After the Flood, God promises never again to destroy the entire world, but S’dom and Gomorrah are not the entire world; they are two cities. S’dom and Gomorrah are incinerated when, in cinematic technicolor drama, fire and brimstone rain down from heaven. Lot and his family escape the city but his sons-in-law refuse to heed his warning and do not leave, and then Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. As a result, Lot and his two daughters are the sole survivors of the catastrophic annihilation. They find their way to a cave, which they make their home and where the daughters engage in incest with their father.
The older [daughter] now said to the younger [sister], “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night they made their father drink wine, and the older one went in and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. (Genesis 19:31-33)
The following night this scene is repeated with the younger daughter. There are so many troubling questions about this story. Let’s dig in.
First, we find the arayot (sexual prohibitions) enumerated in Leviticus chapter 18. A man may not have sex with his father’s wife, or his sister or half-sister (whether they live in the same household or not), his granddaughter, aunt, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, or a woman and her daughter. Do you notice a glaring omission? Torah does not explicitly forbid a man from having sex with his own biological daughter. How can that be? Many explanations have been offered, ranging from the argument that father-daughter incest is so taboo, it was unnecessary for Torah to list it; to the argument that implicit in the prohibition against having sex with a woman and her daughter is the prohibition against a man having sexing with his own daughter. Concerning the first, if strong taboos need not be covered by Torah’s strictures, why does Torah bother to mention murder and theft, as well as a host of blood taboos that constitute many of the laws of tum’ah and taharah (ritual purity)? Concerning the second, having sex with both a mother and her daughter is termed zimah (depravity), a term not applied to the other arayot in Chapter 18. Torah has in mind not one’s wife and her daughter, but another woman and that woman’s daughter.
Torah appears to obviate the accusation that Lot committed forbidden incest in three ways: First, Lot is drunk and unaware. Torah is telling us that Lot is not a conscious partner to the act. One cannot help asking how, if he is not conscious, he manages to be a partner at all and successfully impregnate both daughters. Second, it is not Lot who approaches his daughters, but the daughters who initiate sex with their unsuspecting father. Third, the daughters fear that they, like Noah and his family, are the only people on earth, and they take it upon themselves to repopulate the world in the only way possible (Genesis Rabbah 51:8). We noted that their husbands remained in S’dom and died, and their mother turned into a pillar of salt.
But are they the only living souls? Clearly not, and Torah makes it clear that they know this. Just prior to the daughters’ conversation with one another concerning their father, we are told:
Lot went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country with his daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar; and he and his two daughters lived in a cave. (Genesis 19:30)
Lot and his daughters pass through the city of Zoar. How can they pass through a city without encountering the people living there? And why should Lot be afraid to live in Zoar? How can the daughters, who were just recently in Zoar, think there were no other people on earth? Rashi says Lot was afraid to settle in Zoar due to its proximity to S’dom, but he does not say that Zoar was decimated in the deluge of fire and brimstone. Somewhat conversely, Midrash Genesis Rabbah 51:6 claims that Zoar, too, was destroyed in the sulfurous rain of fire. If that were the case, how could Lot and his daughters have visited it after the destruction?
I cannot help wondering if an earlier version of the story had Lot taking his daughters through Zoar and far away from any semblance of civilization. A cave. A cave? People lived, if not in houses, at least in tents, not caves. The only cave mentioned in Genesis, which we will come to in chapter 23, is the burial cave in Machpelah. Far from the madding crowd, Lot could do with his daughters what he had readily offered and thought perfectly fine for the Sodomites only the day before.
The story of Lot and his daughters evokes an image of the story of Noah. Immediately following the Flood—a watery deluge of universal proportion, according to the Torah—Noah gets drunk and something enigmatic happens in his tent. As Torah tells the story, Noah’s son Ham “sees” his father naked and trots off to bring his brothers to the peep show. We are to believe that the extent of Ham’s sin was his disrespect toward his father. But Torah provides hints that his encounter with his father was sexual. Torah reports that, Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him (Genesis 9:24). Not seen, but done. And in any case, Leviticus uses the expression le’galot ervah (to uncover nakedness) repeatedly in chapter 18 to connote sexual intercourse; Leviticus 20:17 explicitly says to “see nakedness” when it intends sexual intercourse. Is it possible, then, that the sin of Ham, was incest? Moreover, perhaps the story about Noah, has also reversed the generations: perhaps Noah initiated sex with his son, Ham.
It seems to me that we may have worked-over versions of two deeply troubling stories of incest that occur in the aftermath of destruction raining down from heaven. The original stories may have featured: in the first story, a father initiating a sexual relationship with his son; and in the second story, a father initiating a sexual relationship with his daughters. The versions preserved in Torah neatly invert the stories: Both fathers are sound asleep when the sexual act happens. It is not Noah who initiates sexual contact, but rather Ham. I presume this is in order to protect the image of Noah. After all, Noah is ish tzaddik tamim haya b’dorotav “a righteous man, above reproach in his generation (Genesis 6:9). Lot, even less than Noah, could be thought of as a man who committed incest with his daughters. He is, after all, the nephew of Abraham. Hence, his daughters are said to initiate the incest. While Ham is certainly not a child—he is old enough to be married—Torah does not tell us the age of Lot’s daughters. They could well be 13 or 14 years old. When was the last time you heard of someone raping his or her sleeping parent?
Aside from being either a curious observation of textual transmission and emendation (or, if you prefer, an outrageous suggestion) what can be garnered from reading the text this way? I would hold that it can serve as a sober reminder of the danger of sweeping adult incestuous relationships with children—indeed any and all child sexual abuse—under the carpet by minimizing them, concealing them, denying them, changing the story, and blaming the victim.
The University of New Hampshire boasts a “Crimes Against Children Research Center.” Studies by Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the Center, provide these chilling statistics:
- 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse;
- Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident;
- During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
- Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
- Children are most vulnerable to child sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 13.
Understood this way, the story of Lot and his daughters helps shine the spotlight on the primary offenders of child sexual abuse: most sexually abused children know their offender, and often that offender is a relative (such as a father, uncle, or brother), or a coach, scout leader, teacher, or member of the clergy—someone the child should be able to trust to protect him or her.
With this in mind, here are resources for learning to recognize signs that a child has been sexually abused:
Children are the heritage of Adonai, the fruit of the womb is [God’s] reward. (Psalm 127:3)
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman