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Sodom and Gemorra

 

The story of Sodom and Gemorra is found within a moderately lengthy section of the Torah that seems at first glance to contain multiple topics.  In actuality, these topics are all very much related – and this is indicated by the fact that they are contained in one “paragraph”.

  

A Torah paragraph is different from the paragraph of modern literature, and is indicated in a Torah scroll by letter spaces at its beginning and end.   This paragraph can be considered to be more in the way of a theme or chapter heading.  This particular paragraph contains 61 sentences and begins with God appearing to Abraham in chapter 18 and ends with Lot’s daughters committing incest with their father at the end of chapter 19.

 

 All the topics within this paragraph relate either directly or indirectly to the theme of “righteousness and justice” practiced by Abraham.  

This also constitutes an important mission statement for the Jewish people and is therefore worth reviewing in some detail.  The topic is first raised in this paragraph as follows: 

“And YHVH said:  Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing?  And Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation and all the nations of the earth will be blessed though him.  For I have a relationship with him so that he might command his children and his household after him to keep the way of YHVH, doing righteousness (tzedaka) (צְדָקָה) and justice (mishpat) (מִשְׁפָּט), so that YHVH might bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken of him. (Genesis 18:17-19)

 

A question that could be asked at the outset – is what does the Torah mean by the words “righteousness (tzedaka)צְדָקָה)) and justice (mishpat) (מִשְׁפָּט)”?

On a societal level, to practice “justice” means to have in existence a judicial system.  On an individual level, it means to adhere to the rules and regulations set by this judicial system.  An example of this that is discussed much later in the Torah is the use of honest measures for trade: 

“You shall not commit a perversion in justice (bamishpat) (בַּמִּשְׁפָּט) in measures of length, weight or volume.” (Leviticus 19: 35)

 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch defines justice as “…..  something that a person has the right to demand from another”.1  In other words, it is a societal right to demand equitable justice.  Whether engrained in law or a function of convention, justice provides the framework by which a society functions. 

 

In modern Jewish usage, “tzedaka” (righteousness) is usually thought of as a voluntary charitable or benevolent act.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch defines it as: “something that no man has the right to demand from another, but which God has given everyone the justification to expect.”1  Hirsch’s definition is no doubt an attempt to distinguish between the obligatory nature of justice versus the voluntary aspect of righteousness.  However, it is by no means clear that this distinction exists, since in its Biblical sense tzedaka (righteousness) is not always discretionary.  This is evident from the following passage from Deuteronomy which discusses a specific non-discretionary act of righteousness:

“When you lend your neighbor any manner of loan, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you are lending shall bring the security to you outside.  And if he be a poor man, you shall not sleep with his pledge; you shall surely restore to him the pledge when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his garment, and bless you; and for you it shall be an act of righteousness (tzedaka)צְדָקָה) ) before YKVK your God.” (Deuteronomy 24:10-13)2

 

Perhaps, therefore, a better definition is “social justice” as proposed by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sachs. 3  Another definition that includes within it the possibility of obligation is - the morally right thing to do.

 

In effect, the combination of “righteousness and justice” constitute the full spectrum of moral activity within a society.  Mishpat or justice is often framed in the Torah as a negative prohibition, whereas tzedaka or righteousness is usually a positive command aimed at preventing injustice.  This is evident from the following verse:

If you take your neighbor's garment as security, until sunset you shall restore it unto him; for it alone is his covering, it is his garment for his skin; in what shall he lie down? So that it will be, if he cries (yitzak) (יִצְעַק) out to Me, I shall listen; for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:25-26)

 

As can be seen from the above, injustice is the mirror image of righteousness (tzedaka), since the purpose of the latter is to prevent injustice.  Nevertheless, there is clearly a spectrum with respect to injustice.  The absence of tzedaka may lead to no more than a person feeling disappointed at how he or she is being treated by the world.  At the other extreme, the victim may cry out at the injustice to which he or she is being subjected.  At this point, crying out (tze’aka) and righteousness (tzedaka) constitute polar opposites of each other. 

 

This is here a form of wordplay – tze’aka and tzedaka, in that these two words sound very similar and differ by only a single letter.  Nevertheless, the fact that this is a word play should not detract from the seriousness of the situation.  When the cries of humanity penetrate the portals of heaven, God cannot remain silent. 

“You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan.  If you cause him pain! —for if he shall surely cry out (tza’ok yitzak) (יִצְעַקצָעֹק ) to Me, I will surely hear (shamo’a eshma) (אֶשְׁמַע שָׁמֹעַ) his outcry (tza’akaso) (צַעֲקָתוֹ).  My wrath shall blaze and I shall kill you by the sword and your wives will be widows and your children orphans. (Exodus 22:20-23)

 

There is also another wordplay here with word repetition.  If the stranger, widow or orphan “surely cries out” (tza’ok yitzak)  (literally crying out, he will cry out), then “I shall surely hear” (shamoa eshma) (literally hearing I will hear).4  This is again a way of emphasizing the seriousness of the situation.

 

Someone involved in tzedaka or righteousness is usually thought of as being a tzadik.   In modern Jewish usage, the word tzadik is often thought of as someone possessing a high degree of piety.  Abraham will soon be arguing that God would be failing to show justice if He sweeps away the “tzadikim” (plural of tzadik)” at the same time as the wicked living in Sodom.  But what exactly does the Bible mean by the term tzadik?  

 

In effect, there seems to have been a shift in meaning for this word that post-dates the Bible.6  In the Bible, the word tzadik may mean no more than a state of innocence.  This is evident from the following passage from Deuteronomy:

When there will be a grievance between people and they approach the court and they judge them, and they vindicate the tzadik (צַּדִּיק) (the innocent one) and find the wicked one guilty.  It will be that if the wicked one is liable to lashes …. “ (Deuteronomy 25:1-2)5

 

Similarly, King David said about the murderers of Ishboshet, the son of Saul, who was his rival to the throne of Israel: 

 

“How much more, when wicked men slew a righteous person (tzadik) in his own house, upon his bed, shall I not now require his blood of your hand, and take you away from the earth?” (Samuel 2 4:11)

 

David is by no means implying that Ishboshet possessed extreme piety.  Only that he was innocent of any crime that would justify the death penalty.

As the following sentence indicates, God is the absolute moral authority in all matters of righteousness and justice:  

………. to keep the way of YHVH, doing righteousness (tzedaka) (צְדָקָה) and justice (mishpat) (מִשְׁפָּט) ………. (Genesis 19:19)

 

As pointed out by Hirsch - “to keepthe way of YHVH” has two meanings. It is the way of God that He takes, and that which He wishes us to tread.”1 

 

However, this notion will now be challenged – and by none other than God Himself!

 

Negotiating the fate of Sodom 

 

The negotiations between God and Abraham regarding the fate of Sodom occupy ten sentences, whereas they could easily have been summarized in fewer sentences.  Why the wordiness?  Space in Genesis usually indicates importance.  The Torah is imparting here an invaluable message to Abraham and his descendants.  

 

But what is it?  

 

This passage reads as follows:

 

“And Abraham came forward, and said: 'Will you also sweep away the righteous along with the wicked?  What if there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep away and not spare the place (לַמָּקוֹם) for the sake of the fifty righteous within it?  It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked letting the righteous and wicked fare alike; it would be sacrilege to You; shall not the Judge of all the earth not do justice?'  And YHVH said: 'If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the entire place (הַמָּקוֹם לְכָל) for their sake.'   And Abraham answered and said: 'Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes.  What if the fifty righteous lack five; will You destroy all the city for five?' And He said: 'I will not destroy it, if I find there forty five.'   And he continued to speak to Him, and said: ’What if forty would be found there.' And He said: 'I will not do it for the forty's sake.'   And he said: 'Oh, let not my Lord be angry, and I will speak. What if thirty would be found there.' And He said: 'I will not do it, if I find thirty there.'   And he said: 'Behold now, I have taken upon myself to speak to my Lord. What if twenty would be found there.' And He said: 'I will not destroy on account of the twenty’.'   And he said: 'Oh, let not my  Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once. What if ten would be found there.' And He said: 'I will not destroy on account of the ten.'  And YHVH departed when He had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.” (Genesis 18:23-33)

 

At first glance, the Bible seems to be emphasizing that God does indeed exercise justice, and the wicked city of Sodom will be saved so as to prevent the death of innocent people (tzadikim) provided there are sufficient of these people within the city.   This is the interpretation of the majority of Biblical commentators.  Yet one is left with a certain discomfort with this conclusion.  From the perspective of justice, what difference does it make whether there are more or less than ten righteous people?  Does not justice demand that one innocent person be deserving of the same consideration as ten?

