Crafty Lot

Sodom fire art

Lot offering his daughters to the men of Sodom is an affront to our moral sensibilities, yet the New Testament calls him a righteous man. Could our problem be simply that the Bible is smarter than we are?

George Athas (from Moore College, Australia) has a theory that not only harmonises the story with the New Testament estimation of Lot, it also accords with James Jordan’s rejection of other supposed moral failures by the primeval saints as misinterpretations. Athas considers various theories put forth by commentators, and they make some valid points, but each is lacking in some way. He then writes:

This leads us now to reconsider the nature of Lot’s shocking offer in Gen 19:8. If the narrative sets us up to expect Lot to be a righteous man, what are we to make of his apparently scandalous proposal to give his two daughters for pack rape? We can see how this dilemma leads commentators either to attempt to exonerate Lot, or else to reinterpret Lot’s character completely. The way forward lies in identifying detail omission. We have already mentioned this narrative device, but here we need to define it and notice its particular use in Gen 19.

Detail omission occurs when a narrator deliberately hides information from the reader at one point in a narrative, only to reveal the information at a later point. It is a rhetorical device whereby the presentation of information within a narrative is delayed, in order to control the reading process, shape the reader’s expectations (either consciously or subconsciously) and, thereby, affect the reader’s experience of the narrative. Depending on whether the reader is aware of the hidden information, this creates either an element of curiosity or surprise…

Gen 19 contains a masterful use of Unknown Detail Omission creating surprise. The narrator exploits ambiguities in the narrative to fool the reader into ordering the narrative a particular way, and then surprises the reader at a later point by revealing that the reader has ordered the situation wrongly. This begins with Lot’s offer of hospitality to the two messengers in Gen 19:2. Lot says to them:

“Here you are, my lords! Come by your servant’s house, stay, wash your feet, then rise early, and go on your way.”

Bailey rightly picks up the ambiguity in the phrase “wash your feet,” which can be a euphemism for sex. The ambiguity creates curiosity through a known detail omission: the reader knows that Lot is offering hospitality to the two messengers, but does not know what kind of hospitality he is offering. Is Lot offering the messengers an opportunity for sexual gratifica-tion? Or is Lot simply offering them the opportunity literally to wash their feet. We may compare the scene with Gen 18:4, in which Abraham also offers his guests the chance to wash their feet. However, Abraham’s offer is unambiguously literal: he offers to bring some water, thereby ruling out the possibility that he is offering sexual gratification to his guests. But such is not the case with Lot. The known detail omission leads the reader to wonder whether Lot is a righteous man like his uncle, Abraham, or a licentious host.

What’s more, Lot is in Sodom—a city characterized by its wicked inhabitants. And in the previous chapter, Abraham’s bargaining with God has set the reader up to see whether ten righteous people can be found in Sodom (18:32). The reader hopes that Lot is a righteous man and, along with Abraham, that ten righteous people can be found within its gates to spare the city, including Lot and his family. There is, therefore, a lot riding on this encounter (pun intended), but at this stage the reader does not know whether Lot’s hospitality is a good thing or a bad thing. Furthermore, in Gen 18:5, Abraham’s three guests accept his unambiguous offer of righteous hospitality immediately. But such is not the case with the two messengers in Gen 19. On the contrary, they initially turn down Lot’s offer.

This heightens the mystery and tension. Do they perhaps sense that Lot is offering them inappropriate hospitality? Has Lot himself become just like the wicked sinners of Sodom? Lot needs to urge the messengers to stay with him before they finally accept. And as they go to his house, the reader prepares to see just what kind of hospitality Lot does offer. The narrative produces crucial curiosity at this point. The fate of Sodom hangs critically in the balance.

