“I will descend now and see. If they have done as the cries that have come to Me, I will destroy them. And if not, I will know.” (Beresheit 18:21)
Our parasha discusses the destruction of Sedom. This pasuk introduces the narrative. Hashem tells Avraham that the cries of the people of Sedom have risen before Him. He will descend in order to judge the wickedness of the people. If these cries truly and accurately reflect the evil of the people, then He will destroy the city and the surrounding communities.
There are a number of problems presented by this pasuk. We will consider three of these difficulties. First, the pasuk describes Hashem as “descending.” Hashem is not a material being. We cannot ascribe descending or ascending to Him. It is clear that this term is used by the Torah as a metaphor. But, what does the metaphor represent? Second, the pasuk implies that Hashem conducted some sort of analysis of Sedom. There was some issue that Hashem investigated before he decided whether He would destroy the city. But, Hashem is omniscient. What further information can He have required that added to His knowledge? Finally, the pasuk seems to imply that Hashem conducted some sort of analysis in order to secure this new information. Can we identify the nature of this process of analysis? In other words, can we determine the means by which Hashem secured the additional information that was essential to His decision?
Let us begin with the first two issues. The pasuk refers to Hashem as “descending.” The same phrase is used earlier in the Chumash. The Torah describes Hashem as “descending” in order to investigate the activities of the Dor Haflagah – the generation of the Dispersion. This post-Deluge generation joined together with the goal of unifying all of humanity. They wished to build a single civilization that would encompass all humankind. Hashem “descended” to judge this generation. Based on this judgment, He intervened in their plans by bringing about the Dispersion.
Rashi explains that in both instances – in our parasha and in the narrative regarding the Dor Haflagah – the Torah’s description of Hashem “descending” is intended to communicate that He conducted an investigation. However, Rashi points out that this message cannot be understood in a literal sense. Hashem is omniscient and does not need to conduct an investigation in order to secure additional information. Instead, these references are to be understood homiletically. In both instances, the Torah is telling us that a judge should only render a decision after thoroughly investigating the particulars of the case. The Torah ascribes a process of investigation to Hashem in order to establish a standard of conduct for mortal judges. The Torah is telling us that just as Hashem only rendered a judgment based upon a full consideration of all of the elements of the case, so, too, we are only to pass judgment after conducting a thorough investigation.
Rashi’s interpretation is unusual. He asserts that the Torah ascribes a material activity to Hashem-- not as a metaphor, but, in order to teach a lesson regarding our own conduct. In other words, although the Torah often uses material expressions in describing Hashem and His activities, these terms are usually mere metaphors. Here, Rashi asserts that the terminology is not for some action emanating from Hashem. In this case, the phrase is not related to Hashem in any sense. It is merely designed to teach us a lesson as to the manner in which we should conduct ourselves.
Why does the Torah specifically employ the figure of “descending?” Rashi discusses this issue. He explains that the term “descent” has an idiomatic meaning. It refers to making a judgment based upon the ultimate outcome of a pattern of behavior. The people of Sedom were not judged solely on the basis of their behavior at the moment. They were judged based upon the ultimate outcome of these behaviors. Hashem considered the direction in which the people were progressing. He punished them because they were progressing towards absolute evil. However, Rashi does not identify the specific outcome towards which the people were progressing.
Radak offers a different explanation of the figure of “descending.” He explains that when Hashem involves Himself in the affairs of human beings, He is descending from His exalted honor. Hashem is the Creator. He is exalted over all of His creations. When Hashem interferes with the natural universe that He created in order to save humanity or punish humankind, He is descending from His glory and majesty. Netziv expands on this explanation. He explains that Hashem created a universe governed by a natural order. It is His will that this natural order be preserved. However, He interferes with the natural order in two situations. First, He exercises His providence and interferes with this order in order to help the righteous. Second, He interrupts the natural order in order to punish the wicked. When we act in a manner that demands providential punishment, we are – metaphorically – requiring Hashem to “descend” from His throne of majesty to correct our behavior.