 

There is another fundamental question that could be asked about the beginning of this section.  Why did God even consider it necessary to include Abraham in His deliberations regarding this city?

And YHVH said:  Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing? ……” (Genesis 18:17)

 

A number of suggestions have been proposed by the commentators to this question.  Rashi suggests that since ownership of the land of Canaan had now been bestowed upon Abraham in the previous chapters, it would have been inappropriate of Him not to have informed Abraham that he was about to destroy some its inhabitants.7  Sforno takes a very different approach.  He suggests that God was demonstrating His Goodness to Abraham and that He was prepared to save the entire city if there was a chance that the few remaining righteous people would lead to the city’s repentance.8 

 

This idea of Sforno warrants much deeper probing.  

 

Abraham is usually credited with disseminating the concept of monotheism.  However, the religious innovations of Abraham encompass much more than this:

 

  •  Abraham appreciated that the universe has a Creator.  In the Bible, this Creator is called Elohim. 

  • Abraham appreciated that not only did God create this world but that He is involved with the world He created.  To further this involvement He wishes to engage in relationships.  This aspect of God who fosters relationships with individuals, and subsequently with the Jewish nation, is known in the Bible as YHVH.

  • Abraham also realized that His relationship with God can only evolve if he follows God in practicing righteousness and justice.

 

The first two of these discoveries were almost certainly made in Mesopotamia.  This is why YHVH was able to say to Abraham:

“Go from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

 

It is unlikely that this call to Abraham came out of the blue.  Throughout much of his life, Abraham must have been striving for a level of personal perfection that would enable him to communicate with a God Who is involved and not remote from His universe.  Now at last he had received a message from YHVH, the aspect of God involved in relationships.  And because he had been searching for this level of spirituality, he was able to respond immediately to God’s request and make his way to the land that God would show him.   

 

This is also why God is able to say about Abraham:

 

For I have a relationship with him so that he might command his children and his household after him to keep the way of YHVH, doing righteousness (tzedaka) (צְדָקָה) and justice (mishpat) (מִשְׁפָּט), so that YHVH might bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken of him. (Genesis 18:19)9

 

Abraham’s progeny are to practice righteousness and justice and to build a nation based on these two attributes.  Moreover, an overriding principle guiding their practice of righteousness and justice will be that it is “the way of YHVH”.   This way must be that which God approves of and exemplifies, since He is the paradigm for all ethical behavior.  

 

Nevertheless, until this time Abraham had surmised the righteousness and justice of God.  What if in reality God’s actions lacked these two attributes and the world proceeds without them?  YHVH would now be no different from the multitude of pagan deities whose control over nature lacks any semblance of righteousness and justice.  At this moment, God had delivered a bombshell to Abraham about Sodom, and as a result the entirety of Abraham’s belief system was now hanging in the balance.  One can almost feel his anguish as he asks of God: 

…..   it would be sacrilege to You; shall not the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18:25)

 

Nevertheless, it is suggested that Abraham was mistaken.  These negotiations were not meant to challenge Abraham’s faith but to strengthen his belief in a God who practices righteousness and justice. 

 

But how so?

 

Looking at the text, it can be seen that Abraham begins his plea for the tzadikim (righteous/innocent) of Sodom with two requests:

  • That the innocent not be swept away with the wicked. 

  • That the city of Sodom be spared if there are 50 or more righteous people in the city in order to spare them.

 

Abraham’s focus is on the injustice that would be done if so many righteous people were to be swept away.  For the sake of these righteous people, justice demands that the city be saved:

 

…   Will You indeed sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of (lema’an) (לְמַעַן) the fifty righteous within it? ………  And YHVH said: ‘ If I find in Sodom fifty righteous people in the midst of the city, then I would spare the entire place because of them (ba’avuram) (בוּרָםבַּעֲ) .” (Genesis 24-  

 

However, a careful reading this passage shows that God does not really answer Abraham’s concern but swings the conversation around.  God’s focus is as much on the fate of the city of Sodom as the righteous within it.  This is because if there are sufficient righteous people, this has the potential to change the city and its propensity to evil.10

 

There are a number of stylistic indicators that justify this interpretation:

  • Whereas Abraham uses the word “lema’an” (לְמַעַן), which has the connotation of purpose and means “in order to” or “for the sake of the fifty righteous within it”, God uses the word “ba’avuram” (בַּעֲבוּרָם).  Ba’avuram (בַּעֲבוּרָם) can have the same meaning as lema’an (“for their sake”), but can also mean “on their account” or “because of them”.11

   

  • Whereas Abraham initially talks about “sparing the place,” God talks about saving the “entire place”. 

 

  • Abraham discusses the righteous being “bikirbam” (within it [the city]), while God talks about “betoch ha’ir” (in the midst of the city).  For God to save the city, its righteous inhabitants need to be embedded within it. 

  • Abraham’s initial focus is on the number of righteous people that are about to be destroyed.  What about 5 less than 50 people, he asks? God’s concern, however, is less about how many less righteous people would suffice to be worthy of being saved, but about how many righteous people need to be in the city for it to be saved: 

 

And Abraham answered and said: 'Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto YHVH, although I am but dust and ashes.  What if the fifty righteous lack five; will You destroy all the city for five?' And He said: 'I will not destroy it, if I find there forty-five.” (Genesis 18:27-28)

 

From this point on, Abraham accepts God’s emphasis rather than his own.  Both he and God now talk only about the number of righteous people that need to be within the city for it to be saved.

 

When they reach to the number ten, the conversation is terminated.  The presumption must be that both parties are satisfied with the results of their negotiations.  Nevertheless, the question remains - why is it that fewer than 10 righteous people do not justify saving the city, whereas more than 10 do?

 

The answer must surely be that the number ten is a body or congregation of people that can have an impact on a city and bring about change.

 

None of the points raised here regarding the role of the righteous in Sodom are conclusive on their own, but in combination they present a persuasive argument that God has indeed shifted Abraham’s perspective and that Abraham has accepted this.  Ten righteous people provide hope that the city can yet change its ways.  Without ten righteous people ensconced within the city the situation is hopeless.

 

With this dialogue, God has demonstrated to Abraham that He does indeed run His world with the attribute of justice.  Abraham’s faith remains intact.  But more than this.  He has also shown to Abraham that His conduct of justice is intricately bound up with His attribute of righteousness.  God’s runs this world with both justice and tzedaka (righteousness).   And because God is the model for all human behavior, it follows that Abraham and his descendants should also interact with the world around them with righteousness combined with justice. 

 

But back to our original question.  What if it turns out there are only a few innocent people in the city, what of their fate?  In effect, God does not provide an answer to this question.  One has to accept that God has His own calculations.  Since He has the capability of saving an entire wicked city, one must take it on faith that He also has the ability of taking care of the righteous within it.  It may be that in certain situations God’s justice justifies sweeping them away together with the wicked.  However, it is also within His powers to save them from destruction – just as He will do with Lot.

 

History is now moving on.   Until now, the story of Abraham has focused on a single couple – Abraham and his wife Sarah.  In a year from hence, Abraham will have a son from who will develop a nation: 

 

“And Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation and all the nations of the earth will be blessed though him. (Genesis 18:17)

 

This nation, the Jewish nation, is to be a nation that exemplifies God-modeled “righteousness and justice”.  This is in contrast to Sodom and the other cities of the Jordan plain in which there is oppression, the very opposite of righteousness, and a distorted approach to justice.

A paradigm of contrasts

 

Many of the stories in the book of Genesis have their own distinct literary style, a point discussed in previous chapters.  The style of this paragraph is one of thematic contrasts.  These contrasts are found within the paragraph itself, and there also obvious contrasts to prior and later chapters in Genesis. 

 

A very obvious contrast is between the righteousness (tzedaka) of Abraham and the absence of righteousness and justice in Sodom.  