The situation is compounded by a further ambiguity in the temporal clause at the start of Gen 19:4. The clause reads “Before they bedded down”. The reader is led to ask whether this is simply lying down to sleep for the night, or whether it also has a sexual connotation. The action does not actually occur, as is indicated by the adverb “before”. However, the narrator employs the power of suggestion by framing the next incident in the episode with reference to this aborted action. This not only implies that the arrival of the men of Sodom at Lot’s door is an interruption, but that the act of “bedding down” (however it is viewed) was certainly about to occur. Again, the reader hopes the potential action was innocent, but the narrator does not give sufficient clarity for the reader to be sure. The ambiguities here produce considerable curiosity and different potential interpretations of the narrative.

At this point, the men of Sodom surround the house and demand Lot bring the messengers out in order to “know” them. This too is another ambiguity because of the semantic range and possible connotations of the verb “to know”, which include both knowing factually and knowing sexually. Are they simply carrying out a defensive investigation in order to “know” facts, as Bailey suggests, or are they demanding a sexual encounter? The ambiguity instilled in the narrative to this point heightens the stakes here. In either case, the reader is likely to interpret the scene through the lens of the narrator’s  earlier note that the men of Sodom were very wicked (13:13). If the reader believes Lot has offered sexual gratification to his guests, then the reader will conclude that Lot has become like the residents of Sodom: a wicked sinner. As such, the reader will interpret the demand of the Sodomites as asking for their own sexual encounter with the guests.

But even if the reader sees the scene as a defensive operation, the characterization of the Sodomites will lead the reader to expect that they will brutalize the two messengers. Rape of civilians was common enough in ancient societies (cf. Judg 5:30; Lam 5:11; Zech 14:2). As Janzen highlights, ancient warfare sought to break down city walls and gates in order to penetrate and desecrate a city. The symbolic connection between sex and politics was often embodied (in the fullest sense of the word) through the “diabolical sacrament” of the rape of defeated inhabitants.

When we recall that the two messengers had arrived at Sodom’s gate (Gen 19:1) and, through Lot’s hospitality, had entered the city, we may begin to see how the inhabitants of Sodom might have thought their city had been covertly infiltrated by potential conquerors. Their demand to “know” the two messengers could, therefore, be understood as seeking to respond in kind—giving conquerors a taste of their own bitter medicine. And since the reader knows that the men of Sodom were very wicked (13:13), the reader expects them to be capable of such atrocities towards perceived militants…

In Gen 19:6–8, Lot makes his shocking offer. He has two daughters “who have never known a man” to offer to the mob to assuage their penchant for sex and violence. This offer is a pivotal moment in the narrative, for up until this point all of Lot’s words and actions have been ambiguous. Now the reader perceives Lot’s true colors, as he unambiguously shows that he is every bit as abusive as the men of Sodom, dashing any hope that he might have been a righteous man. While the Sodomites had wanted to “know” and brutalize the two messengers, Lot now offers the “knowledge” and brutalization of his daughters. The range of Pentateuchal norms mentioned view the brutalizing of women as heinous and potentially deserving of the death penalty. This causes the reader to evaluate Lot’s previously ambiguous offer of hospitality as inappropriate: he did indeed offer sexual gratification to the two messengers, and this must be why they had initially refused. Their final acquiescence to stay in his house, therefore, is not evidence of the messengers’ depravity, but evidence of Lot’s persistent wickedness. It turns the messengers’ reconnaissance into a mission to prove Lot’s depravity. To underline this, the narrator uses the same verb to describe the pressure Lot exerts on the messengers to accept his hospitality as the pressure the men of Sodom now put on Lot to bring the messengers out to them. Since migrating to the Jordan Basin in Gen 13:12, it seems the bad company of Sodom has corrupted Lot’s character. There is not a single righteous person in the city. Sodom’s (and Lot’s) fate is sealed!…

The narrative uses the reader’s revulsion at rape to turn hopes and sympathies against Lot. His own appeal to the rules of hospitality is thereby not designed to make the reader sympathetic towards him, but rather to show that Lot has “lost the plot.” He is using what is essentially a good code as justification for a crime against his own daughters.

