After the proto-history of flood, fall, Babel, etc the tale of Israel’s history proper began in chapter 12 with Abram being called by God to leave Ur of the Chaldees and to go to an unknown land (this land is later identified as Canaan which today is Israel or Palestine). Abram was given several promises that ultimately promised the renewal of all nations on earth. The text states that Lot accompanied Abram in this quest.
By chapter 13 Abram and Lot had reached Canaan and Abram had gained considerable wealth. Disagreement over land and resources had lead to in v 7 “quarrelling … between Abram's herdsmen and the herdsmen of Lot.” Abram diplomatically solved the dispute by allowing Lot to take his pick of the land, promising that his men would go elsewhere. Lot’s response was to, rather ungraciously, in v 10 “choose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east,” land that the text stated was, “well watered like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, toward Zoar.”
The reference to the garden of the Lord here is an allusion to the garden of Eden. The narrator added a side comment starting in v 12, “Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.13 Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD.” Apparently Lot’s response to Abram’s diplomacy was to take the very best of the land for himself, thus forcing Abram to go elsewhere. Moreover, the text implies that Lot, in order to gain the economic resources that his men had been in dispute with Abram over, decided to “pitch his tent” amongst people known to be of corrupt character – he was willing to compromise himself for material gain.
In the next chapter, chapter 14, everything went to custard. Lot’s decision rebounded on him. The inhabitants of Sodom violated a vassal treaty and engaged in a violent uprising. The war that ensued was disastrous; Lot lost all his possessions and was taken hostage. In 14:13-17 Abram rescued Lot and his possessions.
I think a careful reader can detect a clear irony in this account. From the dispute in chapter 13 it seems clear that Lot wanted Abram’s resources. Abram essentially yielded them; Lot then chose to live amongst people known to be corrupt and violent to ensure he got to keep them. However, Lot lost all his resources and his freedom and had to rely on Abram’s men, the very men he had disputed with, to get them resources back. The irony here is perhaps made quite clear at the end of chapter 14,
The king of Sodom said to Abram, "Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself." 22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, 'I made Abram rich.' 24 I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them have their share.
A careful reading of the Sodom and Gomorrah story in its context shows Lot, not as a paradigm of wisdom but something of a tragic ironic figure. Lot was called by God with Abram and was faithful to that call, he packed up and went to Canaan. However, Lot compromised his integrity to gain the wealth of his kinsman and as a result lost everything. The little he was left with at the end was due to the intervention of the man he tried to deprive.
This kind of irony is not uncommon in Genesis. Perhaps the clearest example is that of Jacob. Jacob conned both his father and brother (the eldest son and his father’s favorite) in an attempt to secure an inheritance. He was forced to leave his home and seek shelter with Laban, who ironically tricked him into marrying Leah instead of Rachel which caused a massive amount of marital and domestic stress which reverberated into the next generations. Jacob retaliated by tricking Laban out of his flocks. He was again forced to flee. Jacob had a strange encounter with God whereby he underwent some kind of conversion symbolised by a name change. However, in his later life as a father, his sons tricked him into believing Joseph, his favorite son, is dead. The grief from this trick almost destroyed Jacob. Once again there is evident irony. A careful reading of the Pentateuch narrative shows this feature repeatedly.
When the story of Lot is picked up again I think one can see similar ironies emerge. Many people read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and note Lot’s comments to the men of Sodom in 19:7-8
"No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof”
“One day the older daughter said to the younger, "Our father is old, and there is no man around here to lie with us, as is the custom all over the earth. Let's get our father to drink wine and then lie with him and preserve our family line through our father." That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and lay with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up. The next day the older daughter said to the younger, "Last night I lay with my father. Let's get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and lie with him so we can preserve our family line through our father. So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went and lay with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up. So both of Lot's daughters became pregnant by their father."
Lot was faithful to God’s call to leave Ur and offered kindness, shelter and protection to homeless strangers in a brutal and violent town so for that reason his life was spared. But Lot had to face his own sins and failings which ricocheted back upon him imposing a severe cost. The man who was willing to associate with evil and violent people in order to wrest the economic wealth of the plains from his kinsman, found his decision left him with nothing. He ended up living in a cave in the mountains, not the plains he coveted, afraid of the people in the plains and survived only because of the intercession of his kinsman. He treated his daughters with contempt and tried to have them raped to save his own skin and then found that his daughters were willing to rape him to get children. This is how I read the tragic and insightful tale of Lot.
Sunday Study: Sodom and Gomorrah Part I