 

The story begins with Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent during the heat of the day:

 

“And YHVH appeared to him at the oaks of Mamre and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.  And he lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold! Three men were standing before him; He saw, and he ran towards them from the entrance of the tent, and bowed down to the ground.  And he said: 'My lords, if now I have found favor in your sight, please pass not from before your servant.  Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline under the tree.  I will fetch a morsel of bread that you may nourish your heart; after that you shall pass on; inasmuch as you have passed your servant’s way. 'And they said: 'So do as you have said.'  And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said: ‘make ready quickly three se’ahs of unsifted flour, sifted flour, knead it, and make cakes."  Then Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the youth who hastened to prepare it.  He took curd and milk and the calf which he had made and placed these before them; he stood over them beneath the tree and they ate and they ate. ……..   And the men arose from there, and looked out toward Sodom; and Abraham walked with them to send them off.”  (Genesis 18:2-16)

 

There is an idea brought down by Rashi,13 and which is initially found in the Talmud,14 that Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent searching for passing visitors to whom he could extend hospitality.  However, this is by no means explicit in the text.  Rather the Bible says that the three men he noticed “were standing before him”.  This raises the possibility of an element of need.  They were travelling in the heat of the day and could have been approaching the groves of Mamre for shade.  It was therefore a morally appropriate gesture for Abraham to invite them into his tent so they could refresh themselves and partake of some refreshments.  Note, however, that Abraham not only performed an act of righteousness (tzedaka) but embellished it.  

 

All of Abraham’s efforts for his guests described here demonstrate his consideration for their comfort and how special they were to him.  He downplayed initially what he was going to do for them, but then went far beyond what he said he was going to do.  Common practice is to do exactly the opposite - to impress everyone regarding how much one intends doing, but in actuality to do very little.  Abraham mobilized his entire household - his wife and his servants - to provide for his guests.  The words “hurried” or “ran” are mentioned three times.  He personally served them rather than leaving it to his servants.  And as they were leaving, he escorted them from his tent to demonstrate how special they were to him.   

 

Abraham had no ulterior motive for treating them this way.  He did not know them beforehand and it is unlikely he would ever meet them again.  They were almost certainly pagans.  Abraham could have well argued that now that he was circumcised and had a special relationship with God, his acts of tzedaka should be confined to members of his own household.  Yet nothing was further from his intentions.  His tzedaka was for everyone in need who showed up at his tent.  

 

A very obvious contrast is intended here with the people of Sodom.  Lot is at the gate of the city and notices the two men/angels.  It is evening and he promptly offers them hospitality for the night.  The angels initially refuse, but under his urging enter his home.  This immediately arouses the ire of the people of Sodom:

 

But before they had yet laid down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, converged upon the house, from young to old, all the people from every quarter.  And they called to Lot, and said to him: 'Where are the men that came to you tonight?  Bring them out to us, that we may know them.  . ……  “ And they said: 'Stand back.' And they said: 'This one came to sojourn, and he acts as a judge; now will we deal with you worse than with them.' And they pressed sore upon the man, upon Lot, and drew near to break the door.”  (Genesis 19:4-9)

 

The two angels had come to Sodom to make an assessment – were there more than ten righteous people in the city to justify it being saved?  If there were not, Sodom and Gemorra would be destroyed.  In fact, the text makes it very clear that there were not ten righteous people in the city.  There was not even one!  

 “All” the males of the city, young and old, and from all ends of the city had converged upon Lot’s house to protest what he had done.

 

But why was this objectionable to God?  

 

Comparing the Jews of his time to the people of Sodom, Ezekiel has this to say about the former city of Sodom:

“Behold this was the iniquity of the your sister Sodom; she and her daughters had pride, excess of bread, and abundance of idleness, and yet she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49)

 

This all enables us to make the following presumptions.  The people of Sodom were well off.  They lived in a rich and fertile plain.  They saw it as their civic duty to keep all strangers out of their city in order to preserve the quality of their lives.  If they were to encourage hospitality or help out the poor, even more indigents would come to Sodom.  Therefore, anyone in Sodom attempting to offer assistance to strangers or the poor was immediately molested.  And the poor and distressed received no assistance.  No wonder then that the “cry” of persecution from within Sodom had come to God’s attention.   

 

However, not only is tzedaka (righteousness) missing in Sodom, but there is also a breakdown of civic order and justice.

 

The men of Sodom complain that Lot “is now acting like a judge.”  This could be a reaction to Lot’s comment to them to “not act wickedly” (Genesis 19:7).  It could also be that Lot has been engaged in providing judicial activities for the city.  The Bible mentions that “Lot was sitting at the gate of the Sodom” (Genesis 19:1) when he saw the two angels and invited them to his home.  In ancient times, the gate was the place where communal activities of the city took place, including judicial ones.

 

Where or not this was the case, a collapse of justice was imminent.  The men of Sodom were on the verge of perpetrating violence against Lot and his guests.  

 

The men of Sodom demand from Lot that he “Bring them (his guests) out to us, that we may know them” (Genesis 19:5).  To “know them’ is to have sexual relations with them.  They wanted to sodomize his guests.  But why would they want to do this?  Perhaps they wished to use his guests for their sexual gratification?  But Lot now offers his daughters to them (which was clearly inappropriate) and they discard his offer.  In any case, it is difficult to see how an entire city could satisfy its sexual lusts on two strangers.  The matter must be deeper than this.

 

More likely is that their demand to sodomize Lot’s guests was not for their sexual pleasure but as means of domination.  In effect they were saying to his guests - now that you have deigned to come into our city we are going to take over your physical being in its totality and do with you as we please.  

 

Righteousness and justice are closely linked moral virtues.  When one collapses, there is a likelihood the other will too.  The absence of righteousness has ramifications and one of these is the possibility of lawlessness within society.

 

There have been countries that have elevated homosexuality to the highest form of love, the love between two males.  But this was not the homosexuality of Sodom.  Rather, it was a form of sexual perversion unique to the Canaanites.  This is no doubt why it is already mentioned early in Genesis when describing the beginnings of Canaanite civilization:

 

“And Noah, man of the earth, began and planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk; and he uncovered himself within his tent.  And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness, and told his two brethren outside.  And Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and the walked backward, and covered their father’s nakedness; and their faces were turned backwards, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done unto him. And he said: Cursed is Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” (Genesis 9:20-25)

 

This is a puzzling passage since it is far from clear who did what to whom.  It would seem that Ham, the youngest of the sons of Noah, perpetrated some disgraceful act on their father - and yet Ham’s son Canaan is cursed.  But Ham seems to have done no more that gaze upon his father’s nakedness.  Why then Noah’s curse?

 

Rabbinic sources suggest that Ham had homosexual relations with his father, or even castrated him.15 Cassuto agrees that Ham could have sodomized his father but suggests that it was not Ham’s son Canaan who was cursed by Noah but the Canaanite people of whom Canaan was the ancestor.16  

 

As discussed by Cassuto, the Bible would appear to be suggesting that the values of a nation are often present at its very beginnings and these values are carried throughout the generations.  This is true for Canaan with respect to sexual perversion.  And it will also be the case for Abraham’s son Isaac with respect to righteousness and justice. 

 

Where was God?

 

The opening sentences of our paragraph are puzzling.

 

And YHVH appeared to him in the grove of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.  And he lifted up his eyes and saw: And behold!  Three mean were standing before him.” (Genesis 18:1-2)

 

The problem is an obvious one.  God appears to Abraham, but then nothing further seems to happen and the story moves on to describe the appearance of three men.  It is as if God appears for no purpose.  He also receives no homage from Abraham, whereas Abraham bows to the ground in submission when three men appear.  

 

A well-known midrashic explanation is that God was paying Abraham a sick call and this would explain the lack of any movement in the story.  In the previous chapter, Abraham and his household underwent circumcision.  It must be, therefore, that this was the third day from this procedure and God came to wish Abraham a speedy recovery.17  When the three men appeared, Abraham excused himself from God’s presence.  There is a lesson to be learnt from this – hospitality to one’s fellow takes preference even over being together with God.  Nevertheless, this explanation is far from explicit in the text. 

