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Genesis 18:16-33 recounts the story, "Abraham Pleads for Sodom" (NIV). When conversing with God, Abraham asks God if He would destroy the city if there were 50 righteous people in it. God replies No, so Abraham gradually reduces the number, until he reaches 10.

Genesis 18:32

Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

My question is, why did Abraham stop there? (And, if it is possible to answer, would God have destroyed Sodom if only one righteous person was found?)

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Why did Abraham stop there?

From the narrative we can see that Abraham was clearly reluctant—out of pure fear, apparently—to question God's judgment.

When asking for 45 in Genesis 18:27, he starts with:

Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes

When asking for 30 in Genesis 18:30:

May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak.

And again, asking for 20 in Genesis 18:31:

Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord

And again asking for 10 in Genesis 18:32:

May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more.

He knows he is speaking with the Almighty who is about to show his wrath and while he may not wish the city to be destroyed, he seems afraid to show sympathy for the city as a whole. So instead of mercy for the city—which he might just as easily have asked for—he says let justice be done, but that it wouldn't be just to destroy righteous men along with wicked ones (Genesis 18:23-25).

But Abraham's courage has been holding out. He's asked God to save the city for the sake of fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, and ten people—standing up to God six times. Would he have been able to ask for more, perhaps even bring up the idea of redeeming the city, if he had asked a seventh[!] time? After the third plea, Abraham had been asking for ten less each time; the next in the series would be '0'.

Did, perhaps, his courage fail him? Or, according to the explanation I usually hear, did Abraham decide that surely there were ten righteous there, and that he didn't need to ask for more? We can only speculate. But it may not have been up to Abraham at all. It seems that as soon as God answers that he will not destroy the city for ten people, God leaves (Gen 18:32-33):

Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

Would God have destroyed Sodom if only one righteous person was found?

God did find one righteous person in Sodom and showed mercy on him, but not the whole city—instead of destroying Lot with the others, he allowed Lot and his family an opportunity to escape the city's destruction.

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He knew that eight was not enough to save the world in Noach's time, so that sets a lower bound. Eight righteous people didn't have enough merit to prevent the flood, though it seems God regretted the flood and might have welcomed any excuse not to do it. If that's true, then surely the same number of people wouldn't have enough merit to protect a few cities, the destruction of which would not have such lasting consequences.

This leaves the question of why stop at ten and not nine. Rashi observes that God was willing to save five cities for 45 people, meaning nine each, so nine was already established. (But I don't understand Rashi's subsequent math on 40, 30, etc.) The other answers on the linked question rely on other sources beyond the biblical text.

To answer your last question, God did not destroy the few righteous found there, though he did destroy the cities -- so yes, he would destroy for fewer than ten, but he wouldn't destroy the righteous as part of that.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Thanks for the great answer but I don't understand the Noah reference: just because Sodom was destroyed didn't mean that was everyone in the world. What am I missing here? –  Wikis Jan 6 '12 at 19:13
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@Wikis, sorry for being unclear. Eight righteous people didn't have enough merit to prevent the flood, though it seems God regretted the flood and might have welcomed any excuse not to do it. If that's true, then surely the same number of people wouldn't have enough merit to protect a few cities, the destruction of which would not have such lasting consequences. –  Gone Quiet Jan 6 '12 at 19:28
    
Aha, great, thx for clarification. –  Wikis Jan 6 '12 at 19:29
    
Can you add support for the claim that there were eight righteous people in the time of Noach? I understood there was only one… –  Jack Douglas Oct 12 '13 at 7:42
    
The eight who went onto the ark merited to be saved. –  Gone Quiet Dec 20 '13 at 3:45
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