Real Bible Studies: Sodom and Gomorrah

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So far in Genesis, we’ve been following the adventures of Biblical patriarch Abraham, but now it’s time to return to his ne’er do well nephew Lot. When last we looked in on Lot, he’d just been captured by one of the four powers who fought against a coalition of five nations led by the King of Sodom, prompting his uncle Abram — who has since become Abraham — to round up a posse to save him. Assured in his belief that lightning won’t strike twice, Lot returned to living in or near Sodom with his wife and two daughters, which is where we now find him.

One afternoon, Lot is seated outside the city when two strangers show up. Bear in mind that the first rule of Genesis is that whenever two seemingly clueless strangers show up in an infamous town in Canaan, it usually means someone’s about to learn a valuable lesson. Lot invites them to stay at his house, but they shrug off his hospitality, choosing instead to camp out in the town square. Lot really doesn’t think that’s a good idea, given the reputation of his adopted home town, and insists they come with him, so the strangers relent and accompany him back to his house.

While Lot is busy seeing to the needs of his guests, a welcoming committee made up of the men of Sodom show up at his door demanding to see the strangers. Seems they want to know them a little better, and by “know” I do mean in the biblical sense. Most translations of the bible downplay the language in this portion, either using the archaic word “know” or by understating the issue with “have sex” but The Living Bible spells out exactly what the men of Sodom have in mind, stating they want to rape the visitors.

Lot attempts to mediate the situation, going so far as to offer his two daughters to the men in exchange for leaving the visitors alone. Many may find this unacceptable behavior on the part of Lot, but in it’s historical and cultural context, it makes sense, given that throughout much of the Middle East, the worst offense a man can commit is to mistreat his guests. For comparison, go back to Genesis 18 and see how Abraham dropped everything, including his talk with YHWH, to see to the welfare of his guests, killing a calf and instructing his wife to bake bread for the visitors. Lot’s offer merely shows the lengths to which he would go to see that his guests are safe and protected under his roof. The men of Sodom won’t hear of it, though, and begin to rough up Lot, so the visitors pull Lot inside and bar the door. They then work some sort of magic to confound the men outside and get them away from the door, which sort of begs the question of why they didn’t do that in the first place, since it was within their powers to do so.

Once the immediate situation has been diffused, the men tell Lot that they are, in fact, angels sent to warn him to leave Sodom right away, because YHWH has had one too many complaints about its wickedness. Lot is instructed to take his wife, his daughters and anyone else close to his family and head for the hills. Lot protests, asking instead that he be allowed to go to a nearby town, since he’d never make it to the hills in time, and the visitors agree. Lot then tries to get his future sons-in-law to go with him, but they don’t take him seriously, leaving Lot’s daughters without husbands. This discrepancy will have far-reaching consequences later. Lot, being Lot, decides to beat around the bush, perhaps thinking that if he takes his time, he’ll delay what’s about to happen to the town. The angels finally drag Lot, with his wife and daughters, out of the city limits and send them on their way with instructions to not look back. The town to which they flee apparently has no name, but once they get there, it becomes known as Zoar, which means “small” according to the footnotes in the NIV. Proving she’s the perfect match for her husband, Lot’s wife looks back just as the fires are starting to rain from heaven onto Sodom, and she’s turned to a pillar of salt.

Many people have speculated on what actually happened to Sodom and Gomorrah, some suggesting an earthquake or volcano, others positing that a meteor might have hit them. The historical record isn’t much help, though, mainly due to the fact that archaeologists have yet to find ruins that have been definitively identified as these towns in the places where the Bible says they should be. One theory I’ve heard for the story is that when the legends upon which the Biblical account was based were first being formulated, the locations had already been in ruins for many generations, with no one able to remember them as thriving towns. Others have suggested the ruins may be submerged under parts of the Dead Sea. Whatever the case, if some natural phenomenon had occurred, such as a meteorite, or fallout from a volcano, this would have made quite an impression on the surrounding population, and many tales and legends would have been passed around about it, just as their forebears passed around the legends of an epic flood that decimated the known earth. The description of fire raining from the sky seems to point more toward a volcano, though fragments of a meteor which broke apart in the upper atmosphere might also have seemed like fire raining from the sky.

Legends about the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah probably grew from the destruction of the towns rather than any actual wrong doing committed there. For nomadic tribesmen, roaming the countryside, occasionally stopping in a city or town, the cosmopolitan lifestyle of places like Sodom and Gomorrah might have seemed needlessly complicated, and complications are usually equated with evil. Compounded with the fact that the towns were destroyed in an epic fashion, those witnessing it and passing the tales down to children and grandchildren would have undoubtedly framed them as cautionary tales about getting on the wrong side of a given deity. In the story of Lot, we’re told his daughters are still virgins at the time of the destruction, and given how anxious the men of the town were to assault two visitors they didn’t even know, one would think two young women easily within their midst would have been too tempting a target to resist. It comes down to a matter of degrees, since there were certainly other towns in biblical times whose “wickedness” equaled, if not surpassed, that of Sodom and Gomorrah, and they weren’t totally wiped out of existence. If Sodom and Gomorrah were, the reasoning goes, then they must have been really awful.

A word should be said here for the women of the story, who don’t fare very well at all. First, Lot offers his daughters to the crowd as a substitute for the two visitors, then they’re forced to leave behind the men to whom they’ve been betrothed — and the biblical translators can’t seem to agree on whether they were Lot’s sons-in-law, his future sons-in-law, or just some guys his daughters were dating — and finally, Lot’s wife fails to heed the warning not to look back at the destruction and is turned to a pillar of salt in punishment. The author of Genesis didn’t even bother to name them, referring to them only as Lot’s wife, Lot’s daughters, the oldest or youngest daughter. Admittedly, Lot’s story is a subplot to the main tale in Genesis about Abraham and Israel, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah really doesn’t add anything to that tale, but how difficult would it have been to come up with three names? This oversight is somewhat understandable in the case of Lot’s wife, since all she does is disobey what she’s been told and get punished for it, but Lot’s daughters survive to become the mothers of two known tribes. Perhaps the answer can be found in the conclusion to the story.

After a rough few days of fleeing from YHWH’s wrath, and having his wife turned into a pillar of salt, Lot and his daughters decide to move to a cave in the mountains. Lot’s daughters prove they are very much their father’s daughters by putting two and two together and getting twenty-two. They decide that the whole world has been wiped out and they’re not likely to find husbands to help them carry on the family line. The oldest daughter devises a plan where they’ll get Lot drunk, then take turns “laying with” him, to produce offspring. First, the oldest daughter goes in, then the youngest. Their plan pays off and they become pregnant. Lot apparently never thought to question how his two virgin daughters suddenly found themselves pregnant, but, given that they’d spent a lot of time in Sodom, he may have learned not to ask such questions. We’re told that the older daughter had a son which she named Moab, and the younger produced a son, which she named Ben-Ammi. Moab, as one might expect, became the father of the Moabites, and Ben-Ammi the father of the Ammonites, and a possible reason for neglecting details about Lot’s daughters suddenly comes to light, given that the Moabites and Ammonites were among the more prominent rivals to the Israelites in Canaan for generations. Not only does the author of Genesis make the founders of these tribes the product of incest, but doesn’t even bother to note the names of their mothers. No wonder a later author felt the need to cast Moabites in a better light in the Book of Ruth.

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