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In Genesis 18:21, The LORD said "I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”

Why did the LORD need to go down to see whether Sodom and Gomorrah sinned according to the outcry that had come to Him when He indeed has already known everything?

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    The same reason he didn’t know where Adam was after Adam ate.
    – Dave
    Feb 10, 2022 at 18:06
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    I don't think God's questions "Where are you?" (Gen 3:9) "What have you done?" (Gen. 3:13) "Why are you angry?" or "Where is Abel your brother?" (Gen. 4:6-9) show that God did not know where Adam was, what Eve has done, why Cain got angry or where Abel was. "God's questions" is an interesting topic that I am researching now. His questions does not mean that He does not know something but most of the times, God's questions give the person who is asked an opportunity to reflect on their situation, their thought, their actions, and learn from that.
    – Karis Le
    Feb 10, 2022 at 18:26
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    So, your argument is all about ‘what you think? I’d prefer to stay with the answer(s) we know. [from scripture]. And, you may as well ‘add’ ‘why did the lord need to go to Babel to see what was going on there?’.
    – Dave
    Feb 10, 2022 at 18:38
  • Hi Dave, appreciate your time to help us in this community :). We all try to understand the Scripture. From your conclusion that God didn't know where Adam was after Adam ate the fruit. Somehow, I disagree with that for the reasons I stated above. My posted question relates to what God said, not asked, that He needs to go down to see if the people in Sodom and Gomorrah had acted wickedly as what He heard from the outcries. Isn't this contradict to His omniscience? If not, why? Thanks and cheers!
    – Karis Le
    Feb 10, 2022 at 18:58
  • @Karis I like your answer in the comments section. I think God is giving the person/Adam the opportunity for confession. In the case of Cain and God asking him where his brother is, Cain lied to God as if to say, "How do I know." You also have at Genesis 22:11-12 where Abraham was going to sacrifice his son and the angel of the Lord, (the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ said at vs12 stopped Abraham and told him "for now I know you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your only son from Me." Keep up the good work!
    – Mr. Bond
    Feb 11, 2022 at 2:13

8 Answers 8

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Justice and judgment require a true witness.

In the mouth of two three witnesses let every matter be established. [Deuteronomy 19:15 KJV]

In order to judge with such unprecedented immediacy and such irrevocable consequences, God manifestly 'observes' (angelically) the true state of matters, in two visible witnesses.

And that very observation precipitates a state of affairs (the event of crowd-gathering and assault and threat) that justifies the shocking conflagration that follows upon the cities of the plain.

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  • Impressive post-hoc justification.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 11, 2022 at 15:33
  • @T.E.D. 'Impressive' and 'justification' conflict with the wording 'post hoc' which refers to something fallacial. So I am uncertain how to respond.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 12, 2022 at 8:36
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God went down so that Abraham would see him.

In Genesis 18:17 God asks (himself? Abraham?) "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" he then answers that question in 18:21 with "I will go down" ie "No I won't hide it". Although in 18:20 he does say that he is going down because of the outcry it is possible that there were multiple reasons to "go down". In this case you have to consider why he asked about Abraham and how that connects to the statements that follow.

In 18:22-33 "Abraham still stood before the Lord" and in that section Abraham haggles with God then in 18:33 "And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham". So after Abraham and God were done talking God left rather than enter Sodom.

For a larger context 18:1-15 God is talking to Abraham and Sarah and in Genesis 19 it says 2 angels enter the city. So the full timeline is: God is talking to Abraham, God wonders if he should hide the judgement from Abraham, God says "I will go down", Abraham and God continue talking, God leaves, 2 angles enter Sodom.

Since "I will go down" happens in the middle of the conversation with Abraham and God doesn't enter Sodom (although he presumably approached it) it seems clear to me that Sodom isn't a distraction during the conversation but rather an intentional part of the conversation. God said these things so that Abraham would hear them and respond ("Will you indeed sweep away?").

