Bible Commentator

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Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org

LOT, HIS FAMILY AND UNCLE ABRAHAM

LOT, HIS FAMILY AND UNCLE ABRAHAM   

Lot went with Uncle Abraham 1 to Egypt and saw his Uncle give Sarah his Aunt away to Pharaoh out of ‘fear’ of his life. When Lot invited two messengers to his home for hospitality and he ‘feared’ for their lives (and his own) he decided to give his virgin daughters away to protect the strangers. Later when his daughters ‘feared’ that the world had been destroyed in an apocalypse and no men were available to marry they had intimate relations with him to survive for themselves and the world.

INTRODUCTION:

Lot was the son of Haran, Abraham’s brother. Haran died relatively young during his father Terah’s lifetime and Abraham ‘adopted’ his nephew. We are not told of Lot’s mother’s name, but she too apparently died before the family moved toward Canaan.

‘The Lord told Abraham Go forth from your land and your birthplace [or kindred] and your father’s house to the land I will show you’ (12:1). In fact Abraham departed with his father Terah  and his ‘adopted’ son Lot as well with his wife Sarah. They left Terah in Haran (a place presumably named after Lot’s dead father). Terah lived another sixty years and was presumably in good health when Abraham left. 2

God later told Abraham that he would become a ‘great nation and you shall be a blessing . . .  And Abraham went forth as the Lord had spoken to him and Lot went with him’ (12:3-4). In the previous chapter we were introduced to Sarah plight as Abraham’s barren wife (11:29). It would appear that if Abraham were to become a ‘great nation’ it might have to come from Lot as Abraham’s adoptive son. Thus despite leaving his ‘father’s house’ Lot appears the instrument necessary to fill Abraham’s destiny.

THE SEPARATION:

Abraham traveled through Egypt and became rich, he and ‘Lot with him’ (13:1). We are then told that ‘there was strife between the herdsmen of Abraham flocks and the herdsmen of Lot’s flocks (13:7). Why Master Abraham and his esteemed nephew would allow their herdsmen’s conflict to separate them seems unclear. Rashi (1040-1105), the medieval commentator, suggests that Lot herdsmen ‘knew’ their master was Abraham’s heir and therefore the eventual owner of the land and felt entitled to use that land immediately (on 13:7 and Gen. Rabbah 41.6). Abraham was willing to await patiently for God’s gift. Abraham understands that more is at stake than the simple strife herdsmen, ‘Let there be no strife between you and me’ (13:8). Was Abraham concerned that the strife represented his and Lot’s view of God’s power in the world? We cannot at this point know.

‘If you take the left hand, then I shall go right, and of you take the right hand, I shall go left’ (13:9). Was Abraham suggested they split the land of Canaan which was promised to him? Right hand or left hand is a strange and unclear way to define land. If they were facing eastward right is south and left if north; but if they were facing westward the opposite is true. And where were they geographically? If they were situated on the Mediterranean coast (near current day Tel Aviv) south is Philistine land (Gaza) and north up to Lebanon. If they were in the current day center of Israel they would have been in the promised land of Canaan. Abraham may have expected Lot to choose northern Canaan or Southern Canaan, but he did not make that choice.

Lot looked west and with Abraham’s permission he chose a land he or the narrator described as ‘the garden of the Lord’, almost an Eden irrigated by the Jordan River and the cities the plains. But it does not appear to be the land God promised Abraham’s descendants; it seems to be today’s Jordan.  Numerous scholars have claimed that the cities of the plains were not considered part of Canaan but rather were a separate geo-political entity. 3

Lot who may be seen as an opportunist chooses the better land not knowing that it includes land whose potential was for annihilation. Is there a lesson to be learned from this transaction? Is the narrator suggesting that despite its evil in Sodom Lot was unconcerned; that a different value system existed between Abraham and Lot?  We should note that before the choice no evil had been attributed to Sodom and Gomorrah, but immediately after Lot’s choice we are told that the men of Sodom ’were wicked’ (13:13). Should Lot have been concerned?

We have been told twice that Abraham is with Lot and that Sarah is barren implying that Lot will be Abraham’s heir; why would they allow herdsmen to interfere in their relationship? Is Lot still to be considered Abraham’s heir?  Rashi notes Abraham saying ‘wherever you go, I will be close at hand and I will always shield and help you’ as we shall see shortly Abraham does.

