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In Genesis 18:21 G-d seems to say something like: I will descend now and see, whether according to her cry, which has come to Me, they have done.

Did He really descend right at that moment in time or somewhere before or after He talked to Avraham about His plans?

And where did He went to after He departed from Avraham in Genesis 18:33?

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The approach of the Rashbam to the whole chapter is that (almost) every reference to Hashem is a reference to the angel who He sent "in his name" to visit Avraham:

וירא אליו ה' - האיך? שבאו אליו שלשה אנשים שהיו מלאכים, שבהרבה מקומות כשנראה המלאך קוראו בלשון שכינה, כדכתיב: כי שמי בקרבו שלוחו כמותו. וכן: וירא מלאך ה' אליו בלבת אש מתוך הסנה. וכתוב שם: וירא ה' כי סר לראות.

(1) ADONAI APPEARED TO HIM. How? In that three men came to him who were angels. For in many places where an angel appears, it refers to him in language of Sh'china [divinity], as it is written (Ex. 23:20-21) "[I am sending an angel] ... since My Name is in him" -- His messenger is like Him. Similarly (Ex. 3:2)), "An angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush" and it is written there (v.4), "When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look ...."

According to this, after the angel finished speaking with Avraham, he went down to Sedom like he said he would, and like it says in the next verse that the angles arrived.

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Your question "can G-d descend?" is a little like the question "is G-d anthropomorphic?" since the former implies that G-d is a body. For clarity, I will address the question of whether G-d descends, but it will also encompasses some of the latter.

Did G-d have to descend to investigate a matter in Genesis 18:20 and 21?

A literal reading of the Bible thinks so:

“G-d said, ‘the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and their misdeeds are very grievous. I will go down now and see whether they acted as [indicated in] the cry that has come up to me, then I will destroy them, if not I will know.’”[1]

The phrase, "if not I will know" is obscure. The simple reading has G-d wondering if He heard correctly, to clarify this, G-d will descend and investigate what is really happening. The prior phrase states that if He discovers that the people did not act properly, he will “destroy them.” G-d concludes “if not,” meaning that they were righteous, then “I will know” this and not harm them.

Rashi supports the notion of a corporeal deity descending when he portrays G-d anthropomorphically. Scripture states: “G-d came down to see the city and the tower that the people built [the Tower of Babel].”

Regarding both stories, the Midrash Tanchuma asks “Does G-d need to descend and see?” it asks. “Isn’t everything known before Him?”

The Midrash explains these stories to be a figure of speech. It informs judges not to make a decision only after a brief insufficient investigation. G-d is all-knowing and all-powerful and does not need to descend to hear or prove anything. Additionally, Onkelos substitutes the anthropomorphic “I will go down” to “I will reveal Myself.” There is nothing that G-d does not already know, He is certainly not taking a trip to learn about circumstances in which He has no prior knowledge. Rather, He is “revealing,” informing them that He is reacting to the evil done. In his commentary to Exodus 19:20, 33:21 and 34:5, Abraham ibn Ezra paraphrases Onkelos and Midrash. In his Guide of the Perplexed 1:10, Maimonides explains the terms “go down” and “go up” is metaphorical, meaning that "going up" indicates that divine revelation is taking place and "go down" means the communication has ended.

Maimonides adds in Guide of the Perplexed 2:45 that all biblical prophecies, with the exception of Moses, were dreams. He writes on 1:10 that G-d's descent is a figure of speech, indicating that the divine decree to render punishment has been acted. Thus, Maimonides says that chapter 18, like the Akedah story, never took place. It was a dream. Abraham dreamed about a conversation with G-d, who descended in anthropomorphic terms. Maimonides will generally recast a biblical story as a prophecy. This greatly angered Nachmanides, who insisted that the stories in the Bible were true events. It could be argued that the Rambam's interpretations greatly diminished the historical significance of the Bible.

[1] We will not address the part of the story where Abraham attempts to argue with G-d over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But we will add that the notion that humans can influence G-d to change His mind seems problematic, as it suggests that an all-knowing G-d is not altogether wise and that humans can sometimes have a better understanding of the situation.