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  • If this question was on Christianity.SE I would then explain how God wants humans to participate in his plan (which is why he teed up this for Abraham) however that's outside of the verses asked about.
    – SkySpiral7
    Feb 16, 2022 at 4:19
  • A very good point you made in your answer. Thank you @SkySpiral7.
    – Karis Le
    Feb 16, 2022 at 13:45
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This was a great question. Some may think that God engages with humans in this manner, asking such questions, to give them a chance to admit whatever they have done. But that is not correct-- it is actually quite the opposite. He often (not all the time) does these things to demonstrate the weakness of mankind, whether it is wickedness, lack of faith, and etcetera-- basically why we need Him and what we would do without Him. Let's go through this one by one starting with Adam and Eve, then ending with Jesus.

Part 1

Adam and Eve

"And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat (Genesis 1:11)?"

God made Himself scarce to prove a point: With Him out of the picture, mankind would sin on their own (Satan cannot be blamed here since Eve was not possessed as Judas was).

Tower of Babel

"And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth (Genesis 9:1)."

"And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city (Genesis 11:4-8)."

Once again, mankind did not follow God's command. Notice how God speaks of mankind in the same manner as with Adam and Eve:

"And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24)."

For these two situations: God gives a command, mankind goes against it, God makes a comment, and then He punishes them-- He is making a point. Pharaoh and the Egyptians are next (I'll mention Sodom later).

The Exodus from Egypt

"And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the LORD fighteth for them against the Egyptians (Exodus 14:24-25)."

This may not obvious at first, but it is the Angel of the Lord who is being referred to as the Lord here. Why? Because 13:21 says that it was the Lord in the pillar leading the Israelites, while 14:19 says that it was the Angel and that the same pillar moved in the same fashion as that Angel. Thus, we can say that it was the Angel that looked at the Egyptians from within the pillar. See Exodus 3:2; 19:18; 20:21; 33:9,11; 34:5 and Numbers 12:5,8-10 and Judges 6:21; 13:20 for supporting evidence of the Angel being in the pillar. So, this counts as God going down to observe people misbehaving (the Egyptians). But again, He knew what was going to happen:

"And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand (Exodus 3:19)."

"And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that he shall follow after them; and I will be honoured upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD. And they did so (Exodus 14:4)."

"O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour: And for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down. But when his heart was lifted up, and his mind hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him: And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever he will. And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this; But hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified:(Daniel 5:18-23)."

So what does all this mean? It means that God orchestrated all of this. Him saying that He was "sure" was an understatement that is no different than Him asking where Adam was or if Sodom needed to be destroyed. He does this to magnify Himself and show His glory. Belshazzar's actions are no different than Pharaoh's. See Psalms 37:23 and Proverbs 16:9; 20:24 and Jeremiah 10:23 for supporting evidence.

Elijah at Horeb

Next, we have Elijah at Mount Horeb. This example ties to judgement as the previous ones, but less directly. Instead, it highlights the lack of faith that humans have in God, but also that God has everything in His control.

"And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away(1 Kings 19:9-10)."

Elijah was afraid of the situation that he was in; he even wanted to die. God's question was illustrating that he had a mission to accomplish and could not let anything get in the way of that. It also showed that nothing could have stopped Elijah from completing that task because God had set it up that way. His question could be rephrased as "what did I bring you here to do?" or "Are you not still alive?". God's hand is not waxed short; what He wants to happen will happen.

Jonah

Jonah's situation resembles that of Elijah's. No, nobody was seeking his life, but he, too, was upset and wanted to die. When people feel that they have failed, they often resort to death. See Numbers 11:15 and Job 6:9; 7:16 and Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18; 16:27.

"Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live. Then said the LORD, Doest thou well to be angry (Jonah 4:3-4)?"

"But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers (1 Kings 19:4)."

They both faced unfavorable weather conditions, too.

"And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live. And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death (Jonah 4:8-9)."

"And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice (1 Kings 19:11-12)."

