Casting Lots

C

In my previous post concerning the story about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah I stated that

Lot is also the one who tries to play the system in Sodom, offering his daughters to the crowd instead of the strangers. Knowing what he is attempting to do, the crowd rebuffs this rather pathetic attempt at capitulation and begins to advance on Lot.

I originally intended to expand on this, but it would have veered wildly off topic so I left it just kind of hanging there. Plus, I have to have something to write another post about, right?

Right.

Lot is one of the favorite whipping boys for those with some bone to pick with the Bible. His decision to offer his daughters to the mob instead of the strangers is often used as evidence that the Bible has nothing terribly interesting to say in regards to anything. The logic tends to go something like this:

  1. Lot is described by the Bible as a righteous man
  2. Lot offers his daughters to be gang-raped
  3. Ergo, the Bible’s understanding of righteousness is misguided at best and destructive at worst.

Without trying to defend Lot’s decision- and I think we can all agree that using one’s daughters as a bargaining chip is a stupid idea- there are nevertheless some rather interesting nuances within the account that are worth considering.

What follows is purely speculation, but hopefully reasonable speculation.

Meeting Up

When Lot first meets the two visitors, he is sitting at the city gate. While one must be careful to not read too much into it, there may be significance to the geographical setting. In the ancient world city gates were usually the hub of activity, whether commercially, politically or legally. Hanging around them long enough would give one wonderful insight into the ethos of a city. It may even be the case that he functioned in some sort of official position, perhaps as a judge.

It seems clear that Lot knows exactly what kind of city this is, for whatever his position might have been he knows that two strangers alone in the city is a recipe for disaster. It could be that he took up his place at the city gate every night for just such a possibility. Who knows? The interesting thing is that his first decision is to get them to his house as quickly as possible.

They initially rebuff his request, saying they will spend the night in the square. This was not uncommon for visitors and travelers in the ancient world. No doubt one would want to be armed and prepared for the worst, but such an act would not be completely unreasonable. If there were armed guards or patrols, one might have less to fear.

But Lot knows exactly what kind of city Sodom is, and if there was some kind of security presence the implication is clear- they are just as involved in what happens at night as any of the mobs. Lot’s rushing up to them and asking them to turn aside to his house means only one thing- he is not the only one watching. He seems to be taking a pretty big risk, but apparently hopes he can get them out of sight as quickly as possible.

Inside

Once they are in the house, Lot makes a quick meal- bread without yeast. Even though we are not told this, it seems he wants to hurry things along and- more importantly- get the lights out before they are discovered.

Unfortunately all does not go according to plan, and Lot finds his house surrounded, with the crowd demanding what he was trying to prevent.

Lot actually summons up his courage and goes out to face them, closing the door behind himself. With the normal rhetorical overtures he tries to smooth things over by offering a friendly greeting with a plea that they go and do something else.

The Offer

It is here that we finally pick up at the statement I made with my earlier post. Lot’s offer is this:

“Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

It is obviously a stupid thing to make one’s daughters into bargaining chips, and on first glance Lot seems to be playing the coward. But there seem to be deeper considerations that, while not necessarily exonerating his stupidity, might serve to at least place them in perspective.

If we consider that Lot is potentially a somewhat prominent citizen of Sodom, he knows the way the game is played. The fact that he tried to get the two visitors back to his house at fast as he possibly could indicates that he knew they were targets, for whatever reason. He also tries to play the legal aspect of it, since he did manage to get them under his roof. This goes beyond the notion of hospitality and actually references the system of expectations around which many Near Eastern societies operated.

The point is this- since he knows the two visitors are not just generic targets but specific targets, Lot therefore knows that the crowd has no real interest in his daughters.

But there is a further wrinkle. Lot’s daughters are either betrothed or already married. The dividing line between marriage and betrothal was much fuzzier in the ancient world, and a betrothal often had the same legal ramifications as marriage. Since his daughters still live with him, it would seem they are betrothed. Whatever the situation, the more startling aspect of this narrative is that Lot’s sons-in-law may be members of the mob outside his door. The story isn’t exactly clear, but the implications of his decision are the same either way.