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  • "But we will add that the notion that humans can influence G-d to change His mind seems problematic, as it suggests that an all-knowing G-d is not altogether wise and that humans can sometimes have a better understanding of the situation." Do you have evidence that any Jew has ever read it as suggesting that?
    – Heshy
    Apr 13 '20 at 17:56
  • @Heshy Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin.
    – Jonathan
    Apr 13 '20 at 18:03
  • I phrased it wrong. What I meant to say was "Do you have evidence that any Jew has ever read it as suggesting that and therefore concluded that G-d is, in reality, not altogether wise?"
    – Heshy
    Apr 13 '20 at 18:05
  • @Heshy Yes, I agree with you that orthodox Jews do not read it in that light since they feel that G-d is all-knowing. It was more of a philosophical question. since G-d is all-knowing, it must be, as Rambam said, a dream.
    – Jonathan
    Apr 13 '20 at 18:09
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    My question wasn’t if He could descend but if He did it at that moment or if He did so later on after he talked to Avraham.
    – Levi
    Apr 13 '20 at 18:39
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Of course, Hashem is omniscient and omnipresent but the torah speaks in the language of mankind so that it speaks in the way that Avraham perceived matters. When he no longers perceives the presence of Hashem in as immediate and direct a fashion, it is as if Hashem had left to go and judge Sodom. Thus, since Avraham was still standing before Hashem it is as if Hashem delayed descending to judge Sodom until after Avraham had finished speaking to Him. That is at Vayeira 18:33

As Rashi says

And the Lord departed, etc.: Since the defender was silent, the Judge left.

and Abraham returned to his place: The Judge left, the defender left, and the prosecutor is accusing. Therefore: “And the two angels came to Sodom,” to destroy (Gen. Rabbah 49:14). One to destroy Sodom and one to save Lot, and he [the latter] is the same one who came to heal Abraham, but the third one, who came to announce [Isaac’s birth] to Sarah, since he had performed his mission, he departed (Tan. Vayera 8).

Rav Hirsch points out in Vayeira 18:22

And the men turned from there and went to Sodom, and Abraham was still standing before the Lord.

Rav Hirsch says:

for with all his activity in exercising hospitality Abraham had not gone away from the עמידה לפני ה to which he had been called by the "appearance" of God recorded in the first verse.

Rav Hirsch translates Vayeira 18:20-21 as one compound sentence

20: And God said: Even if the outcry over Sodom and Gemorah is greast, and their sin weighs exceedingly heavy,

21: I will still go down and see whether, in accordance with the cry which hath come to Me, they have achived complete destruction; and if not I will discriminate.

In the time of Migdal Bavel, Noah 11:5 Rav Hirsch explains the purpose of using the term ירד in te relation of Man and Hashem.

5: And God came down to see the city and the tower which the Sons of Man built.

Rav Hirsch explains:

וירד occurs here for the first time. When we consider that עיקר שכינה בתחתונים, then וירד always designates such a crisis in the development of world affairs that God intervenes to prevent the gap between heaven and earth becoming larger. It brings the world a step nearer to the goal where the שכינה can again stay בתחתונים. But here וירד stands out in bold relief much more pointedly. The state, the community will not allow the individual any other supreme lord than itself. But just as this is an attack on the priceless worth of every individual, which is not just transferred to him through the total worth of the community, and whose value can never be reckoned in a brick, even if that brick is part of the building of the national glory; so is it an attack on God, Who calls every man directly to His service, and thereby makes every man, prince or slave, equal and free. The Name Hashem tolerates no slave! Now in the moment where the community of mankind instead of summoning every individual Beshem Hashem places its own name in the place of God's then וירד ה, God interfers, does not let the world go on, comes down to "see" the communal building of mankind, i.e. with the intention on testing the purpose of it. (About anthropomorphism see 0n CH. VI,6)

Similarly, towns Sodom and Gomorrah placed themselves as the supreme ruler of the thoughts of Man and his moral determination. So too Hashem had to go down in order to determine if they had placed themselves in such a destructive position that even more than the Tower of Bavel, they had totally caused themselves to be removed from the world in order to allow the rest of the world to continue to grow. Alternatively, if there were people who had maintained the strength to resist the evil influences around them (which was not the case), then Hashem would discriminate the differences in the morality of the inhabitants of Sodom and mitigate the punishment of those that deserved a lesser sentence. As Rav Hirsch explains:

Two alternatives were announced to Abraham for the threatened fate of Sodom, כלה: complete destruction, or ידיעה: punishment of the guilty but allowing the whole to continue.

This major judgement required Hashem's direct intervention to prevent the total destruction of the world which could have been the final result. Indeed as Rashi points out that this type of judgement requires an immediate and personal judging of the circumstances. We use this language so that when we judge we must take a lesson from the wording in the torah and the anthopomorphic statement of Hashem's actions.

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  • My question is not if HaShem descended, but when. But your answer still applies
    – Levi
    Apr 13 '20 at 18:42
  • I added the Rashi to verse 33. @Levi Apr 13 '20 at 18:55

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