Likened to Noah

RoseAnn Benson

RoseAnn Benson, “Lot: Likened to Noah,” in From Creation to Sinai: The Old Testament through the Lens of the Restoration, ed. Daniel L. Belnap and Aaron P. Schade (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 311‒34.

Among the many narratives of Genesis, one of the more difficult ones to read and understand is that of Lot. Although not many details are given about his early life, his relationship and journeys with Abraham suggest that there is much more to this individual than is often realized. Unfortunately, the text that does deal with Lot exclusively is problematic on a number of levels. Perhaps reflecting these difficulties, how we are to understand or interpret the character of Lot is not provided by the authors or redactors of the narrative. Yet a New Testament tradition exists in which Lot is understood as an example of a righteous man. This paper explores how this tradition may, in fact, be found in the Old Testament itself and how the Joseph Smith Translation provides insight into troubling aspects of the narrative of Lot. —DB and AS

The story of Lot as found in Genesis 11:26 to Genesis 13 and in Genesis 19 describes a complex and seemingly contradictory character. Readers are left with many unanswered questions about the nephew of Abraham and how to interpret the narratives associated with him.[1] On the one hand, Lot chose to move to the cities of the plain, which included Sodom—a city known throughout scripture for its wickedness. First, he pitched his tent facing the city and then moved his family into the city, buying or building a home. According to the Genesis account, when all the men of the city mobbed his home seeking “to know” his guests, he offered his virgin daughters to save the lives of the guests who were under the protection of his hospitality, procrastinated leaving the city when warned of impending destruction, and later, in his drunkenness, unknowingly impregnated his daughters (Genesis 13:10–12; 19:4–8, 15–16, 30–36). Some scholars view these points as illustrating literary forms of poetic justice and irony.[2] On the other hand, the narrative also relates that Lot accompanied Abraham, father of the faithful, from their native land of Haran and through Canaan and to Egypt. Lot was blessed with riches, miraculously rescued by his uncle from foreign servitude, offered hospitality to godly messengers, and then preserved by them from the destruction that devastated Sodom and Gomorrah.

These seeming contradictions in the narrative are evident in both ancient and modern exegesis, as well as in the Joseph Smith Translation. One scholar called these contradictions “fascinating interpretive maneuvers, omissions, inclusions,”[3] and speculations based on their culture and era, allowing the story to be reused and reshaped according to need.[4] What is clear is that by the New Testament era, despite negative associations, at least one tradition concerning Lot recognized his righteous character. Peter referred to Lot as a “righteous man” with a “righteous soul” and mentioned Lot’s preservation in the same pericope as Noah—men both delivered out of temptation so that God could punish the unjust (2 Peter 2:7–9).

Lot has been used as a figure that demonstrates the importance of making correct choices.[5] Associated with the great sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot is depicted as a man who desired to be both worldly and righteous. Specifically, his decision to point his tent toward these two cities and enter into their culture is cited as a notably poor choice.[6] These are useful examples for teaching important principles applicable to choices in life. In contrast, the Joseph Smith Translation and the Book of Abraham[7] provide significant insights about Lot that may support Peter’s pronouncement of Lot as a righteous, godly, and just man who was comparable to Noah, “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). Thus, we can find within the narrative of Lot a man who struggled with his place in the world, who made choices—good and bad—and yet who, at the core, was an individual who sought for and gained righteousness.

The Mission and Journey of Abraham and Lot

Lot’s narrative, in many instances, cannot be separated from that of his uncle Abraham, and often the events of their lives are interconnected. Perhaps unnecessarily at times, negative stigmas are attached to Lot that do not help people recognize the good within his life and the bigger picture of Abraham and Sarai’s lives in general. Some scholars describe Lot as merely a comic foil to the greater Abrahamic narrative, a “tragic buffoon” to Abraham the hero.[8] A closer examination reveals more about the story of Lot, the orphan son of Haran, who is first briefly mentioned in Genesis 11 as part of a larger group that includes Abraham,[9] Lot’s grandfather Terah, and Abraham’s wife Sarai.[10] The Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price adds little to this history, and what we do know is ultimately based on what is said about Abraham. Accordingly, it seems we can include Lot within the basic storyline who was, in some fashion, aligned with Abraham in the city of Ur, where idol worship was part of the inhabitants’ rituals, and where Abraham faced stiff opposition for his religious convictions. At the command of God, Abraham leaves this society: “Now the Lord had said unto me: Abraham, get thee out of thy country, . . . and I took Lot, my brother’s son, and his wife, and Sarai my wife; and also my father followed after me” (Abraham 2:3–4). Although Terah was the family patriarch, significantly, the Book of Abraham points out that Abraham was the patriarchal leader who received revelation and led his family, including taking Lot to Haran, in contrast to the biblical account (see Genesis 11:31). Thus, in the early narrative, we are presented with a Lot who accompanies his spiritual uncle. The small group, which included Lot, stayed for a time in Haran gathering flocks and, apparently, converts to God (see Abraham 2:15; Genesis 11:31–32).

