Some Background First
First a few thoughts on Abraham as a historical person inspired exclusively from Introduction to the Hebrew Bible Second Edition.
“In fact, the stories of Genesis do not lend themselves easily to historical analysis. As Hermann Gunkel saw clearly, at the end of the nineteenth century, they belong not to the genre of historiography but to that of legend.” pp. 89
Regardless of their historical value, the tales of the patriarchs remain powerful as stories. In large part this is because like all good folklore, they touch on perennial issues, such as jealousy between a woman and her rival (Sarah and Hagar) or rivalry between brothers (Jacob and Essau). Many of the stories are entertaining – Abraham’s ability to outwit the pharaoh or the gentle story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24. Others are tales of terror, in the phrase of Phyllis Trible – the command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son, or Lot’s willingness to to sacrifice his daughter’s to the men of Sodom. When the stories read as Scripture, they become more problematic because of a common but ill-founded assumption that all Scripture should be edifying. The stories of Genesis are often challenging and stimulating, but they seldom if ever propose simple models to be imitated. pp. 93
The stories of Genesis are old. Legend has it that Moses was the author, but scholars now believe this isn’t the case. Rather there have been several sources producing multiple stories. These stories originated orally, passed down over a long period of time before they were eventually recorded, intertwining much of these stories into the one we have recorded today. I’ll leave it at that.
I prefer to read these as folklore. I prefer to read them as stories about ancient views of God rather than about God directly. I know there is real evil in the world, but I think we often miss context and I hold onto the view that we would view individual circumstances with a lot more compassion if we really knew the full story. For example, I’m not sure any city deserves genocidal destruction as is described in this story.
Abraham and Lot
In addition to the commentary mentioned above, I’m also using the Jewish Study Bible, which has some amazing commentary that really enriches the reading of this story. From that, I’ll quote extensively.
In Genesis 13, Abraham and Lot travel out of Egypt into Negeb. They were both rich, having a lot of “flocks and herds and tents” and so the land they occupied could not sustain them both. In their interaction, time and time again, Abraham shows himself to be the more generous, tolerant and forward looking of the pair. Abraham offers Lot the choice of the land, and Abraham would make do with second best.
From the commentary on page 30:
Abram is characteristically generous and conciliatory, offering Lot the first choice of land. Lot, by contrast, is self-interested and immediately selects what he mistakenly takes to be the best. The narrator’s comparison of his portion to the garden of the Lord, a place of disobedience and curse, and to Egypt, a place of exile and oppression, suggests the short-sightedness of Lot’s choice. His settling near the archetypal sinners of Sodom contrasts with Abram, who faithfully remained in the land of Canaan.
Immediately after selecting the land near Sodom, the land is engulfed in war and Lot is imprisoned. Abraham immediately rescues him. Which immediately shows Lot’s choice to be the riskier, but Abraham rescues his nephew as an act of courage and compassion.
In Genesis 18 and 19, both Abraham and Lot are visited in succession by visitors from the Lord. In Abraham’s case, the experience ends up with Abraham being told that Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed. Abraham, again with grace, compassion and an extreme amount of gumption, negotiates with God pleading for passion and mercy, eventually getting God to agree to save the cities if ten righteous people could be found there.
In Genesis 19, the messengers visit Lot. The commentary:
19.1-3, The contrast between Abraham and Lot (discussed above, on ch 13) continues. Whereas Abraham sees the Lord (18.1), Lot sees only His two angelic attendants (19.1). Whereas Abraham runs to greet his visitors (18.2), Lot only rises (19.1). Whereas Abraham offers a sumptuous feast (18.6-8), Lot offers unleavened bread (19.3)
10. Lot’s passivity is patent and contrasts with Abraham’s daring challenge to God’s justice in the previous chapter (18.22-33). Gen. 19.29 will make it explicit that Lot’s escape is owing not to his own deeply irresolute character, but to God’s reliable commitment to Abraham. 14. Wherease Abraham, taking the impending destruction with the utmost seriousness, functions prophetically in hopes of averting the catastrophe, Lot is taken for a buffoon even by his own sons-in-law and cannot save them.
Lot’s weakness and inconstancy would have done him in, had it not been for the Lord’s mercy on him (v.16). His weakness and self-interest, however result in the sparing of one town. (v18-22), whereas Abraham’s audacious and principled intervention (18.22-33) proved unable to save anyone.
So, as we all know, God eventually destroys the region, Lot’s wife is turned to salt, Lot’s daughters bear sons from his father (believing the world had ended with them as the lone survivors).
Lot’s heart I think is good, but he is weak and self-interested. Abraham acts with more depth, graciousness and compassion. When there is conflict over land, Abraham offers Lot the first choice. Lot chooses superficially, seeing the natural beauty and resources, but missing the risks of trying to live in a hotly-contested, occupied land rich in natural resources. He is almost immediately captured in war. And then eventually loses everything when the entire region is destroyed because of the wickedness of the people there.
Abraham, by contrast, remains in the land promised him by God. He is quick to recognize God’s messengers. Quick in hospitality. Quick to think and act compassionately, trying to prevent destruction.
I’m not sure this story is really about obedience. Rather, it’s about kindness, compassion, wisdom, and understanding. Lessons that are learned over a lifetime of struggle, study, searching and growth.
I’m wondering if it would have been possible to save Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m wondering how the story would have been different if Lot had chosen to remain in Canaan forcing Abraham to find another place. Would Abraham have chosen Jordan? Would he have done better in finding ten righteous people?