Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?” ”If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.” (Genesis 18:27-28)
One of the things I have the opportunity to do often in my job is negotiate. Injured parties want to be compensated, and they come to the table with an idea of what they think they’re entitled to. I also have an idea of what I think they’re entitled to. We don’t usually start out in the same place. So we negotiate to try to find a place somewhere in between we can both live with. We both give enough to be able to reach an agreement. Or as a mediator recently told me, the goal is to get to an amount we both find mutually disagreeable. There are all kinds of tactics we use on both sides of the negotiation to try to reach that mutually disagreeable agreement.
It’s one of those tactics that I think Abraham put to use with God in Genesis 18. He certainly didn’t participate in any continuing education workshops or webcast training sessions to learn the technique. But he sure knew how to use it. The section heading in my Bible calls this account “Abraham Pleads for Sodom.” If I’d have been writing the captions, I think I’d have named it differently. I think Abraham was doing what today is known as “Slicing the Salami.”
Slicing the Salami is a negotiating tactic that understands that you’re more likely to gain a concession from the other party if you don’t make a big demand or request all at once. You don’t eat a whole salami at once; you eat it in slices. In negotiation, you make smaller, incremental demands. The gradual moves make the final outcome more palatable for the party making the concessions.
Read this whole account in your Bible. It’s not too long. Sodom is out of control. Its sin as a community has become so heinous that God has determined to destroy the whole of it. He tells Abraham of His plan, and Abraham does plead with God to relent. He calls on Him to be true to His character: “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And then he makes his request, asks for his first concession. He doesn’t ask God to do nothing. He doesn’t ask Him not to act. He doesn’t ask Him to preserve everyone without condition. He asks Him to “spare the place” if fifty righteous people can be found. And God agrees.
So Abraham continues. What if only forty-five? That’s just five less than fifty. You wouldn’t destroy the place for just five, would You? (Did you see how the baseline moved? Now it’s just a matter of five, not fifty.) No, God says, for the sake of forty-five I will not destroy them.
Each time, Abraham is cautious, but bold: Don’t be angry, if I may be so bold. He’s bold, alright. Asking God to turn back His wrath. Asking Him to stay His hand. Asking Him to relent. He’s bold.
But he’s also humble. He recognizes that he’s not God, he is man. He is nothing but dust and ashes. He’s humble.
That mix of boldness and humility is powerful.
God, what about only forty? Slice. What about thirty? Slice. What about twenty? Slice. And so God agrees. He responds to Abraham’s bold humility. If 20 righteous men can be found, he says, I will spare the place.
Lord, don’t be angry, but let me ask one more thing. One more slice of the salami.
What if there are only ten found? Slice.
For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.
For the sake of ten. We just went from destroying the whole place, no matter what, to relenting if there were fifty righteous men found, all the way to holding off if there were just ten righteous men. All a series of slices. Slices made in profound boldness. Slices made in profound humility.
God was willing to come to the negotiating table and meet Abraham there. He responded to Abraham’s faith. And his boldness. And his humility.
I’m not suggesting any professional development courses to hone our negotiating skills so we can be better prayers. I am suggesting we approach the table to meet with God in boldness and in humility.
And in anticipation that God will come to the table too. He’s already there, waiting.