It’s Just His Lot in Life (Gen. 19)

Lot, Lot, Lot. Where to begin? I’ve always been particularly fascinated with the character of Lot in Genesis. I’m not exactly sure why, but perhaps it’s because he always seems to be on the margins of the story. And perhaps because he has a lot of tragedy befall him. Ryan already has a nice post on Lot, so I’m not going to replicate any of that–but I did think that I could make one more interesting post.

My question (and bad pun) is: Is what happens to Lot just his (ahem) lot in life? Or is there something else at work here?

You may remember, as Ryan explored, that poor Lot’s wife got turned into a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:26). And then the guy somehow gets tricked by his daughters into sexual intercourse when he’s plastered (yes, daughters who want to “preserve seed of [their] father” (Gen. 19:31-33)).

Anyway, many historians and scholars have come up with an explanation for much of Lot’s life for etiological reasons. In this context, “etiological,” if you’re not familiar, is a fancy word for saying “the reason for the whole story.” It’s a bit more complicated, than that, sure, but the point is that many old, traditional stories in the long past–and across many cultures–did not serve to just explain historical record. “Historian” and “history” as we think of it today didn’t really exist. Rather, many narratives were passed down and/or written down to teach people something, or to explain how the world got to be the way it did. These narratives we call “etiological.” If it helps, think of many of the Greek myths or Native American stories you probably read in school — many of these were “etiological.”

So getting to the application here to Lot: you may remember the text in Genesis makes it a point to tell us that the two kids–product of Lot’s incest–turn out to be the founders of Moabites and the Ammonites (Gen. 19:37-38). Why is this? And who were the Moabites and the Ammonites? History (real historical research, that is) tells us they were tribes whose language was similar to the ancient Israelites, but who carried on in a variety of different ways. So suggesting that they are the products of incest, is, in the words of scholar James Kugel, “a nasty swipe” (How to Read the Bible, p 130).*

So maybe it wasn’t just Lot’s lot in life that made all these things seemingly happen to him. Admittedly, these historical theories are just that, theories, but it is well-known and well-established by much historical evidence that the purpose of many ancient stories of this kind was not historical record, but etiological. And this reason seems as good as any.

*This kind of thing will turn up eventually in the New Testament, too, actually, when followers of Christ try to swipe at their competitors.

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