46. Genesis 19:15-38 and 21:1-34

III. A. 3. a) continued

iv) Lot and His Daughters (Genesis 19:15-38)

The destruction of Sodom is described most like a meteor shower, though others take it as a lightning storm and earthquake. The occurrence of such a meteor shower is unparalleled in recorded history, but it is not intrinsically impossible; very unlikely, unbelievable as a coincidence, but of course it is not represented as being coincidental. To those of us who are orthodox Christians, the visitors to Abraham, and possibly to Lot, included the Messiah Himself, and it was He who sent the destruction on Sodom. But was the destruction of the cities of the plain a “Christ-like” act? How can we imagine Jesus raining fire on all those people, particularly when we recall that He rebuked some of His disciples for suggesting just such a fate for a Samaritan village (see Luke 9:51-56)? Even if we do not interpret the angels as being a pre-incarnation appearance of Jesus, isn’t this an inconsistency in the behavior of God, destroying one group of people with fire at one time and renouncing such an act at another time, the usual contradiction between the Old and New Testaments?

For me, there is no inconsistency between this passage and the New Testament. There is nothing that is intrinsically un-Christ-like, anymore than the Flood was un-Christ-like. If one assumes, as I do, that God comes into the world to save men’s lives and not to destroy them, the angels seem to me to be working on that same agenda. The destruction of Sodom was done, not to punish the wicked but to prevent future victims, which is what I also believe the Flood was doing. The wonder is that God in His compassion does not destroy more of the world. And so we don’t notice how we blame God both for punishing evil (if we aren’t it’s victim) and for not punishing evil (if we are its victim). Either way, we accuse God of the wrong doing. It is just a convenient dodge, making the God of the Old Testament a bad God and the God of the New Testament a good one. That way we don’t have to face the real problem of evil in ourselves: how is God to be merciful to us and simultaneously stop us from doing such wreckage in the lives of the people around us? When we think about the destruction of Sodom, it is all too easy and convenient to forget the point: we are Sodom.

In another sense the destruction was also the deliverance of the people of Sodom from continuing lives of relentless evil, a mercy killing if you will, the very thing advocates for physician assisted suicide want. However, I will add several points by way of softening what God chose to do there. I do not see the destruction of Sodom as an eternal destruction, as if the rain of fire were a tongue of hell reaching up to the everyday world to carry them all into their eternal state. The people of Sodom yet have a role to play in testifying to God’s mercy and righteousness and justice, as the Messiah would later indicate.

The destruction of Sodom was accomplished in such a dramatic and violent way, I think, to have it serve as a revelation, a testimony to the world that the promise to never again destroy the earth in a Flood did not mean God would stand by idly and watch the powerful abuse the weak. To a violent man, violence is the language he speaks, violence is the only warning he can heed. Sodom would have been a warning to the surrounding nations not to follow in their paths. Later in the Psalms and Proverbs, when God portrayed Himself as the Defender of the orphan and the widow, the destruction of Sodom is part of what He meant. Woe to you who grind the poor into the dirt, for God Himself is your enemy. If anything can move Him to violence it is the strong oppressing the weak.

That Lot’s wife looked back at the destruction of Sodom and turned into a pillar of salt could be understood in several ways. It was not simply punishment for looking back and disobeying the angels’ command; she had never been warned about disobeying angels. It is possible that she looked back just out of that common human curiosity that wants to see the calamities of others, to stop by the car crash or by the fire trucks or by the ambulance hoping to see something. To take pleasure in, or even a lively interest in watching the pain of others is not Godlike. God takes no pleasure in people’s pain; pain is outside of His desire, and outside of His ultimate intent. The tabloids, the news reporters who hound the people who have experienced some great grief, these are emissaries of the serpent. Or possibly she looked back because she missed the city, she missed her status as the wife of a rich man, she missed her possessions. Perhaps she was longing for what was gone, grieving for Sodom and the life she had there, and because she was longing for the things reserved for destruction she joined them. The Bible never even mentions her name. Was she from a well-to-do family in Ur or in Haran? It is hard for the rich to lose what they have, even when an angel from heaven stands beside them beckoning.