One of the major themes of Abraham’s lifetime (11:27 to chapter 22) is the birth of his heir, who would be his mother and the child’s survival; and the story of Lot is a significant part of that theme.

And Lot moved and lived in a tent near Sodom. We are told the people of Sodom were evil doers. Abraham moved towards Hebron.  And God promised Abraham that his descendants would be ‘like the dust of the earth’ would own ‘all the land you can see’ (13:15-16).

Some time later the people of Sodom and the area including Lot and his family are kidnapped by four kings. Abraham gathered an army and fought the kings; he succeeded in releasing Lot, his family and all his possessions and the people of Sodom. Obviously Abraham maintained his commitment to Lot, his adopted son. Abraham risked his life to protect Lot and his family.

The next time Abraham converses with God he says ‘I am childless and

‘ben meshek ba’ti’ is dameshek Eliezer’. Does ‘ben meshek’ mean the steward of my house and is dameshek, the Damascus Eliezer? As Robert Alter notes Eliezer in an unlikely name for a person from Damascus – is this some difficult word play – ‘meshek’ twice? 4 God replies no you will bear your own biologic child (15:2-4). Had Abraham given up on Lot as his heir? If so why; was living near Sodom related? Lot only had daughters, did in itself disqualify him as an heir apparent in that society?

Later God appears to Abraham again and tell him he will deliver an apocalypse on the evil doers of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the cities if even fifty, forty five thirty twenty and finally ten righteous persons remain in the cities.  Interestingly Abraham does not plead explicitly for his nephew Lot; in fact he is not mentioned. What Abraham thinks of his nephew living near a city that contained ‘very evil offenders against the Lord’ (13:13) we do not know. Did he consider Lot righteous? By now God has promised Abraham his own son through Sarah, however God’s remembrance of Sarah (21:1) has not yet been implemented. Thus Lot his nephew as well as Abraham’s biologic son Ishmael may still appear to Abraham as potential descendants to fulfill the prophecy of his becoming a great nation. 5 This is the second time although indirectly Abraham intervenes to save Lot in his stay in Sodom.

THE APOCALYPSE:

In the following chapter (19) we are told the story of Lot, his family and the apocalypse.

The story of Lot’s survival begins when two messengers (divine visitors, like Uncle Abraham previously – in fact according to a midrash the two are from Abraham’s three; one ‘the Lord’ Himself remained with Abraham) came into Sodom for the evening and Lot sitting at the gate of the city (19:1) a traditional seat of Judges sit in the Hebrew Bible and offers them hospitality. No doubt Lot received the respect of the city as a result of Uncle Abraham’s saving the city. The story is reminiscent of the earlier visitation of Abraham’s three messengers appeared before his tent (18:1) and his offering hospitality.

Lot invites them to spend the night and offered bread and in fact prepared a feast. Lot evidently learnt from his Uncle Abraham about hospitality. Some biblical commentators have expressed that Lot’s hospitality as in fact inferior to Abraham 6 I disagree; while Abraham had Sarah create an elaborate meal including cakes which never appear to be served (18:8) and the calf appears to have been previously prepared.  Abraham’s guests arrived in the early afternoon and were served an evening dinner (18:1) while Lot’s guest arrived in the evening. Lot prepared for them a feast in addition to the normal Arabic (pita) flatbread (19:3). 

Morally degenerate men from Sodom surrounded the house and demanded to ‘know’ the men, to rape them (thus the word sodomy in English coming from the Hebrew.) Lot addresses these aggressive men ‘my brothers’ (19:8) to appease them and offers his virgin daughters instead; he feels a need to protect his visitors under roof and his hospitality. Robert Alter points out under Mid Eastern code a house guest can be considered to take precedent over other obligations. 7 He does not know at this point that the visitors and holy messengers.  Lot was in a precarious and dangerous situation himself given the threat ‘we will do more harm to you than to them’ (19:9). While this may seem a surprising exchange Lot was with Uncle Abraham when he offered his wife Sarah to Pharaoh because of his own fear and to protect himself. Can this as Laurence Turner suggested ‘like father . . . like son’? 8 At the time in Egypt Abraham was acting as an adoptive father to his adoptive son Lot. However the Ramban correctly states ‘one does not abandon ones daughter for prostitution (on 19:8).

