The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series exploring the psychological significance of the biblical stories in the book of Genesis. You can now listen to or watch the lecture series on DailyWire+.
“And the men rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way. And the Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I’m about to do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” I guess God is talking to himself here, or maybe he’s talking to the angels, but I think he’s trying to make a decision. “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him. And the Lord said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous, I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which has come unto me; and if not, I will know.”
We don’t know what’s happened in Sodom and Gomorrah, but we know that God’s got wind of it, and that’s not good. We know that sin means to miss the mark, and so we know that whatever has happened in Sodom and Gomorrah means that something about the natural ethical order of things has been seriously violated. There’s a strong intimation in the Old Testament, which I think by the way, is completely correct, that if the proper order of being is violated — and that’s something like the balance between chaos and order — then all hell will break loose.
One of the things I can tell you from reading a very comprehensive set of myths from around the world is that, that’s a conclusion human beings have come to everywhere. Stay on the goddamned path and be careful because if you start to mess around and you deviate — especially if you know that you’re deviating — things are not going to go well for you. That idea is everywhere, and I think it’s right. I think the idea is right because there aren’t that many ways of doing things right, and there’s a lot of ways of doing things wrong. If you do things wrong, the consequences of doing them wrong can be truly catastrophic.
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One of the things I learned from reading Viktor Frankl first — but then Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who I think did a deeper job, and Václav Havel thought the same thing — was that these people were very much trying to understand what happened in places like Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” is a particularly good analysis of what happened in the Soviet Union, and his conclusion is a 2,100 page conclusion — and it’s hammered home with a hammer. It’s a book that everyone should read, assuming that you can read a 2,100 page scream because that’s basically what it is.
First of all, what he does is document just how terrible things were in the Soviet Union between 1919 and 1959. No matter how terrible you think they were, unless you know the stories, they were a lot more terrible than that. They were terrible personally because everyone lied. They were terrible in families because two out of five people were government informers. They were terrible among friends because no one could tell each other the truth. They were terrible socially because the whole system was corrupt; it ran on slave labor. They were terrible philosophically because the doctrine of man upon which the state was founded was hopeless and nihilistic, and they were murderous, destructive, and genocidal.
They got it wrong at every single level of analysis simultaneously. And the question is, why? Solzhenitsyn’s answer, and to some degree, Viktor Frankl’s answer as well, and Vaclav Havel, and I would say also Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi, all ended up in the same conceptual sphere. The answer was because individual people lived crooked lives because individual people swallowed lies and spoke them and didn’t stand up for the truth. And the corruption that spread from each individual pulled the entire state mechanism into that corruption, and made everything into hell.
There are other theories — obedience. That’s kind of the Milgram idea that it’s easy to make human beings obedient to people in authority. I’ve explored that idea quite a bit with regards to what happened, for example, in the Nazi concentration camps. Yes, you can set circumstances up so that people are likely to be obedient to orders that are pathological. There’s no doubt about that. And yes, sometimes that’s indicative of the weakness of their character, but that’s not the issue. And the idea that what happened in Nazi Germany was because a population of good people listened to a tiny minority of bad people? That’s really not a good theory. The Nazi ethos was there at every single level of the social organization. Right from the personal, right from the familial, all the way up to the leadership. It was the same thing all the way up and all the way down — and the same thing in the Soviet Union.
So if you miss the mark, which is apparently what the people of Sodom and Gomorrah did, their sin was grievous. Then they risked destruction. I just cannot see how after the 20th century, anybody with any sense could possibly not see that as true. There’s a line in the Old Testament that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. One of the things that frightened me badly was the realization from reading Solzhenitsyn — and a variety of other things that I was reading at the same time, Dostoevsky as well because he makes the same point — a human being is not only responsible for everything they do, but for everything that everyone else does. Now, that’s crazy.
