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Sunday, 17 May 2009

Sunday Study: Sodom and Gomorrah Part II

In my previous Sunday Study post, Sodom and Gomorrah Part I, I argued that it is a mistake to conflate what scriptural narratives describe with what they prescribe. I suggested that often the characters in these narratives do things that The Torah later explicitly condemns and in this context it is plausible to read the narratives as records of people’s failings and errors. Such passages often dramatically highlight the consequences of these failings. I think the example of Lot offering his virgin daughters to a group of men is an example of this. Let me elaborate a bit more on why I am inclined to think this.

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.

Here Abram’s actions contrast starkly with those of Lot’s. Whereas Lot chose to associate with evil people to gain wealth, Abram refused to seek economic gain from the people of Sodom out of fidelity to a covenant he had with God. Despite all of this, Lot decided to remain with the people of Sodom. We do not hear of Lot again until Gen 19 when he was forced to flee from Sodom, losing all his possessions and his wife. Once again it was Abram’s intervention that saved him.
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”

However, what is less noticed is what immediately follows this passage. When fleeing Sodom, Lot is promised sanctuary in the nearby town of Zoar. In v 30, however, the text informs us that “Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave.” The man who chose to live in Sodom for the economic gain associated with the cities of the plain became too frightened to live in them. But the irony has not finished yet. The text goes on in v 32,

“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."

The man who only a few verses earlier offered his daughters to a mob to be raped to save his own skin was drugged and raped by his daughters. The story has come full circle.

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


  1. It is true that the Bible does not gloss over the failings of men including men of God such as Abraham and David. I read your analysis above cautiously however. Lot did choose the plain, but he was given the choice. It is not necessarily unrighteous to choose the best. And it is clear that the western, northern and southern regions were also pleasant.

    We see in Scripture that despite his failings Lot is a righteous man. God will spare Sodom for 10 righteous men which he does not find, yet send angels to save the few righteous, that is Lot. Peter reinforces this with his comment,

    and if [God] rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard);... (2 Peter 2)The righteousness of Lot does not invalidate your argument but I think it cautions it. If the sodomy of men was viewed as a much greater evil than the rape of women then we may have Lot (unwisely) choosing the lesser of 2 evils (as he perceived them) in a situation with limited options, all of which are unsavoury.

    If evil men force me to make a decision by force, both of which are offensive, the culpability is predominantly, if not entirely theirs.

    Recent blog post: Is all translation interpretation?

  2. The thought has been troubling me much over the last couple of years that the United States....and really much of the world remind me of the Bible's description of Sodom and Gomorrah.

    It's kind of scary.

    Recent blog post: Re: Ask an Orthodox Christian

  3. What you fail to mention is that in a patriarchal society - such as Lot's - women were seen as property. To give his daughter's away,was in his eyes just to use his property. His guests however, being men, should notbe mistreated in this way. Without acknowledging the sexism in this story the point will be lost.

  4. I tend to focus on Genesis as a lesson on creation. We see from the "stories" listed that we reap what we sow. What are we creating with our daily choices?

  5. Guest, I fail to mention this because I am not convinced it is true. Christopher Wright ( for example makes a reasonable case that women were not viewed as property in ancient Israelite society.

    Moreover, I don’t think the point of the story is to show that women are men’s property, have argued against this above and see no argument in your post to the contrary that it is.

  6. I think 1 Corinthians 7 is clear when it says that the wife's body belongs to her husband and the man's body belongs to the wife. It's not like property but more of a commitment and choosing by both.

  7. What is failed to be mentioned is the fact that it is an Eastern custom to protect your guests with your life. Check out the book "Light through an Eastern Window" or Idioms by Lamsa.

    God bless.
    http://www.jesusdevotionals.orgRecent blog post: Spending Time Daily with God

  8. I don't think the passage SUPPORTS this view... I do think it REFLECTS this view..

  9. I suspect that Matt failed to mention this because this is not how women were seen in that culture, hence the criticism inherent in the text towards Lot for doing this.

    Recent blog post: Tuesday Night: The Moral Cosmological Argument


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