Abraham’s nephew Lot plays a surprisingly large role in the Genesis narrative. The son of Abraham’s dead brother Haran, Lot tags along with Terah, Abraham, and Sarah when they leave Ur in Chaldea to set out for Canaan. Unlike Terah, who settles in Haran, Lot continues to the land of promise. Once there, Abraham’s herdsmen quarrel with Lot’s and they have to separate. Abraham magnanimously lets Lot choose where he prefers to settle, and Lot goes south toward Sodom, which is well-watered like the garden of Yahweh. When Lot is captured during a war of five kings against four, Abraham rescues him.
Lot drops out of the story for a few chapters, but we anticipate that he’ll find himself in trouble again. The narrator tells us the Edenic territory around Sodom is filled with men who are “wicked exceedingly and sinners against Yahweh” (Gen. 13:13). The clamor of their wickedness rises to heaven, and the Lord sends two angels to determine whether or not the city is as bad as it appears. When Yahweh reveals what he intends, Abraham negotiates for mercy to protect his nephew. The angels can’t find even ten righteous men in Sodom, and the Lord rains fire from heaven after whisking Lot and two of his daughters to safety. Lot’s story ends in a cave, where his daughters make him drunk and have sex with him so they can continue the family line through their sons Moab and Ammon.
Lot is in part a player in Abraham's life story. In his initial call, Yahweh commands Abraham to leave his father’s house and his relatives. That command is only partially fulfilled when Abraham leaves his father Terah behind at Haran, since his nephew journeys with him. As Jonathan Grossman notes (in Abram to Abraham), Abraham completely leaves his father’s house only when he separates from Lot. Further, Abraham’s story is a quest for an heir, and for a time Lot plays that role. After Abraham separates from Lot, Eliezer of Damascus, who isn’t a blood relation, becomes the heir. Yahweh eventually fulfills his promise by giving Abraham two sons of his own, first Ishmael and then Isaac.
But Lot’s story has a tragic coherence of its own. Lot is a wealthy man, with so many flocks and tents that they can’t pasture alongside Abraham’s. He settles in a fertile valley, and becomes a prominent citizen of his adopted town. When the angels arrive, he’s seated at the gate, where ancient judges set up court (Gen. 19:1). Yet he loses everything—flocks, tents, servants, home, wife, married daughters and sons-in-law. He ends in a tomb-like cave, drunk and duped into incest.
Grossman highlights subtle details of Lot’s story that indicate his marginal place betwixt and between as a life-long fence-rider. Genesis 19:1 is ambiguous. It may mean Lot is sitting at the gate, but could also imply he’s dwelling in a house near the gate. Like Rahab in Jericho, Lot is “associated with the city” without being an insider.
When the angels arrive, Lot presses them to come to his house, where they’ll be safe from assault. The angels don’t have to do any investigating. As soon as they enter Lot’s home, the men of Sodom “young to old, all the people, to the last person” (Gen. 19:4) gather at Lot’s door, demanding to see Lot’s guests so they can sexually assault (“know”) them. As Grossman puts it, “The Sodomites offer themselves for judgment, and unwittingly step into their own trial.” Lot’s position at the doorway of his house is crucial to the scene. He steps out to confront the mob and closes the door behind him, but the men of Sodom press him back and try to break down the door. Lot is squeezed between the men and the door until the angels reach out to pull him to safety. As Grossman says, the door “separates the townspeople from the angels,” forming a symbolic boundary between the wicked residents and the few righteous within. The men of Sodom want to breach this moral boundary and engulf the last righteous home.
Throughout the scene, “Lot stands at the threshold and has to determine where he belongs.” He opposes the citizens of Sodom with enough determination that they want to attack him and accuse him of passing judgment on them. But it’s never altogether clear which side of the door Lot wants to be on. To protect his guests, he makes the appalling suggestion that he send his daughters out the door: “You may do to them as you please” (Gen. 19:8). He wants to leave the city so that its evil doesn’t stick to him, but Grossman suggests it’s too late: “Some of Sodom’s evil seems indeed to have stuck to Lot.” He hesitates to leave, and the angels must pull him to safety.
Even if Lot is mostly on the side of the angels, he hasn’t taught his household the ways of justice. He can’t convince his sons-in-law to leave, and his wife looks longingly back to the city and is turned to salt. This shows the distance between Lot and Abraham. The Lord chooses Abraham so that he will lead his house in justice. Lot left his homes in Ur and Haran, but he isn’t ready to leave Sodom. For all his good qualities, for all his hospitable righteousness (2 Pet 2:7), Lot is more deeply enmeshed in Sodom than he appears. He is a man at the doorway, a Janus who turns this way and that. He may be a just man, but for the author of Genesis that’s not enough. A truly just man forms a just family.
With Abraham, God creates a new kind of human, a man who is willing to leave his past to follow the Lord to an unknown land, a man who is willing to sacrifice his future in the confidence that the Lord will restore it. Genesis encourages us to mimic the faith of Abraham, but it also includes Lot as a foil. Lot’s life teaches us that tragedy isn’t always the result of a single titanic wrong. It can be the product of a series of small misjudgments and missteps, of hesitation at the doorway.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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