Nonetheless, the narrative does take a surprising turn. The messengers pull Lot back inside the house and stun the mob outside, thus preventing them from finding their way to the door to cause harm (Gen 19:10–11). But then, rather than condemn Lot for his depravity, the messengers ask (19:12–13):

“Do you have anyone else here: a son-in-law, or your sons or daughters—anyone else in the town who belongs to you? Get them out of this place, because we are about to destroy this place. Since the outcry against them is so great before Yahweh, he has sent us to destroy it.”

Why would the messengers seek to save Lot when he has just unambiguously demonstrated that morally he is every bit as corrupt as the men of Sodom? Has not Lot sealed his own fate along with the rest of the city? Evidently not! But why not? Gen 19:14 is the moment the narrator reveals a key detail that has been withheld from the reader up until this point. The verse states:

So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law who were married to his daughters. He said, “Get up! Get out of this place, because Yahweh is about to destroy the town.” But his sons-in-law thought he was joking.

Surprisingly, Lot’s daughters are not virgins! On the contrary, they are already married. Until this moment, the narrator has exploited the story’s ambiguities to make the reader think Lot’s daughters are virgins and just inside the door of his house. The reader has even come to believe that Lot might have offered his two daughters to the two messengers for sex, before the mob of Sodom interrupted, leading Lot to offer them to the mob instead. But this is clearly not the case. Lot apparently has sons-in-law, and just to underscore this fact, the narrator employs a tautology: “his sons-in-law who were married to his daughters”. Lot also has to go out to them, because they are not in the house with him. This can only mean that Lot’s daughters are also not in the house with him. This, then, explains why the messengers have to ask Lot whether he has any sons-in-law, sons, or daughters in the city (19:12), for they simply cannot tell from the confines of Lot’s house. And eventually, when Lot returns to the house, the messengers tell him to take his wife and his two daughters “who have been found” (19:15) out of the city before it is destroyed. The word ‘who have been found’ is used only of Lot’s two daughters, and does not include Lot’s wife.

Furthermore, its use makes no sense if Lot’s daughters were already in the house, as presumably Lot’s wife was. However, it makes good sense if Lot has indeed gone out, found them, and brought them back to his house, albeit without their husbands, who do not believe destruction is imminent. This also precludes the possibility that Lot had more than two daughters—that is, two unmarried daughters in the house whom he tries to substitute for the divine messengers, and other married daughters living elsewhere in the city whose husbands do not believe Lot’s warning. At the end of the episode, there are indeed only two daughters with Lot (19:30), and these are the two daughters who had been found in 19:15.

All this means that by withholding the key detail that Lot’s daughters are already married and living elsewhere in the city, the narrator has fooled the reader into believing that Lot’s daughters have been in the house all along, and that Lot is a degenerate father. So masterfully does the narrator fool the reader, that most subsequent translators are thoroughly fooled too. Instead of rightly translating the phrase as “his sons-in-law who had married his daughters,” translators usually depict them as “sons-in-law who were to marry his daughters” (NRSV, ESV; cf. RSV, NIV, HSCB, NET). They cannot conceive of Lot’s daughters as anything but virgins immediately inside Lot’s house. Even Robert Alter, who rightly recognizes that the narrative is here revealing previously concealed information in a surprising way, still sees the daughters as betrothed, rather than already married…

Once this key detail about Lot’s daughters is revealed, the narrative suddenly turns on its head. The reader is forced to reassess the entire episode in light of this new information. Lot did not have two virgin daughters to offer to the mob outside his door. So why would he say that he did? Two factors help explain it. The first is the hospitality code of the ancient Near East. Gen 18 depicts Abraham as a paragon of hospitality, and the juxtaposition of that chapter before the Sodom episode affords easy comparison between Abraham and Lot. Furthermore, we have already mentioned the Ugaritic Epic of Aqhat, which describes the model son as one “who drives out those who would abuse his houseguest” (Aqhat I:30). Protection of guests was indeed a virtue. Lot feels compelled, therefore, to protect the two messengers to whom he has offered the shelter of his roof.

