In Deuteronomy God wants to be perfectly clear with Moses that Yahweh has a covenantal relationship with Lot’s descendants and that their lands are to be respected. In other words, God condones the incestuous actions of Lot’s daughters which resulted in the two nations being given ancestral lands east of the Jordan. More than matriarchs of great nations, the daughters are also depicted as the ancestors of Ruth through whom the Davidic and Messianic line flows and Naamah, the Ammonite wife of King Solomon, mother of Rehoboam, King of Judea. Indeed, Lot and his daughters appear to hold an illustrious place in biblical history right alongside Abraham, Sarah and their descendants. As modern readers, we are challenged by this inference and must return to the story of Lot and his daughters to consider more carefully the nuances of this incestuous tale.
It is easy to emphasize the mythic quality of the story and categorize it with the Greek myths where divine incest is the prerogative of the gods. However, the biblical setting of this story is not on the summit of Olympus but a human city which is situated geographically. The actors are human (for the most part) who react to the circumstances in very mortal ways. Insisting that the Bible is merely a collection of myths dismisses the book as being somehow less relevant. We were meant to identify with these narratives and these characters. If we see them as far away and nothing more than distant legends then we shy away from internalizing them and finding meaning for our own lives and lessons for our time.
As you may recall, Lot and his family settled in the wicked city of Sodom after parting ways with Abraham (Genesis 18). Two strangers (who are actually angels) arrived and Lot invited them home as his guests. The lusty men of Sodom demanded that the strangers be handed over to them for sexual purposes. Lot tried to negotiate with the mob outside of his door–“How about my two virgin daughters instead?” Before the daughters are thrown into the street, the two angels blind the horde of men and thereby save the ineffective Lot from physical harm as well as his daughters.
A number of commentators and the rabbinic tradition posit that Lot had four daughters, two married who died with the rest of Sodom and two who where virgins and later impregnated themselves with their father’s seed.
“The term used to refer to the sons-in-law, hatan, can also be translated ‘future sons-in-law’ or ‘bridegroom.’ It is best to conclude that the narrator wants the reader to assume that these men are the betrothed of Lot’s virgin daughters since no other wives are indicated” (Jeansonne, p.38).
If indeed Lot only had two virgin daughters then he “commits a crime against these (future) sons-in-law” (Jeansonne, p.38) since patrilineage depends upon maintaining a daughter’s virginity intact throughout the process of transferring sexual proprietary rights from the father to the husband. “Since the daughters are betrothed (19:14), and since the rape of a betrothed woman is a crime punishable by death (Deut 22:23-27), Lot’s actions could have implicated him as an accomplice” (Rashkow, Phallacy, p.81). In terms of biblical law, Lot is depicted as a reprobate.
Most of the male commentators I consulted exonerate Lot because he held to the higher standard of hospitality, a tendency also noted by Bellis (p.79). They buttress their argument by pointing to the story of the Levite who threw his concubine to the crowd to be gang raped (Judges 19). They thereby conclude that it was generally recognized that the rules of hospitality superseded all other social rules. Suffice it to say, the text does not excuse such behavior, nor is there a hint anywhere in the Bible that such would be the case under any circumstance.
Whether or not Lot had two or four daughters the angels urged Lot to leave Sodom as soon as possible. His daughters’ grooms/husbands scoffed at Lot which indicates that he had little respect within his household or the community. After much hemming and hawing on Lot’s part, the family finally escapes Sodom leaving behind Lot’s future sons-in-law. Overall, “Lot is portrayed as an insincere, self-centered individual who is disrespectful to God’s angels, exploits his daughters’ welfare, and is a procrastinating dweller in a sinful city… Clearly he is not portrayed sympathetically” (Jeansonne, pp.39-40).
After Lot’s wife is turned to salt for looking back at the smoldering city of Sodom, Lot and his daughters eventually found themselves alone in a cave. (Symbolically, the mother was looking away from the incestuous activities.) Though the daughters cry out that there are no other men left in the world except their father, clearly they are exaggerating. “The NIV attempts to capture the intent of the Hebrew in modern idiom: ‘there is no man around here to lie with us, as is the custom all over the earth” (Davidson, p.431). En route, the truncated family passed at least one inhabited village so they understood that the world had not been depopulated. The daughters must have been aware that Uncle Abraham and other family members are “out there somewhere.” Perhaps they would be interested in a first cousin (Esau? Isaac when he gets a little older?) or relations back in Haran where Isaac will later get his wife? Isolated as well as impoverished with no dowry to entice a husband, they may have felt that they had no other choice but to take advantage of their father.
