In Essays

Parsha Vayera | Sodom, Gomorrah, and Biblical Incest

sodom and gomorrah fire
Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Vayera, Genesis 18:1 – 22:24. Click here to read last week’s Parsha Lech-Lecha.

We jump right back in where we basically left off with Abraham (formerly Abram) and Sarah (formerly Sarai). God tells Abraham He’s going to come back in a year and by then Sarah will have a son. The Biblical pair aren’t so sure about that, seeing as they’re now “advanced in years” and Sarah had “stopped having the periods of women.”

Sarah even laughed at the idea that she could have a child in her old age. God isn’t a fan of Sarah doubting Him and gets a bit catty.

“Why did Sarah laugh?” He asks Abraham. “Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?”

Reading such dialogue makes it really difficult for me not to see God as some petty dictator. I mean, that’s basically the dictator calling card––getting pissed off at people for suggesting there are limits to their power.

Perhaps sensing God’s inferiority complex, Sarah lies and says “I did not laugh,” because she was frightened by the Almighty Dictator. To which, God tersely responds, “You did laugh.” And behold! The Torah continues:

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“YES, YOU DID!”

God then puts His family planning on hold because he’s got a couple of cities to destroy.

Sodom and Gomorrah

“The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

Well, that really seemed to come out of left field. Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned a handful of times in earlier Parshot, but nothing about how wretched or morally bankrupt the places are. Although it’s a bummer that God appears to have already forgotten how much He regretted His reckless killing streak with the flood, the purpose of this story doesn’t really have much to do with the cities themselves. Rather, it’s the first time we read of a human questioning and debating with God.

“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” Abraham asks God. “What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?” Then comes my favorite bit, where Abraham seems to be planting the idea in God’s head as if it were His all along.

“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

It’s basically a Biblical Looney Tunes scene. Abraham is Bugs Bunny, slowly turning the gun around on God’s Elmer Fudd. Because after God agrees that He will spare the cities if He finds fifty innocent people, Abraham snaps on a carrot and says, “Listen here, Bub.”

“Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes (so humble, this Abraham): What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of five?”

So God agrees to spare the cities if he finds forty-five innocent people. And Abraham negotiates again, working down the number of innocents necessary to spare the cities from forty-five to forty to thirty to twenty to just ten. Methinks Abraham knew something God didn’t know about Sodom and Gomorrah. I imagine Abraham had spent a few weekends there, letting loose like a pack of drunken Brits on a stag trip. Except I manage Sodommites would’ve been easier to tolerate.

The only thing I’m not so sure about is why Abraham stopped at ten. Clearly God wasn’t all that committed to another round of mass murder. Why couldn’t his next line have been, “Oh, great Lord, whose greatness knows no bounds in the face of a mere mortal such as myself, surely no man, woman, or child is deserving of a painful death. Could you be persuaded to let them off with a stern warning? Or maybe just give the men a swift kick in the nads? That seems like your kind of thing!

I guess what I’m saying is, I could’ve negotiated with God better than Abraham did.

No Means No

Two angels arrive in Sodom as we’re nearing the destruction of Sodom. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, invites them in and plays host. Townspeople marched up to Lot’s home and made an interesting demand.

“Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.”

And now you know why sodomy comes from Sodom. They really liked doing it in the butt.

No judgment, but non-consensual butt sex is definitely not cool. So, Lot went out and made another interesting offer.

“Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

Basically, in Lot’s mind, it was better to let his virgin daughters get raped than two strangers who had just waltzed on by. The Torah makes it seem like Lot came up with this plan alarmingly fast like it was something he had in his back pocket in case townspeople came by demanding anal.

The townspeople don’t like this raping switcheroo one bit and decide to deal with Lot more harshly than they’d planned to with the two men. But the angels, perhaps out of newfound loyalty for the man who spared them anal rape, pulled Lot back into the home and shut the door. A blinding light (God? An excellently timed eclipse?) then made it impossible for the townspeople to find the entrance.

“Sulfurous Fire”

With little time to spare, the angels warn Lot that God has sent them to destroy the city. Lot only manages to convince his wife and two daughters (the ones he just offered up for raping) to come with him. The angels swept them out of the city and pleaded to them to “Flee for your life!” Lot, after some negotiation, ends up heading to a town “near enough to flee to” that came to be known as Zoar. During their escape, Lot’s wife looked back and infamously “turned into a pillar of salt.”

Some interpret this to mean she valued her old life too much by looking back and condemned herself to the fate of Sodom. Others say she hesitated in heeding God’s warning––and we know what Torah God likes to do with people who doubt Him. He impregnants them at an old age (Sarah) or just flushes out the world with a flood. (Abraham seems to have gotten something of a pass despite having questioned God’s plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. The Patriarchy strikes again.)

And just as Lot arrived, “the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from the Lord out of heaven.”

Damn. Torah God doesn’t mess around. He couldn’t just snuff them out. He had to burn them alive.

I’m starting to sense where literal believers get this “fear of God” stuff.

Anywho, God “annihilated” the cities and all the inhabitants. I guess they couldn’t find those ten innocent souls. It also doesn’t seem like they looked very hard, but I’m not about to wrestle with God when He’s got a fresh stash of sulfuric rain up His sleeve.

(Helen Plotkin offers up interesting interpretations of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah over at Tablet. Read it for yourself, but in short, she suggests––with the help of rabbinic interpretation––that God’s destruction of the cities was not in response to Sodomites engaging in anal sex. Rather, God destroyed the cities because the citizenry had become so selfish, greedy, and without compassion for those less fortunate that they were beyond salvation.)

