The Legacy of Sodom

Vayera By :  Steven Philp JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Oct 26, 2018 / 5779 | Torah Commentary | Gender

Content note: this commentary discusses sexual violence.

Following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, Lot and his two daughters flee to the mountains above Zoar. They are stricken with fear, having witnessed the devastation of the two cities. They grieve the dead, a vast number that includes Lot’s wife, the mother of the two women, who—having paused to look back toward Sodom—was turned into a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:23–26). It is necessary to understand the emotional frame within which they are operating, as it underlies the following narrative.

After some time dwelling in the mountains, the eldest daughter comes to the terrifying realization that they may be the last remnant of humankind. “Our father is old,” she confides to her sister. “And there is not a man left on earth, who can come to us in the common manner” (19:31). She proposes that they give their father wine and—in his inebriated state—have sex with him. Upon conceiving, they would preserve their familial line and ensure the survival of humankind.

When addressing issues of sex, coercion, and consent, the ability to identify and ascribe agency can be difficult. This is particularly true in this narrative, where Lot—despite being the target of violence— inhabits several positions of authority vis-à-vis his daughters, by way of age, gender, and family role. Yet he is also intoxicated, rendering him less capable and aware than the two women. If this is a case of coerced or unwanted sexual behavior, who bears responsibility?

Several commentators blame the daughters. Their view is—in part—sympathetic: the two women were motivated by fear. Rashi (on v.31) argues that when the eldest stated, “There is not a man left on earth,” this demonstrates her belief that the entire world has been destroyed, as in the time of the Flood. This sentiment is echoed by Ibn Ezra, who notes in his commentary on the same verse that—from the daughters’ vantage point—it appeared as if everything had been covered by fire and brimstone; this is synonymous to the experience of Noah, who saw that everything had been swallowed by water. They act to ensure their security, and the future of humankind.

Even though the daughters acted out of fear, it is clear that this is an act of sexual violence. Radak notes that the purpose of the wine in v. 32 was to intoxicate Lot, so that he would not be aware of what was happening. Alcohol is commonly used to facilitate unwanted sexual behavior, as it inhibits physical and psychological resistance; this is particularly true when the perpetrator is concerned about the victim’s ability to refuse, as may have been the case with Lot—an older man—contra his two daughters. Alcohol limits the capacity for self-advocacy.

Yet, it is important to name the social landscape that serves as the backdrop to this story. The daughters are also the victims of sexual violence; only a few verses earlier, their father had offered them to a mob of aggressive Sodomites. While it would then seem that Lot was the first to transgress normative boundaries, it is clear—from their behavior and the behavior of their neighbors—that all parties were operating within a society indifferent toward consent. Each was shaped by social structures (sometimes referred to as rape culture) where the expression of power and desire through violence has become normalized.

As we grapple with the overwhelming prevalence of sexual violence in our communities, we must hold perpetrators accountable. However, we also need to take a close look at the social structures that have facilitated its occurrence; it is clear that we are the inheritors of a culture that normalizes the coexistence of sex and coercion. It is incumbent upon us to create a new normal, teaching our children the value of consent and the immutability of bodily autonomy. The responsibility is ours. Only together can we break the cycle of violence that claimed both Lot and his daughters.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).