What puzzles me though is the daughters’ stated goal to “preserve offspring through our father” and thereby prevent their father’s line of heredity from dying out. Did the daughters worry about their father’s lineage back in Sodom? If they had married the local boys back home, their children would have been attributed to their husbands’ family line, not their father’s. And after the way he treated them, why are they suddenly concerned about their father’s lineage? I have to conclude that they were interested in maintaining a lineage separate from the rest of the family and not necessarily for their father, although he might take the credit. If God can promise Aunt Hagar and Aunt Sarah that great nations would rise up from their offspring, is it possible that Lot’s daughters felt entitled to the same promise? And what better way to maintain control over the family line than not having husbands but a father who can be easily manipulated?
The daughters took turns getting their father drunk and having intercourse with him. “Remarkably, the drunken Lot is still virile enough to meet his daughter’s [sic] requirements,” (Tonson, p.105). Again, most male commentators absolve Lot of any wrongdoing because he was unaware of the proceedings. Given the way that he has been depicted previously, his lack of “knowing” when his daughters “knew” him is more likely another poke at the hapless fellow. After victimizing his daughters by offering them to the Sodomite mob, it’s the females’ turn to violate their father. The daughters “control their father’s sexuality and direct it toward their will…Lot is made drunk and is every bit as helpless as they were when he offered them to be gang-raped by the male citizens of Sodom” (Streete, p. 28). This role reversal of taking control of their father’s sexuality is “patriarchy caricaturing itself” (Fewell/Gunn, p.58).
The daughters have the last laugh by then naming their sons from the sexual unions with their father “Moab” meaning “from my father” and “Ben-ammi” meaning “son of my (paternal) kindred.” The “unashamed naming of their sons to proclaim their actions” (Tonson, p.110) supports the interpretation that we are to understand the daughters’ behavior as heroic and perhaps darkly humorous as well.
Jackson argues that the writers of the story of Lot’s daughters were intent on turning the patriarchal world upside-down by parodying it.
“[M]en were seen as fools for behaving as if they were in total control, and women were valued for motherhood and also for their intelligence, courage, inventiveness, creativity… They become mothers of nations and foremothers of royalty. Precisely in choosing to take their jabs at the patriarchal system, these biblical writers question the base assumptions of the social order and envision a completely inverted reality… It is possible, then, that the writers of the patriarchal narratives were, indeed, the first feminist theologians” (Jackson, p.46).
Positioning the daughters within the trickster typology we can read them as subversive players in the narrative, in the same way that Tamar the daughter-in-law of Judah seduces him. “Through this comic reading, one may catch the transcendent vision of the narratives, glimpsing the truly subversive and liberating message of the so-called ‘patriarchal’ narratives” (Jackson, p.30). When we view Lot’s daughters in the context of trickster mythologies, we can see glimpses of a God who plays, who subverts the status quo, who offers the opportunity to dream a new kind of reality (Jackson, p.45).
As neat and tidy as it would be to emphasize the “revenge of the weak” side of the story and conclude that the daughters were the true power players of Genesis 19, there are a number of reasons to be suspicious of this interpretation. For ease of understanding I will numerate some of the hidden agendas brought to my attention by feminist scholars:
1) Note that the story of Lot’s daughters, like most women’s stories in the Bible, revolve around the production of progeny. “The righteousness for which women are rewarded with the messianic seed is that in each case they focus on the production of an heir… from Lot’s daughters to Ruth and Naomi, the women of the Exodus generation, the midwives, and Miriam” (Fonrobert). And they are praised for producing not just any heir, but a male heir. “In these stories women act and trick only to preserve and enforce their function as mothers, and more than that, as mothers of sons” (Fonrobert). The narratives portray women as no more than the conduits through which the male line flows.
2) In all the legal texts outlining illegitimate sexual unions, virtually every female family member is off-limits to the men of the family. “Conspicuously, the only one not included is the daughter” (Rashkow, Daughters, p.28). In other words, if a woman already belongs to another man, then she is sexually prohibited from sexual use from another man (Herman, p.61). Although there is no legal prohibition against father-daughter incest, and the text does not condemn the daughters’ behavior, one suspects that there is a pejorative element to the sexual liaisons based on the slanderous names the daughters give their sons.