Cities in the ancient world, while certainly large relative to other communities, were not generally the sprawling metropolises that the term brings to mind to modern ears. Regardless of the size, cities were still socially very small. One’s familial ties were one of the most- if not the most- important part of one’s identity, entailing certain obligations in various situations.

In such a cultural milieu, actions against an individual were thus actions against an entire family. While this could erupt into vicious clan and family warfare, it also served as a check against social infractions, crime, etc., since running afoul of certain people was akin to running afoul of the mafia.

The people of Sodom would have known each other and who belonged to which family, to whom respect was owed, who was indebted to whom, etc.

Lot thus seems to be trying to play the crowd against itself to diffuse the situation. Whether or not his sons-in-law were in the crowd, there is little doubt that someone related to them would be. Lot, being familiar with Sodom and its ways, probably knew who belonged to whom.

His offer of his two-daughters in this reading could thus be seen as a bluff- a terrible, stupid bluff, but perhaps the best he could come up with in a desperate situation. After all, he did not know who his two visitors were or what they were capable of, but he did know the crowd and what they were capable of.

Offering his daughters to the crowd thus might have seemed to his mind an utterly safe gesture. On the one hand, his relations would be honor-bound to stop any violation of them. On the other hand, parts of the crowd might be so incensed at others accepting the offer that they very well might turn on each other. Either way, the situation could be resolved without harm either befalling his daughters or his visitors being violated.

Calling His Bluff

It is impossible to know what was going through Lot’s mind, but if this indeed formed part of his reasoning, it didn’t matter- the crowd called his bluff. It is entirely possible that they realized exactly what he was trying to do and rejected his attempt to play Sodom against itself.

In some ways this is a rather profound moment, for we see exactly what can happen when the righteous get too comfortable in the presence of the wicked and try to beat them at their own game. Trying to out-devil the devil always ends in disaster.

The crowd seems to mock Lot and his futile maneuvering, getting right to the point:

“Get out of our way,” they replied. “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.”

It might be perceived as a point against Lot’s prominence (perhaps as a judge) in that their rebuff of him speaks of him trying to play the judge, but it is not hard to reconcile the two. The implication seems to be this: “During the day we have no problem with you playing the judge for all the people. But at night, Sodom belongs to us.”

The taunt is even worse in that Lot is convicted by the wicked for his passive complicity. After all, he has lived in Sodom for quite awhile, has acquired property, attained some sort of social standing, and even formed familial relations with its citizens. The people of Sodom have accepted him into their community. But now he wants to pretend as if he is above it all, as if the trade he engages in, the family he is forming, the goods he has acquired, and all the rest is somehow now all beneath him.

In some respect, this is painfully obvious from the outset of the story. He knows exactly what Sodom is like, and thus stays near the gate to keep travelers from being accosted. But even though he knows this and lives with it day in and day out, he continues to stay. And not only did he stay, but he built a fairly comfortable life for himself and his family.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, and that does not mean he is merely a bald-faced hypocrite. Peter tells us that Lot was still a righteous man who “was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless.” It is easy to pile on the dead from a safe distance, and it’s hard to know exactly why Lot stayed. Sure, it may have been a pretty good life, but he also may have hoped to be a good influence on the city. Perhaps allowing his daughters to marry some men of Sodom was a way to be leaven in such a dark place.

No one is a single motivation.

The End of The Matter

Thus, on this reading one can see that Lot’s offer of his daughters to the crowd may not have been a brazen act of cowardice or a misplacement of priorities, but perhaps a calculated risk that blew up in his face. To be a righteous man does not mean that one is always right or necessarily always makes the most prudent decision. It is easy to second-guess a desperate situation for which we have the benefit of hindsight, but not as easy to make decisions in the heat of a life-and-death choice.

It is also worth pointing out that Lot’s choice is not thus given absolute approbation. Rather, it is recorded and we see the nearly fatal consequences. Had the visitors not intervened, it probably would have gone much worse for Lot and his family.

Lot made a bone-headed choice, but stupid decisions are not necessarily incompatible with righteousness.

It usually means that one is human.

 

2 comments

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  • That was well done.
    Of course, if you go into such a nuanced reading of scripture, and doing so in such a way that may actually challenge the reader as opposed to providing a straw man to beat down, then I’m a little wary… It’s safer if the bible is just dumb.

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Jason Watson

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