The exact sins of the people of Sodom according to Jewish commentators may have been more than just sodomy. In Ezekiel’s chapter 16, Jerusalem is described almost pornographically (16:15-22) 9 and then called Sodom and Samaria are called only half as bad. Sodom crimes are defined as ‘arrogance, gluttony, complacency . . . and neglecting the poor and needy’ (16:49). Sexual crimes used as a metaphor for idolatry are connected to Ezekiel’s Jerusalem.

The Talmud describes the sins of Sodom as there being ‘cruel cheaters, exploiters of strangers, grasping, money-mad, and unkind. When Lot’s daughter Peletit fed a poor man she was executed and burnt to death. 10 Josephus noted at the end of the first century hat those from Sodom abhorred strangers. 11

In the Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (written later than the Talmud but including oral traditions from that same period (3-4th century) adds that Sodomite law forbad hospitality which was punishable by death through burning. 12 

Another midrash described Abraham’s servant Eliezer visiting Lot at Sarah’s request. Eliezer was witness to the robbery of a stranger; he interfered and was stoned for his interference causing a loss of blood.  He was asked to pay for the cupping of his own blood. He refused and was taken to Court and the Judge fined Eliezer to pay. Eliezer then threw a rock at the head of the Judge who bled profusely. Eliezer said ‘pay my debt to the men and give me the balance’. 13

For such acts as these Sodom was destroyed and only Lot and his family were saved through God’s justice.

When the men of Sodom attempt to break into Lots house the messengers miraculously created blinding light and the house was no longer visible.  Lot is then informed that God will destroy this city and he is warned to flee immediately with his family and possessions. Only Lot, his wife and two virgin daughters go with the men. The remainder of his family (married daughters, sons-in-laws (and any grandchildren) being disbelievers refused to go. Lot apparently had no sons.  ‘Flee for your life. Don’t look behind you and don’t stop anywhere on the plain. Flee to the high country’ (19:17-18). Lot lingers and is almost forced to flee by the messengers. (19:16). Lot hesitates again; is he doubtful of the messenger’s prophecy?  Being an urban dweller Lot requests relocation in a town near by in the Jordan Valley; the messengers agree to save a city called Zoar (19:23).

‘And the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord from the heavens’ (19:24). And his wife looked back and she became a pillar of salt (19:26). The Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer calling the wife Idit, suggested she looked back not out of defiance but hoping her married daughters reconsidered and had followed them. Another midrash suggests she sought salt from a neighbor while preparing the feast and told of their guests; thus her punishment. The Talmud states that when one visits the pillar of salt one states two blessing; one on the ‘true judge’ – dayan emet -  which is said when hears of a death and secondly remembering the righteous (BT Brachot 5a-b).  Given the apocalypse and the aftermath and the effect on her children one could content whether her punishment was not an act of mercy.

Abraham was apparently unaware that Lot survived the apocalypse.

THE AFTERMATH:

Lot and his two virgin daughters fearful in the city of Zoar leave and seek refuge in a cave. The girls believe that they and their father were the sole survivors left on earth. They apparently were not aware of the conversations with the divine messengers. They believed that their and the survival of the species could only come from propagating their father’s seed through intercourse with him. The eldest daughter suggests that make their father drunk since he might not agree. On the first night the first daughter has relations with their father and them on the second night the second daughter; both are impregnated. Lot was apparently unaware of what had happened in his drunken state ‘he knew not when she lat down or when she arose’; this repeated twice for both daughters (19:33, 35). The two girls became pregnant and each delivered a son; they named them appropriately Moab (meaning from father) and Ben Ammi (son of father - Ammonites). The Ramban (1194-1270) suggests that the daughters might be thought of as Noah; that they were saving the world’s existence (on 19:32). The Moabites and Ammonites were forbidden to enter into the Israeli people for ten generations because they refused hospitality in the desert (Duet. 23:4). As the midrash on the Book of Proverbs stated the daughters could say to their sons ‘your father is my father’ (Proverbs 2:6). Augustine suggests it is not clear whether Lot sinned or was sinned against. 14

Jewish midrashim present a mixed opinion about this act of incest. 15 One Rabbi describes it as an act for heaven while another and act of fornication (Gen. Rabbah 51:8,10). One Rabbi suggested that even if Lot with his elder daughter was unaware as a result of being drunk he should have realized when he awakened and been more cautious the second night (BT Horayoth 10b).

