For the Shabbat Project: Lot, ancestor of Moav

A study of a prosperoous and greedy society, of cruelty, perversion - and divine retribution, culled from Parshat Vayera and the Midrash.

Steve Apfel, South Africa ,

Steve Apfel
Steve Apfel

Lot witnessed the end of mankind, so that what happened in a cave between father and two daughters was not quite degrading. For every act the Divine Author triggers a react, to make the human story. After God promised Abraham he would have offspring like the stars or the dust, He needed a nephew wined to the gills to father a nation to be their nemesis.

The personas of uncle and nephew were elements of the soil. While Abraham made base camp in the dry Negev, fabled pickings (or greed) drew Lot to Sodom on the fertile plain.

Three hundred and eighty years have passed since Noah disembarked on one dry peak; and God’s renewed faith in mankind is being dashed in five cities where conditions after Eden had never been so perfect. The hub was famed for two P’s: Prosperity and Perversity, the second following the first, as drunkenness follows drink. The locals were rich beyond dreams, and mean beyond words.

Whichever way you look at it evil and saintliness take the same amount of work. To be wicked, and to relish it like old wine, does not come naturally. The blessed occupants of the plain set a standard for inhumanity never beaten. Egypt (Mitzrayim to the Hebrews) was another land abundant with bread and idleness. God knows. Leave Adam’s offspring to its own devices if you want perversity to sprout. Sodom and Gomorrah bred it like nowhere else on God’s earth.

It had to be. Buckets of gold nuggets, rubies and emeralds could be filled in backyards. The fertility of Sodom’s soil was legendary. Press a dry twig into the ground and a tree heavy with fruit sprang up in one season. Livestock were as miraculous. Goats, sheep and cattle doubled in mass in forty eight hours. As for the people, women wore sumptuous finery every day of the week. A humble boot maker’s family might employ three servants. Every meal in every home was a feast. The lowest ranks swaggered and swanked like aristocrats. It all came at a cost.

To safeguard freak prosperity you need freak behaviour. Pounding where the heart should be, Sodomites had an organ calibrated for cruelty. Lawmakers ransacked their wits. To protect the good life they devised dastardly codes. It was Noah’s fault for taking a demon aboard the Ark. Sodomites were demonic the way they elevated viciousness to an art form.

Merchant travellers, even with entry permits obtained at great trouble, came to Sodom at their peril. Just finding somewhere to put the feet up or the head down could be a fatal endeavour. Hospitality was a crime. Woe betides the citizen who dared be kind to a foreigner with the simplest food or shelter.

Lot, head councillor to the Sodom regent, had a daughter named Pletith who would have made Uncle Abraham applaud. The girl took pity on a hungry visitor; daily she slipped to a quiet well to leave morsels for the desperado. But law enforcement had him under surveillance. Foreigners were expected to starve, but this one was putting on flesh. Someone had to be feeding him. The trail led to Pletith. Caught in the act she was dragged before the court and condemned to public burning, necklaced with the placard, ‘Be kind at your own risk.’

Punishments were barbarous. A felon would be stripped, coated head to toe with honey, and trussed up on an anthill. This afforded onlookers hours of entertainment while termites picked the body to the bone. Nor were the lower forms of life forgotten. Trees on public land were pruned down to bare branches, to deny birds the fruit. Laws were double-edged, cruel and designed for decadent fun. Sodom was a haven for every kind of pervert and swindler. It was a civic duty to monitor permits, and when deficient, to relieve the miscreant of the clothes off his back. After that another, ultimate indignity, taught the visitor a lesson to remember for a lifetime of shame.

Perverted penalties plumbed the depths of cruelty. Sodom hostelries were a death trap. A guest, bedding down for the night, could be woken up by a squad of trained torturers. A tall guest was given a short bed, a short guest a long one. The tall would have their legs sawn down to the length of the bed. The short would be stretched by burly officers till bodies and beds were of equal length. Such creative atrocities kept Sodom tidy, prosperous and infamous for fifty two fairytale years.

The same Neanderthal animosity lent spice to commerce. The five cities were cut off by a meandering river. To get from one to another you took a ferry at one gold piece, or you waded across and paid double: two gold pieces for getting wet. If a man beat a pregnant woman and made her miscarry, the law made him live with her until she got pregnant again. To the sick mind what’s fair is fair.

Yet Lot married a native of Sodom. In the family mansion there was penny-pinching at every turn, none more than with salt. It drove Lot to despair, but the wife wore the pants, a remarkable thing considering that Lot was a deal-maker people respected, even in that hell-bent city. Eris hoarded salt. Not half a league from the property the saltiest sea on earth lapped salt onto the shore. Anyone was free to fill buckets of it; salt enough to meet the needs of every living being from the Nile in the south to the Euphrates in the north. Only Lot’s wife monitors her stock. The cook has a weekly ration weighed out, and the butler is under orders not to put the dispenser on the table. You have to ask for salt, and when brought it contains the amount for one plate of food.