In Abraham 2:6, we are presented with a sense of Lot’s spiritual acumen: “But I, Abraham, and Lot, my brother’s son, prayed unto the Lord.”[11] Although only Abraham received the theophany, it is telling that Lot is included in the request for greater divine instruction. It may only be a small indication, but it suggests that Lot was more than simply a placeholder in the company; instead, he was an individual who recognized the import of what was happening for himself. This greater sense of purpose for Lot can also be found in God’s instruction to Abraham: “Arise, and take Lot with thee; for I have purposed to take thee away out of Haran, and to make of thee a minister to bear my name in a strange land which I will give unto thy seed after thee for an everlasting possession, when they hearken to my voice” (Abraham 2:6; compare Genesis 12:1–3). Although the instruction appears to be specific to Abraham, the phrasing of God’s response in Abraham 2 suggests something significant requiring the accompaniment of Lot and indicates that Jehovah had chosen Abraham and Lot for special purposes—one of which may have included Lot’s bearing witness of God’s name in a land that would become their covenant home.[12]

In obedience to the Lord God’s direction, Lot left Haran with Abraham and Sarai along with the wealth they had accumulated and the souls they had gathered (Genesis 12:5; Abraham 2:14–15).[13] They traveled southward “by the way of Jershon to come to the land of Canaan” (Abraham 2:16). In a personal narrative, “I Abraham, built an altar in the land of Jershon to make offerings unto the Lord and prayed that the famine might be turned away from my father’s house” (Abraham 2:17). From Jershon they continued south toward Sichem[14] and the plains of Moreh in Canaan. Here Abraham built another altar and “offered sacrifice and called on the Lord” because they were in an idolatrous land (Abraham 2:18). In answer to his prayers, the Lord appeared and told Abraham that this is the land his family will inherit. Abraham and his company continued southward to a mountain between “Beth-el on the west and Hai on the east” where he built a third altar unto the Lord, and called again upon the name of the Lord” (Abraham 2:20). It seems likely during this journey that Lot learned how to build an altar, make sacrifices, and call on the Lord for protection. Because of famine in Canaan, the family and those who came with them continued to travel southward toward Egypt, a rich agricultural region due to the annual flooding of the Nile from the water in the highlands in Africa.

At this point, the Book of Abraham adds to our understanding of the company’s activities in Egypt. Whereas the Genesis account describes the confrontational interaction between the Pharaoh with his princes and Abraham and Sarai, the Book of Abraham emphasizes Abraham’s continuing efforts to teach and testify of God: “And the Lord said unto me: Abraham, I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words” (Abraham 3:15).[15] Facsimile 3 suggests that at some point a reconciliation took place between Abraham and the political elite of Egypt, who appear to be among those Egyptians who listened to Abraham’s message. Lot is mentioned in none of this, but Genesis 13:1 makes known that upon Abraham’s exit from Egypt, Lot was among the group leaving: “And Abram went up out of Egypt, he, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the south” (Genesis 13:1). Thus Lot may have engaged in the same teaching and testifying of God that Abraham did, a pattern of behavior that would indicate Lot was a righteous man like his uncle.

Lot’s Settlement in Sodom and Gomorrah

After leaving Egypt, Abraham and Lot went back to the altar in Canaan that Abraham had built between Bethel and Hai, the altar being a sacred place for him to confer again with the Lord. It is at this point that the two narratives of Abraham and Lot separate. Over time, Abraham and Lot had collected a substantial number of “flocks, and herds, and tents” (Genesis 13:2, 5).[16] The hill country of Canaan could not support the numerous flocks, herds, and property of the two men and the native peoples. With a wide expanse of land before them, Abraham suggested they part ways, giving Lot the first choice of land and direction of travel. Lot looked toward the plain of Jordan and noted “it was well watered” and thought it comparable to the “garden of the Lord” and reminiscent of Egypt (Genesis 13:10). Apparently, this area had beautiful vistas and rich pastureland prior to its destruction.[17]

Regarding Lot’s separation from Abraham, some scholars have speculated that it indicated not just geographical but also spiritual distance,[18] noting similarities between this separation and other biblical separations such as Jacob and Esau’s;[19] Lot’s choice of traveling eastward after separating from Abraham is also considered similar to Cain’s traveling eastward after slaying his brother and separating from Adam and Eve.[20] Freitheim maintains, however, “Historically, quarreling among nomads over pastureland and water for their herds was common in that era and that the scriptural account does not lay blame on either man, nor does it regard the separation as unfortunate, but rather as a reasonable way to respond to the situation.[21]

The two men separated, Lot went eastward toward the cities of the Jordan plain—Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zoar—and Abraham went northward to the plain of Mamre near Hebron.[22] The King James Version of the Genesis account reports that initially Lot pitched his tent “toward” the city of Sodom (Genesis 13:12), and, in seeming contrast, Abraham’s tent was always near, if not actually facing the altars he built (Genesis 12:8; 13:18; Abraham 2:17, 20). Newer translations, however, emphasize the location rather than the orientation of Lot’s tent.[23] The text does, however, make a definitive statement regarding the state of Sodom, declaring the community as “wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly” (Genesis 13:13). The Joseph Smith Translation clarifies the nature of society in Sodom: “But the men of Sodom becoming sinners, and exceedingly wicked before the Lord, the Lord was angry with them” (JST Genesis 13:11).[24] Both Old and New Testament prophets elaborated on the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord, railing against false priests and prophets in Jerusalem in the days of Jeremiah, accusing them of adultery, lying, and helping the wicked, concludes his denunciation with this indictment: “They are all of them unto me as Sodom, and the inhabitants thereof as Gomorrah” (Jeremiah 23:14). Ezekiel identified some of the sins of Sodom as the people’s pride, greed, idleness, failure to care for the poor and needy, arrogance, and sexual sins (Ezekiel 16:49–50). Jude deplored one of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah and the nearby cities: their inhabitants were guilty of “giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh” (Jude 1:7).

