The Torah is filled with examples of prophets who protest in the name of justice. Moses protested the misdeeds of his fellow Israelites. Joshua protested falsified reports about the Holy Land. The very first proto-Jew, Abraham, even protested God when it came to a matter of justice. That God listened and acknowledged Abraham’s insights is a testament to the sacred nature of protest – and worthy of further inquiry.
The issue at hand between Abraham and God is the pending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As expressed in Genesis 18, Abraham is shocked by God’s intentions to destroy the cities, even though they are reputed for their improprieties.
“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” Abraham asks God in Genesis 18:23-24, according to the translation from the Jewish Study Bible. “What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?”
Abraham appears outraged at the notion of collective punishment and challenges his very Creator on a matter of justice.
Crucially, however, Abraham does not simply express shock at God – but also esteem for God, in the very same breath: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25)
In evoking God’s own singular standards of justice, Abraham makes clear that he is not demeaning God or God’s deeds. Rather, Abraham is calling God to act in a manner consistent with God’s own, sacred role.
God therefore remains responsive: “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” (Genesis 18:26)
Still unsatisfied, Abraham responds with a unique mixture of humility and firmness: “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will you destroy the whole city for want of the five?” (Genesis 18:27)
God reacts favorably to Abraham’s compelling logic, presented in such a tolerable way: “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.” Even one of “dust and ashes” could speak justice to the ultimate Judge. Notions of justice transcended role.
Abraham’s protestations continue, until God agrees not to destroy all of Sodom if there are even just ten innocents. While God did ultimately destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he did not do so until the innocent – namely Lot and his daughters – left it safely: “Thus it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain and annihilated the cities where Lot dwelt, God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval.” (Genesis 19:29)
It is reasonable to suggest that Abraham, through his protests, saved their lives. He argued and wrestled intellectually with God until God assented to save all in Sodom and Gomorrah who were innocent. Equally important, Abraham caused God to articulate that the just in the world would not punished indiscriminately, along with the unjust.
In Abraham’s sacred protest against God’s prospective actions, we learn a great deal that we can apply to our own, modern-day protests. Abraham’s humility, directness, and willingness to ask God to uphold God’s own high standards prove key to his success. The absence of any of these elements might have undermined his efforts. Further, there is an inherent boldness and bravery to Abraham’s actions. Abraham is protesting God and suggesting that God is in danger of engaging in an unjust action. The potential consequences for Abraham are unknown. It could well have meant his demise to raise such issues with God. But Abraham remains steadfast in his convictions and willing to take a profound risk to uphold justice. Without bravery, it is unclear Abraham would have protested at all.
Given Abraham’s remarkable protest against God’s proposed actions, we too should see just protest as in line with core tenets of Jewish belief. Where we see injustice, it is of sacred significance to protest. Much like Abraham, we should do so with great care, humility, and an eye toward efficacy.
Yet as Abraham’s example also shows, it is better to protest an injustice before it has taken place. Strength comes in being proactive and working to avoid, rather than correct, unjust actions. Protests require foresight – and insight – into ourselves and the society in which we are seeking to realize a vision of justice.