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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Lot and his Daughters: The Inside Story

You perhaps know of the story. It can be found in the Old Testament’s [1]Book of Genesis, and the names of the protagonist and the places are familiar enough, even to those souls who never pick up a Bible. There is old Lot sitting at the gate of the city of Sodom, when up come two angels. Except these angels apparently are human-enough in appearance for Lot to assume them to be ordinary mortals – albeit strikingly good-looking ones. They tell Lot that they are newly-arrived to the city, and having nowhere to stay, plan to spend the night on the street.

Being familiar-enough with the fancies of his home city’s menfolk, our hero sees the dangers, and rather than have them become easy pickings on the moonlit streets of Sodom invites the two strangers to spend the night under the safety of his roof, to which the two assent. Ah, but no sooner do the trio make it to the safety of Lot’s front door when the house is surrounded by a generous number of the city’s male population who, having already caught a glimpse of the two handsome strangers, are only too eager to press their penchant for something more.

So far it’s not a bad story. It’s what happens next that sends things down a mind-spinning chute of deeply-dubious morality – and that morality has nothing to do with the sexual preferences of Sodom’s menfolk, whose city’s name has become a verb still current today. No, that morality has to do with Lot’s own decision making. Because what happens next is that Lot steps outside to calm the crowd, and his attempted means of doing so is to offer his own two virgin daughters to the rabble to have their way with as long as they agree to leave the two strangers alone.

And it’s not just a bluff. He actually means it. Lot actually seriously offers his own daughters to be gang-raped on the street, rather than (as he sees it) compromise the sanctity of his hospitality. Each time I read this story, this is the point at which I shake my head in numbed disbelief. Not just because of Lot’s offer to the mob, but because it is supposed to be Lot’s virtue that sways the angels to warn him, and him alone, of God’s coming destruction of the city, which is why he’d better leave town in a hurry. Virtue? What virtue? For pity’s sake, this is a man who is more than prepared to hand his own young daughters over to be gang-banged by a sex-hungry street mob. I’m not making this stuff up: it’s right there in Genesis 19:8 if you want to check.

Recovering our mental equilibrium enough to read further, we learn that the mob now rounds on Lot, which to me smacks of rough justice, but justice deserved nevertheless. He is, however, dragged inside to safety by his two guests, who for good measure use their supernatural powers to strike the seething throng collectively blind. This is the point in the story where we realise that sleeping on the street for these two would actually have been a viable and completely safe option anyway.

Dawn’s light sees Lot and family fleeing from the city and its coming destruction. God does his fire-and-brimstone thing, Lot’s [2]wife looks back at the ghastly destruction and, as we all know, is promptly turned into a pillar of salt. Not that old Lot shows any particular signs of remorse at being summarily widowed by the Almighty: he’s too busy negotiating with God about where he’s going to flee to. He drives a [3]bargain with God that he can flee to the nearby city of [4]Zoar, because, well… it’s only a small city after all, and hardly worthy of God’s destructive attention. So God wouldn’t mind sparing such a small city, would He? God agrees.

But even in Zoar Lot feels ill-at-ease (which to me smacks of mistrust in God’s word), and flees farther. He takes his two daughters to a cave in the wilderness beyond the city walls, and there occurs probably the most astonishing twist in the story. With their mother no longer a going concern, the daughters realise that their father has no possibility of siring male heirs to carry on his line. So they ply old Lot with wine, and that night the eldest daughter, in that grandly coy Biblical euphemism, ‘lay with him’. We are reassured that Lot sleeps through the whole process, apparently as a way of excusing the whole thing. The next night the younger daughter: ditto. So the two daughters lose their virginity to their own father, and the incestuous results are two sons who go on to found the Moabites and the Ammonites.

