Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yera 5768/ October 27, 2007

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Lot and his Daughters

 

Yael Zohar

 

Department of Bible

 

The story of Lot’s daughters is very short, a mere nine verses (Gen. 19:30-38).   However, even upon first reading it is clear that the story is not self-contained, for it is a direct consequence of the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, described in the verses preceding it.  But would it be correct to relate it only to Sodom being overturned and to the erroneous assumption of Lot’s daughters, who thought that the entire world had been destroyed? Should we not consider it in a broader context? [1]

The core of the story revolves around acts of illicit sexual relations, which Scripture prohibits and detests.   However, the narrative has not the slightest tone of a judgmental approach.   The reader is shocked, yet the language of Scripture remains dry, factual and non-judgmental.   The responsible reader must examine whether his or her emotional response is purely subjective, or whether Scripture actually seeks to evoke such a response.   This must be done by examining the text, including the broader circles that envelop the story, both drawing on it and illuminating it.

Bear in mind that the story of Sodom is part of the cycle of Abraham narratives (Gen. 11-25). Lot, as we know, was Abraham’s nephew, and this family background is of great significance.  Before Sodom and Gomorrah were overturned, Abraham stood before the Lord and entreated Him not to destroy Sodom for the sake of the righteous people who lived there (Gen. 18:23-33), and Scripture explicitly says that Lot himself was saved because of Abraham’s merits (Gen. 19:29).  Likewise, the end of the story of Lot’s daughters notes the genealogical importance of the sons that were born, as expressed in their names:  “he is the father of the Moabites of today” (Gen. 19:37); “he is the father of the Ammonites of today” (Gen. 19:38).  The name of the elder daughter’s son, Moab, is vested in the immediate setting of his family background, while the son of the younger daughter is called Ben-ammi after the nation that would descend from him, Ammon.

From what we have said thus far it follows that in order to fully appreciate the story of Lot and his daughters we must analyze it in terms of three contextual circles:   1) that of the immediate present – the inner circle of the story itself; 2) the circle of the broader present against the setting of the past:  the stories of Lot and Abraham; 3) the circle of the future:   the history of the Ammonite and Moabite nations.

The story of Lot’s daughters in its immediate context

Lot’s daughters are first mentioned in the story of the siege on Lot’s house in Sodom.   In Lot’s scale of values, receiving guests properly is highest of all, and in order to safeguard this value and protect his guests he was prepared to pay with his two virgin daughters.  Fortunately for them, Lot’s plan was not executed, since the messengers of G-d saved Lot and his family, striking their assailants blind.  But, as the popular saying goes, the apple does not fall far from the tree.  Lot’s daughters have a similar view of the world to that of their father, and when they find themselves in trouble they propose exactly the same solution. Both the father and his daughters thought the end justifies the means, and even though the means involved unacceptable and even detestable sexual relations, they did not hesitate to use them.

On the other hand, Lot’s daughters had altruistic motives.  They were convinced that the entire world had been destroyed and that the ability to save all of mankind from total extinction lay solely in their hands. [2]   In their eyes, the survival of the world was of paramount value, and in order to realize this ideal they were prepared to have incestuous relations with their father.  

The Sages emphasize the positive intentions of Lot’s daughters:   “They meant it to perform a good deed” (Nazir 23a).  The older daughter’s initiative is praised: “ ‘The older one went in.’   Rabbi Hiyya bar Avin said, quoting Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah:  A person should always hasten to perform a good deed, for on account of the one night by which the older daughter preceded the younger she was rewarded by preceding her by four generations of the kingship in Israel” (Nazir 23b). [3]

Lot and his daughters in the context of the Abraham stories

Within the main narrative about Abraham, his wife, and his son who carried on the line, we come upon the story of Lot and his wife, and his “wives” (= his daughters) and sons.  Thus, the text interweaves the stories of the annunciation of Isaac’s birth, the confrontation between Abraham and G-d about overturning Sodom, the rescue of Lot and his daughters, Abraham looking down towards Sodom, the story of Lot and his daughters, Sarah being taken by Abimelech, and Isaac being born.   The question arises as to the importance and purpose of this composite structure of stories about the different families – that of Abraham and that of Lot.

I tend to accept Pollack’s view [4] that what we have here is a complex system of similarities and contrasts, whose objective is to bring out the differences between the families:   Lot’s descendants bear the stamp of abomination, whereas Abraham is marked by his marvelous realization of his divine destiny.”   Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the similarity between Lot and Abraham, a resemblance which expresses the positive aspects of the figure of Lot.  Lot spent many years in Abraham’s company, ever since he came with him from Ur of the Chaldeans, and during these years he learned from Abraham the value of receiving guests.  He was tested in this trait, and in this he proved himself worthy of being rescued from the punishment meted out against Sodom.   Abraham’s investment of many years in his nephew paid off, as evidence by Lot’s worthy behavior in Sodom.   If we view this as explaining Lot’s deliverance, due to Abraham’s merits – “Thus it was that, when G-d destroyed the cities of the Plain and annihilated the cities where Lot dwelt, G-d was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval” (Gen. 19:29), we can say that it was not only on the merit of   his family relations that Lot was rescued, but also because of his behavior as a “righteous person in Sodom,” thanks to his earlier education by his uncle Abraham.