As noted earlier, this choice to settle in these cities becomes one of the primary evidences that suggest Lot’s weakness of character in later commentaries. In fact, as one rabbinic midrash stated: “He selected Sodom so he can do as they do” (Tanḥuma VaYera 12).[25] While it is possible that such was the case and that there may have been better places to reside to avoid such behavior, the text is silent as to the reasons for Lot’s selection, and as some have pointed out, this silence may be taken either as an indictment or as a mere statement of fact. Indeed, at least one late tradition found in the Qur’an describes Lot as Allah’s “trustworthy messenger” (Sura 26:160–73) who was sent to teach God’s message and warn the cities of divine retribution should they ignore the message (26:208–9).[26] Although this tradition is not present in the biblical text, Joseph Smith, in an 1843 address, appears to have corroborated the Qur’an’s assertion that prophets and messengers were sent and preached to Sodom and Gomorrah: “In consequence of rejecting the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Prophets whom God hath sent, the judgments of God have rested upon people, cities and nations in various ages of the world, which was the case with the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were destroyed for rejecting the Prophets.”[27] While this passage does not specifically state that Lot was one of those messengers, the story in Genesis shows Lot protecting such messengers and demonstrates that, at a minimum, he supported and facilitated their missions.

According to the biblical record, the region Lot chose to live in came under control of the kingdom of Elam for twelve years. In the thirteenth year, however, the inhabitants of the cities of the Jordan plain rebelled against their Mesopotamian foreign overlord—presumably because the inhabitants had failed to pay the required yearly tribute. The attacking Mesopotamian kings were met by the kings and defenders of the cities of the Jordan plain, which included Sodom and Gomorrah. The victorious overlords invaded Sodom and Gomorrah, gathering all their food and riches, as well as capturing Lot and others. His inclusion as part of the spoils suggests that by this time, Lot had become associated with Sodom and Gomorrah on more than a superficial level.[28] Regardless, “when Abram, the man of God, heard that Lot, his brother’s son, was taken captive, he armed his trained men, and they which were born in his own house to pursue northward” (JST Genesis 14:13). While the pursuit is often used to demonstrate the positive character traits of Abraham, it also says much about Lot’s value to Abraham. Though nothing is recorded about the interactions between uncle and nephew following their separation on the plains of Jordan, Abraham’s concern for his nephew is apparent by Abraham’s attempt to rescue Lot. Continued contact between the two may be assumed by the fact that the escapee who tells of Lot’s capture runs to Abraham directly (Genesis 14:13).[29]

The pursuit ends with a nighttime raid at Dan,[30] where Abraham recovered Lot, the women, and other prisoners, as well as all the substance that had been taken. The king of Sodom, the other surviving kings of the Jordan plain who were with him, and Melchizedek, the king of Salem, met Abraham and his army at the “valley of Shaveh, which is the king’s dale,” identified as the confluence of the three valleys southeast of Jerusalem (Genesis 14:17). At this point in the storyline, there are significant additions in Restoration scripture. The Joseph Smith Translation focuses on Melchizedek’s missionary efforts in Salem,[31] and the biblical narrative becomes solely Abrahamic and concentrates on Melchizedek’s blessing, an event that Lot may have been privy to.[32] This is followed by the Lord’s own subsequent covenant with Abraham, the birth of Ishmael, and the promise of Isaac. The covenantal relationship between God and Abraham becomes integral in the Lot narrative because it introduces the judgments of God against Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s right to plead for mercy.

Lot’s Hospitality

Perhaps the most crucial and difficult episode of the Lot narrative is that of the visitation by holy messengers to Lot in Sodom described in Genesis 18. The context of this episode begins in Genesis 17, with a divine visitation to Abraham. In both cases, hospitality lies at the heart of the narrative, and this ultimately may demonstrate the righteousness of Lot. According to Genesis 18, Abraham, resting in the shade one afternoon, looked up and saw three individuals approaching his tent. Running to meet them, he offered hospitality in the form of a meal, rest, and foot washing. Following the meal, the individuals arose and began walking in the direction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

At this point, the Joseph Smith Translation diverges from the biblical account and describes a conversation between Abraham and these individuals while they are journeying toward Sodom:

The angel of the Lord said unto Abram, the Lord said unto us, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is grievous, I will destroy them. And I will send you, and ye shall go down now, and see that their iniquities are rewarded unto them. And ye shall have all things done together according to the cry of it, which is come unto me. And if ye do it not, it shall be upon your heads; for I will destroy them, and you shall know that I will do it, for it shall be before your eyes. And the angels which were holy men, and were sent forth after the order of God turned their faces from thence and went to Sodom. (JST Genesis 18:19–23)[33]

It is in this context that we find Abraham pleading to the Lord to spare the communities mentioned: Abram, “remembering the things which had been told him, . . . drew near to Sodom, and said unto the Lord, calling upon his name,” asking if the righteous would be destroyed with the wicked and pleading: “O God, may that be far from thee to do after this manner” (JST Genesis 18:24–28; Genesis 18:23, 25).

Concerned that both the wicked and the righteous might be destroyed together, the Genesis account reveals that Abraham began to intercede with the Lord. Abraham was able to extract a promise from God that if ten righteous individuals inhabited Sodom and Gomorrah, then the cities would be spared destruction.[34] Satisfied with this promise, Abraham returned to his tent. Again, although Lot’s name is not mentioned, his presence looms over Abraham’s interaction with God. While it is possible that Abraham’s concern for the cities merely reflects his generous and compassionate nature (as Genesis 19 demonstrates), by now, however, Lot was living in the city, and thus the destruction of Sodom would include him. This, in turn, suggests that Abraham’s concern for the righteous to be preserved would mean that he considered Lot to be one of those righteous individuals.

