This story has fascinated and astounded ever since it was first told. It is one of the most well-known in Genesis. It tends to be one that causes uncomfortable squirming, or inspires harsh judgement. It feels extreme. In today’s ironically judgmental culture, it judged too judgmental. And it is thus far frustratingly unwilling to be supported by other historical accounts or archeological evidence.
However, within the flow of the larger story, it fits perfectly. It is also about a lot more than mere divine wrath. We see God continuing to deal with the sin of humanity as He has all along—judging it and not allowing it to become too extreme—but in an ever-merciful manner. In the flood, He ensured the continuation of humanity; here He saves people who have even the slightest redeemable relationship to Him. We see God’s chosen, Abraham, observing and learning more about God and His expectations (and love) through the events.
How many civilizations have died out from incurable, internal rot? Or, perhaps more interesting, how many have been allowed to persist due to a mere handful of individuals who are open to their Creator; unwilling to be carried away by a strong current of depravity?
Had the cities in this story mustered a mere six more “righteous” people, they would have been spared. What we see here more than terrifying judgement is a patient God giving chance after chance for repentance. Despite the sins that everybody loves to hate on display here, it is the great outcry against the cities that draws God’s intervention. And this destruction is not His first move. He has already caused them to be overpowered by a foreign government, sent Lot there to be an example, and had them rescued by Abraham. We can infer a lot of God’s activity in the cities trying to turn them around. They never learned.
And, even though a natural disaster seems to have been used to eradicate these cultures, that does not mean all such disasters are judgment, or that God exclusively uses this means to change human history.