Derek Leman’s Daily Portion today comments on the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis 19. Here are his comments:
The contrast between Lot’s seeming riches and Abraham’s humble wealth continues. Abraham remains the migrant owner of flocks in the dry steppe land while Lot is the city dweller in a well-watered place. Lot has risen to some status, sitting in the city gate of Sodom. As in Genesis 18 Abraham virtually compelled visitors to accept hospitality, so does Lot. Something of his virtue remains in spite of the wickedness of this city and its vain worship of comfort and ease.
For their part, the angels have come to verify the wickedness of the city. Sarna interprets the intended rape as a policy of the town to molest all wayfarers and prevent new people from coming to the rich town and sharing its goods. The town’s crimes include violence, sexual assault, and failure to protect travelers in their gates.
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah becomes one of the Bible’s most repeated themes. Westermann (Genesis 12-36, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981) suggests that in looking at all later biblical references, there were multiple versions of the Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim destruction story. Alternate versions have been lost but hints of them remain in biblical allusions.
Was Lot’s offer of his daughters real or was it a hypothetical one intended to shame the violent townsmen? There is a parallel story in Judges 19:15-21, when a Levite and his concubine came to the Israelite town of Gibeah. Westermann compares the events: arrival of the guests, attack and repulse of the attackers, demand by attackers, householder offers his daughters, repulse of attack by guests. The difference in the Judges story is there were no angels to resolve that situation. So the woman in Judges 19 was gang-raped and killed.
In the Sodom story, Lot’s offer (whether real or hypothetical) is dismissed. The miraculous intervention of the angels alone saves them. Lot thought he had become a respected citizen, but his neighbors still resent him as an outsider. The city dwellers have a prosperous, easy life and they fiercely protect it, with brutality to any who dare come for hospitality.
The theme of urban vs. rural life has a purpose in the theology of Torah. The attraction of gathering into large population centers is self-reliance which does not breed faith or justice. We band together as humans to increase power. Yet our responsibility as a human race is not power, but justice. The problem is not the city, per se, but the way we use our collective power. The Torah endorses hospitality, social justice, and love as alternatives to the pursuit of wealth and power for their own sake.
Meanwhile, the angels announce coming destruction and Lot tries in vain to save his sons-in-law. The lure of city life — this story’s theme — prevents them from wisdom. Even Lot is so reluctant to leave his wealth and ease in the city that the angels must take hold of him and force him to leave. Lot begs to be allowed to settle in another small city, which would have to be spared by the angels from the coming destruction. He cannot imagine life in the desert hills. Westermann comments on the significance of this story in the Abraham cycle: “Abraham becomes a witness of the destruction of cities . . . the promise of blessing for the peoples has its line of demarcation in God’s action as judge, the ‘peoples of the earth’ remain exposed to disasters.”