The scene then shifts to Sodom itself, where Lot sat at the city gate, drawing speculation about why he would be waiting there at that time. He invited the holy men into his home upon their arrival.[35] Though this may seem a minor detail, Lot’s sitting at the gate may indicate the location of his home, his standing in the community as a compassionate individual, and the divine communication he received that instructed him to wait there. Later Israelite history associates the judgment of lesser individuals with taking place at the city gate.[36] Consequently, the one who invited a stranger to come in through the gate became the agent by which acceptance was provided.[37] Not surprisingly, considering its function as the place where the stranger became an honored guest, the gate or entrance also marked the place of offering hospitality. As a part of the hospitality process, the invitation to come in transformed the possibly dangerous stranger into an honored guest who was expected to observe the norms of behavior like those of the rest of the family.[38] Thus, like his uncle, Lot is depicted in a favorable setting: offering hospitality to the unknown strangers, including preparing a feast for them. Though some have tried to suggest that the hospitality of Lot is meant to contrast with the hospitality of Abraham,[39] nothing suggests that Lot’s was less than that offered by the patriarch. In fact, if hospitality played as important a role in the life of patriarchs as the above suggests, then it is a primary symbol of Lot’s righteousness and perhaps indicates his active role in establishing righteous behavior in the community. At the very least, his position at the gate may demonstrate the esteem his fellow citizens had for him.

The depiction of Lot as the righteous offerer of hospitality continues even as the very hospitality is threatened by apparently numerous men of Sodom, described as “both old and young, all the people from every quarter,” who demand that the visitors be presented to them (Genesis 19:4). The men “called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them” (Genesis 19:5). According to the text, Lot, upon hearing this demand, steps outside and closes the door behind him, effectively making himself the barrier between the gathered mob and his guests. As such, he stands his ground even when they reject his entreaty to disperse and apparently physically attack him (Genesis 19:9). This unwillingness to cave to the mob while actively standing against their wishes is significant, for what follows is the most difficult part of the Genesis version. Lot pleads that the crowd would not disturb the guests because they are under his hospitality. In their place, he purportedly offers his two unmarried daughters to the mob and says, “Do ye to them as is good in your eyes” (Genesis 19:8).

The proffered exchange is difficult for two reasons. First, it is not exactly clear what the mob is asking for. Clearly, the norms of hospitality are to be broken, but the exact nature of their intent is only indicated by the phrase “to know” the guests. Traditionally, commentators have interpreted this as referring to sexual intent and misconduct since Sodom was associated with homosexual behavior. This seems to work in conjunction with the overall violation of the social norms of hospitality and the proper treatment of guests.[40] Additionally, as biblical scholar Scott Moreschouer suggests, noting the juridical use of “to know” in treaties, the term may be referring to an illegal interrogation in which the inhabitants would rough up the guests.[41] Second, our modern sensibilities recoil at the proffered exchange: young daughters for strangers. Not surprisingly, this element has met with a variety of responses on the part of scholars, ranging from those who suggest this depicts the real Lot as cowardly and weak, while others suggest that it demonstrates the true sacrifices of hospitality.

These difficulties may be assuaged since the Joseph Smith Translation reveals a different view that highlights Lot’s righteousness. According to the Joseph Smith Translation, the original demand by the mob included Lot’s daughters: “We will have the men, and thy daughters also; and we will do with them as seemeth us good. Now this was after the wickedness of Sodom” (JST Genesis 19:11–12). Lot, as one would expect from any righteous father, pleads that the young women be excluded: “I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, plead with my brethren that I may not bring them out unto you; and ye shall not do unto them as seemeth good in your eyes; for God will not justify his servant in this thing” (JST Genesis 19:13–14). In this narrative, Lot is not cowardly or selfish. Instead, he is presented as a man who willingly places himself between a wicked mob and those that are under his protection—his family and guests. Moreover, Lot does not bow to the mob members’ demands but rebuffs them, engendering their anger. In fact, as both the Genesis and the Joseph Smith Translation demonstrate, Lot is saved only by the guests themselves who open the door and pull him inside to safety. This is the contrast in hospitality—Abraham and Lot in contradistinction to the men of Sodom. In this narrative tradition, Lot is no longer a passive individual in the shadow of his uncle but a heroic figure in his own right. Lot demonstrates that he also is a true patriarchal figure.

Lot and His Daughters

Having reconciled this scene, another one immediately appears that is equally difficult to interpret and comprehend. Following the confrontation between Lot and the mob of Sodom, the holy men inquire if there are other family members in the city and warn Lot that the destruction of the city is imminent and that he must get his family out quickly. Lot’s adherence to the directive to warn his family demonstrates his obedience, however, other family members do not believe him. The narrative relates that the sons-in-law think he is jesting, and they refuse to leave. At daybreak, Lot hesitates, perhaps hopeful more of his family will join him.[42] Miraculously, the holy men lead Lot, his wife, and two of their daughters to the outskirts of the city. Lot’s wife, behind him, looks back on the city, even though she is expressly told not to, and dies in the conflagration. The result is the destruction of part of the family.

It may be tempting to view the apparent familial failures of Lot’s family as an indication of Lot’s spiritual inadequacies; however, Lot’s family troubles fit within the parameters of other patriarchal narratives in which the righteous father is not responsible for the behavior of family members. Both Abraham’s son and grandson struggled with interfamily conflict, and Abraham himself dealt with the tension between his two sons and their mothers. As for Lot’s unnamed wife, her demise reflects the complexity and difficulty of the overall narrative. While she does leave with Lot and the daughters, her unwillingness to obey completely leaves the family motherless.[43] And yet the disobedience may be understandable, as many commentators, ancient and modern, have noted that she left that appears to be at least two daughters in Sodom. These daughters are married and perhaps have children; thus, she may have also left behind grandchildren. In this light, Lot’s wife’s decision, while disobedient, is wholly a human one, and this ambiguity has been noted by others who see her demise as fundamentally different from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.[44]

With all that has happened in the story, the final scene may be the most problematic and disconcerting. According to the narrative, following the death of his wife, Lot and the surviving daughters stay temporarily in a small village named Zoar, but they stay only briefly because Lot “feared to dwell in Zoar” (Genesis 19:30). Lot and his two young daughters continue into the hilly region surrounding the Jordan valley, where Lot finds a cave and establishes himself. At this point, it is worthwhile to note that all his flocks, herds, and wealth were gone, his home was destroyed, and many of his family members were dead, including his wife, at least some of his daughters, his sons-in-law, and possibly his grandchildren. All he has left are his two daughters hiding with him in a cave, and he is all the daughters have as well.