 

Maimonides suggests that whenever the Bible describes God appearing it is always within the context of a dream.18Abraham’s dream is about the appearance of God and the details of this vision are the arrival of three men in the heat of the day.  Nachmanides, however, argues strongly against this suggestion.19  How could it be that all the characters engage in very real life activities such as eating, laughing and debating?  Moreover, it is difficult to understand how Sarah could be involved in this story if this was all Abraham’s dream.. 

 

An explanation favored by those seeking a more literal interpretation of the text is that of the Rashbam who suggests that this opening sentence is an introduction to the appearance of the three angels.20 There are also other times in the Bible when angels are called God.  For instance, when an angel of God appears to Moses at the burning bush, the angel is later called God.21  Jacob struggles with a man, but appreciates that he has been wrestling with God.22  It would seem that the Bible considers the appearance of a messenger of God as being identical to the appearance of God Himself.  

 

This interpretation would explain why Abraham did not greet God when He first appeared but greeted only the angels.  Moreover, it is only when one of the angels prophesizes that Sarah will have a child in a year that YHVH Himself speaks, since only then does Abraham realize that these “men” are agents of God. 

 

Rashbam assumes that when Abraham speaks to YHVH he is speaking to the most senior of the angels.  This would explain why only two angels go down to investigate Sodom, since the senior one has remained behind to negotiate with Abraham as the representative of God.  This is also why the Torah reads “and Abraham was still standing before YHVH” (Genesis 18:22) after the other two angels had left.  Without Rashbam’s explanation, this phrase is difficult to explain.23  

 

An important philosophical question remains.  Why did the angels need to go to Sodom to investigate its righteousness?  Is not God omnipotent?  Does He not know all that has been and all that will be in Sodom?

 

One answer of the Rabbis is that a moral lesion can be derived from this part of the story -  “This has taught judges to issue a verdict in capital cases except through seeing.”24  It could also be argued that the Torah speaks in a way that people are used to hearing.  There is the expectation that God will investigate the situation in Sodom even if from a philosophical perspective the answer is already known.  Nevertheless, this passage seems to avoid the issue of God’s foreknowledge.  Is it possible then that it supports the notion that God really did not know?

 

This issue is discussed by the philosopher Maimonides in his Mishna Torah with respect to man’s free will and whether God knows the result of a person’s free will before a person has made his or her choice.25  If God does know, then it is difficult to see how man truly has free will since his actions are already predetermined.  If, on the other hand, God does not know the outcome of man’s free will, then how can

 

He make promises about the future?  Prophecy would seem to have lost all value.  Maimonides admits that he is unable to resolve these issues.  Nevertheless, he is not prepared to abandon the notion that God is completely cognizant of the future.  This cannot be explained rationally but is a matter of faith.

 

It may well be that the answer to this dilemma is contained in this paragraph.  God knows full well that there are not ten righteous people in Sodom.  He is aware of the cries of the oppressed and realizes that it is unlikely that the people of Sodom will change their ways.  He also knows that He must demonstrate to Abraham that justice is being done by investigating the situation and showing that there are no righteous people in Sodom.  Nevertheless, God does not know with certainty the result of the freewill of everyone in Sodom, although He does know the likelihood.  This is why His descent to Sodom is neither showmanship nor a façade.

 

God can predict the future since He knows with almost complete certainty, although not quite hundred per cent certainty, the results of everyone’s decisions based on His knowledge of their past behavior and the environment in which they live.  This is at an individual level.  However, when considering an entire population, this slight element of uncertainty becomes almost cancelled out.  God’s predictions then become a statistical certainty.  God also has the capability of changing the course of the future by direct intervention.

 

 It is because of this minute uncertainty within the realm of a person’s free will, that God can legitimately “test” Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son.  If God is doing no more than demonstrating what He already knows, it is difficult to understand why this is called a test rather than a demonstration.  God is confident of the results of His test, but He cannot know with certainty the results of Abraham’s free will.  If He could, then Abraham would no longer have free will.  

 

The testing of Abraham in the Akeida will soon follow the story of Sodom and Gemorra.  This story is an essential preliminary to this event, since Abraham can only engage in this test if he is truly convinced that God’s actions are nothing but s righteousness and justice.  Otherwise he would be subjecting himself to Russian roulette.  This cannot be.

Sarah’s laughter

 

An important theme of this paragraph is the revelation to Sarah that in a year from now she will have a son.  The prophecy reads as follows:

 

“And He [one of the angels] said: 'I will certainly return to you at this time next year and behold! Sarah thy wife shall have a son.' And Sarah heard at the entrance to the tent door which was behind him.  Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well on in years; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.  And Sarah laughed (vatizchak) (וַתִּצְחַק ) within herself, saying: 'After I have withered shall I have pleasure, my husband also being old?' And YHVH said to Abraham: 'Why did Sarah laugh(tzachaka)(צָחֲקָה), saying: Shall I truly bear a child, though am old? Is anything beyond YHVH?  At this appointed time I will return to you at this time next year and Sarah will have a son.'  Sarah denied, saying: 'I did not laugh (tzochakti) (צָחַקְתִּי) ' for she was afraid. And He said: 'No; but you did laugh (tzochackt) (צָחָקְתְּ).'”(Genesis 18:10-15)

 

Questions spring to the fore.  Why was it necessary for God to tell Sarah that she would deliver a child?  Had He not already conveyed this information to Abraham?  Surely Abraham would have discussed this important news with his wife?  Moreover, why did God reprimand Sarah for her reaction to this news when Abraham appears to have expressed the very same sentiments? 

 

There is no definitive answer as to why Abraham did not previously speak to Sarah.  Hirsch suggests that Abraham would only have told his wife if instructed to do so by God.26  In a similar vein, Nachmanides suggests that God Himself needed to reveal the news to Sarah.27 Alternatively, Abraham had been so busy in the three days between circumcising his household and this second prophecy that he had not had time to tell her!

 

Biblical critics have noted that this passage is one of several “duplications” in the Torah relating to Abraham and suggest that this is because these sources were written at different historic periods.  Yet this is by no means the only way of looking at these duplications.  An alternative view is that they represent the Biblical way of storytelling.  An underlying form is that they relate to the names of God.  In this particular paragraph, Sarah is informed about a son by YHVH, whereas the previous revelation to Abraham about a son in the Covenant of Circumcision was conveyed to him through the name Elohim.  

 

This previous version of the prophecy reads as follows:

 

And Elohim said unto Abraham: 'As for Sarai your wife, do not call her name Sarai, but Sarah is her name. And I will bless her, and I will also give you a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples through her.  And Abraham fell upon his face and laughed (vayitzchak) (וַיִּצְחָק); and thought: 'Shall a child be born to him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, give birth?' And Abraham said unto God: 'Oh that Ishmael might live before You!'  And God said: “Indeed Sarah your wife will bear you a son; and you shall call his name Isaac(Yitzchak)(יִצְחָק); and I will fulfill My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” (Genesis 17:15-19)

 

In the past, Abraham has been told that his seed will inherit the land.  Now, with the Covenant of Circumcision, Abraham is assured that his special relationship with Elohim will continue forever through a son to be called Isaac and not through his firstborn son Ishmael.  

 

Sarah now needs to be told through the aspect of God YHVH that she will have a son. This is one reason why the Torah changes from an angel speaking to Abraham to God Himself.  

 

Why is it so important though that she personally receive this message?  Why could it not have been Abraham alone?  

 

There could be many reasons.  Firstly, Sarah is the one who will bear the son.  Sarah and Abraham as partners in this project need to be assured regarding the continuity of the Covenant of the Pieces, a covenant promised through the name of God YHVH, the name that represents the immanent and tribal aspect of God.  Sarah will be intimately involved with her husband in teaching her son the importance of righteousness and justice.  And finally, and of most significance, it is important for Jewish history that Abraham laughs, Sarah laughs, and everyone else around her laughs too.26  

 

Inwardly, Sarah laughs on hearing the news of this forthcoming birth.  At age 99, she has been menopausal for many years.  Her husband is also not as virile as in the past.  A pregnancy at this age is an impossibility.

