Abraham and Lot’s Bedouin-Style Hospitality
Genesis 18 and 19 tell back to back stories highlighting the importance of hospitality. Although in both cases, the guests turn out to be angels, divine messengers or manifestations, this is not known to either Abraham or Lot when they first plead with the guests to stop at their respective abodes. Studies of the mores of contemporary Bedouin society—a culture of desert survival—sheds light on the values and cultural assumptions that form the backdrop for these stories.
Bedouin Desert Hospitality
Bedouin have always had to journey through unfamiliar stretches of the desert—on their way to a market, on a camel raid, on a distant visit, in search of camels pillaged or gone astray, in flight from revenge or enemies, or in search of fresh pasture. Such travel, however, would be impossible in the sparsely inhabited desert, devoid of inns and human shelter, unless people could expect unconditional access to the tents of others along the way.
Bedouin have therefore understood that hospitality in the desert is indispensable for life there and redounds to everyone’s mutual benefit. As their proverb holds, “Today’s host is tomorrow’s guest.” Hence, their reception of guests is automatic. As someone who has spent much of his life—since 1967—as an anthropologist studying Bedouins in the Negev, I have experienced this hospitality on countless occasions, and have long been struck by the light this can shed on the hospitality ethos in a number of biblical stories.
Desiring Guests in Bedouin Culture and Genesis
One side of a Bedouin tent is always wide open, to signify that all guests are welcome. Screening a guest by asking him about his tribal affiliation is frowned upon as uncouth. Bedouin law even stipulates that a guest has the right to remain for three and a third days.
In the Bedouin value system, which requires a tent owner to share with strangers what little he has, hospitality enjoys the same prestige as bravery in battle. One popular definition of a man is he who “strikes with a sword and feeds a guest meat.”
Owing to the generosity involved, therefore, a Bedouin derives honor from receiving guests. Accordingly, the Bedouin ethos is to desire them as if their appearance is a boon to the host, who understandably manifests a readiness to welcome them. Bedouin didactic poems counsel tent owners to remain home as much as possible for the purpose of “greeting and receiving guests.”
One poem tells a potential host in a remote place that, upon seeing travelers pass by, he must rise and “stand in front of the tent till they see you and turn.” In Bedouin encampments, moreover, tribe members traditionally argued over who was entitled to host a new guest, occasioning one of their number to act as a “judge of disputation,” that would settle the dispute according to stipulated legal rules.
Once a Bedouin becomes a host, he must seek to make his guest comfortable. On the assumption that guests have been traveling, water is traditionally provided for cleaning and cooling the feet, and drink is offered to quench thirst and revive the guest from fatigue.
The host then provides cushions or some improvisation of textiles on which guests can recline with ease; and when a guest enters a tent, the common instruction is to “elbow in” (kawwi), which in Bedouin parlance means to lean on one’s elbow, reclining on such a cushion.
Abraham’s extension of hospitality—although near semi-arid Hebron to where he would have migrated from the Negev in summer to afford his flocks sufficient water and pasture—makes sense against the backdrop of just such an ethos. First, as soon as he sees through the open side of his tent, three men nearby,
בראשית יח:ב …וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אָרְצָה. יח:ג וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.
Gen 18:2 … he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, 18:3 he said, "My lords, if I have found favor in your eyes, do not go on past your servant…”
To indicate the Bedouin desire for the honor gained from receiving guests, Abraham not only rose and ran to them, manifesting submission through a sign of goodwill—that is, by bowing humbly and calling himself their servant (‘avdekha)—but also implored them to stay, in order to preserve his good reputation. He says, “If you have any regard for me, please don’t pass me by.”
Then, Abraham offers his guests water and rest:
בראשית יח:ד יֻקַּח נָא מְעַט מַיִם וְרַחֲצוּ רַגְלֵיכֶם וְהִשָּׁעֲנוּ תַּחַת הָעֵץ.
Gen 18:4 Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.
Next, to revive them after their presumably not having eaten while traveling, Abraham offers to serve them torn bread (Heb. patt; Ar. fatt), still a standard Bedouin meal, generally served with soup. He is, of course, speaking in purposeful understatement, since he will offer them much more.