It’s a story with threatened rape, threatened sodomy, actual incest, and plenty of disaster movie-scale destruction. And the moral standards of its central character whom God chose to spare are plainly as dubious as those of the inhabitants of the city which God in his wrath destroyed. But it’s in scripture, so all this must be okay, right? And hands up anyone who believes that old Lot was only pretending to be asleep? I thought so… J

[1] Genesis 19:1-38 contains the complete story related here. Aside from a necessary condensing of some details, all the events related in this post can be found in this passage of scripture.

[2] As with his two daughters, we are never told the name of Lot’s wife. This is certainly not the only instance in scripture when protagonists who play a key role in a story remain unnamed, apparently for no other reason than that, being female, their names were considered not worth recording. As if in support of this chauvinism, we straight away learn the names of the daughters’ sons: Moab and Ben-ammi. Please see also my previous post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land for another instance of a female lead character remaining anonymous, and a father’s callous behaviour towards his own daughter at least as heartless and despicable as Lot’s in this story. Jephthar, in case you’re not aware of the story, actually offered his own daughter up to God as a human sacrifice (Judges 11:29-40) to keep a bargain with God for his resounding victory over the Ammonites: the people of the line of Lot’s youngest daughter’s son. Oh, the irony.

[3] Lot was not the only one to drive a bargain with the Almighty. In a preamble to this story (Genesis 18:26-32) we learn that Abraham, disapproving of God’s ruling that fifty righteous men must be found in Sodom for him to spare the city from destruction, actually haggles God down until God agrees to spare the city if only ten righteous men of Sodom can be found, thus considerably reducing the odds for the coming omnipotent devastation. As we know, even these reduced odds prove to be of no avail, and Sodom was wiped from the map. And no other commentator on these events whom I have so far read has picked up on the supreme irony that Abraham, in pleading with God for his nephew Lot’s life to be spared, could have saved his descendants much misery had he not done so. For it was these very descendants of Abraham who were so harassed by the Moabites and the Ammonites – the two tribes who themselves were the descendants of Lot’s two daughters by their own father!

[4] This city is now the only one of the five original ‘cities of the plain’ whose location can be traced with reasonable certainty.

The Paintings:
Lot and his Daughters, by Francesco Furini, 17th-century. Furini’s intense interpretation is a scene which the artist depicts as a grand seduction, as one of Lot’s daughters offers their befuddled father a goblet of wine while the other tugs teasingly on the hem of his cloak. Here there are no tableaux of destruction as a backdrop, no suggestions of cave or wilderness. Instead Furini treats his background as a blank screen onto which we project our own imaginations, and in so doing thrusts all the focus onto the human drama of the moment. I discuss another work by Furini on my art blog here.

The Sodomites, by James Tissot, 19th-century. Tissot enjoyed a reputation as a painter of elegant society scenes until he turned his attention to Biblical subjects such as this one. We see Lot confront the agitated crowd as the two credibly-human angels shelter behind the shutters. Intriguingly, the artist has chosen to portray Lot as a younger man than is usually the case with this theme. And the two angels are also exceptional in that they suggest an altogether darker mood: fitting enough for these two who serve, after all, as the hit men of the angelic host. 

The Destruction of Sodom, by John Martin, 19th-century. Martin was the ‘master of disaster’ of his era, and painted many such Biblical scenes of destruction so dramatic, and on such a grand scale, that his canvases would collect audiences in the same way that disaster movies do today. Indeed, Cecil B. DeMille was inspired by his work to make the films which he did, and the artist’s visionary genius continues to influence film makers of our own time. Martin portrays the Almighty as an accusing finger of lightning stabbing down to transform Lot's wife into the famed portion of sodium nitrate. 

Lot and his Daughters, by Hendrick Goltzius, 17th-century. The artist’s treatment of the subject is typical of many: Sodom burns in the background as the two seductively nude daughters ply their father with the necessary alcoholic beverage. Goltzius was by no means the only artist to seize upon the subject as a veiled excuse to portray voluptuous female flesh, but what charms is his inclusion of whimsical details: the scene includes half a wheel of good Dutch cheese, the family’s pet dog (definitely not a part of the original story!), and even an inquisitive fox in the background. 

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