I have been teaching recently the first chapters of Genesis. As expected, these chapters raise huge controversy, more than any other chapter in the Bible. It is easy to understand. After all, while most of the Bible deals with society, morals, or spirituality, the first few chapters of Genesis deal with the creation of the physical world, presenting a very different view than modern science. This is particularly true when questions about the age of the universe are concerned.
Naïve reading of the Bible will tell us that the world is about 6,000 years old. Science, on the other hand, has a different view. By combining data from different disciplines, scientists believe that the age of the universe is about 13.7 billion years, and the age of earth is about 4.5 billion years.
This is huge, hardly imaginable, difference. The age of the universe according to science is about a million times larger than the age according to the Bible. To make these huge numbers easier to comprehend, let’s scale them down. If, for instance, the world according to the Bible was scaled down from 6,000 years to 6 hours (in other words, if the Biblical world was created 6 hours ago) then the world according to science was formed nearly 700 years ago. That was during the Spanish inquisition, before Columbus discovered America.
Of course, there are many religious scientists who are familiar with the two versions of creation and find no contradiction between them. How can they do it?
Today, after producing a few YouTube episodes of #50DaysOfGenesis series, I return to the story of Lot and his family escaping from Sodom. As you know, I am greatly disturbed by the harsh ways many believers judge Lot and his wife. There are many reasons for that. But most do it just because Lot and His wife lived in Sodom (as if those judging live in the land of righteousness).
We judge Lot and his wife as if they were robots, not as though they were humans with feelings, emotions, and pains. We judge them as if we would have behaved any better if we found ourselves having to leave everyone and everything behind. So why does it disturb me? Because, like many other places in the Bible, this chapter gives us a chance to learn compassion, but instead, we choose only to practice judgment.
So now we are back in chapter 19, and we’ll continue with verse 14.
After the mob attacked his house, Lot went to his sons-in-law to talk them into escaping with him from the doomed city of Sodom. As we often see with doomsayers nowadays, his relatives mocked him, and he returned home empty handed. But when morning comes, shortly before the destruction of Sodom begins, Lot and his family must leave. There can be no further delays.
Escaping while leaving family behind
We now know that Lot had other daughters, married ones. He also had sons in law, maybe grandchildren, and maybe (as we have seen in verse 12) even a few sons . But, despite the unavoidable pain of separation, his broken heart, and despite knowing that he survived and they did not, he would have to leave them behind.
They mocked him. Understandably, they did not listen to his words, and they chose to stay with what they knew, rather than venture into the scary, and unfamiliar (most people I know would have stayed. Would you have listened to him?) Lot and his wife will have to carry in their hearts the burden and the guilt of the survivor, not only while escaping, but for the rest of their lives:
Why did they die while we stayed alive? If we tried just a bit harder, we could have convinced them to come with us. We could have saved them. We should have stayed to die with them.
These thoughts have been described over and again by survivors that had left behind loved ones, family, and friends. No reasoning, logic or words of comfort can ever ease their pain and burden of guilt, even if it was not their fault; even if it was their only option; even if they had no choice.
Adam and Eve were made to leave the Garden of Eden; Cain was forced away from his land, and so did Abraham. Lot and his family are now escaping their home. These are only a few of the many such Biblical examples. But it does not end with the Bible. Our entire history is filled with people forced away from their homes, leaving others behind.
How many times throughout history have those that could foresee danger had to flee, broken heartedly, leaving behind friends, family and loved ones, who remained blind to the situation until it was too late? How many more times will humanity continue to face such horrors? It is not far from home. As we see the refugees in Ukraine nowadays, can we imagine ourselves in such a situation? Is there a guarantee we will never experience such horrors?
Many I have spoken to seem to harshly judge Lot and especially his wife. But can we put ourselves in their position and try to understand the pain that they must have suffered when they had to leave family and friends behind? Can we be sure we will not find ourselves in a similar situation? Can we find a little sympathy for them within ourselves?
How many children did Lot and Lot’s wife have in Sodom? This humane question, although critical to understanding of the story, is mostly ignored by the many who judge Lot’s wife harshly, those who believe she deserved to die. Verse 14, however, reveals the most intriguing fact – Lot’s wife also had married daughters that did not live with them.
I have discussed many times why she had to die. It seems that many of those who, from the comfort of their sofa, judge how a woman escaping for her life should behave, do not even know how many children she had, and how many children she is about to leave in Sodom to die.
