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.
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 out, and all of them come to siege Lot’s house. For them Lot is a criminal. They want justice.
Lot insists on inviting the messengers (or angels, as we have seen in a previous post). They accept and, not to be seen by the people of Sodom, they take the round route to Lot’s house. He offers them hospitality. Can we learn anything from the meal he prepares?
What are the messengers (or angels, as we have seen in the previous post) doing in Sodom? Are they testing Lot to see if he deserves rescuing, or are they in the city to confirm, firsthand, if there is a way to save the city of Sodom?
We have now finished with the trial of Sodom and Gomorrah, and we already know that God condemned the cities to imminent destruction. We move from the scene of the trial to Sodom itself, where Lot, Abraham’s brother’s son, has made his home. This is where he met the angels. But is it what they were?
Sodom is a town near the Dead Sea in the middle of the desert. It is the lowest city in the world, and one of the hottest. In summer temperatures can rise above 45oC (113oF). In winter it can be in the mid 30soC (90oF). With such temperatures you do not leave your home during the day. But when evening falls, everyone goes out to breath the fresh air, do their errands, meet other people, and socialise. The gates of the city, where merchants and visitors enter before the night, is where all action happens. It is where the hotels and the markets are. This is where Lot is spending his evening, maybe for pleasure, maybe waiting for new potential customers or suppliers to enter the city. The Bible does not tell us the reason he is there.
The gate of Sodom is where Lot meets the two messengers. We do not know who they are. Many suggest that they are two of the three that visited Abraham in Genesis 18. But we do not know for sure. The Bible does not tell us.
Are they angels, that is celestial beings, as many translations suggest?
We do not know that either. The Hebrew word used here is מַּלְאָכִים. This word can be translated either as angels, or, more often, as messengers. As we can see, for example, in Genesis 32:4.
But even if they were Angels, did Lot know they were?
The next portion of the verse וַיַּרְא–לוֹט is commonly translated as and Lot saw. If you believe that this translation is correct then we have no indication whether Lot recognised the messengers as anything other than normal people.
However, there is another way to translate the word וַיַּרְא and this is To become afraid or fearful.
These are two different translations, each gives a different meaning to Lots following action. In the first, he bows down with his face to the ground. If he did that without knowing who they were, we learn of Lot as a respectful, welcoming person, a person who cares about other people, whoever they might be. On the other hand, if he recognised them as more than human, we learn nothing about his personality, and how he views other people. After all, there is no righteousness in doing the right thing out of fear.
But whether or not Lot recognised who they is also important, as we will see later in the chapter, to understanding the people of Sodom and their sins. So lets keep this point in mind, when we continue reading the rest of the chapter.
The Bible does not tell us which of the two interpretation is the right one. Do you have any clue that makes you prefer one interpretation over the other?