 

There are several meanings to the word “to laugh” and the Torah will play on all these meanings.  It can mean to laugh in incredibility and disbelief.  But it can also mean to laugh with joy.  It would seem to have this latter meaning on the weaning of Isaac when Sarah says: 

 

And Sarah said: 'God has made laughter (tz’chok) (צְחֹק) for me; whoever hears will laugh (yitzchak) (יִצְחַק) for me.’” (Genesis 21:6)28

 

Another meaning of this verb is to laugh in mockery as during Isaac’s weaning party when Ishmael mocks Sarah’s family:   

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, mocking (metzacheck) (מְצַחֵק).” (Genesis 21:9)

 

This will be the final straw for Sarah when she realizes that Ishmael and Hagar have different values from that of her household and she persuades Abraham to evict them both from their home.

 

In the passage above, Sarah’s laughter expresses disbelief, firstly inwardly and then outwardly when she is forced to admit her inner thoughts.29 

 

But what about Abraham’s laughter on learning the news about his son?  Is this an expression of disbelief or joy?  

 

Rashi suggests that his reaction was one of pure joy.30 However, this is by no means clear from the text, and it is just as likely that his laughter was an expression of disbelief:31 

“And Abraham fell upon his face and laughed; and he thought: to a man of a hundred years shall there be born?  And shall Sarah – a woman of ninety years – give birth?” (Genesis 17:17)

 

But if this was the case, why was Sarah reprimanded and Abraham not?  

 

An answer may be that Sarah is not being reprimanded.32  Sarah is being asked to display openly her involuntary laughter by revealing her innermost thoughts.  And she is then informed that nothing is impossible for God.  A pregnancy will indeed happen.

 

It was previously mentioned that the Torah regards the actions and/or names of the progenitors of nations as revealing the intrinsic characteristics of that nation.  This was seen for Ham, the son of Noah.  It was the case for Abraham when he was renamed by God.  And now it is the case for the son of Abraham.  Very soon, it will be the case for the grandchildren of Lot. 

 

God Himself names Abraham’s son.  The name Yitzhak reflects the disbelief of his parents and those around them.  There is disbelief, because the birth of such a child is a biological impossibility.  It is, in fact, so outside the realm of normal that neither Abraham nor Sarah can suppress their cynicism.  

 

This is also the case with the Jewish people.  A people cannot survive and reestablish itself as a nation after suffering what the Jewish have suffered.  Without the intervention of God it cannot be.  And the reaction of the non-Jewish world?  They can either appreciate the miraculous nature of the existence of the Jewish people or sneer at this people and attempt to deny its supernatural aspect. 

 The Bible is a prophetic book – and so are the names of its characters.

 

Lot – a character study

 

Another important contrast in this paragraph is between the character of Abraham and that of Lot.  

 

High hopes had been placed on Lot when he accompanied his uncle to the Land of Canaan from Mesopotamia.  Abraham and Sarah had a long history of infertility and Lot would have been his heir, certainly for his material assets and possibly also for his spiritual legacy:

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had amassed and the souls they had made in Haran.” (Genesis 12:5) 

 

However, as pointed out by Nechama Leibowitz, the Bible subtly implies either a change or the appearance of Lot’s true values on his return to Canaan from Egypt.  The bond between himself and Abraham is fraying and Lot is beginning to distance himself from Abraham: 

“And Abram went up from Egypt, he with his wife and all that was his  - and Lot with him - to the south.” (Genesis 13:1) 

 

Lot is now just “with him” – accompanying Abraham, but no longer emotionally attached to Abraham’s party:

 

By this time, Abraham and Lot’s material circumstances have changed and they are both much wealthier.  Perhaps because of this, Lot now sees his way of life outside the confines of Abraham’s family.  Not surprising, therefore, the herdsmen of Lot and Abraham are soon arguing over pastureland and it is clear to both Abraham and Lot that they need to distance themselves somewhat from each other:

 

Says Abraham “Is not the land before you?  Please separate from me: If to the left, then I will go to the right, and if to the right then I will go to the left.” (Genesis 13:9).  

 

They were currently living between Bethel and Ai where they had previously pitched their tents before travelling to Egypt.34  Abraham had every intention of remaining on the central mountain ridge and it is likely that he assumed that Lot would go either northwards or to south.  However, Lot rejects both these options and chooses to go eastward, to the Jordan plain:

 

The land of Canaan was called this by the Bible not because it was full of Canaanites, but because it was surrounded by Canaanites on its western and eastern borders.  The Canaanites lived on the coastal plain by the Mediterranean Sea and also along the sides of the Jordan Valley.  Other tribes such as the Hittites, Jebusites, and Emorites lived on the hilly lowlands and central mountain ridge:

The Hittite, the Jebusite and the Emorite dwell on the mountain, and the Canaanite dwells by the Sea and on the bank of the Jordan” (Numbers 13:28).

 

In effect, the Canaanites had chosen the best and most fertile of the land and left the more difficult agricultural land to the other descendants of Ham.  The “kikar Hayarden” was the most fertile of all this territory.  It was well watered – resembling the Nile overflow plain.  It could even be compared to the Garden of Eden with respect to its fertility:

 

“And Lot raised his eyes, and saw all the plain of the Jordan (kikar hayarden) 

(הַיַּרְדֵּן כִּכַּר) that it was well watered everywhere, before YHVH destroyed Sodom and Gomorra -  like the garden of YHVH, like the land of Egypt, reaching Zoar.  So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan; and Lot journeyed eastwards; and they parted one from the other. Abraham dwelt in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain, and pitched his tent as far as Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked and sinful to YHVH exceedingly.”(Genesis 13:10-13)

 

However, by moving eastwards, and in particular by pitching his tent close to the city of Sodom, Lot was making a decisive break with the spiritual legacy of Abraham.  This is why, immediately after Lot’s move, God appears to Abraham and reassures him that he will make his offspring “as the dust of the earth” (Genesis 13:16) in multitude.  Despite Lot’s move to the Jordan plain, this will have effect on God’s plan for Abraham.

 

The story will now highlight other distinctions between Abraham and Lot that make him and his descendants unworthy of living in the land of Canaan. 

 

Clearly, Lot went out of his way to invite guests in need to his home even though this was likely to lead to social disapproval from others in his city and even possible danger.  The two angels had nowhere to sleep that night.  Lot went out to meet them from the gate of Sodom, greeted them graciously by bowing his face to the ground, and prevailed upon them to stay in his home for the night:

 

“ …. and Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom, and Lot saw and stood up to meet them, and he bowed, face to the ground.  And he said: “ Behold now my masters, turn about please to your servant’s house; spend the night and wash your feet, then wake up early and go your way.” (Genesis 19:3)

 

Initially they reject his offer, but he prevails on them and they eventually accept.  He prepares for them a meal and even personally bakes matzah (unleavened bread) for them.  We note that no mention is made of his wife helping out with the cooking and it looks very much as if righteousness (tzedaka) in this home is not a family affair.  Already, we are beginning to have concerns about the values of Lot’s family.

 

As the men of Sodom converge upon Lot’s home to sodomize his guests, Lot comes out of his house and makes an offer to them – that his “brothers not act wickedly (Genesis 19:7),” but that they do with his two virgin daughters as they wish and leave his guests alone. 

 

What is the reader to make of this offer and what does it tell us about Lot’s values? There are commentaries that come to Lot’s defense.  Perhaps he knew the people of Sodom would ignore his offer?35  Perhaps his actions were justified in the extreme situation he found himself?36  However, the Bible does make clear that these daughters are engaged to be married to men from Sodom.37 It is not unreasonable to conclude, therefore, that Lot’s values have become distorted and that he has absorbed the sexual norms of his Canaanite neighbors. 

