Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Lekh Lekha

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Lekh Lekha 5761/ 11 November 2000

Abraham and Lot

Menaham Ben-Yashar
Department of Bible

In biblical narrative a secondary figure is often presented alongside the main figure in order to shed light on the latter. For example, in the Book of Ruth Orpah appears as a secondary character to Ruth, and the anonymous redeemer appears as a foil to Boaz. Similarly, in the Book of Jonah both the sailors and the people of Nineveh are presented as figures contrasting with the hero, Jonah. In the stories of Abraham in Parashat Lekh Lekha and Parashat Va-Yera Lot is introduced as a negative secondary character who offsets the hero Abraham.

In the beginning of the parasha Abraham is commanded: "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house..." (Gen. 12:1). Go forth, alone; get up and go. In contrast to the previous journey in which the entire extended family, led by Terah, set out towards the land of Canaan (Gen. 11:31), here Abraham is commanded to continue alone, accompanied only by his nuclear family. Why, then, does he take Lot, the son of his deceased brother, along with him, in seeming contravention of the divine call?

This question is answered in the ancient Jewish commentary, Midrash Genesis Rabbah (41.8,[1] and 5), in the Book of Jubilees (13.18), and in Josephus' Antiquities (1.7.1). Actually, the Torah already hinted at the reason: Sarai, Abraham's wife, was barren, and Abraham had no offspring (11:30). So how were the promises that he would beget a great nation (12:2) to be fulfilled? Therefore Abraham took Lot with him, so that he might continue his line through the children of his nephew who no longer had a patriarchal family of his own, his father having died.[2] As for the possibility that Sarah might yet bear children, Abraham had not yet reached such a high level of trust in the Lord to imagine that He could turn a barren woman into a joyous mother.

Along with the command to "go forth," Abraham was given a great promise in which the root b-r-kh (Heb. for bless), occurs five times (12:2-3). Since Abraham's fulfillment of the Lord's command fell short, for by taking Lot along he showed some scepticism, the blessing itself was curtailed: the Lord's blessing of the land of Israel finds expression primarily in the rain coming in due season; therefore the course of events was that "there was a famine in the land" (12:10), and this severe famine caused Abraham to leave the land to which he had been commanded to go, the land of Canaan.

His punishment, however, served to correct his fault; since Sarai's barrenness had been the cause of his insufficient faith, she was also the vehicle of correction. After Abraham's wife was unexpectedly taken into the Pharaoh's house (Abraham indeed feared that one of the Egyptians might desire her, but not necessarily the king), the Pharaoh showed beneficence to Abraham; as a close associate of the ruler Abraham enjoyed special privileges and advantages in shepherding and commerce, and grew very wealthy (12:16; 13:2). Lot, who accompanied him, also waxed rich (13:5), and his riches, as well, were destined to contribute to correcting the defect. Namely, they would lead Lot to separate from Abraham. The relatively poor grazing land flanking the crest of the hill country of Judea and Samaria sufficed at first to support the flocks of both Abraham and Lot, but later proved insufficient for the two to continue living together.

Chapter 13 describes how they parted. Abraham's suggestion to Lot that they go different directions - to the right or to the left (Gen. 13:9), meaning north or south[3] - was still only a separation of locality. Both would continue to wander with their flocks along the ridge of the highlands from the vicinity of Shechem (Nablus) to that of Beer Sheba - the land where our patriarchs wandered; except that one of them would graze his flocks to the north, and the other to the south. In principle the two of them would remain joint inheritors of the land and of their special calling.

Lot, however, had a different idea: after all, he had amassed his wealth in Egypt, a land blessed with water; therefore he cast his eyes towards the well-watered plain of the Jordan, which was "like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt" (13:10). Therefore "Lot journeyed eastward" (13:11), while Abraham remained along the crest of the highlands. Thus they gradually separated. However this separation was not only one of locality but also, and primarily, one of principle. For economic gain Lot left the promised region, extending his encampments "near Sodom" (13:12). He was not yet living in Sodom, for he was still a nomadic shepherd. Lot did not mind in the least that in separating himself from his uncle Abraham he was moving closer to Sodom, whose inhabitants "were very wicked sinners against the Lord" (13:13).

"After Lot had parted from him [Abraham]," the Lord responded to this move by promising that henceforth the entire land would be destined for Abraham alone - the crest of the highlands "to the north and south," as well as the land "to the east" where Lot had settled, and "to the west" (14:17). The land was promised "to you and your offspring": to his direct progeny, and not to the offspring of his adopted nephew, who had left. Therefore Abraham is enjoined, "Up, walk about the land," both to its length and its breadth. He is told to "walk" by himself,[4] without Lot, who having moved to the fertile plain of the Jordan, an area intensively cultivated, would inevitably become permanently settled there. He would no longer wander over the land, seeing it,[5] and thus symbolically acquiring the right to it for his offspring after him.