So what does the wind, earthquake, fire, and the sun represent in these two passages? Trouble-- hardships of life and from the people around us. See Daniel 12:1 and Matthew 24:21 and Revelation 7:14.

But God demonstrated that He is able to save from that. For Jonah, He provided the gourd. For Elijah, He sent him to the cave. God is the provider and hiding place. See Exodus 33:22 and Psalm 5:12; 9:9; 27:5; 31:20; 32:7 and Isaiah 4:6.

Disciples

God asked His twelve disciples "rhetorical" questions as well. As you can see, their situations (or the explanations given by Jesus) were not so different than Elijah's or Jonah's.

"Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith (Matthew 6:30)?"

Clothing resembles protection-- a covering. This is like Elijah being in the cave and being able to cover his face with his mantle, and Jonah having shade from the plant. The worm that ate the gourd is like the ravens (not quoted) that God feeds. The oven is analogous to the sun that beat on Jonah's head.

"And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm (Matthew 8:26)."

The winds and the sea are synonymous with the vehement east wind, the tempest on the way to Tarshish (not quoted), and the wind that tore the mountain.

"And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt (Matthew 14:31)?"

Peter was afraid of the boisterous wind, which is the cares of this life. See Job 31:26 and Matthew 16:3 and Luke 12:56; 21:34. Rumors (not quoted) and vain tangible things can be distracting.

"Which when Jesus perceived, he said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread(Matthew 6:30)?"

This goes back to the ravens and the grass-- some how God takes care of them.

"Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be (Matthew 26:53-54)?"

God is asking them (but directly Peter) if they do not believe in God's strength, but is stating that this all has to happen so that the scriptures are fulfilled. An example of this is Sodom and Egypt, where our Lord was crucified. God intended to destroy both of those places because they were foreshadowing what was to happen with not only the major religious sects of Israel in Jesus' time, but also at the end of the world.

"Art thou the Christ? tell us. And he said unto them, If I tell you, ye will not believe: And if I also ask you, ye will not answer me, nor let me go (Luke 22:67-68)."

The Pharisees declined to answer many of Jesus' questions prior to this such as the ones regarding Christ being David's son and the John's baptism. They chose to do that-- it is not as if they did not know the answers. The answers were simply not agreeable with them.

"And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn (Exodus 4:23)."

It is not so much that they did not have it within themselves to let Him go (but that is true), but rather, Jesus was showing that God would not allow them to do that. After all, the scriptures had to be fulfilled. Did the scriptures entail the Jews having mercy on Him? No, He had to die.

Jesus

Jesus is the final person to be studied for this topic (at least for now). He, too, had some concerns that He expressed.

"I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: (Luke 12:49-51)."

The fire He is referring to is the same as the one Elijah witnessed and also the heat that Jonah endured. The division and lack of peace are the winds and waves that Elijah, Jonah, and the disciples experienced. Here, Jesus is stating His mission and how distressed He is, just like Elijah (but more so).

"Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour (John 12:27)."

He is saying that there is nothing that can be done. The burden is on Him and He must continue without complaint, as exemplified when He often withdrew from people to be alone and would not answer His accusers. See Lamentations 3:28 and Isaiah 53:7.

"And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour (Matthew 26:39-40)?"

Yet again, He is demonstrating that everything is set, nothing can be done. And, the disciples are very sorrowful because they are only mindful of the things of men, and cannot understand that Christ ought to enter into His glory by these means.

Summary of Part 1

God asks questions to demonstrate-- not to give people a chance to repent or admit to what they have done. He demonstrates the issues that humans face and also how He is in total control.

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Apparently, this question about Gen. 18:21 is that it seems to contradict God's omniscience and omnipresence.