 

Later passages in the Bible, when the Israelites are in the desert, are highly critical of the sexual practices of the Canaanite people: 

“And YHVH spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them. I am YHVH your God. Do not perform the deeds, of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled, and do not perform the deeds of the land of Canaan to which I bring you and do not follow their decrees.  Carry out My judgments and safeguard My decrees to follow them.” (Leviticus 18:1-4)

 

After listing various forbidden sexual relations, including incest, homosexuality and bestiality, the Torah says:

Do not defile through any of these; for through all the nations that I expel before you became contaminated.  And the land became contaminated, therefore did I visit its iniquity upon it, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep My decrees and My judgments (mishpati) (מִשְׁפָּטַי), and not commit any of these abominations; neither the home-born, nor the stranger who lives among you.”(Leviticus 18:24-26)

 

Forbidden sexual activities In this chapter in Leviticus are variously called “justice,” “deeds,” “abominations,” “practices” and “decrees” (chukoti) (חֻקֹּתַי).  These are not to be imitated by the Israelites but are to be replaced by God’s decrees and God’s judgements.38 

 

But is Lot sufficiently a tzadik – an innocent person - to be rescued from Sodom and not be swept up with its sinners?  From his uncle, Lot has learnt the value of tzedaka – doing that which is morally right - but he has also absorbed Canaanite sexual norms.  In view of this, it is difficult to make the argument that he is completely innocent.  He may keep to the principles of tzedaka but not those of justice (mishpat); and this is probably why the Bible indicates that Lot’s being saved had far more to do with the merits of Abraham than with his own:

And it was when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, that God remembered Abraham, and He sent out Lot from the midst of the upheaval, when He overturned the cities in which Lot dwelt”(Genesis 19:29)

 

The nation of Israel will be typified by laughter  - the laughter of disbelief, the laughter of joy and sometimes with the laughter of scorn.  By contrast, the progeny of Lot are typified by incest and sexual immorality.  

 

The older daughter of Lot feels that they are alone in the world and they will have no one with whom to marry.  She therefore plies her father with wine and has sexual relations with him.  The younger daughter does the same the next night.  Both conceive and the older daughter unashamedly names her son “Moab” (from father) while the younger daughter names her child “Ben-Ammi” (the son of my people).  Both are progenitors of nations who will become Israel’s neighbors living on the mountain ridge on the eastern side of the Jordan.  The elder daughter’s child will become the progenitor of the nation of Moab and the younger daughter’s child that of Ammon.

 

Lack of sexual restraint will remain a characteristic of the nations seared by Lot, at least the children of Moab.  

“Israel settled in the Shittim and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab.” (Numbers 25:1)

 

This is why no permanent place can be reserved for Lot and his descendants in the land of Canaan, and this includes the plain (kikar) of the Jordan, which will become part of Israel.  Lot may stay temporarily in a small city close to the Moabite mountains, but his ultimate destination is to be further on. 

 

Nevertheless, because of his relationship with Abraham, these two nations are due for special consideration when the Israelites plan their settlement in Canaan:

 

And YHVH spoke to me [Moses] saying: ‘This day you shall cross the border at Moab, at Ar, and you shall approach opposite the children of Ammon; you shall not distress them and you shall not provoke them, for I shall not give any of the land of the children of Ammon to you as an inheritance, for to the children of Lot have I given it as an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 2:17-19)

 

and 

And YHVH said to me: ‘You shall not distress Moab and you shall not provoke war with them, for I shall not give you an inheritance from their land, for to the children of Lot have I given Ar as an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 2:9)

 

It as if the Bible is saying to the future Israelites – these people will be your neighbors.  Be nice to them because of family kinship.  But their values are not yours - so be warned.

 

Was there a Biblical Sodom?

 

Did the destruction of Sodom and Gemorra really happen, or is this a fictitious, perhaps allegorical account? 

 

The archeologist Professor Steven Collins has dug extensively in the area of the tel Tall el-Hammam in Jordan over the last 10 years and makes a strong case that this is the biblical Sodom and that it was destroyed in the Biblical period.39  

 

He suggests that the “kikar” of the Jordan is a disc-shaped area on the west side of the Jordan River, just north of the Dead Sea.  He derives support for this from the phrase “kikar hayarden” (הַיַּרְדֵּןכִּכַּר), which is usually translated as “the plain of the Jordan”.  However, Colin suggests that the word kikar in Hebrew means a disc and that the area in question is a disc-like area.  In Modern Hebrew the word kikar means a traffic circle. The word kikar is also used in the Bible to describe bread and silver.  This could be a circular piece of bread (i.e. like a pitta) and a circular coin of silver.  This fits well into the geographical configuration of this area, in that Tall el-Hammam would be on the periphery of a 25 kilometer diameter disc encompassing areas east and west of the Jordan River.  

 

However, it is by no means certain that this is an accurate translation of the word kikar and it could well mean a block.  The first mention in the Bible of a kikar of bread is in Exodus 29:23 in relation to the sacrificial service, where it has the meaning of a loaf of bread.  A kikar of silver is mentioned in the Bible numerous times and is a measure of silver with no mention of its shape. If this area was more block-like than disc-like, then the city of Jericho would not have been part of the kikar, since Jericho is opposite to Tall el-Hammam on the other side of the Jordan.40  Hence, this phrase may well be describing “a block” of settlements on the east side of the Jordan River, with no particular reference as to how these cities were arranged in relation to the mountains around them.

 

A particularly helpful Biblical passage for identifying the location of Sodom is the following that was previously quoted: 

“And Lot raised his eyes, and saw all the plain of the Jordan (kikar hayarden) (הַיַּרְדֵּן כִּכַּר) that it was well watered everywhere, before YHVH destroyed Sodom and Gomorra -  like the garden of YHVH, like the land of Egypt, reaching Zoar.  So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan; and Lot journeyed eastwards; and they parted one from the other. (Genesis 13:10-11) 

 

Abraham and Lot were living at that time between Bethel and Ai. The ancient city of Bethel was probably close to the present day Arab village of Beitin, which is about 12 miles north of Jerusalem and along the central mountain ridge.  The location of Ai is still unknown.  Tall el-Hammam is more or less due west of Beitin.  This was the largest city in this area, being about 5 to 10 times larger than any other settlement in this area.  It would also have been on or close to a main road leading to the highlands of Moab and Ammon.

 

In the past, this area was extremely well endowed with water.  Even today it has springs, although this water is no longer used for agriculture but is pumped from its aquifer elsewhere, and particularly to hotels along the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea.  The River Jordan is now only a small stream, but in the days before agriculture siphoned off its water, this was a sizable river.  The Bible describes the kikar as being “like the garden of YHVH” (i.e. like the Garden of Eden) (Genesis 13:10), and it is likely that this was a place of exceptional fertility.  

 

The tel of Tall el-Hamman existed in the Chalcolithic period.  Enormous defensive walls were built in the Early Bronze Age (about 3000-2350 BCE).  There is also evidence from the Middle Bronze Age of an intense and widespread “fiery conflagration that left the Middle Bronze Age structure in charred ruins,” and the ruins of the rooms contained 1½ to 3 feet of dark grey ash and destruction debris. 39  Broken chards were noticed to have a glassy appearance indicating brief exposure “to temperatures well in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the approximate heat of volcanic magma.”39  Hence according to Collins, life in this city and other cities in the kikar came to an end in about 1600 BCE, which would be in the Middle Bronze Age,  and it was not until for another 6 or 7 centuries, in about 1000 BCE, that this area began to come to life again.

 

Collins has his detractors.  It has also been suggested that Sodom and Gemorra were located towards the middle and south of the Dead Sea.  However, this area has nothing to do with the River Jordan.  It is not at all fertile and likely never was.  It would also not have been visible from Bethel. 

 

Nevertheless, Collins dates are problematic - unless one is wedded to a 13th century Exodus.  Abraham probably lived about 400 years before the Exodus, which would be in the 1600’s BCE.  If the Exodus was in the early 1400’s BCE, then Abraham will have lived in about 1800 BCE, and Collin’s dating of the conflagration to 1600 BCE is 200 years too late. 

 

What caused this terrible conflagration?  The Bible describes God as having “rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorra sulfur and fire” (Genesis 19:24).  This sounds almost volcanic.  However, the Jordan Rift Valley has never been known for volcanic activity.  However, it is the location of earthquakes because the Jordan Rift Valley is on tectonic plates, and it is conceivable that inflammable sulfur-containing gases were released in a one time event during an earthquake.  Clearly, this is extremely speculative. 

 

The cause of this destruction, its extent and its date are still unclear.  Nevertheless, with reservations about some of the details, Collin’s findings would seem to corroborate the description in the Torah.

 

Modern relevance

 

Nachmanides asks the question - surely, there were other wicked cities in the world at the time of Abraham.  Why therefore did God single out Sodom and the cities of the plain for destruction? 