It is easy to forget that three other cities were destroyed along with Sodom: Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim. It seems that Zoar was also scheduled for demolition but was spared for Lot’s sake (even though Lot did not actually go to Zoar – it would seem that God spared Zoar for nothing). There is no record that angels visited those cities, or what would have happened to them if Abram had succeeded in persuading God to spare Sodom. There is a lot to this story that we are not told, but the way the story is told tells us that it is not telling us everything. We should be careful, of course, when we interpret a passage or when we speculate about a passage, that we keep clearly in mind exactly what we don’t know.

The origin of the Moabite and Ammonite peoples was ignominious, the result of drink and incest. It was natural, it was easy for Lot, who had lost  everything he owned and his wife and was living in a  cave with no prospects, to escape into drunkenness. In his raving, maybe in despair, perhaps Lot had proclaimed loudly that he had would never again leave that cave. His daughters had given up any hope of resuming a normal life again. They had been transformed from princesses into savages, from society girls with good prospects to outcasts with no prospects. Naturally they dealt with their situation by making the worst possible choices, but to make their father drunk and try to get pregnant seems outrageous even by modern standards. Moab means literally “seed from our father”. It would be fair to say that the daughters felt no sense of shame in their incest, no impulse to hide their deed from their own father, even if that had been possible. Ben-ammi means “son of my people”, carrying the same idea. Abraham had no trouble learning the truth and preserving it in the oral tradition.

And so began the Moabite and the Ammonite people. Neither the Moabites nor the Ammonites exist today, and they were presumably all the posterity that Lot left. Their origin would make them easy to despise by those who imagine they have a nobler family tree, but a Moabite woman would later be chosen as part of the line leading to the Messiah, and one of the few women mentioned by name in His genealogy. In this way God took into Himself the family of Lot, perhaps as one last gift to Abraham who had spent so much love on his nephew. Lot was a man who seemingly gave up on life at this point, but why didn’t he seek help from his uncle Abraham? Considering Abraham’s character and devotion to Lot, it seems likely that Abraham did eventually seek out Lot and aid him, if Lot didn’t die from horror and despair. There is no evidence in the Scripture about Abraham’s charity to Lot except that the story of Lot was included in the tradition Abraham passed on to Isaac.

b) Isaac vs. Ishmael (Genesis 21:1-21)

If Abraham was born in 2159 b.c. then Isaac was born in about 2059 b.c., around the time Metuhotep II founded the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and when Shulgi the king of Ur was at the height of his glory. Ishmael would have been about fourteen years old. Children were weaned much older than in our culture, so Ishmael would have been in his later teens at the party thrown by Abraham for Isaac’s first coming of age. It should be noted that 21:9 need not be translated as saying that Ishmael was mocking Isaac; it could be translated in a more neutral way as saying that Ishmael was playing with him, joking around with him. However, there was not much chance of a good relationship between Isaac and Ishmael. Besides the age difference, there was, of course, the on-going conflict and tension between Hagar and Sarah. Sarah was more than the typical defensive mother, and insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be driven away.

Sarah’s insistence that Hagar and Ishmael be driven away had less excuse than the first time and would have been scandalous. There was no reason for it this time, no cheekiness from Hagar; it was just Sarah’s need to have no competition, no comparisons. Abraham, who was genuinely attached to Ishmael, was upset as well. Nonetheless, at God’s specific intervention, Abraham sent them away. It is remarkable that God intervened at this point, and to all appearances on the side of injustice. The over-riding issue with God was the continuation of the Covenant and the integrity of its revelatory role, which required that Ishmael be excluded from it. We can plead in God’s defense that He had no intention of abandoning Hagar and Ishmael, but that would not have been apparent to the witnesses to the event. What would people have said when they heard that Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away? Would it have sounded lame to them if Abraham had told them that God made him do it? The devil perhaps, but God? Nor would it have helped if he could have explained that future generations needed to have an allegorical demonstration of certain truths. Still, God was consistently careless of His reputation in Abraham’s household and in the neighborhood.