These points may be important to keep in mind to establish context for what follows. According to the text, at some point the older daughter states to the younger daughter that “there is not a man in the in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth” (Genesis 19:31) and that they need to “lie with him, that we may preserve alive (nekhayeh) the seed of our father” (Genesis 19:32, translation by Dan Belnap). Over the course of two nights, the two daughters conceive and eventually bear two sons: Moab, whose name means “from my father,” and Ben-Ammi, whose name means “son of my people.” These two become the forebears of the Moabites and Ammonites.

It is possible to see the event as a necessary one, at least from the perspective of the young women. According to the text, they believe that they will never be able to be married and have children. This does not necessarily mean that the daughters are under the impression that they and their father are the only living humans on the earth, although that is what some scholars have suggested. Instead, it may indicate that they recognize the ability to be married and have children is gone. As noted above, Lot is now homeless and apparently lacking any possessions to make a dowry possible. The status that marriage and conceiving and bearing a child confers upon women is displayed throughout the Old Testament, as are the numerous inventive ways in which these women achieve the goal of bearing children. It is possible that the daughters recognize the immorality of their actions, but the extremity of the situation has forced the issue and justifies, in their minds, these actions. The text does not explain their motives, and we are left wondering and grappling for an answer to this unusual incident.

The Hebrew phraseology may provide another interpretation to this event. According to the text, the young women believe they need to lie with their father to nekhayeh the seed of their father. While the King James Version translates this verb as “preserve,” the verb itself is a form of the verb “to live”; thus a more accurate translation could be “preserve the life of.”[45] If it is translated in this manner, then the young women do this not because of their own losses but because they recognize the potential loss of the Lot’s lineage, and therefore take it upon themselves to ensure the lineage of Lot is not erased. This possibility is also not unique in the Old Testament in that women are often depicted as the individuals who take upon themselves the responsibility to preserve the family lineage.[46]

For modern sensibilities, this scene is a difficult one to reconcile, and perhaps it was for ancient audiences as well. Incest was absolutely forbidden to ancient Israelites, who would be hearing the story with this perspective. Additionally, the daughters appear to recognize the moral morass that their acts represent, for the plan is to get their father so drunk that he is senseless and not able to recognize what they do. The plan anticipates that Lot would find their actions morally reprehensible and would not agree to it under any circumstance, thus proving the daughters’ need to get him drunk. The moral reprehensibility of the act is clearly indicated by the Joseph Smith Translation, which states that the young women act “wickedly” (JST Genesis 19:37, 39). Although we never learn the why behind the behavior, the Joseph Smith Translation clarifies that the daughters’ actions are wicked, appearing to demonstrate that Lot is to be understood as innocent in these matters.

In attempting to give meaning to these later episodes, it seems one of the primary observations is that the account is etiological, meaning that one of its chief purposes is to give the origin to a territory or people.[47] In this case, the scene describes the origins of the Moabites and Ammonites, two peoples with whom the house of Israel will interact throughout its history. For example, in Deuteronomy 2, which recounts the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness, the reader learns that they were not to engage with the Moabites: “Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle: for I will not give thee of their land for a possession; because I have given Ar unto the children of Lot for a possession” (Deuteronomy 2:9). The same instruction is given concerning the Ammonites in 2:19. As is clear, the land of the Moabites and the Ammonites is to be respected because the Lord gave Lot these lands, just as he had promised specific territory to Abraham and his posterity. In fact, as one reviews all of Deuteronomy 2, the Israelites were to avoid conflict with all people in lands that had a direct connection to relatives of the patriarchs or to the secondary patriarchs, Esau and Lot. Yet Deuteronomy 23:3 dictates that no Ammonite or Moabite was to enter into the “congregation of the Lord” ever, perhaps reflecting their ambiguous status as outsiders who are nevertheless watched over by God. The enigmatic position that the Moabites and Ammonites have in relation to the Israelites is complicated further by a Moabite becoming what one can fairly say is a preeminent heroine in the Old Testament: Ruth.

Regardless, what the texts do seem to indicate is that Lot acts righteously in many instances and should not be judged according to the actions of his family. He is not complicit with his daughters’ actions, and, as Deuteronomy 2 suggests, the offspring that result from these unions are blessed with land recognized by God as their own. Thus, the offspring stand as evidence of God’s purposes, and perhaps of the righteousness of Lot, suggesting that his righteousness can offset the negative circumstances in which his sons would be born and alluding to the significant part they would play in the future.


As one reviews the Lot narrative, it is impossible not to recognize the ambiguities in the storyline. Clearly, it is set up against the greater narrative of Abraham, in which the latter reflects the ideal. The Lot narrative includes behaviors by Lot and his family that are difficult to reconcile. His choice to associate with the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is questionable, unless as some traditions suggest, he was to be a messenger for God. His lingering in the city after being warned of imminent destruction perhaps reveals a man who recognizes what he must leave behind and regrets, to some degree, having to do so. Finally, Lot appears frozen in mind and spirit in the cave, not wanting to engage with the greater world and perhaps mentally and spiritually traumatized by the destruction of home and beloved family.[48] However, we also witness a man who engages in good, bolsters the ministry of Abraham and other righteous ministers, and works to ensure the safety of his family and the purposes of God. He has imperfections, but this does not qualify him as unrighteous, and we witness in many cases a man trying his best to accomplish great good.

