical separation look like for the believer?  I have known Christians whose idea of separation is avoidance and even isolation.  They keep a careful distance between themselves and unbelievers.  Their society is sanitized and homogenous, populated solely by other “separated” believers.  They interact with the lost only in controlled situations–through what they call “ministries”.  I’ve also known Christians who live holy lives, who are separated from sin, but still make an effort to interact and befriend the lost.  They do not avoid but reach out to the unbelievers around them, not just through charity but in friendship, hoping to demonstrate the love of Christ.  Which approach is God’s desire for us?

It is good to have a healthy fear of the corrupting effects of sin and respect for the power of temptation.  Lot would have done well to practice both.  God clearly instructed Abraham and his descendants to be separate from the peoples around them–even forbidding intermarriage.  Israel’s gravest mistake was its failure to be separate from its pagan neighbors.  In the end, that is what destroyed Israel and led to its captivity.  Many “Christian” groups have tried to pattern themselves after Israel in a literal sense.  But I think they have missed the message or purpose behind God’s instructions for Israel.  But as Paul explains repeatedly in his epistles, “These things were written to teach us” (Rom.15:4) and “These things happened to them as examples” (1 Cor.10:11).

In this age of grace, we are called to be agents of redemption, and that is a mission we cannot achieve in isolation.  God called Abraham and Israel to be physically separate for a reason: to give us a physical illustration of the spiritual separation we are to practice.   Our challenge is to learn the spiritual truths of Israel’s experience and live them out as God intended.  What does spiritual separation look like?  Jesus gave us a good example.  He spent time with sinners, talked to them, ate with them, served them, taught them.  Yet he never accepted or approved of their sin.  He was spiritually separate but physically present and a part of the society around him.  He did not isolate Himself but intentionally injected Himself into society, not just among the “upright and respectable” but among those whose lives were messy.   We are called to do the same.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.  You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matt.5:13-16)

Reading: Genesis 18