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, as recorded in the Book of Genesis and rabbinic texts, 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.