Lot brings two guests for dinner. Eris runs to bully the cook on making the ingredients for four dinners suffice for six. ‘Man with no idea of right and wrong,’ she mumbles.

Lot watches the beardless brothers (so they looked) pick at their food, and delivers a thunderbolt. ‘Wife, to me the mutton is under-seasoned. Won’t you ring for salt?’ At the table two maiden daughters skip a breath. The food lockups are her uncontested kingdom. Eris turns a crooked smile on the guests who look down at their food.

‘My lord,’ she says to Lot, ‘you like your mutton more spiced? I like to be told before guests turn up for dinner. You bring two to our table, I add two portions of salt. That is the way in this house. That is the way you will get your goat meat how you like it.’

‘Our guests...’ Lot begins, and Eris says, ‘You want to tell the family? Who is sharing our table? Emissaries to the King are welcome. Because, my lord, let me make myself plain. I won’t have it. Your daughters won’t have it. The law won’t have it.’

‘My wife can hardly think I’d make the family party to a crime.’

‘No? You don’t know what I can think. Are they here on King’s business?’

Lot is looking wry and holding out his hands. There’s a pause. He wants his guests to help him out; they don’t look up.

‘Who’s that?’ Lot says, ‘that banging in the cookhouse.’ Eris waves a hand. ‘Our clumsy servants.’

“No one must hear this. Dear family...’His voice is trying to belie the fear plumping the bags under the eyes and tightening every facial muscle. Lot is a man torn between the ways of a meticulous uncle and the ways of a ridiculous city. ‘They are from Abraham.’ He makes a gesture to indicate the guests are harmless. ‘Uncle Abraham rescued me from captivity. Our King climbed unhurt out of a slime pit because of him. What do you want me to do – throw my uncle’s messengers out? They know what it entails to be caught here. They did not come to fill their bellies.’

His wife is a relentless woman. ‘I do not ask,’ she says, ‘what vital message our visitors brought from Abraham. He was the first to communicate with the one God, which leads me to believe that is who the message comes from. I don’t want to think it was their proposal to eat under our roof. So let me not hear it.’

‘It was my idea. How can it be undone? It may be they bring good advice. Let them speak.’

Eris hammers the table with a fist. ‘Let dinner finish promptly before folk hear rumours of visitors in the home of Lot, councillor to the King. Then you can slip them out the back door. Word gets around when the chief councillor plays host to strangers. Not that I’d mention it. But servants do talk.’

Lot has two spots of angry red on his cheek bones. He says, ‘Finished my lords?

‘Yes. Thank you, my lady, for the excellent meal. The message we bring...Would my lady wish it conveyed?’

‘You may do so to my lord. Now – no. God speed.’ There and then God seals her salty fate. But already a mob bays for entry at the door. The house is under siege. Vigilantes want Lot’s guests to come out and pay the price. He bargains.

‘People, my two daughters are right here. Let me bring them to you. I brought visitors to my home, against my better judgement. My family had nothing to do with it. Let the men leave Sodom unharmed. They are messengers from the great Abraham.’

‘Stand back!’ Leaders hammer at the door and hurl abuse. ‘You’ve got a nerve smuggling your clients in. No one gives shelter and food. You, though a foreigner, know the law. Some example you set. Give them up and we leave your family alone.’

To the vigilantes the visitors are harbingers of an immigrant plague.

Grappling hooks are thrown onto the roof, jolting the rafters. Now a battering ram slams into the door. Rage and excitement at the fun in prospect puts the mob into fits. They want the intruders more than the maiden daughters. The intruders will offer better sport. Sodom was peopled, you see, by hell bent characters.

Insistent hands pull Lot back into the room. The hands now point at the door bulging on its brackets. Imprecations come from outside. The chaotic din drops to nothing. There are sounds of scuffling and oaths. Enraged and perplexed mischief-makers flail and trip over one another. They are blinded by sudden cataracts.

Who are Lot’s guests making a miraculous invisible barrier between mob and prey? The Archangels Gabriel and Raphael have come to rescue the Lot family. They come from consoling pain-filled ninety-year old Abraham after his covenant-sealing circumcision. They are the Almighty’s eyes and ears. They are come to check out the goings-on. They come to warn Lot’s family before the skies vomit fire, before brimstone plummets onto the garden of evil.

Steve Apfel is an economist and a cost accountant, but most of all a prolific author of non-fiction and fiction, published in many journals and sites. His books include: ‘The Paymaster’ (Fiction); Hadrian’s Echo (Non-fiction); ‘A bias thicker than faith’ (non-fiction, for publication during 2020), and ‘Balaam’s curse’ a WIP biblical novel.