In the next chapter (14), which tells of the war of conquest fought by four imperialist kings, most of them from Mesopotamia, against the peoples living across the Jordan and in the Negev (including the area of Sodom), we learn that Lot in the meantime had abandoned nomadic life and had settled in Sodom, of all places. Among the people taken captive by these four kings was Lot, a resident of Sodom. In a blitz campaign Abraham, along with his allies, succeeded in freeing the captives. Despite the break between them, Abraham rushed to the rescue of his kinsman Lot. However his meeting with his nephew once again caused Abraham to wonder and put into words his question: where is the heir to inherit the promised blessing and land? "Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir" (15:3). Now the Lord's response is clearly understood: "Your very own issue shall be your heir" (15:4). Only now, after the vain attempt with Lot, and notwithstanding the advanced age of Abraham and Sarai, Abraham finally put his trust in the Lord's promise: "And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit" (15:6). Abraham's trusting in the Lord, despite the natural improbability of the promise coming true, was reckoned to Abraham's merit. Abraham had attained a higher level of faith and trust in the Lord.
Just as Lot entered Abraham's life in the beginning of the biblical narrative about Abraham, when the question of progeny to continue Abraham's line arose, so Lot appears again when this question is resolved with the birth of Isaac. The band of angels that brings the annunciation of Isaac's birth to Sarah is the same group that continues on its way to Sodom to overturn the city and rescue Lot from there. It is as if Scripture wished to juxtapose Abraham to Lot, as if to say: Look at Abraham, on the one hand, who at first, out of a certain weakness in trusting the Lord, took Lot with him; but then, his faith having been strengthened by other circumstances and trials, was blessed with an heir not only of his own issue, but also born of Sarah, who in the beginning of the story was introduced as barren. On the other hand, look at Lot, who left Abraham and became associated with the people of Sodom, not out of wickedness, but from seeking comfort and economic gain, and consider what became of him. At this point Lot is not simply a resident of Sodom, rather he "sits in the gate of Sodom" (19:1), i.e., is one of the notables of the city.

Nevertheless, Lot is not a Sodomite. In contrast to the people of Sodom, he welcomes guests, following the good traits of Abraham. Nor does he partake in the gang rape that the men of Sodom are preparing for the visitors; in fact, he is prepared to protect them. How? At the price of handing over his daughters - a generous proposal that the people of Sodom turn down. Was this base cowardly behavior or heroic sacrifice on the part of Lot? Scripture and we as its readers do not have a definite answer. For Scripture is saying that whoever abandons Abraham and takes himself off to Sodom, even if he wishes to preserve the good traits he learned in Abraham's home, is inevitably drawn into the depraved life of Sodom and finds himself in impossible situations, facing impossible choices.

So we enter the surreal when Lot's offer is put down as a bad joke by his sons-in-law, "who had married his daughters" (19:14). So, too, when Lot's wife, presumably from Sodom, finds it hard to part from her possessions and her city, and looking back towards Sodom is doomed to share in the fate of her city (19:26). Likewise Lot himself, who tarries in leaving his belongings and his city, until finally the angels take him out by force (19:16). This motif of the absurd and the depraved recurs in the last scene of the Lot story: the two daughters whom Lot had wanted to hand over to be molested by the men of Sodom, and who had been saved purely by miracle, ultimately commit a sexual offense themselves in sleeping with their father.

Once again we can ask, is this a base act of deception and sexual perversion, or a heroic deed to continue the family line, similar to Tamar's ploy to become pregnant (Gen. 38)?! The Sages are divided in their assessment of Lot's daughters' deed, and conclude only that whoever associates himself with Sodom is drawn into sexual perversion whether he wishes it or not.

In contrast with the blessed offspring of Abraham, Lot's sons bear the blot of illegitimacy. This is reflected in their names, Moab and Ammon being a play on me-av, "from my father," and ben-ami, "son of my people." The name Lot in Aramaic means "cursed" and indeed this is how it is interpreted in Genesis Rabbah 44.11, in contrast to Abraham, the man blessed with all.


[1] Note 1
[2] Note 2.
[3] Thus Onkelos and Rashi interpret it; cf. Ps. 89:13. Also see my article, "Va-yisa Lot mi-kedem," Sefer Braslavi, Jerusalem 1970, pp. 94-98.
[4] Thus apparently in Josh. 18:4,8; Zech. 1:10: each on his own. Likewise in Gen. 5:24; 6:9; 17:1: all those with respect to whom the verb hithalekh (here, "walk about") was used, were righteous themselves alone.
[5] As the Lord said to Abraham: "to the land that I will show you" (12:1).