Lot’s narrative is powerful enough that Peter uses it as an example of God delivering the righteous from an evil world (2 Peter 2:7–9).[49] Latter-day revelation has fleshed out this side of Lot even further. The Book of Abraham notes his piety since he is shown praying for direction from the Lord alongside Abraham, and the Joseph Smith Translation notes Lot’s bravery and courage by his willingness to place himself between the assembled mob and his family and guests. Both the Book of Abraham and Genesis suggest that Lot engaged in conveying God’s message alongside Abraham in Egypt, and later traditions suggest that this might have been one of Lot’s reasons for settling in Sodom. It is also telling that he is explicitly called a “just” and “righteous man” who suffered in mind and soul over the wickedness of the people that surrounded him (2 Peter 2:7–8). In this, Lot was comparable to Noah, another great patriarch, Noah. Lot’s “vexation” over the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah may also remind the reader of Christ and Enoch, who both wept because of the wickedness and resulting misery of the people (2 Peter 2:7–8; Moses 7:28–29, 41).

Lot is clearly not Abraham, but Lot was worthy of God’s attention and blessings. Lot’s seed might not have been given the promised land, but they were given a promised land; and while his descendants might not have been the illustrious heroes of the Bible, they did include perhaps the greatest heroine, and they are counted in the lineage of Christ. Lot was not the great patriarch of the Bible, but he was a patriarch—an example of righteous behavior in the face of hostile opposition, great trials, suffering, and loss.


[1] James Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as It Was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 328.

[2] Laurence A. Turner, “Lot as Jekyll and Hyde: A Reading of Genesis 18–19,” in Bible in Three Dimensions: Essays in Celebration of Forty Years of Biblical Studies in the University of Sheffield, ed. David J. A. Clines, Stephen E. Fowl, and Stanley E. Porter (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), 96; Jonathan Grossman, “‘Associative Meanings’ in the Character Evaluation of Lot’s Daughters,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 76 (2014): 46; Berel Dov Lerner, “Lot’s Failed Trial,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 37, no. 3 (2009): 153–56.

[3] Dan Rickett, “Creating an Unrighteous Outsider: The Separation of Abram and Lot in Early Scriptural Retellings,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 76 (2014): 611–33.

[4] Weston W. Fields, “The Sodom Tradition in Intertestamental and New Testament Literature,” in New Testament Essays in Honor of Homer A. Kent, Jr. (Terra Haute, Indiana State University, 1991), 35. For example, the Sodom tradition is found in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Jewish legends, and New Testament.

[5] Neal A. Maxwell, “The Tugs and Pulls of the World,” Ensign, November 2000, 35.

[6] Elder Maxwell also warned, “Brothers and sisters, we do not go many hours in our lives without having to decide again ‘which way do we face’ and whether we will pitch our tents facing Sodom or the holy temple (see Gen. 13:12; Mosiah 2:6).” Neal A. Maxwell, “How Choice a Seer!,” Ensign, November 2003, 99–102. Elder L. Tom Perry noted, “Most of the problems that Lot later encountered in his life, and there were several, can be traced back to his early decision to position the door of his tent to look upon Sodom.” L. Tom Perry, “The Power of Deliverance,” Ensign, May 2012, 94–97.

[7] In the summer of 1830, Joseph Smith began his translation work on the Old Testament, and included in this was an inspired translation that included Lot’s story. Today, the inspired work on the Bible is called the Joseph Smith Translation (JST). The JST of Genesis follows the biblical storyline of Abram, Sarai, and Lot but has some significant changes. Interestingly, the Book of Abraham appears to present Abraham’s life retrospectively, with Abraham always calling himself by that name, and contains only parts of the Genesis account. During the summer of 1835, Joseph Smith came into possession of Egyptian papyri, a copy of the events dating between approximately 150 and 200 BC, and began his translation of the Book of Abraham, which mentions Lot.

[8] George W. Coats, “Lot: A Foil in the Abraham Saga,” in Understanding the Word: Essays in Honor of Bernhard W. Anderson, ed. J. T. Butler, E. W. Conrad, and B.C. Ollenburger (Sheffield, UK: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Press, 1985), 113. See also K. Renato Lings, “Cultural Clash in Sodom: Patriarchal Tales of Heroes, Villains, and Manipulation,” in Patriarchs, Prophets and other Villains, ed. Lisa Isherwood (London: Routledge, 2007), 183–207.

[9] In the KJV Genesis account, the Joseph Smith Translation, and Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, the name Abram is changed to Abraham. In the Pearl of Great Price, Abraham is the only name mentioned. To avoid confusion, Abraham is used in this paper except when direct quotations use Abram.

[10] According to Jewish legend, Haran, the son of Terah and father of Lot, died when he was cast into a furnace with Abraham. Abraham was saved by the Lord, but Haran perished “because his heart was not perfect with the Lord.” Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1975), 1:216.

[11] The Jewish pseudepigraphical text Jubilees purports to give both the prayer of Abraham and God’s response to it. It records that Abraham prayed, “My God, God Most High, Thou alone art my God, and Thee and Thy dominion have I chosen. And Thou hast created all things, and all things that are[,] are the work of Thy hands. Deliver me from the hands of evil spirits who have sway over the thoughts of men's hearts, And let them not lead me astray from Thee, my God. And [e]stablish Thou me and my seed for ever that we go not astray from henceforth and for evermore.” Jubilees 12:19–20. It also records Abraham’s question and God’s answer: “Shall I return unto Ur of the Chaldees who seek my face that I may return to them, or am I to remain here in this place? The right path before Thee[,] prosper it in the hands of Thy servant that he may fulfil (it) and that I may not walk in the deceitfulness of my heart, O my God.” Jubilees 12:20–21.

