Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Genesis 19:1-21:34


The two angels who enjoyed Abraham's hospitality in chapter 18, now, in chapter 19, are treated to Lot's hospitality. The feast that Lot sets before these strangers is of lesser quality than Abraham's veal, cheese, milk. Everything Lot does is less than Abraham's deeds. But let's not be to hard on Lot. He probably insisted that the angels stay with him because he knew that it was not safe for them to sleep in the public square. He was concerned for the safety of strangers.

Let's be clear about this from the outset: the story of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 19 has nothing to do with consensual homosexual relations. The book of Leviticus has something to say on that subject, but that is not what's going on here. Unless we are credulous enough to believe that every male, young and old, in the city of Sodom was gay, then we must recognize that this is something else. What was happening at the door of Lot's home was attempted gang rape with the intent of humiliating the strangers harbored within. The men were not interested in the angelic visitors sexually. They wanted rather, to put these foreigners in their place, to dominate them, to brutally feminize them.

On the one hand, it is to Lot's credit that, at peril to his own safety, he refused to surrender the angels to the violent mob. On the other hand, I can't help but feel revulsion that he would offer his own betrothed virgin daughters in their stead. It probably says something about how women were  not valued in the culture that produced the book of Genesis.

At any rate, the angels rescue Lot by pulling him inside and striking the crowd blind. It should go without saying that the 10 righteous people for whom Abraham bargained were not found in Sodom. For Abraham's sake (as is made explicit in 19:29), Lot and his family are saved from the destruction of Sodom. Lot's sons-in-law, who were seemingly not in  the mob and not struck blind, refuse to believe that the city will be destroyed. The angels lead 4 people (Lot, his unnamed wife, and two likewise nameless daughters) out of the city by the hand and send them running to a little town with the unironic name of Zoar (which means "little"). Sodom, and all the other cities of the plains, are destroyed by literal fire and brimstone. Literal, that is, within the narrative world of the story.

Lot's wife looks back and becomes, we are told, a pillar of salt. Was this her punishment for disobeying a direct order from the angels? Was she looking back because she longed for her old home? Or did she simply hesitate a little too long and so was engulfed in the destruction?

The account of Sodom's destruction ends with Abraham seeing the conflagration from a distance. This is, after all, Abraham's story.

But we return briefly to Lot and his daughters for a sordid sequel to the Sodom story. Lot is afraid of the citizens of Zoar. Let's face it, city folk have not treated him well. So he takes the girls and moves to a cave. The daughters despair of finding husbands. Who, after all, would want to marry a cave-dweller? So they concoct a plan to get their father drunk and then impregnate themselves by his senseless self. The result, a pair of sons, who become the ancestors of two of Israel's lesser neighboring nations. This probably says more about how Israel saw Moab and Ammon than it does about historic events.

In chapter 20 Abraham once again gets the spotlight. Here we find him scamming Abimelech, the king of Gerar, with the same "Sarah's my sister" routine that he used on the Pharaoh. In spite of the fact that this is, once more, an act of lying cowardice, and shows incredibly little regard for Sarah, it once again redounds to his favor. Abimelech winds up not sleeping with Sarah, and giving Abraham sheep, oxen. slaves, and 1000 pieces of silver.

Something is not right here.

In return for all the riches, Abraham offers prayer for Abimelech whose wife and female slaves are all returned to fertility. They had lost the ability to bear children over this deal with Sarah.

At least we can be sure of one thing: since Abimelech pointedly did not have sex with Sarah, there will be no need for paternity tests when, soon after, she has a son.

The birth of Isaac, Sarah's first and only son, occurs in Genesis 21. It is the occasion of more laughter. In fact, Isaac's name means something like "laughter." Everyone can afford to laugh except for the slave-woman Hagar and Ishmael, her son by Abraham.

At Sarah's insistence, with God's complicity, and to Abraham's consternation, Hagar and Ishmael are sent away. Sarah will not have the first-born Ishmael take part in Isaac's inheritance. And so Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the desert where they come to the point of near death. They are rescued by the miraculous appearance of a well of water. Ishmael grows up in the wilderness and becomes the "wild ass of a man" he was predicted to be in 16:12.

As chapter 21 comes to its close, Abimelech comes back on the scene. He and Abraham make a covenant of friendship. A dispute concerning a well is settled amicably. The repeated mention of wells is a reminder of the importance of water in a desert world.

Abraham calls upon YWHW by yet another name,  El Olam, "Everlasting God."

Next: Genesis 22-24

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