Genesis 19

This is surely one of the most disturbing chapters in the whole of Genesis, seemingly filled to the brim with objectionable events. It begins well enough with Lot mirroring Abraham in the hospitality he offers (verses one through three; a core virtue of ancient Southwest Asia, and one that indeed remains), yet thereafter very few positive remarks may be made about Lot. We might note that the incredible detail in verse four that every single man living in Sodom gathered around Lot’s door connects with the negotiation Abraham had with God/“God” in the previous chapter wherein it was settled that were a mere ten innocent (/“upright”) people found in the city it would not have to be destroyed (18.32), but in this it seems that the women living in Sodom are not being counted. This is of course a reflection of an unfortunate (by modern standards) historico-cultural patriarchical thinking woven into the structure of the storytelling, but would that such were the full extent of it. Instead we have Lot also offering his two daughters as sexual partners to the men of Sodom in lieu of the visitors (horrific imagery here), and he then seemingly stands around not knowing what to do when that proposal is refused, resulting in him having to be pulled back inside his own house by the “angels” sheltering there (verses nine through ten).

Lot’s passivity and incompetence continue. He cannot convince his sons-in-law (presumably married to other daughters) to flee from Sodom before it is destroyed (verse fourteen), and he himself dawdles in his own escape; this, at least, does give us a singularly poignant verse amidst the unrelentingly harsh narrative:

19.16: “Still he [Lot, with his household] delayed. So the men [these are the “angels” established in verse one, the same two who had visited Abraham with God/“God” in Chapter 18] seized his hand, and the hands of his wife and his two daughters – in the LORD’S mercy on him – and brought him out and left him outside the city.”

Lot, unfathomably, appears unsteady in the basic task of fleeing certain doom; perhaps he does not believe that the city really will be destroyed, perhaps he has some lingering affection for the place despite the assault of the day before (verse fifteen begins: “As dawn broke” and hence we are in a new day at this point), perhaps the narrator wishes to further contrast Lot with the exemplary forthright Abraham. Whatever the case, the divine is depicted as acting with patient grace. This helps redeem the story (which might be mostly about etiologies), but the picture remains complicated. For one, despite having only just been saved, Lot’s wife (sadly not given a name) almost immediately dies anyway as she is transformed into a pillar of salt because she turned to watch the “sulfurous fire from the LORD out of heaven” (verse twenty-four) after having been warned not to “look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain” (verse seventeen). Possibly this was written to account for the natural salt formations in the region, but one would think such an item might be left out or described in another way, something which goes double for the origin myth of the Moabite and Ammonite clans via the incestuous sex initiated by Lot’s daughters with him (verses thirty through thirty-eight).

Traditionally this tale has been interpreted as a warning against the consequences of “sin” (as moral wrongdoing and/or as an effrontery to deity), and also sometimes as a sign of God’s/“God’s” faithfulness to Abraham in that it rescued Lot although he did not seem to deserve it (but then against this line of thought there is the obvious objection that Lot’s wife, sons-in-law and other daughters were not spared). It is a foundational story to much of Western culture, the kind of background knowledge and common reference point that unites people even of variant worldviews, but for my part I have to remind myself of a great number of caveats simply to finish reading (it is an historical relic, its authors conceived of justice very differently than we tend to, it stems from a society which was unthinkingly male-oriented, et cetera). Thank goodness for verse sixteen; within all of the human failure and tragedy, the annihilatory retribution presented as deserved judgment, there is a glimpse of unwarranted mercy. The world is not fair, a great many people suffer unspeakably in ways that should never happen, let alone be commonplace. Yet even so we might hope that there can be times when we are led by the hand and away from the “city”.

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