A Question of Historical Justice*
Two passages in ancient Near Eastern literature are striking for their extraordinary view of historical justice. The better known of the two is the discourse between Abraham and God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18) in which Abraham asks God, “Will the judge of the world not do justice? Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” Had God answered, “I will spare the righteous and punish the wicked,” we could easily understand the moral universe of the discussion, for the passage's concept of reward and punishment would be like ours. Instead, however, God expresses the divine readiness to spare the whole city if fifty righteous people are found in it, and after a give-and-take, reduces the critical number to ten. And we are left wondering how such a small number of righteous people could commute the punishment of the wicked. Moreover, we wonder, how could such a bargain and compromise be considered an ethical discussion of divine right and wrong?
The second passage is found in the epic of Gilgamesh, and the version of the flood story contained in it. After the flood, when the gods have gathered to eat Utnapishtim's sacrifice, Ea says to Enlil:
Let the sinner bear his sin,
The wrongdoer—his wrongdoing,
Be merciful, lest he be cut off
Have pity, lest. … (Gilgamesh XI 180–182)
* The earliest version of this study was presented as a paper at the Midwest
meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1982. It was published in Israel
as a tribute to my colleague and friend, the late Raphael Kutscher.