Both of these explanations present some difficulties. Rashi does answer our first two questions. According to Rashi, our third question is not relevant. Hashem did not conduct an actual analysis. The phraseology employed by the Torah is not intended to be applied to Hashem. However, Rashi’s explanation is somewhat radical. As we have noted, it is unusual for the Torah to ascribe a material behavior to Hashem that does not have a metaphorical meaning. In addition, Rashi asserts that Sedom was not punished for its present behavior. Instead, the people were destroyed because they were destined to perform some great evil. Yet, Rashi does not indicate the specific nature of this evil.
Radak’s and Netziv’s explanation also answers our first two questions. Yet, they seem to leave our third question unanswered. What was the nature of the investigation performed by Hashem?
Sforno offers a comprehensive explanation of the events in our parasha that resolves all three of our difficulties. He begins by adopting an element of Rashi’s explanation. Like Rashi, he asserts that the term “descending” must be understood idiomatically. When the Torah describes Hashem as descending, it is identifying a particular type of judgment. Hashem is making a judgment based upon the ultimate outcome of a pattern of behavior. But, at this juncture, Sforno extends his explanation beyond this initial observation. In each instance in which the figure of “descending” is employed, Sforno identifies the outcome that demanded Hashem’s interference. Let us focus on our parasha. What outcome demanded the destruction of the people of Sedom?
A corrupt society can reverse itself. Sforno asserts that as long as the potential for repentance exists, the society can be spared. However, there is a point at which the society can no longer reverse its direction. At some point, repentance is no longer possible. This occurs when no dissent is tolerated – when no one remains that can provide the society with a new direction. When all members of the society have accepted and champion the corrupt values of the civilization, there is not opportunity for reevaluation and repentance. If this point is reached, the society can only continue in its deterioration into absolute evil.
Hashem “descended” in order to test Sedom. He designed a test to determine whether Sedom had reached the point at which there was no longer an opportunity to repent. What was this test?
“And the two angels came to Sedom in the evening and Lote was sitting at the gate.” (Berseshiet 19:1)
The Torah tells us that three angels came to visit Avraham. They foretold the birth of Yitzchak. After taking leave from Avraham, two of these angels proceeded to Sedom. The angles told Lote that Sedom would be destroyed. They urged him to gather his family and flee the city. Lote left with his wife and two daughters. Lote’s wife died during their flight. But, Lote and his daughters escaped the destruction of Sedom. It is clear from the Torah that these angels had two missions. They were charged with the mission of destroying Sedom, and they were sent to save Lote and his family. However, the Torah describes in detail the activities of these angels in Sedom and their interaction with the people of the city. Why is this information included in the account?
“They had not yet lied down and the people of the city, the people of Sedom, surrounded the house – from the young to the old, all of the people, from every quarter.” (Beresheit 19:4)
The angels came to Lote and agreed to spend the night in his home. The people of Sedom did not extend hospitality to strangers and were not willing to tolerate Lote’s offer of lodging to these visitors. They surrounded Lote’s home and demanded that he deliver his guests to them. The Torah explains that all of the people of Sedom were involved in this protest – the young and old, all of the people, from every quarter. Why does the Torah provide such a detailed description of the mob that surrounded Lote’s home?
Sforno explains that the Torah’s intent is clear. The message is that the entire population of Sedom – without exception – joined into this mob that congregated against Lote. There was no dissent. Not one opposed the mob. No one even held back from joining the mob. The opposition to Lote was unanimous and complete.
Sforno explains that this was the test. Hashem provided the people of Sedom with an opportunity to demonstrate either that they deserved to be spared, or to be destroyed. The test was simple. Would anyone rebuke this mob? Would anyone refuse to join in the attack on Lote’s home? The people of Sedom failed the test. There was no opposition to the evil designs of the people. Every person joined the mob. The people of Sedom failed the test. They lost their last opportunity to be spared. No one in Sedom was willing to oppose the evil of the citizens. No one resisted the urge to join the mob. Repentance was not longer possible.
 Sefer Bereshiet 11:5
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 11:5, 18:21.
 Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 11:5.
 Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer Beresheit 11:5.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 18:21.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 18:21.