Va-Yera – A Tale of Two Dinners

Where we left off, Abraham and Ishmael had just been circumcised, accepting the covenant with God. The following chapters (summary after the break) paint a complex story of punishment, of two men’s relationships with God, and how sometimes a weaker man can do more than a strong one.

This story also marks a turning point: The first time that a man (Abraham) argues with God and wins. It is also the moment where it appears that God’s vision of justice begins slowly to turn from the clan- or family-based justice to individual justice. It won’t get there until the Book of Ezekiel, but it’s a good start. More on that in the next post.

But what do you say about a man who selflessly puts his own butt on the line (rather literally) while trying to save a group of strangers from a rape gang? If he’s Lot, you call him a buffoon.

More after the break…

While Abraham is camped out near Mamre, he is visited by three figures. These figures, the reader knows, are God and two angels. Abraham, ignorant of their divinity but still a good host, prepares them a feast of cakes and the meat from a young calf. Once the meal is completed, God tells Sarah that she will have a son the following year. She is awfully old and so laughs at this, but God scolds her.

While the two angels march on ahead, God tells Abraham that he will be destroying Sodom and Gomorrah because their “sin(s) (were) so grave”, but Abraham argues with him saying that God should not punish innocent men for the sins of the guilty. Step by step, Abraham causes God to agree to spare the city if fewer and fewer good men are there. First fifty men, then forty, until finally Abraham settles at ten: if ten good men are in the city, the whole city will be spared.

Meanwhile, the angels arrive in Sodom and find Lot sitting at the gate. Like Abraham, Lot does not see their divinity, but still offers them a rest in his house rather than the city. The ageless refuse; they want to stay in the square. Eventually, they relent and Lot makes for them a feast of unleavened bread. Before long, the house is surrounded. All the men of Sodom have gathered outside so that they may “be intimate” (rape) the men. Lot defends them and even offers his virgin daughters to the rapists, but they only threaten to rape Lot as well. As the situation reaches a climax, the angels pull Lot back into his house and blinds the attackers. The angels agree to spare Lot and his family from the imminent destruction, but as dawn breaks his sons-in-law and their wives refuse to leave, causing Lot, is wife, and two remaining daughters to flee alone.

But Lot is a coward of a sort. He doesn’t want to have to live off the land. He’s an urbanite. He pleads with God to spare the town of Zoar so that he has some place to live. God agrees and the family runs, with a final instruction to not look back. But Lot’s wife looks back and is turned to salt as flames engulf the whole surrounding land.

The story continues, but that’s a good a place as any to stop. And what do we have? Two separate meals by two key Genesis figures: Abraham and Lot.

Abraham’s meal is a feast. He has freshly killed meat. He has cakes — leavened bread product — and he has some nice shade trees for God to relax under. It’s a good life in the countryside and God obviously approves. Abraham is far enough away from the “big city” that he is not subject to its sins, while still being close enough that it’s within “walking distance” for God and a few angels. This is yet another indication that God prefers the rural shepherd lifestyle in Genesis versus an urban or even agricultural life. (See also: Cain, Babel, etc.)

Lot isn’t a city dweller – he met God outside the gates, but he likes being pretty close to the action. (And in Sodom, you have to wonder what kind of action that is.) And you get the impression that he’s steered travelers towards his humble abode before, knowing the pitfalls that can consume a stranger to the city. Lot offers a more paltry meal of unleavened bread, but he more than makes up for this by offering lodging and then his subsequent willingness to sacrifice two of his daughters to the mob to save strangers. This may be the best that Lot is ever portrayed in the Bible. He’s foolish for living so close to a hornet’s nest, but he’s absolutely selfless when he needs to be. Except for the moment when the mob almost overwhelms him and he is saved by the angels, he’s practically a hero. (Except to his daughters, but they’re not exactly right in the head… as we find out about shortly.)

This may be evident even in God’s listening to both of them.

Abraham argues with God and manages to save absolutely no one. Had there been 10 good men, he could have saved them all, but there were not.

Lot argues with God and manages to save an entire town. He doesn’t do it by using reason, as Abraham did, but something akin to cowardice. And still, God rewards him when he doesn’t reward Abraham.

You could read this as if God is taking pity on Lot. He gets a town almost out of shame. And most commentaries I’ve seen really have a dim view of Lot’s role here. But I like to think that Lot is being rewarded for his bravery and selflessness. Abraham was many things, but he was also a man that was twice willing to put his wife in harm’s way in order to save himself. Lot is putting his daughters in danger to save a stranger and in the calculus of the time, that says quite a lot. If this is a test of hospitality, Lot wins hands down, cakes or no.

I’ve searched several commentaries for anyone that had anything nice to say about Lot’s sacrifice and I can’t find it. Rashi makes a few excuses, even to the point where he states that the only reason Lot was waiting outside the city in the first place was because Abraham had sent a messenger ahead. Other commentaries I have simply call him a “buffoon” and state that God was going to save him all along anyway, so the whole mess with risking his neck for some angels was irrelevant.

So, since no one else seems to want to say it: Lot, good job. Too bad your daughters will rape you in the next chapter.

Up next: Justice in the Bible

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