But why is this verse hidden when they tell us the story?
Why is this verse kept secret?
Those who follow me regularly know that in the past few months I have been obsessed with Lot’s wife and why she had to die. I have written about it in a previous blog post, discussed it in a video, and yet I have no good answer.
I have discussed this question with many students and Bible followers. Many seem to have clear answers to why she had to die: “She disobeyed God,” they say. “She could not let go of the past”. And the harshest one: “She was missing the sinful pleasures that Sodom offered.”
Then I ask, “What would you have done in her place?”
The answer is nearly always said in great confidence: “I would have followed God’s word!”
Unfortunately, I know, firsthand, how impossible it is to know how you would behave when facing real danger, panic, distress, combined with physical exhaustion. I also know that most people need far less than losing their entire city and everyone they know to forgo their commitment to a righteous life. Sometimes, missing a meal or losing some money is enough to throw a person off the path of God.
But I hardly ever argue it.
Instead, I ask, “And if you left your children behind, what would you do then?”
It seems that most people are not aware that Lot’s wife also had married daughters, daughters who did not live with her, daughters she is about to leave behind to perish in Sodom.
I can’t help but ask myself why they don’t know? After all, verse 14 is there for everyone to read together with the rest of the story.
The answer is obvious, most people never delve into the text of the Bible by themselves. They mostly know the Bible second-hand. They mostly know only what those who tell them the Bible want them to know.
But why do theses Bible teachers and leaders do not mention this verse and this fact to us when they tell the rest of the story? What else do they hide from us?
The Human und Humane sides of the Bible
Here I can only guess. And my guess is that telling such details would raise the awareness of how complex the Bible is, and the subtle human existence it describes. It would also highlight the complex decisions we have to make, the pains and suffering that real people undergo. That is, they do not want us to be exposed to the human and humane sides of the Bible.
The people in the Bible are real people, with real feelings, thoughts, ideas and emotions. But when was the last time you tried to think how Abraham felt when he stood in front of God, arguing to save Sodom? Every story of the Bible is about real people, and therefore carries subtle complexities.
This is what many of our religious teachers want us to forget. The Bible is not black and white. It is complex, just the way we, human, are.
So make it a habit to read the Bible carefully by yourself. Put yourself in the mind of the people of the Bible. See what they see, feel what they feel. Only then will you start to understand the true beauty of the Bible and why it is a holy text. It is not because someone told you so.
I have now returned from the Italian Alps. So, this time the photo for this post is from there – for your enjoyment – and not, as normal, related to the story of the chapter. I hope you are ready to go back to the Bible and discuss morality in our story, the story of Sodom.
We will continue with verse 13 in chapter 19. As we have seen in verse 12, the angels are warning Lot and asking him to leave the city. We know that they did not have to give Lot any explanation. After all, Lot already knows they are God’s angels, and he will obey them with or without a reason. Still, they explain. They know that if a person understands the reason for an order, they will obey faster and better. This is a simple secret that many in command nowadays have forgotten. God’s angels remembered.
Is Morality absolute or relative?
During my years of travels, I have met different people from various cultures. Each culture has its own morals, habits, and customs. Some habits and customs acceptable in one culture can be unacceptable or even considered abomination by another. For example, while in some cultures telling lies is an acceptable behaviour (and when you are caught you simply shrug your shoulders and laugh) in other cultures it is a big shame to be caught lying. In some cultures, killing for the honour of the family is not only acceptable, but demanded; other places will consider it like any other murder.
Every time I encounter such a discrepancy, or when I see behaviours that deeply bother me – like the way women are treated by some cultures – I cannot help but ask myself if I am sure I am right, and whether morality should be judged relative to the culture, or whether it absolute and universal. The story of Sodom clearly gives us an answer. At least some morals are absolute.
The people of Sodom will be punished, even though they are not familiar with the laws of the Bible, maybe not even with the morals and behaviour code of the desert. Ignorance of morality will not save them.
The angels do not ask if the people of Sodom abide by the laws of their country or the laws of their city – the city of Sodom. It does not matter. The cry coming from the city is sufficient justification for the severe punishment they are going to face – the destruction of their city. In the words of the angels:
According to this verse, a sufficient criteria of moral judgement is that many people suffer in the hands of others, that many people cry and beg for God’s help because no human is going to help them. The prophets kept warning that it is how we treat others that God cares the most aboutand judges us by. To quote Isaiah (1:17). Justice and compassion is what God is asking of us:
Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.
