If Abraham’s unconditional hospitality is the very mark of his fidelity to God (to the point that he is willing to personally sacrifice [murder?] his own son when called upon), then what would allow us to distinguish Lot’s own excessive hospitality in Genesis 19 (manifest especially in his willingness to sacrifice the virtue of his own daughters for the sake of the two strangers) from Abraham’s? Or should they not be distinguished?
Are their actions similarly or dissimilarly beyond “ethics”?
II. Some General Notes & Comments
vs. 1-2 “And the two messengers came into Sodom at evening, when Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. And Lot saw, and he rose to greet them and bowed, with his face to the ground. And he said, “O please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night . . .”
The structural parallels between 19.1-3 Abraham’s hospitality in 18.1-8 are potentially important. Alter points out that “the whole episode is framed in an elegant series of parallels and antitheses to Abraham’s hospitality scene.” Like Abraham, Lot is waiting outside and meets the visitors at an entrance – though here it is an entrance to a city rather than an entrance to a tent. Is this difference important? The shift from the nomadic to the urban does seems to contribute to a significant inflection in the narrative’s “feel.” For instance, the whole of the chapter manifests an antipathy to the urban: the cities are the site of wickedness/destruction and the angels will try desperately to convince Lot to leave the urban area altogether – though Lot will refuse to do so (see 19.17-22).
Does this antipathy to the urban tell us anything important about the kind of ethics or politics that the text would, perhaps in contrast, be willing to affirm? Is the connection between the urban and injustice essential or accidental? Must real politics be, in some sense, nomadic?
That Lot is sitting at the gate of the city may uncharitably be read as a result of his being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s evening and the public square associated with the city’s gate is not a place a respectable person would want to be found after dark. Though, on the other hand, we could read it more charitably as an indication of Lot’s participation in the public life of the city. Certainly, the fact that he is also so quick to offer hospitality to strangers suggests a more positive motive.
vs. 2-3 “And they said, ‘No. We will spend the night in the square.’ And he pressed them hard, and they turned aside to him and came into his house, and he prepared them a feast and baked flat bread.”
That Lot also insists on the extended hospitality even after its initial refusal, that he leads them back to his home (rather than having them show up on his own doorstep as Abraham did), and that he likewise prepares a feast, all indicate ways in which Lot’s hospitality appears to exceed Abraham’s own. However, where Abraham promises only “a little water and a little bread” and instead prepares a feast, Lot promises “a feast” and instead appears to prepare for his guests only the most common possible meal (baked flat bread). There is certainly a kind of irony at work here in this last juxtaposition. But is the irony sufficient to cancel out the “excess” of Lot’s hospitality over Abraham’s?
vs. 7-8 “Please, my brothers, do no harm. Look, I have two daughters who have known no man. Let me bring them out to you and do to them whatever you want. Only to these men do nothing, for have they not come under the shadow of my roof-beam?”
In one respect, at least, Lot’s hospitality to the strangers clearly exceeds anything Abraham is called upon to give: when the gathered crowd demands to have their way with Lot’s guests, Lot offers his own daughters in their place. The difficulties involved in this gesture may trump any of the ethical difficulties we examined in Genesis 18.
In one sense, the only proper reaction is to be utterly horrified at Lot’s willingness to deliver over his own daughters in place of the strangers. (And, in the end, it may be appropriately impossible to move beyond this horror). Nonetheless, Lot’s willingness to sacrifice the virtue of his own daughters for the sake of the other is also the mark of an extremely excessive hospitality. What could be more excessive? Perhaps only a willingness to allow his daughters to be murdered . . . or a willingness to murder them himself.
Lot’s excessive hospitality plays, I think, as a kind of foil for Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice (murder?) his own son. Both incidents raise very uncomfortable questions. What are the limits of hospitality? At what point must the line be drawn? What would allow us to distinguish between Abraham’s future action as justified and Lot’s action as not justified? How could one tell the difference, in medias re? Should Lot have thrown the two strangers out and protected his own family instead? Is there a correct action in the face of such a situation?
Most simply: is Lot’s hospitality a counterfeit hospitality to be contrasted with Abraham’s unconditional commitment to the Lord (Other)? Or do their actions belong to the same category? Either way, how would we tell?
I’d like to bring my initial comments to a premature conclusion here and reserve some additional comments about the rest of the chapter for later in the week. For now, I wonder if we couldn’t focus our attention simply on this initial difficulty. I’d be grateful for any suggestions, readings, and/or counter-readings. The greater the diversity of opinion and perspective, the better the results are likely to be.