Jewish midrashim believe Lot had no sons and thus his own mortality was also at stake. 16 One the other hand there is no explicit prohibition on a man’s sleeping with his own daughter (despite the intent being obvious), prohibitions appear against grand daughters (18:10) as well as daughters-in-law (20:12), half sisters and aunts. No one (that I am aware of) has supplied a rational for this missing prohibition. Yet Abraham claimed to married his half sister Sarah (20:12), Moses’ father Amram apparently married his Aunt Yocheved (Ex. 2:1) and as we shall discuss in a moment Judah married his daughter-in-law.

CONCLUSION:

What can be said concerning Lot? How sympathetic shall we see his actions?

The conflict with Abraham about land and their separation is more than among herdsmen and land but value systems. Later Lot chose to live in Sodom after Abraham freed him from his captures; but then we all knew of the evil of its people. His offering his daughters to protect himself and his guests may be understandable although clearly not heroic. Lot tells his married daughters and son-in-laws of God’s destruction of the city but in a way the narrator describes as joking. As the dawn was breaking the messengers urged Lot, his wife and two daughters to rush out and finally they had to seize their hands and take him out.

Lot has been described in the pseudo-canonical book ‘Wisdom’ as a righteous man (10:5) similar to his Uncle Abraham (10:5) and distant cousins Jacob (10:10) and Joseph (10:13). This positive evaluation is confirmed in the Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer. 17 God did in fact send his angels to rescue Lot and his family prior to the destruction of Sodom, however his survival may be for Abraham’s sake rather than his righteousness.

Lots two daughters give birth to two future other enemies of the Hebrews Moab and Ammon. These appear as an etiological description to bastardize their existence as enemies of Israel.  After his daughters become pregnant does Lot ever understand and object to what they had done? Given that he had offered his two daughters to be raped by the men of Sodom – who were interested in sodomy, a non impregnative act - it would have been difficult for him to criticize their behavior. Robert Alter calls their actions  ‘measure for measure justice’. 18

Lot began as the heir apparent to Abraham and his blessing; but in his history: the herdsmen conflict, opportunism in the land choice, his moving toward Sodom, his reluctance to leave Sodom and his actions towards his daughters and their eventual ironic reaction to him suggest he failed as Abraham’s successor.

 

1 We use the name Abraham even before his name change from Abram and Sarah is used before her name change from Sarai as a matter of convenience.

2 Cassuto, U., A Commentary on Genesis, Trans by I., Abrahams, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1964) Vol. 2, pg. 310,317.

3 Helyer, Larry, R., ‘The Separation of Abram and Lot, JSOT, 1983, pg. 80.

4 Alter , Robert, ‘The  Five Books of Moses’ (Norton & Co., N.Y., 2004) pg. 73.

5 Baldwin, Joyce, Genesis 12-50, (Intra Varsity Press, Leicester, 1988) pg. 73,77.

6 Sharon P., Jeansonne, Characterization of Lot, BTB 18, 1988, pg. 126

7 Robert Alter, pg. 92.

8 Article, Turner, L.A., Lot As Jekyll And Hyde’, eds. D.J.A. Clines, S.E. Fowl and S E.  Porter, The Bible in Three Dimensions’ (Sheffield, JSOT, 1990) pg. 87.

9 See http://www.moshereiss.org/articles/23_ezekiel.htm

10 Ginzberg , Louis, Legends of the Bible, (Philadelphia, JPS, 1975) pg. 115.

11 Josephus, Translated by William Whiston, Complete Works, Kregel Publication, Grand Rapids, 1960, The Antiquities of the Jews, 1:11, pg. 33.

12 Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer [Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, translated by Gerald Friedlander, (Herman Press, N.Y., 1965) chapter 25, pg. 184.

13 Op cit, Ginzberg,  pg. 114.

14 Quoted in Polhemus, Robert, Lots Daughters (Stamford University Press, Stamford, 2005) pg. 53

15 Suggested in Gen. Rabbah 51:8,10

16 Ginzberg, Louis, Legends of the Bible, Vol. I, (JPS, Philadelphia, 1975), pg. 255.

17  Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer pg. 184.

18 Alter, pg. 92.