The third day after a circumcision is said to be the most painful, so on the third day after Abraham followed God’s command and circumcised himself and Ishmael, God sent him some help and comfort. Abraham was “sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him.”
These three strangers, we are soon told, were three angels sent by God. But in that first moment of seeing them, the Bible says that Abraham saw three men, not angels. Despite his great pain (from the circumcision), he immediately jumped up and ran to them, virtually begging them to let him serve them. The Kabbalah reminds us here that Abraham represents Mercy, the highest human quality. It embellishes the Biblical narrative by suggesting that Abraham, despite his pain, was so indefatigable in his desire to provide kindness and hospitality, that he had earlier sent a servant out into the surrounding desert in the hope that he would find some traveler who could be aided that day, and when none was found he went out himself to search for one. Finding no one, he had returned to his tent, and was sitting there dejectedly, when suddenly he looked up and saw the three strangers, whom he joyfully rushed to serve.
The Kabbalah also suggests that when we are told that Abraham “looked up”, we have to conclude that he had previously been ‘looking down’. This means that he had been looking down into this world, but when he then looked up he ‘saw’, with an awakened Inner Eye, three emissaries of the Lord – whom he could not have noticed before.
“Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him…. Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?’ Then the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh….? Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?’” (Gen.18.10-14)
The angels continued on toward Sodom, but Abraham “remained standing before the Lord.” Abraham then beseeched the Lord to be merciful, and to spare the city, since surely not every single resident was a sinner. “Far be it from You to do such a thing,” the always-merciful Abraham said, “to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike.” He then asked God if He would be willing to spare Sodom if He found fifty righteous souls therein. The Lord answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Feeling emboldened, Abraham then asked what would happen if He only found forty-five. Again the Lord said He would spare the city. Abraham then continued his questions: What about forty? thirty? twenty? Each time, the Lord agreed to spare the city. Then Abraham said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” Again the Lord agreed. But that was it, and Abraham went no further. “When the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham,” we are told, “He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.”
Why did Abraham stop at ten? Some people suggest that he had no choice in the matter, that God stopped the conversation and “departed.” But Abraham himself had prefaced his last question by saying, “I speak but this last time”, so evidently he had no desire to go further. ‘Ten’ is certainly an interesting number. Pythagoras called it the Perfect Number, the Number of Man: it clearly pertains to human life in some special way – we have ten fingers and ten toes. Ten is made up of the sum of the four basic sacred numbers: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4. Alternatively, it can be seen as the sum of the two sacred numbers of Being (Permanence, Eternity) and Becoming (Change, Materiality): that is, 3 + 7. Abraham may have been aware that God would one day reveal Ten Commandments to the children of Israel, and perhaps he felt there should be a minimum of at least one person keeping each commandment if Sodom was to be saved. Some legends suggest that Abraham recalled that Noah had eight righteous souls in his family, and since these eight had not been sufficient for God to spare that whole generation there was no need now to continue this conversation. Or perhaps, as some legends suggest, he simply felt confident that his nephew Lot, along with his wife, four daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren, would more than total ten righteous souls. But more than likely the story simply means that, while a certain degree of negativity and evil can be tolerated, forgiven, and eventually redeemed, there comes a point where it is simply too extreme and too dangerous, and has to be annihilated.
Abraham, of course, made no claim to be the enforcer of this code: his role was solely to plead for Mercy – a good reminder for many contemporary people who feel called upon to personally judge and punish their particular choice of ‘sinners’. After all, the people in this story – including the horrible citizens of Sodom that we are about to meet – are symbols who are all living inside us. They do not represent some ‘other’ person: they are part of you and me. On its deepest level of meaning, this entire story is taking place right now within the confines of every human soul. The negativity and evil that has to be ‘annihilated’ is our own.
God had already made up His mind about Sodom when He asked rhetorically whether He should “hide from Abraham what I am about to do.” But He decided to tell him, in order to give him the opportunity to seek Mercy for all the people in the city. This is something which Noah had failed to do. When God revealed to Noah that He planned to destroy all other life on Earth, Noah was amazingly silent about the whole affair. God told him to build an ark for himself and his family, and without a single word of question or objection, “Noah did so; just as God commanded, so he did.” But Abraham not only displays loving-kindness toward his kinsman Lot and toward three strangers who came to his tent: he now shows loving-kindness toward a myriad of sinners he has never even seen.
According to the legends, when Abraham began to plead for the citizens of Sodom God said, “You take delight in defending My creatures, and you would not call them guilty. This is why I have spoken to no one but you during the ten generations since Noah.” In other words, as we take this story as an inner allegory of spiritual birth and development, we see that out of the Endless Light of the Absolute, the Abrahamic attribute of Mercy is the ‘spark’ which God chooses to be the essence of the human soul.