By Israel Drazin
The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that was published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere. This week’s essay is from VAYEIRA (Chapters 18:1–22:24)
Two radically different approaches to interpret the Bible
Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
God tells Abraham that He will destroy the cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, and nearby towns because they are wicked. Abraham beseeches God to spare them.
We can read this episode literally or figuratively. Reading it literally, raises many problems: Why does God feel compelled to reveal his plans to Abraham to destroy the wicked cities? What does God want Abraham to do? Why does Abraham beg God to change His mind? Is Abraham’s concept of God as the just ruler of the universe so defective that he actually thinks God is acting improperly? What is the meaning of the strange dialogue between God and Abraham? Can one argue with God? Can people change God’s mind?
If the story is meant to be understood figuratively, there are still two problems: Does God represent the laws of nature? What is the story saying?
A Midrash tries to solve some of the problems raised by a literal interpretation: “Rabbi Hiyya said, ‘The Almighty informs the righteous in advance so that they may call the wicked to repent and thereby avert their decreed punishment’.… When the Sodomites sinned, He revealed His resolve to Abraham so that he might plead in their behalf” (Kasher, Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 30).
Should we take this midrashic statement literally, that God speaks to the righteous? Does God want people to disagree with the divine decree? Do prayers work? If they work, will they work when praying for others, even wicked people?
The following is an interpretation of the literal reading. Abraham was not questioning God’s justice. He knew that God would not punish righteous because of the deeds of the wicked. He was just trying to delay the punishment in order to give the righteous people enough time to have a good effect upon the others—to improve the moral climate of the evil cities. He felt that even ten good people, who were involved in the community life, could achieve these salutary results (see Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Pentateuch, Genesis, pp. 324–29).
A figurative interpretation would see Abraham thinking about the laws of nature and asking why bad things happen to good people. However, this chapter gives no solution. In fact, we soon see Abraham, a good man, suffering in various ways.
Angels visiting Lot
Many commentators suggest that the “men” who visited Abraham in chapter 18 were divine angels.
This is a second example where we can accept the text literally or figuratively. If we understand that angels are heavenly beings, there are problems: Why did God need to send angels? Couldn’t He do what He wanted Himself? Does God need assistants? If we accept the figurative approach, how do we interpret the story?
Maimonides did not think that there are heavenly beings that help God, for God needs no help. He writes that “angels” are the forces of nature that carry out the divine will. The wind and rain are angels. So too are humans when they act properly. The story could be understood as Lot recognizing the evil of people of the area and that they are oblivious to rumblings that could result in an earthquake.
In chapter 19, Lot, Abraham’s nephew, extends the two men who visit him proper hospitality. Enraged by this, the evil city inhabitants attempt to molest the strangers. In Genesis 19:5, there is an intimation that the townspeople who plot to harm the strangers want to commit acts of homosexuality with them. Lot offers his daughters to the rabble, rather than allow them to assault the strangers in Genesis 19:8.
Is the Bible conveying an abhorrence of homosexuality here? There are people who argue that some of the biblical laws applied only to the past, and were designed to wean people away from brutal, even primitive practices, but the Bible intended that these laws should not be observed in the future. They cite as examples the laws concerning slavery, rape, and the captive woman. This is one way to interpret this story: the Bible is not condemning homosexuality.
Many people reject this idea that the Torah contains laws that it expects people to develop. They say that acceptance of this view can lead to the abandonment of laws that should not be abandoned. They are right. There is danger. But should people refrain from acting because of danger?
Pillar of salt
Commentators on Genesis 19:17 suggest different reasons for the “angels’” instruction to Lot and his family not to look back at the destruction of the wicked cities.
They were not worthy to see the punishment of the Sodomites (Rashi).
The angels did not want Lot to grieve for the loss of his sons-in-law (Rashbam).
The destructive force was going to spread, and if they tarried, it could claim their lives (Sforno).
Why weren’t Lot’s sons-in-law saved, as were the daughters-in-law of Noah in Genesis 7:7? Is there an inconsistency? Does Genesis Rabbah help us by suggesting that Lot’s daughters were only engaged and not married? Did the authors of Genesis Rabbah know what actually happened, or are they simply offering a rationale that is purely speculative?
Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt in Genesis 19:26. Some sages take the tale literally and suggest that she received a “measure for measure” punishment, since she refused to give her guests salt with which to flavor their food.
Is it possible that the description of the pillar of sale is a metaphor: the area is known for its salts, and the Torah may be saying that because she tarried, she was killed by the fires and became a heap of salt in the area, like everything else there?