Commentary on Parashat Va-ye’ra

Bettijane Eisenpreis

By Bettijane Eisenpreis

They had not yet lain down, when the townspeople, the men of Sodom, young and old – all the people to the last man – gathered about the house. And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.”

Genesis 19:4-5

My mother-in-law came home from Temple one Shabbat extremely disturbed. “Some of those stories in the Torah are terrible – full of obscenity and violence,” she said. “I don’t think they should teach them to children.”

At the time, I thought her extreme reaction was amusing, but every time I get to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, I’m not so sure. Take the passage above. I only quoted a tiny part of it, because it gets worse. Lot, the so-called hero of this episode, answers the men of Sodom by offering his two virgin daughters to be raped instead of the male visitors, who were angels or messengers from God. Some hero!

From the beginning of the Abraham story, I have never thought much of Lot. We first meet him when he and his uncle Abraham are traveling from their home in Ur of the Chaldees toward Canaan, as the Lord has commanded Abraham. After many wanderings, they reach Canaan but their herdsmen start to argue. Rather than have a full-fledged family feud, they decide to split up. Abraham gives Lot first choice of where he wants to settle, and Lot chooses the land that includes the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Time passes and we get to the passage quoted above. When Lot refuses to let the men “sodomize” (origin of the term) his guests, they threaten to destroy Lot instead. The messengers rescue Lot and tell him that God is going to destroy Sodom and he should pack up his family and get out immediately, which Lot does. Lot’s wife turns back to look at the city and is turned into a pillar of salt. As if that isn’t enough, Lot’s daughters decide that the whole world is being destroyed and it is their duty to repopulate the earth. So they get their father drunk on two successive nights and lie with him to get themselves pregnant.  One becomes the progenitor of the Ammonites and the other of the Moabites. But neither they nor Lot seem to be punished for amoral behavior.

Women don’t do very well in this story. Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for disobeying God’s command. Lot’s daughters get their father drunk and then sleep with him. Between the people of Sodom, the women of Lot, and Lot himself, this story leaves a thoroughly bad taste in the mouth. So why study it?

“Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it,” the sages say of the Torah. “Everything” means good and bad, blessing and curse. These are the stories of a people struggling to be born. Distasteful or not, they must be precious to us. They are our stories!