Creepy

Did you think Lot offering up his daughters for rape was pretty creepy? Well, buckle up.

After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot settles in the hill country with his two daughters. The daughters lament that their father is old and that there aren’t any men “to consort with” and decide to get their old man drunk off wine. And then?

“[…] let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.”

Umm… Excuse me?

“That night they made their father drink wine, and the older one went in and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.”

Don’t fill up that barf bag yet. There’s more.

“The next day the older one said to the younger, ‘See, I lay with Father last night; let us make him drink wine tonight also, and you go and lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.'”

See what I mean? The horror continues:

“That night also they made their father drink wine and the younger one went and lay with him; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.”

Yeah, we get it, Torah! Lot is an old, incestual, clueless lightweight.

Then, the abominable punchline.

“Thus the two daughters of Lot came to be with child by their father.”

Somehow, they didn’t birth repulsive, genetically mutated inbred monsters. Instead, they birthed the patriarchs of two ancient kingdoms––Moab and Ammon, both today part of Jordan.

But again, barf.

Uh, Rabbi?

I didn’t know what to make of this so I turned to the first rabbinic explanation I could find. The Jewish Women’s Archive published a compilation of Midrashot (rabbinic interpretations in the Talmud) that at least make some sense of what’s going on.

First, they remind us that just because someone is featured in the Torah or that we remember their name doesn’t inherently make them an exemplary individual. I mean, even Moses had a bunch of people murdered (more on that later on in 5780). This is something I need to keep reminding myself.

We’re to assume Lot was an unsavory individual simply because he lived in Sodom––a city God didn’t hesitate to obliterate in a most unseemly way. Then there’s the fact that even after the first daughter lay with him, he wasn’t suspicious when the other offered him more wine the next night. The rabbis even suggested Lot had been lusting after his daughters.

On the other hand, the daughters are viewed favorably. They don’t see any men around. They assume God had once again destroyed the world, which in their defense, there’s a precedent. From their point of view, God had spared them and they were tasked with continuing creation. The only way to do that was to suck down some booze and do the unthinkable.

And do the unthinkable they did. So clean yourself up if the end of this Parsha made you lose your lunch. There’s still a lot more Torah to go.

Isaac and Ishmael

We’re back with Sarah and Abraham, who welcome their son Isaac to the world. Abraham, now a spritely one-hundred-years-old, follows the commandment to circumcise Isaac on his eighth day of existence.

Sarah, having been able to give birth despite her old age, is feeling confident. She demands that Abraham “cast out that slave-woman [Hagar] and her son [Ishmael]” because she doesn’t want Ishamel to share in the inheritance of Isaac. This stresses Abraham out, but God calms him down with the promise that he can do as Sarah has demanded, knowing that his line will be continued through Isaac. God also reassures Abraham that he’ll make a nation for Ishamel, too.

Two great nations? Not a bad deal, Abraham.

And so Abraham does as he’s told, packing away some bread and water for Hagar and Ishmael before telling them to hit the road. (What a guy.) Hagar was left to wander the desert. Once they ran out of the water, she sent Ishmael under a bush expecting him to die and wept––as one does in such a precarious predicament.

But compassionate Torah God makes a rare appearance. He asks Hagar what’s her deal and tells her to pick up her son because he’s going to be the patriarch of a great nation. When Hagar opened her eyes (presumably closed from all the weeping), she saw a well of water that she was able to share with her son. It’s then said that Ishmael lived in the desert of Paran and that Hagar hooked him up with an Egyptian wife.

The Offering of Isaac

Time marches on until the Torah God we’ve come to know and fear shows up to Abraham again. He says, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, yea, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you.”

At least He said “Please.”

(Note that many Muslims believe it was Ishmael who God told Abraham to sacrifice. Here’s an interesting comparison between the religions.)

This is a story amateur Jews, such as myself, are well familiar with. Isaac follows Abraham under the pretense that they were going to be doing a normal burnt offering of a lamb. But suddenly Isaac finds himself bound upon an altar of wood and Abraham whips out a knife. He’s ready to get stabbing when an angel of God jumps in to say, “PSYCH!”

The angel tells Abraham to stop because his blind loyalty proved himself to be a God-fearing man. Perhaps this was twisted revenge for haggling over the number of innocent souls required to save Sodom and Gomorrah?

Still, there was an altar of wood, so something needed to burn and be sacrificed. And lo, a ram appeared and was offered up to our not-at-all temperamental Lord.

Abraham’s reward for playing along?

Descendants. And lots of them. As many as there are stars in the heavens and sand in the seashore, in fact. Not only does Abraham get all of those descendants, but they’re also going to “inherit the cities of their enemies.”

I suppose that’s not terrible compensation for convincing a loyal subject, such as Abraham, to slaughter his son. If I were punked on this level, I’d certainly want more than a viral YouTube video.

But it does strike me as strange that Abraham, who’s at this point shown willingness to stand up to God, doesn’t make so much as a peep when told to kill Isaac. This is the same Isaac that God used to reassure Abraham about letting Ishamel go with Hagar. If I’m Abraham, I’m thinking, “What about that thing you said about Isaac carrying on my line?”

It’s all moot, I suppose, because Isaac gets to live on and so does Abraham’s line. Not that Abraham was, despite his old age, done procreating. As we’ll find out in next week’s Parsha Chayei Sara, Sarah is not long for this earth and Abraham is still feeling fruitful.

Onward with Parsha Chayei Sara.

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