Thus “the story also served well the interests of patriarchal ideology for it is the (unnamed) daughters who are depicted as the initiators and perpetrators of the incestuous act… By presenting the females as the instigators of the incestuous union, the story reversed the more probable scenario, for daughters were more likely to have been the victims rather than perpetrators of incestuous unions with their father. By holding the daughters responsible the author shifted the blame onto the female characters. Interestingly, the biblical text refrains from any negative judgmental comment on the daughters’ act, and their transgression of incest taboos goes unpunished, no doubt because they were deemed to have acted in the interests of patriarchy by seeking to ensure (albeit through the most unorthodox means) the continuation of their father’s lineage” (Davies, pp.74-75).
3) There is some debate in feminist circles about the implications of the near gang rape of Lot’s daughters. Some believe that the description is meant to shock the reader into condemning the reprehensible incident. “Others believe it is indicative of the extremely low status of women in ancient Israel. There is probably truth in both positions. Lot was no hero” (Bellis, p.79).
4) The way that the narrative glosses over atrocious events as “unfortunate but necessary for the good of the ‘hero’… The reader is lured into identifying with an actant whose actions might otherwise be condemned as unethical. The focalization in each fabula makes it unambiguously clear that the protection of male honor takes precedence over the lives of virgin daughters” (Tapp, p.170). By presenting the hideous events in passing, the reader is encouraged to “overlook” the allusion to virgin daughter sacrifices and see Lot’s offer to the men of Sodom as legitimate.
If the Bible is read uncritically, then stories such as Lot’s daughters will promulgate a negative cultural script for women. And as gratifying as it is to see the women of the Bible as powerful actors committed to making a better future for themselves and the following generations, we distort the truth of the narratives by neglecting their “hidden agendas.” A reading that focuses only on retrieving the subversive voices of the narrative neglects the androcentric context in which these voices originate. We have the opportunity to entertain both readings simultaneously. In the end, the matriarchs and the patriarchs are dramatized as equally flawed and valiant, and therefore as human as we are.
For Further Reading
Brenner, Athalya – “On Incest” in A Feminist Companion to Exodus to Deuteronomy, (Series 1), Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 6. (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994) 113-38.
Davidson, Richard M. – Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2007)
Davies, Eryl W. – The Dissenting Reader: Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible (Aldershot, Eng.: Ashgate, 2003)
Fewell, Danna Nolan and David M. Gunn – Gender, Power, and Promise: The Subject of the Bible’s First Story (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Fonrobert, Charlotte Elisheva – “The Handmaid, the Trickster and the Birth of the Messiah: A Critical Appraisal of the Feminist Valorization of Midrash Aggada,” in Current Trends in the Study of Midrash, Carol Bakhos,ed., Supplement to Journal for the Study of Judaism 106,(Leiden: Brill, 2006) 245-277.
Herman, J.L. and L. Hirschman – Father-daughter incest: A clinical study: final report (National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape, 1978)
Jackson, Melissa – “Lot’s Daughters and Tamar as Tricksters and the Patriarchal Narratives as Feminist Theology,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 98 (2002), 29-46.
Jeansonne, Sharon Pace – The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar’s Wife (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990)
Lasine, Stuart – “Guest and Host in Judges 19: Lot’s Hospitality in an Inverted World” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29 (1984) 37-59.
Matthews, Victor H. – “Hospitality and Hostility in Genesis 19 and Judges 19” Biblical Theology Bulletin 22 (1992) 3-12.
Reinhartz, Adele – “Why Ask My Name?” Anonymity & Identity in Biblical Narrative (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998)
Rashkow, Ilona N. – “Daughters and Fathers in Genesis… Or, What is Wrong with This Picture?” in A Feminist Companion to Exodus to Deuteronomy, Athalya Brenner, ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994) 22-36.
Rashkow, Ilona N. – The Phallacy of Genesis: A Feminist- Psychoanalytic Approach. Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Streete, Gail Corrington – The Strange Woman: Power and Sex in the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997)
Tapp, Anne Michele – – “An Ideology of Expendability: Virgin Daughter Sacrifice in Genesis 19:1-11, Judges 11:30-39 and 19:22-26” in Mieke Bal, ed., Anti-Covenant: Counter-Reading Women’s Lives in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield, Eng.: Almond, 1989) 157-74.