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Who Was Lot? Hero or Villain?

Who Was Lot? Hero or Villain?

The Bible and Midrash Tell Us It’s Complicated…


The Torah is filled with good guys and bad guys. And then there are those who don’t quite fit into either category. Was Lot, nephew of Abraham, a hero or a villain? As we go through his somewhat contradictory life story, I’ll leave it to you to decide...

Orphaned at an Early Age

Not much is known about Lot’s mother, but we do know that his father was Haran, brother of Abraham, who died at a relatively young age.

The Midrash gives us the backstory of Haran’s death:

Nimrod [the mightiest man of the era] said to Abraham, “I shall cast you into the fire and let your G‑d to whom you bow come and save you from it!” Haran was standing there and said to himself: “What shall I do? If Abraham wins, I shall say: ‘I am of Abraham’s’; if Nimrod wins, I shall say, ‘I am of Nimrod’s.’ ” When Abraham went into the furnace and survived, Haran was asked: “Whose are you?” and he answered: “I am Abraham’s!” So, they took him and threw him into the furnace, and his innards were burned and he died before Terah, his father. This is the meaning of the verse “And Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah.”12

After his father’s death, Lot travelled with his grandfather Terah and then later with Abraham to the land of Canaan.

The Midrash also tells us that Lot bore a striking resemblance to his famous uncle, Abraham.3

Abraham and Lot Quarrel

When famine hit the Land of Canaan in the year 2023 from Creation (1738 BCE), Abraham, together with his wife Sarah and nephew Lot, travelled to Egypt. Fearing that the Egyptians would take his beautiful wife Sarah and kill him, Abraham concocted a plan in which he claimed that Sarah was really his sister. Lot followed along with Abraham’s plan and remained silent, not revealing their secret. According to the commentaries, it was in the merit of this act that Lot himself was saved from the city of Sodom (more on that later).4

As Abraham and Lot returned from Egypt, laden with gold, silver and cattle,5 a quarrel broke out between their shepherds (and according to the Midrash, between Abraham and Lot as well6). The verse tells us that their quarrel was due to their vast possessions and that the land could not “bear them both dwelling together.” The Midrash explains that Lot’s herdsmen pastured their animals in fields belonging to others, while Abraham’s herdsmen rebuked them for committing robbery. Lot’s herdsmen responded, “The land was given to Abraham, who has no heir, so Lot will inherit him, and therefore this is not robbery.” However, the verse continues, “The Canaanites and the Perizzites were then dwelling in the land,” i.e., Abraham had not yet been awarded its possession.7

Additionally, the Zohar tells us that Lot had some leanings toward idolatry at that time.8

As a kinsman of Lot, Abraham wished to keep the peace, and they decided to split up. Although Lot knew that the people of Sodom were exceedingly wicked,9 he journeyed eastward and pitched his tent near Sodom, while Abraham settled in Canaan.

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

Chedarlaomer, the powerful king of Elam, together with the help of three neighboring kings, crushed the rebellious cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zebaim and Bela (also called Zoar), taking many of the inhabitants captive—including Lot.

When a messenger with the news of Lot’s capture reached Abraham in the plains of Mamre, Abraham, without hesitation about the overwhelming odds, immediately gathered his 318 men10 to pursue Chedarlaomer’s army. He was miraculously victorious and freed all the captives, including his nephew Lot.

The Sins of Sodom Tip the Scales

The abundance of wealth and luxury caused inhabitants of Sodom and the surrounding cities to become increasingly wicked. In the year 2048 (1714 BCE), 25 years after Lot settled in Sodom, G‑d finally decided it was time to destroy Sodom.

The Talmud describes many of the sins and cruelties of the inhabitants of Sodom, including immorality and bloodshed. But they were particularly against the concept of charity. The Talmud describes one especially cruel act that illustrates this:

A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. On the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. When the dying cries of this maiden pierced the heavens final judgement was rendered to destroy the cities.11

According to a Midrash, this maiden was non other than Plitith, one of Lot’s daughter’s.12

G‑d Sends Angels to Save Lot and His Family

G‑d informed Abraham that He would destroy Sodom, and Abraham pleaded on their behalf, asking if G‑d would save the city in the merit of at least 10 righteous people who lived there.

According to some, the number 10 was specific. Abraham thought that Lot, together with his wife Idith (a Sodomite woman), two married daughters and two unmarried daughters, together with their husbands and fiances, would amount to 10 worthy people. However, none of the sons-in-law were worthy.13 G‑d sent two angels to Sodom, one to destroy the city and another to rescue Lot and his family.

Here’s it how it happened:

Although he had been associating with the Sodomites for many years, Lot could never forget completely his uncle Abraham’s teachings and way of life and did not share in the Sodomites’ cruel treatment of unfortunate passers-by.

Lot had just been appointed judge in Sodom and was sitting at the gates of Sodom when he saw two strangers. He greeted them and invited them to his tent, although he knew full well that he risked his life by doing so. The strangers at first refused, but after Lot persuaded them, they finally agreed to follow him into his house.