[12] The word choose is used frequently to designate people and places chosen by God. Although the word choose is not used in this case, the context makes clear that this is what the Lord’s words are implying. Dana M. Pike, “Before Jeremiah Was: Divine Election in the Ancient Near East,” in A Witness for the Restoration: Essays in Honor of Robert J. Matthews, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Andrew C. Skinner (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 33–59.

[13] “Souls” refers to converts to God. Abram had converted the men, and Sarah, the women. Midrash Rabbah, “Genesis” trans. Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman (London: Socino Press, 1939, 1951, 1961), 39:14, 324.

[14] “Sichem” became “Shechem” and was located in the territory given to Manasseh, becoming the first capital of the northern kingdom of Israel.

[15] Through a Urim and Thummim, God revealed to Abraham the hierarchy of the physical universe, a topic of great interest to the Egyptians, and likened it to the hierarchy of the spiritual universe so that Abraham could use it to also teach about God.

[16] Abraham is also associated with gold and silver. Dan Rickett suggests this distinction was added to distinguish Abraham and Lot—Abraham’s narrative being more important, and Abraham himself being more righteous (thus blessed with more). See Rickett, “Creating an Unrighteous Outsider,” 611–33.

[17] Jewish legend identifies the plain of Jordan as the “fruitful Vale of Siddim,” the canals of which later formed the Dead Sea. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:230. Scientists have compared the cellulose of ancient tamarix (tamarisk) trees used to construct the fortress at Masada to the same type of trees growing in the Masada area today and concluded that “the ancient trees enjoyed less arid environmental conditions during their growth compared to contemporary trees in this desert region,” which indicates a “regional climatic change in desert areas.” Dan Yakir, et al., “13C and 18O of Wood from the Roman Siege Rampart in Masada, Israel (AD 70–73): Evidence for a Less Arid Climate for the Region,” Geochimica et Comochimica Acta 58, no. 16 (1994), 3535–39.

[18] Sharon Pace Jeansonne, “The Characterization of Lot in Genesis,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 18 (1988): 125.

[19] Rickett, “Creating an Unrighteous Outsider,” 620.

[20] Rickett, “Creating an Unrighteous Outsider,” 624; Jeansonne, “Characterization of Lot in Genesis,” 125.

[21] Fretheim, “Genesis,” New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 1:433.

[22] Hebron is a later designation. The area was earlier called Kiriath-arba.

[23] For example: “pitched his tent close to Sodom” (Common English Bible), “moved his tent as far as Sodom” (Hebrew Bible in English), or “pitching his tents on the outskirts of Sodom” (New Jerusalem Bible). See also the Complete Jewish Bible, English Study Bible, Jewish Publication Society Bible, New American Standard Bible, New English Translation, New International Version, New Revised Version, etc. This is because the Hebrew preposition ad, rendered “toward” in the King James Version Genesis 13:12, is more correctly translated as “by,” “near,” or “unto.” I am indebted to scholar Dana M. Pike for pointing me to the translation of this Hebrew preposition.

[24] Josephus’s assessment is similar to Joseph Smith’s. At the time Lot chose Sodom, he stated, “which was then a fine city.” Josephus also declared the city’s later status: “The Sodomites grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth; they became unjust towards men, and impious towards God, insomuch that they did not call to mind the advantages they received from him: they hated strangers, and abused themselves with Sodomitical practices.” Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1, 11:1. Rabbinic traditions are also rife with stories about the immoral practices of the people living in these cities. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:247–50.

[25] For more on this, see Jonathan Grossman, “‘Associative Meanings’ in the Character Evaluation of Lot’s Daughters,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 76 (2014): 40–57, specifically 45–46.

[26] In at least one Islamic tradition, Abraham sent Lot as a prophet to the greatest cities of that day, those of the Jordan plains, where Lot lived for forty years preaching repentance to the inhabitants. W. M. Thackston Jr., trans., The Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisa’i (Boston: Twayne, 1978), 2:155.

[27] “History of Joseph Smith,” Millennial Star 20, no. 23 (July 10, 1858): 438.

[28] Josephus states (whether historically accurate or not) that Lot joined in battle with the men of Sodom against Chedolaomer and four other kings who came to confront their vassals. Perhaps this is one reason that some have thought Lot was very involved in Sodom. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1, 9:1.

[29] See Turner, “Lot as Jekyll and Hyde,” 88.

[30] The ancient name for Dan was Laish. Dan was one of Abraham’s great grandsons who received this territory along the Galilee as one of the sons of Jacob (Israel). The use of the name Dan in the text reflects a geographical connection of the day, representative of the event that took place in the then antiquated name of the location of Laish. Such interpolations in the Bible do not negate the historicity of the event, they simply reflect the sharing of the story over time and the superimposing of information to correspond to information of the respective present.

[31] See JST Genesis 14.

[32] The New Interpreter’s Bible suggests that Lot was present and that Abraham by not accepting any of the spoils also refused to “take Lot’s goods and use them (and that of others) for gaining hegemony in Lot’s land.” Because Abraham does not enrich himself with Lot’s land he is not obligated to the king of Sodom. New Interpreter’s Bible, 1:440, 442.

[33] According to Jewish legend, Abraham was informed because the cities marked for destruction were part of Canaan, the land promised to Abraham. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:250.

[34] According to rabbinic tradition, Abraham did not ask for more when the Lord promised he would save the cities if ten righteous souls could be found, because even Noah and the seven other righteous family members were not sufficient to avert destruction by the flood. Abraham may have assumed that Lot’s family with his daughters and sons-in-law would make the number ten and be enough to save the cities; however, though better than the rest of the people in the cities, Lot and his family were far from good. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:252.