You should know that the judgment of Sodom was due to the lofty spiritual level of Eretz Yisrael for Sodom is included in the heritage of YHVH which does not tolerate people who commit abominations.  And just as [this land] would one day disgorge the entire Canaanite nation because of their abominations (Leviticus 18:25 and 20:22) it proceeded that by disgorging this people (the Sodomites) as well for they were more evil that all of [the other Canaanite nations] both towards Heaven (God) and toward their fellow human beings.  Heaven and earth became desolate for them, and their land was destroyed without remedy forever because they became haughty on account of their prosperity, and the Holy One, Blessed is He, saw fit that it should be a (warning) sign for rebellious people for the people of Israel who were destined to take possession of Eretz Yisrael ….  For there are among the nations others who are exceedingly wicked and sinful and yet (God) did not perpetrate such [destruction] against them.  However, it was because of the lofty spiritual level of this land of Eretz Yisrael that all this happened for the Palace of God is there. 12

 

Nachmanides’ answer is that the Land of Israel even then had a certain spirituality that made it unable to tolerate extreme injustice.  The only people that will have a future in this land is one that practices righteousness and justice.

 

According to this paragraph, becoming a nation based on God-directed righteousness and justice is one of the mission statements of the Israelite nation. This is often termed ethical monotheism.  As the Bible unfolds it will become apparent that there are other mission statements in Judaism.  One is to become a holy nation, since God also is holy.   Another is to uphold the Covenant.  In effect, the latter includes the two former mission statements.41  

 

Sodom and its neighboring Canaanite cities were destroyed at the time of Abraham because they were the antithesis of righteousness and justice.  Some 400 years later the entire Canaanite people forfeited their right to live in this land primarily because of their idolatry and sexual perversions, the antithesis of holiness.  

 

When the Jewish nation practices righteousness/tzedaka and justice/mishpat it brings to itself blessings and benefits on the land and blessings to all those who bless it.  Conversely, when there is suffering and crying out, sexual perversion and idolatry, Israel loses its right to be in the land and it faces expulsion and exile.  Sodom and Gomorra now become symbols of God’s judgment against Israel for forsaking the Covenant and straying after other gods:

 

“And the generation to come, your children that shall Arise after you, and the foreigner that shall come from a far land, shall say, when they see the plagues of that land, and the sicknesses with which YHVH has afflicted it.  Sulphur and salt, a conflagration of the whole land that it is not sown, nor sprouting, nor any grass grows on it, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which YHVH overthrew in His anger, and in His wrath.  And all the nations shall say: ’For what reason did YHVH do so to this land? Why the wrathfulness of this great anger?” (Deuteronomy 29:21-23)

 

The American author Mark Twain visited the Holy Land in 1867.  He makes no mention of sulfur or salt, but what he did witness has much resemblance to this prophecy in the Bible: 

 

“ ...[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds - a silent mournful expanse ....  A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action ....  We never saw a human being on the whole route ..... There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere.  Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”42

 

A similar situation is described by other historians:

 

“In the twelve and a half centuries between the Arab conquest in the seventh century and the beginnings of the Jewish return in the 1880’s, Palestine was laid waste.  Its ancient canal and irrigation systems were destroyed and the wondrous fertility of which the Bible spoke vanished into desert and desolation  … Under the Ottoman empire of the Turks, the policy of defoliation continued; the hillsides were denuded of trees and the valleys robbed of their topsoil.”43

 

Why did this happen?  From 1517, Palestine came under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire, and from then on began almost 500 years of misrule:  

 

Under the Ottomans a bureaucracy was established that bled the land to almost extinction.  Scandalous taxes were exacted; the laws of debt were such that obligations were handed down from generation to generation, growing ever larger; fields and orchards were abandoned by owners as well as workers to escape the tax gatherers; and the lack of effective of government permitted brigandage and lawlessness to paralyze the agricultural communities outside the large cities.  Bedouin raiders ranged the countryside to their hearts’ content, burning, looting, pillaging, and murdering with the result that the once so fruitful littoral of the eastern Mediterranean became an almost barren waste, its soils eroded, its watercourses filled with debris, its springs caved in and polluted …. and its stable peasantry reduced almost to a nomad existence.”44

 

Oppression had become almost institutionalized.  Order had broken down and anyone with power was out for themselves.

 

Harsh, exorbitant and improvident taxation led to a decline in cultivation, which was sometimes permanant.  The peasants, neglected and impoverished, were forced into the hands of money lenders and speculators, and often driven off the land entirely.  With the steady dcline in bureaucratic efficiency during the seventeenth and eighteenth century ..... the central government ceased to exercise any check or control over agriculture and village affairs, which were left to the unchecked rapacity of the tax-farmers, the leaseholders, and the bailiffs of court nominees.”45

 

Arab peasants and fellaheen were subject to the oppression of this Ottoman system, but particularly this was so for the Jews because of their despised religious status.  There had been a trickle of Jewish immigration to Palestine since the 1600’s, particularly to Jerusalem and Safed.  The Jews were subject to excessive tax burdens and received limited protection from the judicial system.  As late as 1847, a Jewish visitor to Palestine reported on the sorry situation of Jews in the country as follows:

 “They do not have any protection and are at the mercy of policemen and the pashas who treat them as they wish …… they pay various taxes every now and then …. their property is not at their disposal and they dare not complain about an injury for fear of the Arabs’ revenge.  Their lives are precarious and subject to the daily danger of death.”46

 

The Israel-Palestine conflict is usually framed as a territorial and political struggle, and perhaps also as a religious struggle because of the Islamic perspective on Jews.  Rarely, however, is this struggle seen as a much broader one between the morality of Judaism and that of Islam.  Nevertheless, this has to be taken into account, since this is a struggle for a land that abhors injustice and the breakdown of law.  

 

Both Judaism and Islam see their arena as being within the political framework of the state.  The Ottoman empire was a caliphate based on Islam that was run from Istanbul.  The Ottoman emperor Selim proclaimed himself caliph or religious leader over the entire Moslem world.  The Turks were not Arabs, and in fact the Arabs were as anxious to free themselves from Turkish rule during World War 1 as were the Jews.  Nevertheless, the religion of the Ottoman Empire was Islam, and the Ottoman Empire remained a caliphate until it was taken over by the “Young Turks”.  

 

The Ottoman Empire, however, is not the only Islamic system that failed its people.  As can be seen from the present chaos in the Middle East, Islam produces injustice and judicial chaos whenever Islam gets its hands onto the machinery of political power. 

 

To understand why this is almost inevitably so, it is necessary to look at the very beginnings of Islam and how it arose.  

 

Mohammed experienced a series of revelations from Allah and these were recorded in the Quran.  This book also includes stories from the Bible that Mohammed learned from his Jewish friends, albeit with errors.  However, by and large, Mohammed did not appreciate the significance of most of the Biblical stories that were included in the Quran.  He was also not interested in most of the legal corpus of the Torah, other than laws he thought would be appealing to Jews and that would induce them to join his religion.  Because of this, the ways of God never became the role model for Muslims.  Rather, Muslims follow in the ways of His prophet Mohammad and his behavior became the source of all Islamic ethics.  

 

Thus it was that the ethics of a 7th century Arabian warlord became the ethics of a global religion and empire created by Mohammed and his followers.  The oral traditions regarding how Mohammed lived are contained within an extensive body of literature called the “hadith.”  Hadiths includes his words, his actions and things done in his presence by his followers to which he did not object. 

 

This explains much of what we see in the Islamic world today.

 

All the monotheistic faiths have an attitude of supremacy towards other religions, but this is most evident in Islam.  Mohammed believed his revelations supplanted all prior revelations from God and that Moses’ revelations were faulty.  Since only Islam possesses the truth, the values of multiculturalism, democracy and free speech have little resonance within Islamic countries.

 

Minorities are often poorly accepted in Islamic countries.  Jews and Christians may maintain their faith, but in theory they can be victimized with extra taxation and their inferior status to Islamic people displayed.  This was the system in the Ottoman Empire.  Infidels have a tenuous existence within sharia-abiding states unless they convert to Islam.  Women also have an inferior status to men in the public realm and are subservient to their husbands in their private lives.  Forcible intrusion into private lives to ensure practice of Islam is acceptable in sharia.

 

Because Mohammed sought power and attempted to spread his faith by violence, this also became the model for Islam.  Despite what many Mohammedans in the Western world say for public consumption, violence or jihad is an integral part of Islam.  Islam also recognizes no geographical limits to spreading its version of the truth.  

