Parashat Hashavua Study
Va-Yera 5768/ October 27,
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,
and his Daughters
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
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
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
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
The story of Lot’s
daughters in its immediate context
daughters are first mentioned in the story of the siege on Lot’s
house in Sodom.
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
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
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).
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
what we have here is a complex system of similarities and contrasts, whose
objective is to bring out the differences between the families:
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”
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
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.”
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
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.