New International Version Genesis 18:

23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 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?”

This happened before righteousness was codified by Moses. What was the objective standard of righteousness at this point in human history? By what criteria did Abraham recognize whether a person of his time was righteous or not?

  • 1
    Conscience and morality are universal human traits; they were not discovered or invebted by Moses in 1,500 BC.
    – Lucian
    Commented Aug 19, 2021 at 15:04
  • Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 19, 2021 at 16:44
  • Excellent point! I think this is it for this passage.
    – user35953
    Commented Aug 19, 2021 at 17:21

3 Answers 3


Apparently, righteous in Gen. 18 means someone who worshiped God. Abimelech's case showed that they did have moral standards before the Law.

In Gen. 18

צַדִּ֖יק means righteous person

צַדִּיקִ֖ם is the plural meaning righteous persons (used when Abraham gives numbers).

The article is used with the plural הַצַּדִּיקִ֖ם in Gen 18 sometimes after the first plural occurrence in Gen. 18, but not with the singulars.

It did not mean perfect as used by Paul.

Uses before the Law

Noah -- definitely not perfect

 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. (Gen. 6:9–11, ESV)

Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. (Gen. 7:1, ESV)


Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent [צַדִּ֖יק] people? 5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. (Gen. 20:4–6, ESV)

יְהוָה֙ הַצַּדִּ֔יק

Then Pharaoh sent and called Moses and Aaron and said to them, “This time I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. (Exodus 9:27, ESV)

In Deuteronomy 25:1 הַצַּדִּ֔יק is used for the innocent/right person in a dispute.


There are so many things wrapped up in this on little statement of Gen 18:23-25 that we must take them one at a time.

1. Moral Law

First, the moral law as exemplified in the 10 commandments was well-known well-before its formal giving at Sinai - see the appendix 1 below. This shows that when it was given, it was merely formal codification of what should have been already familiar.

2. No one righteous

Both Eccl 7:20 and Rom 3:10 emphatically state that "there no one righteous". Rom 3:10-18 expand upon this point quoting numerous references from the OT to show that this point was well-understood. See also Ps 14:1-3, 53:1-3, 5:9, 140:3, 10:7, 59:7, 8, 36:1.

3. What is "Righteous"?

This then, begs the question about what Abraham actually meant by "righteous". Indeed, it is well-known that Abraham himself had made some big mistakes - taking Hagar as a wife, lying about Sarah on two occasions, etc. He did not have a perfect track record himself!

In the question asked by Abraham in Gen 18:23, "will You destroy the righteous with the wicked?", Abraham appears to make a distinction between those who reject YHWH as God and those accept YHWH as God, such as Lot, despite his many shortcomings. Lot was not perfect and a great sinner. However, Lot recognized the sovereignty of the True God and acknowledged His Holiness, even if he did not live up to that standard of behavior.

Contrast Lot's attitude to that of the sex-crazed mob outside his door who thought it acceptable to gang-rape the city new-comers (the angels, Gen 19:1, 5, 9). The distinction is marked - Lot understood the divine law (Gen 19:7) even if he intended to mitigate the problem with a very imperfect solution (Gen 19:8).

See appendix 2 for further illustrations of this idea. Thus, "righteousness" had degrees and could be compared as was often done such as, Gen 38:26, 1 Sam 24:17, Job 35:2, Jer 3;11, Eze 16:51, 52, Hab 1:13, 1 kings 2:32, etc.

APPENDIX 1 - Moral law before Sinai

The following (far from exhaustive) list shows that people knew of the ten commandments moral law well before the formal giving at Mt Sinai. Indeed, we have the very general comment –

  • Gen 26:5, because Abraham listened to My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.

Commandment #1 – Worship only YHWH:

  • Gen 22:5, 24:26, 48, 52 all describe worship of the true God of heaven, YHWH.
  • Gen 35:1-4 – Jacob instructs his whole household to eliminate all foreign gods

Commandment #2 – Idolatry prohibited

  • Gen 31:32-35 – Jacob clearly understood that idolatry was forbidden.
  • Gen 35:1-4 – Jacob instructs his whole household to eliminate all foreign gods

Commandment #3 –Cursing and taking the name of the LORD in vain prohibited

  • Job 1:5 – When these celebrations ended—sometimes after several days—Job would purify his children. He would get up early in the morning and offer a burnt offering for each of them. For Job said to himself, “Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular practice.

