We are studying Genesis 19:1, 15-26, 29 for Sunday, September 1. Our newly redesigned curriculum also gives us the background scripture, which in this case is Genesis 18:6-19:29, the whole story of YHWH’s negotiation with Abraham over how many people it will take to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, along with chapter 19 up to Lot’s escape to Zoar. Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The story is embedded in the cycle of stories about Abraham and Sarah, in chapters 12 – 25 of Genesis. That cycle begins with Abraham’s trusting response to YHWH’s instruction to “go” from everything to “the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1), and ends with the genealogical recap in 25:1-18. In between, in addition to several conversations between God and Abraham (Abram at first), there are several episodes involving Lot, Abraham’s nephew, of which this story is one.
My main impression of Lot, still, is from a Sunday school line drawing, from half a century ago, showing Abraham (technically Abram) and Lot standing on a high cliff overlooking the land they were getting ready to divide, one side all beautiful and with trees and sheep in it, the other side dry-looking and empty. In the story, Lot did exactly what any well-bred little girl had already learned was exactly the selfish-and-bad thing to do, and when given the first choice, took the best, biggest piece of cake for himself. (Genesis 13:1-13) Lot was definitely the bad guy we were not supposed to be like in that story. We never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that one of Lot has stuck with me ever since.
We are probably meant to have a fairly negative impression, though, because after Lot makes his choice and settles “among the cities of the plain” and near Sodom, we are informed by the Biblical narrator that “the people of Sodom were wicked, great siners against YHWH.” (Genesis 13:13) Even without the benefit of a Sunday school line drawing, we can tell Lot has made a bad choice.
Lot next appears as the victim of a wartime raiding party (Genesis 14). Abram has to mobilize his bronze age patriarchal household military forces, chase after the enemy, defeat them, and rescue Lot, along with “all the goods” and “the women and the people” of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Genesis 14:16) Perhaps if Abram had been a little less diligent, some of the events of Genesis 19 would have been unnecessary. This is also the place in the narrative where Abram encounters King Melchizedek (aka Righteous King or King of Righteousness), they eat bread and drink wine, and Abram gives him one-tenth of everything.
In the intervening chapters, more covenental promises are made by YHWH to Abraham, Abraham and Sarah’s Egyptian servant Hagar have a child together, which precipitates a household crisis, Abraham adopts the covenental sign of circumcision and circumcises all the males in the household, and God visits Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre and gives Abraham and Sarah a time for the birth of their biological child.
Immediately following this happy news, YHWH considers whether he can keep the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah – already being planned – a secret from Abraham, and Abraham and YHWH discuss the justice of the destruction of the cities of the Plain. The upshot of the elaborate negotiation, in which Abraham demonstrates his concern for the fate of the righteous, is that God will spare the city for the sake of 10 righteous ones. [Although the main reason for setting the number of a minyan, the quorum for valid congregational prayer, in a Jewish synagogue is understood to come from Numbers 14:27, where 10 are said to be “an assembly” – in that case, not of righteous ones, but never mind – this negotiation of Abraham and YHWH is another text that confirms that number.]
Our selection omits the part of the story where Lot invites the angels to spend the night with him in his house, the angels finally agree, all the men of Sodom come to the house demanding to have the strangers come out to be “known” – in the Biblical sense, we presume – and Lot offers his two virgin daughters as substitutes instead [a more recent reason for my reservoir of ill will towards Lot – I identify with the daughters, and I think, “seriously, Dad??”], the mob threatens Lot and the angels rescue him, then tell him to gather up anyone else he has in the city so they can be saved. Lot’s efforts to convince his “sons-in-law” [are they betrothed to the virgin daughters? How would Lot’s earlier stratagem have affected that? Or are they the husbands of other daughters of the Lot family? In which case – how does their father’s failure to persuade affect them?] are ineffective – which might make us wonder, how hard is he really trying? How urgently? And it also might make us wonder – how responsible is he, then, for their fate? Or is their rejection of his efforts as “joking” on their own heads? That finally brings us up to the part of the story we have on our plate.
We stop before the conclusion of chapter 19, the story of the incestuous origins of Moab and Ammon, which seems to seem like a good idea at the time, that is, in the aftermath of the annihilation of the cities of the Plain. Lot is not a big one for taking responsibility. And this is the last we hear of Lot.
Abraham’s story, however, goes on.
CLOSER READING Starting with v15, the text is explicit about the time of day; in v15 the day is dawning; after the delays set up by Lot, “the sun had risen” by the time Lot gets to the “little” city he prefers to the mountain as a destination. Although he won’t stay there – the place makes him afraid – and will end up in the mountains by the end of the story after all. Whatever, the delays take several hours at least.
Perhaps we need to think of something like every family vacation ever, where The Driver says “we need to get on the road early” and then between The Kids dawdling and The Housekeeper getting that last dish washed and The Obsessive One going back to make sure we locked that door or The Forgetful One going back to get the thing we’re taking to the relatives, we get on the road … not early. But more likely the text is nudging us to wonder: why doesn’t Lot hurry to leave, when Sodom is so evil?
In v16, the men, who we know are angels, take everyone by the hand: Lot, Lot’s wife, and Lot’s daughters. The angel’s speech in v22 implies that he has his orders, and is making sure the job gets done.
Lot seems not to have done the same, since his wife was behind him when she looked back.
It is perplexing that this lapse of judgment on the part of Lot’s wife is possible, since Lot came to Zoar in v23, and the annihilation doesn’t seem to begin until that happens. The terse epitaph of v26 may imply that she was some distance behind. But in that case, also that the angel wasn’t waiting on Mrs. Lot. That is hard to accept, in light of v16 and the hand-holding. Or perhaps she hadn’t heard the instruction in v17, about not looking back, which was addressed to Lot. A lot may depend on how we imagine the scene.
The text implies that Lot was only thinking of his own individual safety and not that of the other members of his household. In vv18, there are six iterations of “me/myself/I” forms; in v19, the feminine noun he is concerned about saving is his soul or life, not his wife or his daughters or even his house. That seems right in character for Lot. This wouldn’t be the first time.
So it’s no surprise that God seems to be sparing Lot – if not Lot’s better half – not for Lot’s own sake, but for Abraham’s (v29).