Is this the morals our society is built upon? Is that how WE see our duty to God?
So far, chapter 19 has been telling us the story of Lot and the Angels in Sodom. It introduces to us the people of Sodom and their customs. Verse 11, which we covered in our last post, is the end of the first part of Lot’s story. It is a natural place for us to stop and ask ourselves what do we know about the mortal sin of the people of Sodom, a sin so grave that condemned all the citizens to a horrible death and to a complete destruction of their city.
Those who have been following this blog already know that I believe that everything in the Bible has numerous meanings, and that the ‘on-the-surface’ interpretation is only one out of many. In the story of Sodom, the common interpretation is that their sin was sodomy and rape.
Whenever I read these two verses, I can’t help but asking myself why the angles only hit the people of Sodom with temporary blindness (סַּנְוֵרִים) . After all, in a few short hours the entire city of Sodom is going to be destroyed by fire, and all these people will die. Why don’t the angels simply kill them now? What difference could a few hours make?
This meditation always raises two insights in my mind. First, it reminds me the easy hand on the trigger of our security forces. No, I am not talking about self-defence or protecting other people. What comes to my mind is the killing of law breakers at times when they do not impose a threat.
Stop! Says the Bible.
This is not how morality and the law should work. Even if a person deserves to die, it is not for the messenger, nor the police to punish them. Their lives should be in the hand of the judge, and only the judge should have the right to punish.
It was not the role of the angles to kill the people of Sodom, and even as they had a good reason, they chose to disable the people without harming them. Punishment will take place in the morning.
The second question that always crosses my mind is who am I to decide that a few extra hours of life do not matter?
A lot can happen in a few hours: a famous mathematician, Galois, formed an entire theory the night before he was shot in a duel. The novelist Ryoki Inoue, finished three books in a day, and many ordinary people found their peace, repented, or found God, in a flash. A whole lifetime can take place in a few hours, and a few hours of grace is what the angels gave the people of Sodom. After all, it is possible that being struck with temporary blindness could have helped some of the people see the light.
Every moment of life is of utmost value. So let’s not dismiss a few hours when others’ life are on the line. Let’s not waste them when our own lives are concerned.
The people of Sodom refuse to accept Lot’s daughters instead of the angels. Why? Because justice (by the rule of Sodom) is what they are after, and Lot is breaking the law. They want the angels and will do anything to get them.
The people of Sodom demanding justice
The people of Sodom demand justice. They are not a simple mob motivated by their lust. They could have taken the girls if that was their objective (and then continue to the others). They are angry because their rules have been broken. They are angry with Lot, a newcomer to the city ( הָאֶחָד בָּא-לָגוּר ), who despite his newcomer status, does not follow their way of life (וַיִּשְׁפֹּט שָׁפוֹט).
Lot is willing to sacrifice his two daughters to the crowd to save his angel guests. Unthinkable? A sin? An evil deed? Yet, God still saves him from the destruction of Sodom. Did he deserve being saved?
Can we even start to comprehend Lot’s predicament? Shouldn’t it change completely our perception of him? Not a righteous person anymore, but an unloving, cruel father who did not care about his daughters.
With the people of Sodom surrounding his house, demanding to surrender the angels to them, Lot comes out and try to talk them out of their evil way. How can we explain that the very same events and words happens again in the story of Levite’s concubine (Judges 19:23)?
It’s all about the intentions
Why does Lot use the word תָּרֵעוּ (do evil)? He does not say, “don’t kill them”; he does not say, “don’t harm them.” Instead, he says, “Do not do evil.” Why?
One of the most difficult tasks facing any judge, past or present, is figuring out the intention of the person who committed the crime. With good forensic evidence, eyewitnesses, modern science, it is quite often possible to establish the details of many crimes. But once the facts are established, one question always remains, the mindset of the criminal while committing the act: were they aware of what they were doing? Could they comprehend the consequences of their actions? Were they sane? Could they tell good from evil, and did they know they were committing a crime?
Establishing their intentions, would determine the severity of their punishment.
After all, in a society in which murder, for instance, is the norm, killers do not consider murder to be evil. Lot had to bring it to their attention. More than that, the Bible had to bring it to our attention, too. The Bible wants us to be clear beyond doubt that the people of Sodom were aware of their actions, and therefore, the horrible punishment they received was just. They plan evil and know it is evil. There are no mitigating circumstances.
