Belief, Bible Study, Genesis, Old Testament, Tanakh

Lot & His Daughters, or, Hospitality Gone Terribly Wrong

There are Bible stories that aren’t in the Bible, and it occurs to me right now that I could spend a lot of time not writing at all about Lot and his daughters and just talk about how the Bible came to be, well, The Bible. Another time perhaps. Just know that there are more gospels in existence than you may be aware of, and there are extra-Biblical writings that fill in the gaps to a lot of the stories.

For instance.

The rule in Sodom was, “Whosoever giveth bread to a poor person shall be burnt at the stake.” That’s not in the Bible, but in the writings of the Rabbi Rashi, a Talmudic and Tanakhic commentator, who lived in France in the 11th century. (The Talmud is a collection of Jewish scholarship on the Tanakh. The Tanakh is essentially what Christians call the Old Testament, but which we should probably get in the habit of calling the Hebrew Bible.)

Rashi continues: Plotit*, the daughter of Lot, who was married to a prominent Sodomite**, saw a man so poor and so hungry that he was unable even to stand. Feeling sorry for him, each day she would give him a little food she had saved on her way to the water well.

(* Lot’s daughters, and his wife, are not named in the Bible. In the Book of Jasher, which doesn’t exist, but did, because it’s quoted in the Bible and in other texts at the time, Lot has four daughters and no sons. Two of his daughters were married; two were betrothed. Lot’s wife is named Irit.)

(** Not what you’re thinking, gang. This is a reference to someone living in the town of Sodom. Was he gay as pants? The midrash is silent on this.)

People in Sodom soon found themselves wondering how this man, poor and hungry near to death, was not, in fact, dying. Maybe their hope was: he’ll starve to death and we won’t have to worry about not feeding him. Maybe that’s also our hope when we see panhandlers. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Then, the discovery: that the man wasn’t starving any longer, that Plotit had been secretly feeding him, and for her generosity, she was burned at the stake. Before she died, she cried to heaven: “Master of the World, carry out justice on my behalf!”*

(* In some stories, it’s fire. In others, she’s tied to a tree, drenched in honey, and left to be stung to death by bees. In some stories, JFK is shot by a lone gunman. In other stories, there’s a cabal. There is always more than one story to any one story.)

In the Bible, we need a bit of a prologue before we launch back into the Lot story. There is a man named Abraham. He is 100 years old. He has a wife, named Sarah. She is 90. One day, God appears to Abraham in the form of three men. (“IT’S THE TRINITY!” fundamentalist Christians will say and (a) of all, no, it isn’t; this is a Jewish text. Also, too, the Holy Spirit isn’t necessarily a man. In fact, in Gnostic tradition, the third part of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, is feminine, and possibly God’s wife.)

God has come to Abraham for two reasons: (1) To remind Abraham that his wife Sarah will bear him a son, to be named Isaac; and (2) To investigate Sodom and Gomorrah. “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” (Gen 18:20)

(There’s a wonderful moment in this story where Sarah overhears the visitors when one says that she will have a baby within the year. She laughs — because, again, she’s 90 and her husband is 100. She says, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” And God says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?” And Sarah, in a very human moment, feels embarrassed at being caught laughing at a visitor and says, “I did not laugh.” And God, ever the one to have the last word, says, “You totally did.” This is in Genesis 18:1-15.)

We’re getting to Lot and his daughters. But there’s a little more scene setting. We have to go back to the midrash, because this outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah confused rabbinical scholars.

Why, they wondered, was the singular feminine “her cry” (הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ) used instead of the expected (and masculine) “their cry” (הַכְּצַעֲקָתָם)? (The feminine is entirely erased in English translations, using the neuter “the outcry.”)

And now we can begin to introduce Lot, his daughters, and his wife back into the point of it all.

The early interpreters of the Torah said, “‘Her cry’ is the cry of Plotit, crying to God for justice. He heard it, and he came down to Earth to investigate.” Modern scholars might argue that Sodom and Gomorrah are sister cities, and the “her cry” means the city’s own cries for justice. Modern scholars say a lot of things.

God sends two angels — oh boy. I’ll deal real quick-like with angels, but maybe I’ll write about angels fully another time because they are complicated and weird. Often, where the word “angel” appears in the Bible, it really means “messenger.” These were human(ish?) people, with no wings. But sometimes angels mean supernatural beings in extraordinary shapes and that’s not what these angels are, who appear with God before Abraham. In fact, the text is pretty opaque as to whether or not the three visitors to God are all one person (“TRINITY!” NO NO NO. We’ve been OVER THIS.) or if it’s God, and two friends.

Anyway. God sends two angels to Sodom to check things out, and destroy both Sodom and Gomorrah if necessary. (I’m leaving out the whole marvelous bargaining scene between Abraham and God where Abraham says, “But what if there are 50 righteous people?” And God says, “Then I’ll back off.” And Abraham, maybe aware of the reputation of Sodom and Gomorrah, says, “Well, but maybe 40?” And God says, “For 40? Sure.” And Abraham bargains all the way down to 10 righteous people. Keep that number in mind.)

Someone else may ask me to write about homosexuality and the Bible, and I will, even though it makes me tired. When the angels arrive, they meet Lot, who is “at the gate.” He’s a businessman/ambassador, essentially, but he’s also New In Town. (“Excuse me, I am homeless, I am gay, I have AIDS, I’m new in town.”) The Sodomites, who already aren’t known for their stunning hospitality, are also a little frustrated about this out-of-town upstart who has risen pretty high in the heirarchy of Sodom. When Lot ushers the two visiting angels into his home (btw, Lot has no idea that they are angels), “the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.'”