  Where can I escape from Your spirit? 
  Where can I flee from Your presence? 
  8If I ascend to heaven, You are there; 
     if I descend to Sheol, You are there too. 
  9If I take wing with the dawn 
     to come to rest on the western horizon, 
     10even there Your hand will be guiding me, 
     Your right hand will be holding me fast. 
  11If I say, “Surely darkness will conceal me, 
     night will provide me with cover,” 
     12darkness is not dark for You; 
     night is as light as day; 
     darkness and light are the same. 
             (Psalm 139:7–12, JPS Tanakh)

Hebrew is an anthropomorphic language which also uses anthropomorphism when referring to God but not meant to give God these human characteristics. What makes sense is God went down by sending the two messengers to Sodom so that God could judge them by their response. In Genesis 19 Lot passed the test of how he treated strangers, but the men of Sodom miserably failed. While God knows, he still gives people the opportunity to do what is right even if he knows they will demonstrate evil. The test was to show that Sodom was beyond the point of redemption.

Commentaries

I will go down now.—The anthropomorphic expression includes also a divine thought or purpose. Jehovah could not be uncertain whether the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah contained the truth, but it was still a question whether Sodom, by its conduct against the last deciding visitation of God, would show that its corruption placed it beyond any help or salvation. The translation of Luther, “whether it has done according to the cry,” does not meet the demands of the text. It must become evident through its last trial, whether it has reached the limit of the long-suffering patience of God. -- Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Lewis, T., & Gosman, A. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Genesis (p. 435). Logos Bible Software.

I will know.—A sublime, fearful expression of the fact, that Jehovah will at last introduce for the godless a decisive test, which according to their situation is a temptation, the judgment which in their case hardens, and the judgment for the hardening. It will issue at the last, as they themselves have decided. Patience and anger both have definite, sharp limits -- Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Lewis, T., & Gosman, A. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Genesis (p. 435). Logos Bible Software.

Since the outcry of people against the grievous sins of Sodom and Gomorrah was so great, the Lord went to see if it was that bad. (Of course in His omniscience He knew the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, but He wanted to demonstrate His justice to them.) If the sin of those people was “complete,” they would be judged. -- Ross, A. P. (1985). Genesis. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 59). Victor Books.

... the moderation of God, who does not immediately fulminate against the ungodly, and pour out his vengeance upon them; but who, when affairs were utterly desperate, at length executes the punishment which had been long held suspended over them. And the Lord does not testify in vain, that he proceeds to inflict punishment in a suitable and rightly attempered order; because, whenever he chastises us, we are apt to think that he acts towards us more severely than is just. Even when, with astonishing forbearance, he waits for us, until we have come to the utmost limit of impiety, and our wickedness has become too obstinate to be spared any longer; still we complain of the excessive haste of his rigour. Therefore he presents, as in a conspicuous picture, his equity in bearing with us, in order that we may know, that he never breaks forth to inflict punishment, except on those who are mature in crime. Now, if, on the other hand, we look at Sodom; there a horrible example of stupor meets our eyes. For the men of Sodom go on, as if they had nothing to do with God; their sense of good and evil being extinguished, they wallow like cattle in every kind of filth; and just as if they should never have to render an account of their conduct, they flatter themselves in their vices. Since this disease too much prevails in all ages, and is at present far too common, it is important to mark this circumstance, that at the very time when the men of Sodom, having dismissed all fear of God, were indulging themselves, and were promising themselves impunity, however they might sin, God was taking counsel to destroy them, and was moved, by the tumultuous cry of their iniquities, to descend to earth, while they were buried in profound sleep. Wherefore, if God, at any time, defers his judgments; let us not, therefore, think ourselves in a better condition; but before the cry of our wickedness shall have wearied his ears, may we, aroused by His threats, quickly hasten to appease Him. Since, however, such forbearance of God cannot be comprehended by us, Moses introduces Him as speaking according to the manner of men. -- Calvin, J., & King, J. (2010). Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Vol. 1, pp. 484–485). Logos Bible Software.