The people of Sodom, having learned of the presence of strangers, surrounded Lot’s house. They demanded that Lot give up the two visitors to be dealt with “in the usual manner.” As he tried to quiet them, he told them, “Behold now, I have two daughters who were not intimate with a man. I will bring them out to you, and do to them as you see fit; only to these men do nothing, because they have come under the shadow of my roof."14 This statement is perhaps the most revealing of Lot’s character. On the one hand, he was ready to put his life in danger to save his guests; on the other hand, he didn’t hesitate to offer up his own daughters to the mob outside.

The angels pulled Lot back into the house and struck the attacking mob with blindness, so that they could not force their way into Lot’s house.

The angels told Lot to take his entire family and leave the city immediately, but Lot’s sons-in-law were Sodomites and refused to leave their homes. In the morning, the angels took Lot, his wife and two single daughters, and led them out of the town, forbidding them to turn back and look at the city. Lot’s wife, Idith, couldn't resist, and as she turned around to see what happened, she turned into a pillar of salt.

The Seeds of the Messiah

Lot and his two daughters fled to a cave in the mountains. Finding some wine in the cave and fearing that most of mankind was destroyed, the two daughters got their father drunk and took turns sleeping with him. Both of them begot a child from that union. The elder daughter called her child Moab, and the younger one called her child Ben Ami.

This is the last record we have of Lot, and perhaps a most fitting conclusion. On the one hand, the last we hear of him, his daughters get him intoxicated and have intimate relations with him. On the other hand, the mystics point out, the descendents of Moab include Ruth, King David—and eventually the Moshiach himself. Thus, perhaps the best answer to our question whether Lot was a hero or not is... it’s complicated.

Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 38:11.
Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 41:6.
Midrash Rabbah, ibid., cited by Rashi on Genesis 19:29.
See Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 41:6.
Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 41:5.
Zohar 1:84a.
See Talmud, Nedarim 32a, and Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 43:2 (cited by Rashi), that according to some, he gathered just one man, his servant Eliezer, whose name is the numerical value of 318.
Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a.
See Sefer Hayashar.
See Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 49:25, and commentary Matnat Kehunah ad loc.
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Mlki Brockton Ma January 9, 2017

Lot According to the story Lot had many different phases which the Talmud brings out such acts of being aggressive . Seems to me he was allowing himself to be controlled . Not thinking for himself and his actions were not acceptable . My daughter has a saying kindness is a virtue that one should have . So happens I totally agree with her . Family should always come first and Lot actions to his own family are unforgiving . Reply

me&you November 23, 2016

The strangest portions of this story, is not that Lot was saved by angels, and not that he slept with his daughters when he was drunk. The strangest is that he continued to stay in that town even after the town supposedly murdered his daughter for doing something good, wouldn't any other person pack up and leave after being treated in such a vile manner? I find that detail very appalling. It's also interesting to see that God wanted very much to save Lot, so he came to abraham to tell him of his plan, knowing abraham would plead for lot's life. Reply

Bobby Hooks Macon, GA November 23, 2016

Brimstone This is a pretty loose midrashic commentary. The point that should be made is that Lot did not condone the homosexual immorality of the "citizens" of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was this sexual sin which God calls an "abomination" in His Sight, that drew His Righteous Indignation, Anger and Wrath. He sent fire and sulphur (brimstone) down from the sky which obliterated the cities of the Jordan Plain along which they sat. This caused that area to become the lowest point (below sea level) on earth. It still smells sulphurous today. How anyone with a grain of sense could think that God now condones lgbt immoral, unnatural, sexual activity is beyond rational understanding. He hates these sins and those that commit them. (Psalm 7:11) Reply

Kendrick Latimer Belton, SC November 20, 2016

Abraham's love for Lot Abraham's love for Lot proves being in right standing and being righteous are different matters. As we see in the Torah, Lot was far from righteous. Despite his shortcomings, Abraham went to great lengths to protect him. It's a lesson for those who boast in works of righteousness. Lot's righteousness did not warrant Abraham's attention. This is good news for us all. Abraham is our model. He is the one we should emulate. He loves Lot despite his deeds. Reply

Tamar Tessler New York November 18, 2016

It alway's intrigued me that Lot is given such credit for not revealing that Sarah was Avraham's wife - after all she was Lot's sister too. How wicked can one be to betray your own sister.
On all other counts I guess he's much like all of us, sometimes shining and sometimes going low.... Reply

Luis Roizman São Paulo November 17, 2016

All characters of the Torah are controversial. Including Hashem. It is not a manichaean work. This is why we recognize ourselves in it. Reply

me&you November 16, 2016

Could Lot have known he was entertaining angels and because of this offered even his unwed daughters? Or was he simply a very bad man? Although Lot seems to have inherited some bad character traits from his deceased father, it looks like his family were very hospitable to travelers and the poor and perhaps that was why they were shown mercy. Abraham seems to have loved Lot a lot :) Reply

Tiago G. Lopes Brazil November 13, 2016

Interesting Extremely interesting this explanation, because I never understand the custom of offer his own daughters in exchange the visitors. This is not custom of the epoc or a people, but another bad character trait of Lot. Thanks! Reply