 

All this is the very opposite of righteousness and justice.

 

This then is the true struggle – is there room within this land for two statutory authorities – one embracing the values of God and the other the values of Mohammed?

 

In its own way, the land will decide.

 

References:

1. The Pentateuch.  Translation and Commentary by Samson Raphael Hirsch Commentary to Genesis 19:19, p320, Judaica Press Ltd, Gateshead 1989. 

2. This passage is talking about a loan or other financial obligation past due and the creditor is therefore entitled to approach the court for collateral.  However, neither the creditor nor the court are entitled to enter to debtor’s home and the collateral must be returned if it is needed by the debtor (The Stone Edition of The Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings, p1061, Artscroll Series.

3.  “Compassion: the Idea of Tzedaka” in The Dignity of Difference. How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations by Jonathan Sacks, p105, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2003.

4.  Maimonides has the following to say about the prohibition of mistreating any widow or orphan in his legal work the Mishna Torah : “How should one deal with them?  One should only speak to them gently and treat them only with honor.  One should not cause pain to their persons with [overbearing] work or aggregate their feelings with harsh words and [one should] show more consideration for their financial interests than for one’s own.  Anyone who vexes or angers them, hurts their feelings, oppresses them, or causes them financial loss transgresses this prohibition … There is a covenant between them and He who spoke and created the world that whenever they cry out because they have been wronged, they will be answered, I will surely hear their cry.” (Mishna Torah, Hilchot De’ot,  6:10)

5.  The Talmud points out that lashes are not given because of a dispute between two people and that this is a situation of conspiring witnesses (TB, Makkos 13b).  

6. Discussed by Yitzchak Etshalom in “From Hebron to Sodom: The Leitwort” in his book Between the Lines of the Bible. Genesis. Recapturing the Full Meaning of the Biblical Text, p119, Urim Publications, Jerusalem and New York. 

7.  Rashi to Genesis 18:17.

8.  Sforno to Genesis 18:7. 

9.  The is much discussion among the commentators regarding the correct translation of this verse.  Onkelos and Nachamanides suggest that the verse is saying “For I know that he will command his children…..”  Rashi, however, notes that this ignores the meaning of the word לְמַעַן  which means “in order that”.  He therefore translates this sentence as “For I have loved him, because he commands His children….”  Nachmanides suggests that the verb can mean to provide intimate individual providence.  In Biblical language, the verb “to know” can have its usual meaning of to have knowledge of, but can also mean to have sexual relations with someone.  Hence, in this section, the people of Sodom will demand to “know” Lot’s guests, i.e. to sodomize them or to have intimate relationships with them. (Genesis 9:5)  It is suggested in this essay that the word to “know” also has the meaning of developing a relationship in this context.  This is somewhat like the explanation of Nachmanides. This suggestion fits in nicely with the name of God YHVH.  YHVH indicates that this relationship exists and He is also the God of relationships.  

10.  God’s focus on the entire city as much as its righteous inhabitants is developed in an insightful essay by R’ Yaakov Beasley and he raises some of the points discussed here. (Abraham’s Prayer for Sodom by Rabbi Yaakov Beasley in The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, Tanakh, Parsha, Introduction to Parashat HaShavua, Bereishit, Vayera at http://etzion.org.il/en/avrahams-prayer-sodom).

11.  See for example “I will not continue to curse again the ground because (ba’avur) of man, since the imagery of man’s heart is evil … “ (Genesis 8:21)  The cessation of cursing the ground is not for the sake of man, but secondary to man’s character.  Also “They provoked at the Waters of Strife and Moses suffered because of them (ba’avuram) … “ (Psalms 106:32)  In this instance also Moses did not suffer for their sake but because of their actions.  However, there are also many instances in the Bible where it does mean for their sake.

12.  Nachmanides on Genesis 19:8 with translation from the ArtScroll Series.  The Torah with Ramban’s Commentary Translated, Annotated, and Elucidated. Bereishis/Genesis Volume 1 by Rabbi Yaakov Blinder. Published by Mesorah Publications Ltd.

13.  Rashi to Genesis 18:1.

14. TB Bava Metzia 86b.

15.  Rashi to Genesis 9:23 based on TB Sanhedrin 70a.  Rashi does not regard Ham as being the youngest son, but reinterprets “small” as meaning defective and disgraceful.  Hence, it was Ham who was cursed.  However, according to the chronology of Nachmanides, Ham was the youngest son. 

16.  The Story of Noah’s Intoxication in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Part Two. From Noah to Abraham by U. Cassuto, p154, The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem

17.  Rashi to Genesis 18:1 based on TB Sotah 14a.  Also Nachmanides to Genesis 18:1.  The Talmud takes this as a source for visiting the sick.

18. Maimonides, Morah Nevuchim II, 42.

19.  Nachmanides to Genesis 18:1.

20.  Rashbam to Genesis 18:1.

21. Exodus 3:4

22. Genesis 32:31

23. Rashi to Genesis 18:22 and based on Bereishis Rabba 49:7 correctly points out that “the Holy One blessed is He came to [Abraham]” and assumes this is an “enhancement of the scribes”.   The Sapirstein Edition of Rashi, the ArtScroll Series quotes the Gur Aryeh that this does not mean that later scribes emended the Torah, but that the Torah is written in the respectful and euphemistic language of scribes.  This difficulty disappears with the interpretation of the Rashbam.

24.  Rashi to Genesis 18:21.

25. Mishna Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 5:5.  The explanation provided in this essay is contrary to the opinion of the classic Jewish philosophers.

26. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to Genesis 18:1.

27 . Nachmanides to Genesis 18:15.

28. Rashi to Genesis 21:6 and also Targum Onkelos to this verse.  According to Bereishis Rabba 53:8, and also brought down by Rashi, many other prayers of infertility were answered along with hers and there was much joy in the world

29. Rashi to Genesis 18:12 explains that it was not that Sarah was laughing internally, but she was looking at her withered internal condition and breasts.  It is noteworthy that Sarah also remarks that her husband is old, whereas when God for reports her inner thoughts to Abraham, for the sake of peace He does not tell Abraham about Sarah’s remarks about him but only on herself being old (Rashi to Genesis 18:13).  

30.  Rashi to 17:17.  

31.  This would seem to be opinion of R’ Hirsch, for example, who suggests that the kal form of the verb to laugh expresses ironic involuntary laughter with an element of denying, whereas the piel form of the verb derisive mocking.  (Hirsch to Genesis 17:17)  Hence, both Abraham and Sarah display the same reaction – Abraham in an Elohim-passage and Sarah in a YHVH-passage.

32. This explanation is contrary to many Jewish commentators who feel that Sarah is being reprimanded.  Nachmanides, for example, suggests that she should at least have said: ‘Amen, so be it.’ (Nachmanides to Genesis 18:15).

33.  Abraham and Lot in Studies in Bereshit (Genesis) In the Context of Ancient and Modern Jewish Bible Commentary by Nehama Leibowitz, World Zionist Organization, Department for Torah Education and Culture, Jerusalem.

34.  Genesis 13:3  

35.  This suggestion is made by R Chananel.  The Arbanbanel suggests that he made this offer in order to gain time for his guests to flee.

36.  See Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer.

37.  Genesis 19:14. 

38.  Leviticus 20:10-24. 

39.  A useful summary of the archaeological findings are in Where is Sodom; the Case fir Tall-el-Hammam by Steven Collins in Biblical Archeology Review March/April 2013, p32.

40.  In Deuteronomy 34:3, before his death Moses, looks down upon “the kikar the valley of Jericho (bikas Yericho), city of date palms as far as Zoar”.  It is possible therefore that the kikar and valley of Jericho were close but separate areas.  There is no mention in the Book of Joshua of Jericho being located in kikar Hayarden.

41. Leviticus 19:1

42. In The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, London 1881.

43.  Carl Hermann Voss, The Palestine Problem Today, Israel and Its Neighbors, p13, Boston, 1953)

44.  “When deep Sleep Falleth Upon Men in The Holy City by Albert N Williams, p342, 1954 New York and Boston. 

45.  Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, p33, London 1961.

46. Israel Ben Yosef Binyamin, Sefer Masa’ei Israel, pp8-9, Lyck 1859.

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