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Why did the LORD need to go down to see whether Sodom and Gomorrah sinned” …

This question, and several others of a similar ‘vein’ clashes ‘head on’ with some established theology. For this reason I am very reluctant to contribute as there will be push back. Those apologetically established doctrines of omniscience and sovereignty. Nevertheless in the purpose of this being an open forum, I will outline this view for consideration.

This outline ‘employs’ several biblical aspects, including this truth

JOHN 4:24 God is spirit [snip]

And this one …

GENESIS 2:17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

Adam ‘died’ the day he ‘ate’. Spiritually. ‘Death’ [biblically] means separation. When [you] ‘die’ [physically], you are ‘separated’ from your ‘physical’ [earthly] body. In Genesis 3, Adam is ‘separated’ [spiritually] from his Father - (God), who is spirit! Hence He no longer ‘knew’ [spiritual perception] where Adam was.

But, to ‘defend’ the doctrine of an ‘all knowing’ [omniscience] God, much [apologetic] reasoning’ is required to ‘explain’ this ‘where are you’ away.

In the Old Testament times, post the fall, because of this [spiritual] separation, God needed to interact with man via intermediaries, angels, the Lord, prophets, ‘entities’ with ‘flesh’.

Therefore God needed to sent such ‘entities’ to report on the conditions in Sodom. And this understanding will help with many other Old Testament accounts, ones that certain ‘doctrines’ have [much] difficulty with.

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Well, I think it probably isn't a theological question but rather it's a question of authorial style, or direct presentation of the events. If God goes down, then, the reader gets to see things first-hand and in a more dramatic way, than if God just spoke about what was going on. In other words, it's the device of a writer. He doesn't go himself, but sends two angels to get a report, but it's true he wouldn't need a report if he was God. He'd just know. As it was written, the reader gets to see it with this literary device. So, this is an example of how every word of the Bible isn't perfect or divinely inspired directly and absolutely true - someone said about that, that every book is divinely inspired, and I would tend to agree. Who the divinity is in each case is another question. But, this is because a writer thought about it, and made the decision to have the reader see the events first-hand, and wasn't thinking about theological hair-splitting at some future time.

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  • Hi Bill, welcome to the site. This answer could be strengthened with additional supporting information/sources. Please be sure to take the site tour, and thanks for contributing! Feb 11, 2022 at 16:01
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I just wanted to say I had the same question to why it seemed God didn’t know what was going on, even though I knew that God is an all knowing God! I think the answers given in this forum satisfied my question quite well! Thanks to those that spent there time to educate us, me, on this subject!

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  • This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review
    – agarza
    Jan 17 at 5:13
  • @Mark - Your post assumes several points that aren't quite accurate. God does know everything in His omniscient Providence. But the Bible uses "anthropomorphic wording" (terminology in human customary vocabulary) to express ideas or events. There really is no contradiction. As well, if you wish to express thanks, it should not be presented in a Answer section, although all encouragement is appreciated. Keep studying the Bible; it's great for the soul!
    – ray grant
    Jan 27 at 22:58
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The Lord came to visit Abraham primarily. In chapter 17, Abraham circumcised all the males in his household as God had instructed him. God came to fulfill His promise to give Abraham an heir of His choosing. While the two angels went down from Hebron (where Abraham lived near) to the valley of the Dead Sea, where Sodom and Gomorrah located, God stayed with Abraham.

According to the comments under the original post question, the OP already answered her own question, that God knew Sodom and Gomorrah had sinned.

There is an additional interesting detail. Abraham pleaded with God to save the lives in Sodom and Gomorrah. He started with "What if there were fifty righteous people in the city?", and God replied if there were fifty, He would spare the whole place. Abraham further tried 45, 40, 30, and 20. The dialogue ended at 10, and God left Abraham. What if Abraham had a chance to ask for 5? In chapter 19, the two angels said to Lot he could bring anyone else who belonged to his family, and Lot went to his sons-in-law (Genesis 19:12-14). If one of his sons-in-law was with them, it would have made a total of 5 people, and then God's plan would have had to terminate.

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