[35] According to the JST, Lot is seated at the “door of his house in the city of Sodom,” not at the gate of the city (JST Genesis 19:1; compare with Genesis 19:1).

[36] For instance, in the Ugaritic text of Aqhat, the hero’s father, Danil, is described as one who “sat by the entrance to the gate. . . . He tried the case of the widow, he judged the cause of the orphan.” Keilalphabet ische Text aus Ugarit (KTU) 1.17, v, lines 7–9.

[37] See Carey Walsh, “Testing Entry: The Social Functions of City Gates in Biblical Memory,” in Memory and the City in Ancient Israel, ed. Diana V. Edelman and Ehud Ben Zvi (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2014), 43–60. See also Natalie M. May, “Gates and Their Functions in Mesopotamia and Ancient Israel,” in The Fabric of Cities: Aspects of Urbanism, Urban Topography and Society in Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, ed. Natalie M. May and Ulrike Steinert (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 77–121.

[38] For more on the role of hospitality in the Old Testament, see T. R. Hobbs, “Hospitality in the First Testament and the ‘Teleological Fallacy,’” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 26, no. 1 (2001): 3–30; Scott Morschauser, “‘Hospitality,’ Hostiles and Hostages: On the Legal Background to Genesis 19.1–9,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 27, no. 4 (2003): 461–85.

[39] For example, see Jeansonne, “Characterization of Lot in Genesis,” 126.

[40] Robert Ignatius Letellier, Day in Mamre, Night in Sodom: Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18 and 19, Biblical Interpretation Series 10 (New York: Brill, 1995), 158: “The violation of social norms in the attack on Lot’s house and the integrity of his guests (with the intended sexual violation, of course, inflaming the situation) is already a radical disruption of order in the social fabric. . . . The nature and limits of the rights of sojourners in the ancient Orient are still not well understood, but H. Brunner has pointed out by reference to ch. 22 of the Insinger Papyrus of the Ptolomaic period that these rights in Egypt could be frighteningly fragile. A sojourner could expect to be roughly received by the local populace, could be cursed, rejected and even subjected to the ‘crime of women’ (Egyp. btw n shnt) which means the crime of violating a man as if he was a woman (ie. sodomy) for which no redress was possible.”

[41] Moreschouer, “‘Hospitality,’ Hostiles and Hostages,” 473: “While the term [‘to know’] means here ‘to interrogate’ or ‘to discover,’ such an investigative procedure in the ancient world would have born little resemblance to modern Western concepts of ‘legal rights.’ Official questioning of individuals in the ancient Near East could often be brutal—accompanied by beatings, near-drowning and physical humiliation.”

[42] The KJV Genesis account is not clear whether Lot had two daughters who were married and two who were virgins or whether there were only two daughters who were virgins and betrothed to be married. E. A. Speiser states that the Hebrew can be interpreted in the past tense, they were married (see LXX), or future tense (see Vulgate), were due to marry. “The traditional translation presupposes that two older daughters had to be left behind with their husbands. . . . But the alterative interpretation is by no means improbable.” E. A. Speiser, Anchor Bible: Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962), 140. A rabbinic tradition maintains that Lot’s wife, out of motherly love, looked back to see if her married daughters were following them out of the city. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:255.

[43] A pillar of salt would be a large amount of salt and, rather than acting as a preserving agent, would symbolize the destruction of something harmful. Also, since salt was an integral part of covenant making, perhaps the symbolism of Lot’s wife becoming a pillar of salt represents both her contamination with the ideals of Sodom and the penalty for not keeping her covenants (the salt of her covenants raining down upon her and causing death). The valley in which Sodom and Gomorrah were located was later called the Valley of Salt—a great contrast to Lot’s initial description of the land as Edenic. The ungodliness of the cities, demonstrated by their failure to heed the testimony of Lot, secured their destruction and made the land thenceforth unproductive. Additional scholarly comments in this area include the following: “In ancient treaty texts, salination of the earth is a symbol of judgment.” J. Gerald Janzen, International Theological Commentary: Genesis 12–50: Abraham and All the Families of the Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 64. Salt can provoke “powerful images of death, desolation, and curse.” Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 752. When all is said and done, we do not have all the reasons for Lot’s wife’s behavior. We should leave open the possibility that she had good intentions in attempting to save the lives of her family.

[44] Samuel Cheon, “Filling the Gap in the Story of Lot’s Wife,” Asia Journal of Theology 15, no. 1 (2001): 14–23: “The action of Lot’s wife is qualitatively different from the wrongdoing of the Sodomites; the story does not intend to describe her as a wicked woman, but instead, to portray through her limitations of human abilities.” Elder Holland appears to recognize the ambivalence here as well. “Apparently, what was wrong with Lot’s wife was that she wasn’t just looking back; in her heart she wanted to go back. It would appear that even before she was past the city limits, she was already missing what Sodom and Gomorrah had offered her. . . . It is possible that Lot’s wife looked back with resentment toward the Lord for what He was asking her to leave behind. . . . So it isn’t just that she looked back; she looked back longingly. In short, her attachment to the past outweighed her confidence in the future. That, apparently, was at least part of her sin.” Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Best Is Yet to Be,” Ensign, January 2010, 22, 27.

[45]חיה” in Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, and M. E. J. Richardon, eds., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2000).

[46] See Camille Fronk Olson, “The Matriarchs: Administrators of God’s Covenantal Blessings,” in this volume.

[47] Jonathan Grossman, “Association Meanings,” 43–44.

[48] Speiser, “Genesis,” 142–43.

[49] Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, eds., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 279.