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B'resheet/Genesis 18:21 I will go down and I will see ... I will know.
All three verbs in this text are first person singular prefix form: future tense or incomplete action. The first , comes from the root , "to go down or descend" (Davidson). As is common with first yod verbs,1 the yod has elided beneath the alef prefix pronoun, but the verb also has a paragogic hay, both to show the pronunciation of the final qametz vowel and possibly to indicate that the verb is cohortative: "Let me go down", a translation offered by Richard Elliott Friedman. Another clue in that direction is the particle appended to the verb. Most often translated 'please' or 'now', it usually introduces a sense of deference or urgency. Friedman not withstanding, the majority of English translations for this verse either have 'now' ("I will go down now" (NASB), "I will now go down" ) or omit it altogether (NJPS, NIV). The NRSV presents the urgency in a different way by offering "I must go down".
The second verb, , comes from the root , "to see or look" (Davidson); "and I will see" is the straightforward translation. The third verb, , comes from the root , "to know", and - like the first - has a paragogic hay ending for pronunciation.HaShem is saying that He will go down to investigate what is happening in Sodom, will be able to see and evaluate what He finds, and will then know the true state of the people and the city so as to determine the appropriate course of action.
Unable to tolerate so much anthropomorphism,Targum Onkelos changes the first two verbs to the Aramaic , "I will reveal Myself now and I will judge". This not only diminishes the the anthropomorphism, but resolves a theological problem inherent in the text. To do so, it changes the sense of the text. Onkelos has HaShem revealing Himself - which the Hebrew text does not - and judging the people of the city on the way they respond to the revelation. It hides the question of why HaShem needed to investigate at all; if He is God, doesn't He know everything about them already? This is why Don Isaac Abravanel explains that "this is why the angels were sent: to see whether the people of Sodom had actually done what they planned. It is not a theological problem for angels to find out something they did not previously know." The Sforno adds, "I will demonstrate this evil concretely, when they openly reveal their wickedness by rising up against Lot's hospitality."
Other commentators elaborate on HaShem's fairness in making a personal visit.Rashi tells us that "This has taught judges not to issue a verdict in capital cases except through seeing all the evidence very carefully", while Rabbi Hirsch puts these words in HaShem's mouth: "'Even if that which exists in Sodom and Gomorrah is actually already great and very onerous, still I will go down. Although nature and mankind already condemns Sodom and Gomorrah, I will nevertheless first examine it Myself.' G-d will still give them a final examination." Nahum Sarna summarises: "As the wickedness of the city appears to reach intolerable proportions, G-d personally investigates the situation. G-d does not act capriciously; He investigates man's doings. This figurative usage implies no limitations on G-d's omnipotence, for the divine "descent" presupposes prior knowledge of human affairs from on high."
The idiom of HaShem "descending to see" has been seen in last week's parasha, when the Babel story tells us that "The L-RD came down to see the city and the tower that the sons of men had built" (B'resheet 11:5). There too, He decided to take action, making all the people speak different languages to frustrate their ability to work together. David Kimchi (theRadak) suggests that "the text refers to G-d's paying attention to the lower world as "coming down" since He is, as it were, lowering Himself to do so." It certainly bespeaks a deliberate action on G-d's part, that He wants to 'know' not just in an abstract way but in an involved or experienced way that goes beyond His all-knowing state as G-d. This is an intentional involvement that may - did in both the case of Sodom and Babel - lead to an appropriate intervention.
In his letter to the Messianic community in Philippi, Rav Sha'ul included what many scholars believe to be a piece of early liturgy2 - perhaps chanted or said aloud together in congregation meetings - describing how Messiah Yeshua "descended" and took part in the human experience: "though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:6-7, ESV). Throughout His time of ministry, Yeshua saw only too clearly how man was coping in the way; He healed many from sickness and demon possession, He raised several people from death, He fed thousands of people on more than one occasion and "had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36, ESV). He knew "what they were thinking in their heart" (Luke 9:47, NASB) and wept at Lazarus' grave (John 11:35). Ultimately, as we know, "being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8, ESV), Yeshua sacrificed His own life by dying on the cross for our sin, so that we might have a way back to G-d.
Mankind is still harassed and helpless today, being blown around from pillar to post by the harsh and pitiless winds of critical thinking and political correctness. Urged into ever greater emotional detachment and denial (after all, emotions are subjective and just cloud the picture, making rational thought impossible) by a society that is using logic and reason to destroy G-d-given identity and relationships, stripping them of all that is natural and made "in the image of G-d" (B'resheet 9:6, NIV), to be replaced by meaningless self-asserted but externally imposed lies. Men, women and children are being starved of love and a sense of real value and purpose for their lives by being denied the right to be who they really are and instead being coerced into a miserable and futile existence based upon who society is prepared to let them be. The gospel is being neutered by ripping out all that relates to the human condition, all that talks of sin and folly, so that no-one feels judged or condemned. But without a clear recognition of sin, of impending judgement, there can be no mercy and grace, no sense of forgiveness and so no need or desire to be born again. By denying the gospel, man traps himself in an eternal miasma of frustration, disappointment and isolation from G-d. As John writes, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us ... If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us" (1 John 1:8,10, ESV).
So if G-d Himself came down to see and know twice, and Yeshua came down not only to see and know but to personally intervene in the affairs of men, how do we "go down, see and know" in our context today? We often confuse the meaning of Yeshua's words when He prayed for the disciples who were "in the world>" (John 17:11, ESV) but "not of the world" (v. 16, ESV). We hear the warning about not being "of the world" - that is, embracing the values and culture of the world, following its fashions, standards and behaviour - and think that we must withdraw from the world and not participate in life with the world. We isolate and ring-fence our lives, only going to meetings and social events with other believers. This easily leads into taking a slightly superior attitude - we are saved, but you are not - and distancing ourselves from any meaningful contact with non-believers. This goes completely against Yeshua's words just two verses later: "As You sent Me into the world, so I have sent them into the world" (v. 18, ESV). Yeshua explicitly sends us into the world so that we might be witnesses for Him, telling other people about Him. Of course, this is to be more actions than words, living life and answering questions. Neither must we confuse accompaniment with accommodation; we are to walk alongside people, hearing their pain, grief and confusion, letting them know that we (and G-d) care about them, without denying or watering down G-d's righteous standards and laws.
1. - A "first yod" verb is a verb that has the letter yodas the first of its three consonants. Such verbs often display a characteristic pattern of weakness, with the yod eliding, being absorbed or sometimes just disappearing, although the pointing will usually reveal its presence in the pronunciation of the verb.
2. - These are also known as "liturgy fragments" or "encapsulated liturgy". Another obvious example is Sha'ul's report of communion liturgy in 1 Coronthians 11:23-26. They are also found in the hebrew Scriptures, for example the Firstfruits ceremony in Deuteronomy 26:1-11.
Further Study: Ezekiel 34:2-6; John 20:21-23
Application: How could you "go down and see" in your daily life today? Whose life could you touch by simply being there for them and being a practical demonstration of G-d's love? Why not ask the L-rd for an opportunity or a contact to help you come close to someone else today?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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