Commandment #4 – Sabbath worship

  • Gen 2:1-3 – Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. And by the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on that day He rested from all His work. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on that day He rested from all the work of creation that He had accomplished.
  • Ex 5:5 - And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest [שָׁבַת shabath] from their burdens!”
  • Ex 16 also records the incident with manna and that collecting manna on the seventh-day Sabbath was forbidden

Commandment #5 – Respect for parents, elders and authority

  • Gen 28:6, 7 tells of the story of Jacob following his mother’s advice. Respect for parents is built into the very fabric of the patriarchal stories in Genesis.

Commandment #6 – Sanctity of Human life

  • Gen 4:8-12, 15 records Cain’s punishment for the sin of murder
  • Gen 9:5, 6 records that murder was prohibited under the ancient Noahide covenant

Commandment #7 – Adultery prohibited

  • Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-17, 26:6-11 all record “adultery narratives” in which the patriarch is (correctly) chided for almost tricking a pagan king into committing adultery
  • Gen 19 records the appalling events involving attempted pack-rape of the two angels
  • Gen 39:7-9 – Joseph calls Potiphar’s wife proposal “a great evil and sin against God”.
  • Gen 49:4 – Reuben is scalded for his sin of incest
  • Gen 34 – the story of Dinah records a heinous incident involving her defilement (plus murder and lying)

Commandment #8 – Stealing prohibited and respect for property

  • Gen 30:33 – Laban and Jacob discuss the problem of stealing of wages and property
  • Gen 31:32-35 – Laban is angry about the sin of stealing the household gods

Commandment #9 – Lying prohibited; insistence of honesty and integrity

  • Gen 4 – the story of Cain being punished, among other things for not being honest with Abel and God in his statements
  • Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-17, 26:6-11 all record “adultery narratives” in which the patriarch is (correctly) chided for lying to a pagan king about their marital status
  • In the story of Jacob, he is pejoratively called Jacob = “deceiver”, Gen 27:36.

Commandment #10 – Coveting prohibited

  • Gen 3:6 – the woman is tricked by the serpent using the sin of covetousness

APPENDIX 2 - Righteous

The following people were called "righteous" despite their record of sinning.

  • Noah, Gen 6:9, 7:1 (and the family)
  • Abraham, Gen 15:6
  • Gen 20:4 - Abimelech's "nation" called righteous
  • Jacob, Gen 30:33
  • The prostitute, Gen 38:26
  • Judges who fear God, Ex 18:21
  • David, 1 Sam 24:17

... and so forth.


Righteousness was not first defined by the Mosaic Law. Let’s outline what we mean by this. (I note since this post that the OP modified ‘defined’ to codified.)

GEN 15:6 And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.

Righteousness is a quality of God. And it is defined by God. It is what he requires in man in order to interact with man. Righteousness was from the beginning. The good news is that he is the source of the righteousness that man needs - Except Adam and Eve decided they could rely on their own, but first needed the ‘knowledge’ of what was good and what wasn’t. This was a choice, their choice. One Eve was deceived into taking.

But even then, through belief (in Him) God could ‘account’ righteousness to man. Except that in the wilderness, his children, insisted they could ‘do whatever God expected of them’.

EXODUS 19:8 Then all the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” So Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord.

This ‘arrogance’ (which is clearly reflected by analysing the Hebrew structure) lead to the Mosaic Law (commandments). The Mosaic law defines what ‘man’ needs to do in order to ‘be righteous’ by Gods standards. If ‘man’ wants to be responsible for his own righteousness, then the 10 commandments outline the requirements for this, in ‘black and white’.

‘Black and white’ because it is for the ‘flesh’ to ‘do’. Therefore the ‘flesh’ needed to know. Where as for believers, the [recreated] ‘spirit’ is the ‘source’ of/for ‘doing right’.

But, back to the question, the Law didn’t define righteousness. This always was. It always has been, right from the start. Righteousness has always had a ‘definition’ - But the Law did define righteousness for the flesh.

The point being that God never intended man to live in the flesh. But man, through being separated from God (who is spirit), through the ‘spiritual death’ that came via the Fall, now had little choice.

So when Abraham was ‘negotiating’ with God, it was about ‘right living’. Where there any inhabitants of those cities who were ‘living right’ (in the flesh). But no, there was only Lot, and Lot’s righteousness came not by ‘living right’, but from God, via Abraham, via covenant.

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