The Power of the Epithet
By Rabbi Benjamin Kramer
I had the privilege to spend last year studying Bible with Dr. Walter Herzberg. One of the many things I learned from him is the power of the epithet as a point of departure for a close reading of the Biblical text – especially their capacity to inform us about relationships between characters. I was given pause to reflect upon this lesson as I was reading Parashat Lek Lekha, and thinking about the evolution of the relationship between Abraham and Lot. I realized that I had probably always failed to understand the dynamics of their relationship because I had failed to understand Lot. I had failed to understand Lot because I contemplated him only through the narrative of Parashat Vayera, and not through that of Lekh L’kha . In Lekh L’kha , Lot always seemed to me to be a mere afterthought in the mind of the narrator. But now, perhaps because my budding rabbinic mind now refuses to see anything in the Bible as a mere afterthought – or more probably, because the tragic events which eventually befall Lot in Parashat Vayera leave me wanting a more robust characterization than the Bible seems wont to provide – I felt compelled to rescueLot, to understand, at the very least, what happened between Ur Kasdim and Sodom. I found the tools for my task in the various epithets connected to Lot and I found that there is an intimate connection between Lots own development and the evolution of his relationship with Abraham.
At the end of Parashat Noach, Lot is referred to as the son of Haran, his [Terach’s] grandson. He is an only child and an orphan. He is a child without an independent identity, defined by his deceased father, and secondarily defined though his surrogate caretaker, his grandfather. Then Terach dies, and Lot, bereft of the two men through whom he sought self-definition, is left in the care of his uncle, Abram. When Abram receives his call from God and leaves home, the text mentions, as an apparent afterthought, and Lot went with him.Abram did not take Lot, but Lot simply went with him, following helplessly after his only caretaker. Abrams lack of concern for Lot, his failure to take responsibility for his orphaned kinsman, is reflected in the epithet in 12:5. Here the text, speaking from Abrams perspective, refers to Lot as his brother’s son, an epithet that subtly reflects as much by what is not written as by what is the emotional distance between Abram and Lot. Abram is unable to see Lot in relationship to himself, and tries to abrogate his responsibility as his caretaker by continuing to define Lot in terms of his dead father.
When Abram and Sarai descend into Egypt Lot is entirely absent from the narrative. We arent told what he does during this time, but when he re-enters the narrative its clear that there has been a profound change in his character. He is now referred to only as Lot, sans epithet the mark of a mature, independent person, no longer defined or seeking definition in terms of other people. In 13:5, the text elucidates what the lack of epithet only hints at, when after a description of Abram’s riches we are told: And also Lot who went with Abram had flocks, and cattle, and tents. Lot is suddenly capable of providing for himself. The verse refers to Lot as Lot who went with Abram,an epithet which is a clear reference to 12:4 – when Lot, as a young, dependant orphan, left home to follow Abram – and serves to draw our attention to the enormous change that Lot has undergone.
Lot’s independence prompts Abram to use a fight among his and Lots herdsmen as a pretext for telling Lot – in overly pleasant words beneath which one can sense Abrams fear of the man Lot has become and of the hostility he must be harboring after years of ill-treatment – that they must part company forever. Lot leaves Abram, and is almost immediately captured as a prisoner of war. Perhaps Lots apparent independence was mere posturing, an attempt to force Abram to pay attention to him; perhaps Abram – through malice, negligence or ignorance – sent an unprepared youth out into the world to fend for himself. Perhaps Lot was just an unlucky victim of war. Either way, Lots capture is, for Abram, the moment when he realizes how he has failed in his responsibility to his nephew. In response to this realization, he unwaveringly risks his life and the lives of his men in battle in order to rescue Lot an act that strikes me as both confessional and reconciliatory. Abram understands what he has done wrong, and is desperate to repair his relationship with Lot. The extent of Abrams teshuva is hinted at through the use of an epithet. Two times in Chapter 14, Lot, the orphan once neglected by Abram, is referred to as his brother.
Abram wants to reconcile, but for Lot it is too little, too late, and he and Abram silently go their separate ways. It is the inability of Lot to accept Abram’s grand gesture of reconciliation, and Lot’s subsequent descent into depravity, that reveals what I think is the point that the Biblical author wishes us to seize that on our own quest to know God, we must be careful never to neglect those who are closest to us, lest they travel north, while we travel south, and we lose them forever.
The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.