He was an epileptic and a mystic, and that’s a crazy thing to say, but there’s something about it that’s true because if you were better, the people around you would be less worse than they are. And if you were good enough, you don’t know how much better the people around you would be. There’s this idea, too, that Christ took the sins of the world unto himself. That’s a complicated idea. I wrestled with that one for a very long time, but I think I figured out at least in part what it means. It’s something like the realization of complete humanity. To take the sins of the world unto yourself is to understand the Nazi concentration camp guard because that person is human — and so are you. If you can’t see you in that, then you don’t know who you are. And if you can see you in that, then you’ve started to take the sins of the world unto yourself because you’ve actually started to take responsibility for those terrible things.
I think it’s the motto of the Holocaust Museum in Washington: “We must never forget.” (That’s close.) You can’t remember what you don’t understand. You will forget what you don’t understand. And the question is, what are you supposed to remember about the Holocaust? It was a historical event? That 6 million people died? That’s not what’s to remember. What’s to remember is that’s what people can do, and you’re one of them. If you don’t understand that you could do that, then you don’t know who you are.
So, God’s making a case here. He’s making a case that people of Sodom and Gomorrah have sinned, and it’s making a large racket that even God has heard about. That’s a very common mythological motif by the way: the sins and noise of humanity can reach such a clamor that even the gods hear and are forced to intervene. That comes all the way from the Mesopotamian creation story. It’s logical. They’re sinning. So what? Well, no, not, “So what?” It means that God’s offended, and that everything is at risk. That’s what it means. That’s something worth taking seriously.
“And the men turned their faces from thence, and went towards Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the Lord. And Abraham drew near and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” This is a very interesting part of the story. A friend of mine took me to task the other day when I was writing about portraying the Old Testament God as pretty harsh and judgemental and the New Testament God as all loving, which he isn’t because there’s the whole Book of Revelation. I got that partly from reading Northrop Frye, but going through the Old Testament in more detail I realized that is too low resolution of an interpretation. God who’s dispensing a fair bit of harsh justice in the Old Testament is also someone who can be negotiated with — weirdly enough. That’s what happens here.
Abraham has just been told that whatever is going on in Sodom and Gomorrah is seriously not good and that God’s going to do something about it. He takes it upon himself — this is an act of mercy — to ask God to be a bit more judicious. Okay, you’re going to wipe out the city. Well, bad things are happening there. But there’s probably a few people in the damned city that aren’t completely corrupted by what’s going on there. Of course, that’s an open question. It’s an open question, for example, how many people there were in Nazi Germany who weren’t completely corrupted by what was going on in Nazi Germany. And the same thing could be said about Mao’s China. And the same thing could be said about the Soviet Union. Perhaps there was a person somewhere who didn’t understand at some level what was happening, but the whole issue of willful blindness certainly springs to mind if nothing else.
Abraham decides to intercede with God on behalf of these people who are going to be destroyed. He says, “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous people within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner” — he’s kind of reminding God that he’s a good guy, as far as I can tell — “to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the judge of the earth do right?” He seems a bit taken aback here to me.
“If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the place for their sakes. And Abraham answered and said, Behold now I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, but am but dust and ashes. Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it. And he spake unto him yet again, and said” — he’s kind of sneaking up on God here — “Peradventure, there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty’s sake. And he said unto him, Oh, let the Lord not be angry, and I will speak. Peradventure there shall be thirty found there. And he said, I will not do it if I find thirty there.” And Abraham, who seems really to be pushing his luck by this point, says, “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there.” And God said, “I will not destroy it for twenty’s sake. And he said, Oh, let the Lord not be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten’s sake. And the Lord went his way as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.”
There’s two ways — three, let’s say — you can read that part of the story. One is that, you can bargain with God, even if you’re annoying about it, so that’s kind of interesting. The second is that, even if there’s a minority of good in a place that isn’t good, it won’t be slated for destruction. That’s kind of a good thing. And the third is, a minority of good in a place can keep it from being destroyed. And that’s a really good thing, too. I believe that as well. I think that good is more powerful than evil. Naivety isn’t, but I think that good is. And I think that in a place that’s corrupt, a minority of people who stand forth against the corruption can prevail.
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.
Juliette Fogra is a fine art painter and graphic designer and was trained as a classical musician. She was the illustrator of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.