“Both stories end with the son saved by G-d and the promise of progeny.”
12 November 2022 / 18 Cheshvan 5783
Torah: Genesis 18:1-22:24 Triennial: 18:1-33
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1-37
The parallels between the banishment of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac have long been noted. Both stories tell of a cherished son who is nearly killed as a result of his parents following G-d’s instructions. Both stories end with the son saved by G-d and the promise of progeny. In our parashah, there is a third story that shares elements with this pattern. Shortly before we read the banishment of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac, we read of the donation of Lot’s daughters.
This story is traditionally read in light of Genesis 18, the story of Abraham’s hospitality towards his divine guests. Lot enacts much of the same hospitality that Abraham did. But where Abraham had offered them cakes and a calf, Lot offers his daughters. It is here that the parallels with the banishment of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac become instructive.
Both those stories begin with G-d’s speech. G-d tells Abraham to listen to the voice of Sarah, to all that she says. Sarah says to drive out the slave woman and her son, Ishmael. So Abraham does. He wakes up early in the morning, gives Hagar a pittance of water, and sends them away. When the water runs out in the wilderness, Hagar casts her child down so that she does not have to see him die, and she cries. G-d hears Ishmael’s voice and an angel tells Hagar not to fear, opens her eyes to a well of water, and promises to make a great nation of Ishmael.
Likewise, in the story of the Akeda (Isaac’s binding) G-d tells Abraham to offer up Isaac. He wakes up early in the morning and is about to sacrifice his child when an angel calls out to him and tells him not to do so. He substitutes a ram, is promised many descendants, and names the place “G-d sees.”
In the story of Lot’s daughters, those same elements are all there but they are topsy-turvy. The angels appear at the outset of the story instead of as a deus ex machina at the end. The children at risk are daughters instead of sons. They are at risk for rape rather than for death. The replacement sacrifice is Sodom rather than a ram and it is offered by the angels. Instead of G-d opening eyes and letting the hero see, the angels blind the people of the town. Instead of G-d commanding the killing of the child, the angels do all they can to prevent the scenario from ever arising, trying their best not to enter Lot’s house in the first place. It is on Lot’s own initiative that he offers up his children.
The biggest reversal is the lack of promise of progeny. Hagar and Abraham are both promised many children as a reward for nearly losing their child. Lot will also end up with many children. He too will be the father of nations, Moab and Ammon. But it is through rape and incest instigated by his daughters that these nations are produced. It is a good example of mida k’neged mida, measure for measure consequences. Each parent reaps what they have sown.
The Abraham story began last week with Lot as a potential heir to Abraham. Lot was an essential part of the family, coming with Abraham from Ur Casdim. But Lot was unchosen. G-d never spoke to Lot. G-d never gave Lot a destiny to fulfill. The best Lot could hope for was to be blessed through Abraham. In our parashah this week, he is. Lot and his family are saved because of Abraham’s intervention. But Lot’s attempt to follow the same pattern as Abraham leads to disaster. Lot provides a glimpse of what life without a higher purpose looks like. Disconnected from G-d and unconcerned with the future, Lot lacks everything that gives our story meaning. We never want to let our children go, to offer them up to something else. Lot sacrifices his daughters without cause and without assurance that there is a higher purpose.