Enter George Athas in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 16.5. His article, “Has Lot Lost the Plot? Detail Omission and a Reconsideration of Genesis 19,” draws attention to something I had never noticed (and having preached twice and written once on that narrative in the last two years, I feel rather foolish about it): the fact that the narrator has deliberately omitted a crucial detail in his telling of the story, which we only find out at the end. It is, effectively, a twist, and a powerful one at that.
It goes like this. The men of Sodom surround Lot’s house and ask him to bring out their (angelic) guests, because they want to have sex with them (19:4-5). Lot asks them not to act so wickedly (6-7), and then says, “Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof” (8). The Sodomites reject the offer, and try and break the door down (9), at which point the angels pull Lot inside, strike the Sodomites with blindness, and urge Lot and his family to leave the city (10-13), which after some dithering they eventually do (14-25).
Yet in all the nighttime argy-bargy, we are unexpectedly given a detail (previously omitted) that completely changes our interpretation of Lot’s offer: we learn that Lot’s daughters are married. Lot, the narrator somewhat tautologously explains, has “sons-in-law who were married to his daughters” (14). This changes everything. His daughters are not “two daughters who have not known any man” (8a). Nor are they even in the house at the time (8b), as the angels’ question (12) and the fact that Lot “went out” to speak to his sons-in-law (14), clearly indicate. Lot was lying, presumably to buy time, and thereby save his guests from molestation. And the narrator wants us to see it.
Unfortunately, this narrative sleight-of-hand is so clever that, as Athas points out, “most translators are fooled too,” translating the crucial verse 14 as “who were to marry his daughters” or equivalent. This, he argues, is not warranted by the Hebrew, and finds no support in the Septuagint either, which simply says τοὺς γαμβροὺς αὐτοῦ τοὺς εἰληφότας τὰς θυγατέρας αὐτοῦ. Lot was tricking the angels, the narrator was tricking his readers, and in doing so they have tricked everyone else. Nice work.
Lot, as we know, does not exactly come through the text smelling of roses, having drunken sex with his daughters before the chapter is out (in a passage intriguingly reminiscent of Noah). But with respect to his sojourn in Sodom, at least, we can see why Peter referred to him as “righteous Lot.” What a relief.
(HT: Alastair Roberts)