Genesis 19: Sodom and Gomorrah

By Mary Jane Chaignot

It is evening by the time the two heavenly visitors, now identified as angels, arrive in Sodom. Lot is sitting at the gate and, upon seeing them, he rises to meet them. People who sit at the gate are generally the leaders of the community. It is where they gather to discuss matters and resolve disputes. It is not clear whether Lot has become one of these city elders, or if he is just there listening to what is going on. No other elders are mentioned, but that might only be because Lot is the main character. It is, however, an ominous indication that Lot has become well-integrated into the community life of the Sodomites.

Initially, his response to the visitors is very similar to Abraham’s. He rises and offers them lodging and water for their feet. Some scholars have suggested that the brevity of his request pales in comparison to Abraham’s, thereby casting doubts upon his hospitality. Abraham “lifted his eyes” and ran to meet his guests; Lot simply rises. They both bow, but Lot bows his face to the ground—a much more formal, stilted gesture. Abraham humbly pleads with his guests to stay; Lot makes a brief statement. Abraham offers food and rest; Lot offers a place to rest. Abraham involves his whole family in the preparation of the meal and serves it himself. Here, it simply states, “They ate.” The description of Abraham’s meal is lavish; Lot’s meal is described as a “feast with unleavened bread.” Some of these distinctions may be ascribed to the differences inherent to the time of day. Because it is already evening, his whole account is more compact. The point is, however, that at this moment, Lot is demonstrating hospitality. This description could be a favorable comparison to that of Abraham’s. As such, one might justifiably conclude that, like Abraham, Lot is a righteous person, because extending hospitality to strangers is a feature of righteousness. Thus far, then, there is at least one righteous person living in Sodom.

But these visitors will soon discover that not all the people of Sodom are hospitable. The text takes great pains to stress that all the men of Sodom came to Lot’s door—young and old, from every quarter of the city, every last one of them— demanding that the visitors be brought out so they could “know” them. Biblically, the word “know” is commonly used with a sexual connotation, conveying the notion of sexual intimacy. Unfortunately, in Sodom, the story is set up to mean massive homosexual rape of these strangers, an act that violates the code of all civilized men who ascribe a sacred duty to the “stranger within the walls”—to the one who has taken refuge within the city. It is hard for us in modern times to understand the importance of such oriental hospitality, but for a traveler it could easily mean the difference between life and death.

To his credit, Lot takes his duty very seriously. He goes out to intercede for his guests and shuts the door behind him. He begs his fellow citizens not to do “this wicked thing” but then makes a most outrageous offer: “I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please.” Some commentators try to soften this by saying that Lot has no choice, for he has to protect his guests at all costs. Others concede that while his actions seem less than heroic, he needs to make some kind of compromise. Still others suggest that to the ancient sense of proprieties, his offer would not have been so shocking because women were held in low esteem. Perhaps.

But let us not forget that these angels have a specific task. They are to determine whether the sins of the Sodomites are equal to their reputation. And they are looking for ten righteous men. Up to this point, Lot has seemed to be a good candidate. But, if he had truly been a righteous man, why not offer himself to the townspeople? An offer of self-sacrifice would have ensured his high standing as a just and righteous man. For surely, his daughters deserve as much protection as the strangers. Lot, however, seems to have a penchant for self-interest, and this is no exception. The offer of his daughters can only be seen as an act of wickedness.

The townspeople, however, reject his offer and turn on Lot, calling him an alien, an interloper, and threatening to do worse to him than to the guests. So they try to break down his door. Just when it seems that the mob will have its way, the angels intervene. They pull Lot inside and strike the townspeople with blindness. The word that is used here for blindness means that their vision is confused, not that things are totally dark. They literally can’t see straight, and hence, can’t find the door. Ultimately, they leave, putting an end to the crisis.

By this time, however, the angels have their answer. There aren’t any righteous people in Sodom, so they tell Lot of their intentions to destroy the city. He is given ample time to contact any of his family members that he wishes to save. He takes the opportunity to try and persuade his future sons-in-law, but they don’t take him seriously. They think he is joking. He doesn’t give them any reason for the expected wholesale destruction, just that it is about to take place. It is not clear whether these two were also involved in the mob scene outside Lot’s door—the text did say that all the men of the town were involved. In any event, Lot returns home without them.

By this time, it is near dawn, and the angels are in a hurry. Lot, however, is not. Despite their warnings of imminent destruction, he “lingers.” It is hard to leave Sodom and everything he has accumulated. He has worked hard to become a member of that community and participates fully in it. But this is no time to be indecisive and, finally, the angels simply take Lot and his family out of the city. They are told to flee to the hills and to not look back. Despite the continued urgency of their warnings, Lot tarries to debate his final destination. He wants to stay in the Jordan valley and picks a small city that is renamed Zoar. When the sun comes up, the Lord rains burning sulfur upon Sodom and Gomorrah. All is lost.

Lot and his daughters are safe, but his wife is not. She perishes on the way to Zoar by stopping to look back. In so doing, she deliberately contravenes the angels’ instruction not to look back and pays for her action with her life. It seems like a harsh punishment for a simple act, but by looking back, she expresses her ambivalence. Perhaps it is just too hard to leave everything without “one more lingering look.” The text says that she became a pillar of salt.

It probably doesn’t mean that she suddenly turned from a human being into a pillar of salt. It is more likely that in her lingering, she was overwhelmed by the spreading devastation. Eventually her body, like everything else in the area, was encrusted with salt, which symbolizes eternal desolation in punishment for disloyalty. The tradition of a pillar of salt probably grew out of the fact that there are grotesque salt-rock formations in the vicinity of the Dead Sea.

When Abraham gets up in the morning, he goes to the place where he bargained for ten righteous people. There, he sees the smoke rising like a furnace. The cities have been destroyed. His reaction is not recorded, but by seeing this moment through his eyes, it adds a human face to the awful destruction. He does not yet know that his efforts were not in vain. For, “God remembered Abraham” and saved his kinsman, Lot.

This is not to suggest that Lot is a righteous man after all. As it turns out, Lot is not happy in Zoar. He is afraid to stay there. Perhaps he does not feel safe being a stranger in a town of the Plains. So, after a while he and his daughters go to the hills to live in a cave. This is where the angels had commanded him to go in the first place.

Yet, his demise is still not complete. After settling into the cave, his daughters feel their isolation deeply. They lament, “There is not a man alive in all the earth to come into us.” All their hopes for a normal life perish with the destruction of Sodom. They believe themselves to be the only survivors of a worldwide catastrophe, so they devise a plan. They get Lot drunk, and then use him to get pregnant. Apparently, Lot is unaware of what is happening. Yet, his ignorance does not absolve him of blame; it simply crystallizes what has already been suggested. While he may have exhibited some qualities of righteousness, he is not a righteous man. And in this case, the sins of the father are shared by the children with far-reaching consequences. The offspring of these incestuous relationships are the progenitors of two nations, Moab and Ammon. These nations will harass Abraham’s descendants throughout history. Fortunately, this is the last we hear of Lot.