The story of the birth of Lot’s children comes next to the stories of Abimelech and of the birth of Isaac.   All three stories employ the verb y-l-d (to bear):  “The older one bore a son …  And the younger also bore a son” (Gen. 19:37-38); “and G-d healed Abimelech and his wife and his slave girls, so that they bore children” (Gen. 20:17-18);   “Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham … Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, the name of Isaac…  when his son Isaac was born to him … Yet I have borne a son in his old age” (Gen. 21:2-8).  The context and the leitmotif make it clear that all three stories are emphasizing a single idea:  childbearing is not something which happens naturally, rather it requires divine blessing (in the story of Abimelech barrenness is presented explicitly as a punishment, and the ability to bear children an expression of forgiveness).   Therefore, also the birth of Lot’s sons, notwithstanding the unconventional circumstances, is a blessing from G-d.

The story in the context of Moab and Ammon

In the sequence of commandments given in Parashat Ki-Tetze, after the list of prohibited sexual relations, comes a prohibition against marrying Ammonites or Moabites:   “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord” (Deut. 23:4). [5]   The verse preceding this marital proscription is the verse which prohibits marrying a misbegotten person, and it is noteworthy that the extreme prohibition of ten generations applies only to the misbegotten, Ammonites and Moabites.

It might appear from the law in Deuteronomy that the peoples of Moab and Ammon are considered contemptible and loathsome because of their contemptible ancestry, and the attitude towards them is negative.   However, this is not entirely the case.  Even in this cycle, involving Moab and Ammon in the future, the situation is complex and Scripture points us towards more than simply making marks of disapproval.

Ruth the Moabite, whose origin is mentioned repeatedly in the Book of Ruth, was the mother of King David’s grandfather.  Thus, the dynasty of the divinely anointed king is descended from Lot and his daughters.  Within the story itself the midrash finds an allusion to the important son destined to be born in the distant future:  “Rabbi Tanhuma said in the name of Samuel:  that we may maintain life through our father—that very seed that came from somewhere else – what was it?  It was the divinely anointed king” (Genesis Rabbah 49.8).

M. Weinfeld notes what Lot’s daughter’s, Tamar, and Ruth all had in common:   “All these women contributed to the birth of David.  Had there not been born a nation of Moab, there would not have been the birth of Ruth, from whom Obed, the father of Jesse, father of David, descended; and had it not been for Tamar, there would not have been the birth of Perez, from whom Boaz, father of Obed, descended.” [6]  

The inclusion of the daughters of Lot in the group of matriarchs who succeeded finally in bearing a child through a guise, where the two other matriarchs are given explicit backing and blessing, and where all of them are women from whom the house of David descended, further reinforces the positive attitude towards their deed.

In conclusion, the story of Lot’s daughters is full of paradoxes, of good intentions alongside abhorrent actions.  This story demands of the reader an attitude of ambivalence towards the subjective intentions of Lot’s daughters, alongside an attitude of rejection of their incestuous act.  This dual attitude towards the deed of Lot’s daughters comes out in all the contexts within which we examined the story:   in the narrow circle of the story’s immediate context, in the broader setting of the Abraham and Lot narratives, and in the setting pertaining to the nations of Moab and Ammon.

                                                                                                                                         



[1] Y. Zakovitz discusses the need to question the degree of independence of every narrative; cf. “Aleh kere’ah… aleh kere’ahMa’agalei Parshanut be-Sipporet ha-Mikra’it,” Mehkarei Yerushalayim ba-Sifrut Ivrit 8 (1985), p. 7. A. Frisch also cites examples of places in Scripture where it is not clear whether a judgmental remark made by one of the characters in the story actually reflects the point of view of the author.   In Frisch’s opinion, the every broadening circles of context help reveal the author’s position.   See “Ma’agalei Heksher l-umat Nekudat Bikkoret,Dappim le-Mekhkar be-Sifrut 9 (1994), p. 176.

[2] The midrash interprets the thinking of Lot’s daughters as follows:  “They thought the world had been entirely destroyed, as in the generation of the Flood” (Genesis Rabbah 51.8), and many others follow this lead.   Rabbenu Bahya shows that Scripture does not censure their deed:  “Therefore, you will not find that Scripture uses the word prostitution with respect to them in the entire story, since their action was motivated by lofty intentions.” 

[3] The Sages were alluding to Ruth, the Moabite, King David’s grandfather’s mother, who preceded Na’amah the Ammonite, mother of Rehoboam son of Solomon.

[4] Frank Pollack, Ha-Sippur ba-Mikra – Behinot be-Itzuv u-ve-Omanut, Jerusalem 1994, pp. 196-197.

[5] Although Scripture ostensibly prohibits marriage with Ammonites and Moabites on the grounds that they did not greet the Israelites with water and bread when they were coming out of Egypt and hired Balaam to curse them, nevertheless it appears that the background of illicit sexual relations is also significant.   See Von Rad, Studies in Deuteronomy, London 1948, pp. 20-21.

[6] M. Weinfeld, Olam ha-Tanakh, p. 130.