The second factor is that Lot perceives the wicked intent of the Sodomite mob to brutalize the two messengers. His offer of two virgin daughters is a ruse designed to appeal to the sexual appetite of the mob. It seems Lot hopes they might accept the offer, and while they wait for him to go and bring out his daughters, he might be able to smuggle his guests safely out of town. In other words, Lot’s shocking offer is a decoy to buy time. Even our translators fall for this decoy completely, which shows how skillfully the narrative depicts Lot as a quick thinker. Lot actually has no intention of bringing out two virgin daughters for pack rape, because he does not have two virgin daughters. Rather he is intent on ensuring the safety of his guests. The problem, however, is that Lot’s house is surrounded. As well intentioned as we now discover him to be, his ruse probably doesn’t stand a chance of working. This then explains the need for divine intervention, as the two messengers stun the mob and achieve for Lot what he had hoped his decoy might have done: buy time.

This also enables Lot’s free movement. But despite it, Lot eventually hesitates to leave the city (Gen 19:16). This hesitation is critical in light of Abraham’s negotiation over Sodom in the previous chapter. Despite Abraham’s best bargaining efforts (18:32), not even ten righteous men can be found in Sodom to avert the city’s destruction. Not even Lot’s sons-in-law qualify, though even their inclusion would not be enough to avert destruction as per Abraham’s terms to which Yahweh has agreed. Lot, the only righteous man in Sodom, must therefore flee the city before its cataclysmic downfall, but he hesitates. His righteousness is probably what sparks Yahweh’s compassion for him (19:16). And so, the two messengers physically escort Lot, his wife, and his two daughters “who have been found” out of the town. Lot, despite his quick thinking, was unable to safeguard his guests and smuggle them out of town. Yet, because of his own righteousness, he is not destroyed with the city, but is ironically safeguarded and smuggled out of town by those very same guests. Once again, the narrative takes an ironic turn.1George Athas, “Has Lot Lost the Plot? Detail Omission and a Reconsideration of Genesis 19” in Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, Volume 16, Article 5 DOI:10.5508/jhs.2016.v16.a5. Full article available here.

After considering the further twist of the sin of Lot’s daughters “knowing” their father, who does not “know” that he has “known” his own daughters, Athas concludes that “Lot has not ‘lost the plot.’ The reader has!”

This possible solution accords with James Jordan’s view concerning Abram’s lie about Sarai being his sister, since Abram was vindicated by God’s judgment. Jordan also defends Jacob and Rebekah in their “righteous deception” of blind Isaac and the degenerate Esau.2James B. Jordan, Primeval Saints, Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis. The midwives in Egypt who lied to Pharaoh were also blessed by God. The point is that deception of evil doers is a righteous act, and one which turns the craftiness of the serpent back on himself. The cross, of course, was the ultimate deception, an Adam willing to die for His bride because of His faith in the promises of God.

All of this supports the idea that the Scriptures are often obfuscatory to sort the faithful from the unfaithful. The righteous will meditate on the apparent wickedness of Lot while the wicked will simply condemn the Bible as an unrighteous book, and thus condemn themselves.

With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
with the purified you show yourself pure;
and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.
Psalm 18:26

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1. George Athas, “Has Lot Lost the Plot? Detail Omission and a Reconsideration of Genesis 19” in Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, Volume 16, Article 5 DOI:10.5508/jhs.2016.v16.a5. Full article available here.
2. James B. Jordan, Primeval Saints, Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis.

2 Responses to “Crafty Lot”

  • Valerie (Kyriosity) Says:

    One glitch: Some in the mob surely would have known Lot well enough to be familiar with his family situation.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Thanks Valerie – good thinking, but that’s outside the bounds of what we are actually told, so we could also speculate that, since none of the sons-in-law were in the crowd, these were men who already had it in for Lot and did not move in his circles. Also, if someone did know his situation, they might have surmised that the daughters were indeed in the house at that time, or been so appalled at the offer that they simply joined the mob in attacking the house to grab the angelic “spies.” Plus, the same could be said of Abram’s ruse with Sarai. Remember that Abimelech was saved from judgment because he realised that Isaac and Rebekah were an item. But overall, I think that a solution which accords with the New Testament’s appraisal of Lot is one to be favored.