Hagar again headed toward Egypt, probably more or less along the same route she had followed nearly twenty years before. She and Ishmael arrived in the wilderness of Beersheba, twenty or thirty miles south of the oaks of Mamre. In the wilderness they ran out of provisions, particularly water, and became lost; she had not traveled as far as she had the first time she fled. Since Ishmael was basically an adult by this time, it is not clear why their journey was so much harder; perhaps there was an additional affliction such as an illness, or perhaps it happened to be one of the occasional dry years so that they could not find water once their supply ran out.

I have said this before but it is worth repeating: excluding Ishmael from the Covenant was not the same as excluding Ishmael from God’s grace and favor. The passage makes it clear that God was committed to Ishmael. Being excluded from the Covenant meant that Ishmael and his descendants would not be part of the stream of revelation from God, and this is clearly historically the case. Nonetheless, they were still descendants of Abraham, still heirs of the revelation that had been handed down to Abraham to that point, and under the blessing and favor of God. So God rescued Ishmael, carrying out the promise He had made to Hagar when He gave her the name for her son, and the promise He had made to Abraham when He gave him his new name. Ishmael went to live in the wilderness of Paran, probably the central part of the Sinai. Naturally Hagar went to Egypt, her native land, to find a wife for her son. And God blessed him, and he prospered and he became a great nation even into the present day.

c) New Conflict with Abimelech (Genesis 21:22-34)

Over the next decade after Isaac’s birth it appears that Abraham moved back and forth between the oaks of Mamre and the neighborhood of Gerar. Though he was already rich, he became much richer, alarmingly rich. For more than twenty years Abraham had been a formidable force in the land of Canaan, even before he defeated the Elamites. He had shown no inclination to go out empire building, but his neighbors were naturally nervous. A peaceful man can turn warlike for no obvious reason; it is always scary to live near a powerful person. After the birth of Isaac, the prosperity of Abraham became such that it was politically desirable either to come to secure terms with him or destroy him. Abimelech, if this was the same one as Abraham had previously deceived regarding Sarah, would vividly remember his vision of God’s favor toward Abraham. Perhaps he wasn’t sure he would be able to take Abraham; perhaps he was too wise to oppose the man who was in God’s favor. It was better to be diplomatic.

When Abimelech proposed to Abraham that they bind themselves to each other by a covenant, it was entirely to his advantage rather than Abraham’s. It was exactly the kind of agreement that would later be forbidden when Israel invaded the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership, but at this point in time God had no objection. It did not occur to Abraham to inquire of God whether such a covenant was advisable, there had never been any indication that it might not be. This was a lesser form of the covenant structure than a peace treaty or a marriage. When Abraham’s descendants did invade the Promised Land, Gerar was never mentioned. It had faded from importance, almost faded from existence, just through the process of history.

Making the covenant with Abimelech heartened Abraham enough to bring up a sore point between his servants and Abimelech’s servants. Assertiveness was not one of Abraham’s traits, but this time he defended his own interests. If Abimelech had not approached him concerning the covenant, would he have ever brought up his complaint to Abimelech? It is doubtful. Even asserting his rights to the well, he still offered seven ewes as a payment for it. “Beersheba” in Hebrew means “seven well” and refers to the seven ewes and the covenant made between Abraham and this  king. That the covenant between Abimelech and Abraham was made at Beersheba suggests that Abraham had included the area of Beersheba in the cycle of his wanderings, making a large circle from Mamre to Gerar to Beersheba and back again. If so, it is natural to suspect that he went toward Beersheba to learn something of Ishmael’s welfare, perhaps even to see him, but there is no indication that they ever saw one another again.

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2 Comments on “46. Genesis 19:15-38 and 21:1-34”

  1. Eric Alagan Says:

    Carroll – I notice that you stopped posting, or am I missing something? Cheers, Eric


    • Hello, Eric. I haven’t written any new poetry or essays in about a year, so all my writing is over on the CalebsEye II site. Even there I am just editing it all and trying to get it in shape for publication. A book on Moses. I guess editing a page doesn’t get registered as a post.
      You’re doing good though, after your long absence.


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