But this is controversial point. Something many disagree with. So, I would like to discuss it further. If the Bible is speaking to us, the readers, making sure that we know, beyond doubt, that they are guilty, what does it say about Lot’s actual words? Were these the very words Lod said, or can the Bible misrepresent them to ensure we are clear about the message? In other words, could there be factual inaccuracies in the Bible?
Truth vs. historical facts
In Judges 19 we read a story of Levite’s concubine. The story begins exactly like the story of Lot: A man, his woman, and his servant stay for the night at a man’s house in the city of Giv’ah. While having dinner, the people of the city surround the house and demand from the host to surrender his guests (sounds familiar?) The man refuses, pleading, using Lot’s very words (verse 23):
How likely is it that two events hundreds of years apart, are not only replication of each other, but the people involved use the very same words? Is it possible that the Bible is bending the truth to strengthen the message?
We all know of many Jesus’s parables. He loved them and used many. For example: The Two Debtors, or The Lost Sheep. Jesus did so, not to tell us about particular people, but rather to teach us lessons that otherwise, would have been too hard, if not impossible, to understand. Would anyone shout, “Who are these debtors?” Would anyone claim that Jesus was a liar because no such debtors ever existed? Of course not. The stories were true even if the events had never happened.
And this is something we often forget. Truth is not the same as historicalfacts.
The Bible is true, because it tells us about things that matter, things of the utmost importance, using words and concepts we can understand. And just like Jesus, if a parable is the best way to make us understand a concept, then the Bible uses parables, and if changing words is what needed, than the Bible changes words.
Many confuse truth and historical facts, and are fixated with the historical factuality of particular stories, rather than the message they come to tell us. But for me, the history, as interesting as it may be, does not make a difference. I am interested in the truth alone, and I trust the Bible with telling it to me in ways that touch my heart and soul. As for the historical facts – I am happy to leave the matter to historians.
So what is the truth in the case of Lot?
In my view, this verse comes to tell us that the intentions behind actions are as important as the actions themselves. This is true when we judge others, and even truer when we ourselves take action. And why is the Bible telling it to us twice? To answer this question I will quote Joseph’s telling king Pharaoh why he had two dreams (Genesis 41:32):
Lot and the angels finished their feast and are getting ready for bed. But somehow, despite the guests’ attempt to hide their presence, the people of Sodom find about it, and they all come to siege Lot’s house. Is Sodomy their intention?
We do not know how the people of Sodom discovered that Lot was having guests for the night. After all, the angles had sneaked in; they prepared unleavened bread to ensure that no smoke or smell came out of the house to hint that a meal is taking place. Yet, they were found out.
It was probably enough for one person to find out, and the rumour started spreading like fire. “Lot has guests! What a sacrilegious!” they must have shouted to each other, as they were rushing toward Lot’s home. As we will see in verse 9, the people of Sodom called for justice to be done, justice by the laws of Sodom. Then, when they reach Lot’s home, they demand he must surrender the people out to them, so they could know them.
And this single word, ְנֵדְעָה, (we will know them) started the legend of Sodom and Sodomy.
The verb ידע (know) and its derivatives appears in the Bible over 950 times. Out of these, in all but about a few cases it appears in the meaning of knowledge, to be acquainted with, to be familiar with, and other similar meanings. Only in a few dozen cases it appears in the ‘Biblical sense’, that is, euphemism for having sex.
But is it the meaning here?
I am the first to admit that there is no way to deny it. After all, it is also clear, as we’ll see in the next verse, that the intentions of the people of Sodom were evil. But couldn’t they have wanted to kill them? Couldn’t death have been the penalty of breaking the law? Could it have been lashes?
What were the real intentions of the people of Sodom? The Bible does not tell us. Could it have been Sodomy? It could have. But there is a difference between knowing that it might have been Sodomy, to the clarity that it can be nothing else. The truth is that as the Bible does not tell us, and that we will never know for sure.
In my view, the interpretation of this single word נֵדְעָה, is one of the places that the Bible is hiding things from us, allowing us to test our own minds and find out about ourselves, and what we see in an ambiguity.
So what does ‘know’ mean in this case? All we can say is that we do will never know for sure, and this ambiguity must be on purpose.