To “know” someone in the Bible is essentially to fuck them. Just like “feet” in the Bible are almost always a euphemism for dick. Look, I didn’t write the Bible. We’ll talk more about feet, btw, when we get to the Book of Ruth.

And this is where your fundamentalist/literalist/asshole jerks will start with their anti-gay nonsense. What I want to ask you all to do, just for the moment, is say, “Fine.” Say, “The Bible hates homosexuals and homosexuality.” (It doesn’t.) IT DOESN’T MATTER NOW. The Hebrew Bible was not written for us — and that “us” is doing a lot of heavy lifting because I mean “Christians” and “Modern people” mostly. This is how things were in the Olden Timey Days, but cultures grow. Don’t let a book written by people who WOULDN’T LET WOMEN SIT ON COUCHES IF THEY WERE ON THEIR PERIOD dictate your relationship with whatever god you have. (Please don’t recommend “The Red Tent” to me that book is terrible.)

The Sodomites want to sodomite, and Lot wants to be a good host and not allow his guests to be effed in the bee by “all the people to the last man” (which I find hard to believe because I know a LOT of people who won’t leave their house in the evening because once you’ve taken off your daytime toga and put on your nighttime toga you are IN for the DAY) and so he does what any host would do.

He says: “Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (Gen 19:8)

What do we, as believers — as Christians and Jews — do with this? The Bible is silent in a lot of places where it sure would be nice to have a few additional lines of dialogue. In the Binding of Isaac, it would be nice to know if Abraham and Isaac talked at all on the way back down the mountain, and what did they talk about, and did ANYONE say, “That was…that was weird, right? What we just did? You, my father, trying to slaughter me, your son?” And here, in the Lot story, we don’t hear from the daughters about this bargain.

Scholars of the Ancient Middle East will make a lot out of this idea of the importance of hospitality. And I’m not saying that that’s not valid; I’m just saying that it still isn’t comforting to me, a person in the 21st century. I cannot imagine at any point offering my beloved Little Baby Fosco, Jasper St Jasper (International Cat of Mystery), or Peter the Wicked to my neighbors to rape instead of my guests. (They’re the closest we have to daughters and ugh, you know what’s exhausting? People who get irritated when childless folk call their pets their children. IT’S NOT FOR YOU, PEOPLE WITH CHILDREN.)

And that’s what you want to know, right? How could God allow this? How is Lot a righteous man in the eyes of God if he’s willing to debase his daughters and actively participate in their sexual assault by, again, “all the people to the last man.”

Beloveds, I can’t answer that.

In many ways, as Believers, specifically Christian believers (because I’m not Jewish and cannot speak for the Jews but I do know some Yiddish and my husband is a Jew so: I mean, I layed it all out for you), we need to separate the Bible from our faith. The Bible captures a system of belief of a very specific time, and a very specific place, and of a very specific people, who are nothing like us. The Bible is filled with stories of extraordinary violence — violence committed by man against man, and violence committed by God against people. But it also has the Gospels (for Christians). And it has messages about radical justice for the poor, and the broken, and the lonely. Ultimately, the Bible is a book, and it can be your book, and you can take from it what is meaningful to you and you can ABSOLUTELY leave the rest out, especially if it’s toxic and hurtful to you.

Lot’s daughter, with her dying breath, called out for justice — at least in the midrash. And it’s our difficult task, when we read these passages, to decide if she got justice or not.

The angels, by the way, rescue Lot, his wife, and his two daughters. (Remember, though, that in some stories Lot has four daughters.) Lot tries to convince the two men who are betrothed to his unmarried daughters to come with them, too, but they decline, because they think Lot is joking. God wasn’t able to find his 10 righteous people. He barely found four.

The angels tell Lot and his family to run as far as they can, lest they be consumed by God’s destruction. They also, like a good fairy tale, tell them not to look back.

Imagine. You are fleeing your home. You are fleeing your life. Something extraordinarily violent and horrible and utterly destructive is happening to your city where maybe you had friends. Maybe you had a favorite place to watch the sunset while eating figs. Maybe one of your daughters, or cats, or whoever, is left behind.

You’d look back, right? You couldn’t help but look back. Looking back is such a normal human impulse. It’s even a loving impulse. And Lot’s wife looks back, because. And is immediately turned into a pillar of salt. And maybe that, too, is like a fairy tale, like when Bluebeard’s wife uses the key she’s not supposed to use to open the closet she’s never supposed to open.

There’s a rock formation near the Sanctuary of Agioss Lot, near the Dead Sea, venerated as Lot’s wife as a pillar of salt.

(The end of Lot and his daughters is bonkers. They flee to a town called Zoar, but, for reasons never explained in the Bible, decide they can’t really stay in Zoar. So they flee to a cave in the mountains and Lot’s daughters get Lot drunk, because they want children, and biological clocks, and dad’s right here, and it’s all deeply upsetting, especially if, like me, you’re a Victorian prude about father/daughter incest, and if you’re not, you might enjoy a book called The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, but please never talk to me about it, I’m very busy. Each daughter fucks the dad, and they both get pregnant [yay?] and that’s the Biblical explanation for the Moabites, because the eldest living daughter had a child named Moab, and the Ammonites, because the younger living daughter has a son named Ammon. We’ll talk a lot about Moabites when we get to the Book of Ruth.)

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