Often in Bedouin hospitality, an animal is butchered for the guest’s meal, and may take up to three hours to cook, being boiled to soften the meat. Therefore, to appease a guest’s hunger during that time, the host will give him a snack, as Abraham did. In Bedouin culture, this is typically the innards of the butchered goat or sheep, which may be cooked quickly by roasting them on the embers of the campfire.
Abraham behaves in the same manner:
בראשית יח:ו וַיְמַהֵר אַבְרָהָם הָאֹהֱלָה אֶל שָׂרָה וַיֹּאמֶר מַהֲרִי שְׁלֹשׁ סְאִים קֶמַח סֹלֶת לוּשִׁי וַעֲשִׂי עֻגוֹת. יח:ז וְאֶל הַבָּקָר רָץ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח בֶּן בָּקָר רַךְ וָטוֹב וַיִּתֵּן אֶל הַנַּעַר וַיְמַהֵר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתוֹ. יח:ח וַיִּקַּח חֶמְאָה וְחָלָב וּבֶן הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּתֵּן לִפְנֵיהֶם.
Gen 18:6 Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” 18:7 Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. 18:8 He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them.
In the end, Abraham serves them meat and cakes soaked with curds and buttermilk (the traditional mansaf served by Bedouin). The text does not tell us how the meat was prepared, though Abraham’s preparations have a note of urgency, saying to his servant to hurry and chose a soft and small calf, perhaps implying that this would allow for the much quicker roasting process than the longer boiling one.
The urgency here does not derive from a fear Abraham might have had that the guests are starving. Rather, his behavior expresses the norms of hospitality in desert culture, in which demonstrating great concern for the guest’s needs and comfort are an essential part of the hosting.
Thus, the meal must take place in an atmosphere of amity and attentiveness, and as part of showing his concern, the host will not share in the guest’s meal, but rather stand nearby in order to serve all his mealtime needs. I have experienced this on many such occasions, personally and in the company of Bedouin guests. And this, too, is reflected in Abraham’s behavior:
בראשית יח:ח …וְהוּא עֹמֵד עֲלֵיהֶם תַּחַת הָעֵץ וַיֹּאכֵלוּ.
Gen 18:8 …and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.
Lot’s behavior in the next chapter also derives from the Bedouin ethos, when two of the same guests appear in Sodom. Even though we now find him occupying a house, Lot too had been a tent-dweller (Gen. 13:12) and he still behaves like a Bedouin. The story begins when the two strangers enter the city gates:
בראשית יט:א …וַיַּרְא לוֹט וַיָּקָם לִקְרָאתָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה. יט:ב וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּה נָּא אֲדֹנַי סוּרוּ נָא אֶל בֵּית עַבְדְּכֶם וְלִינוּ וְרַחֲצוּ רַגְלֵיכֶם וְהִשְׁכַּמְתֶּם וַהֲלַכְתֶּם לְדַרְכְּכֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֹּא כִּי בָרְחוֹב נָלִין. יט:ג וַיִּפְצַר בָּם מְאֹד וַיָּסֻרוּ אֵלָיו וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל בֵּיתוֹ...
Gen 19:1 …When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them and, bowing low with his face to the ground, 19:2 he said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant's house to spend the night, and bathe your feet; then you may be on your way early.” But they said, “No, we will spend the night in the square.” 19:3 But he urged them strongly, so they turned his way and entered his house.
Lot too feeds his guests:
בראשית יט:ג …וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם מִשְׁתֶּה וּמַצּוֹת אָפָה וַיֹּאכֵלוּ.
Gen 19:3 He prepared a feast for them and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.
In this case, the specifics of the main meal are not mentioned—though one can presume that a “feast” includes meat—but we are told specifically that he baked them [Bedouin-style] matzot: unleavened bread.
Guests in Gibeah
We find this behavior later in the Bible, as well. In Judges 19, where the story’s protagonist cannot find anyone in Gibeah to host him and his concubine except an Ephraimite who happened to live there.
שופטים יט:יז וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת הָאִישׁ הָאֹרֵחַ בִּרְחֹב הָעִיר וַיֹּאמֶר הָאִישׁ הַזָּקֵן אָנָה תֵלֵךְ וּמֵאַיִן תָּבוֹא. יט:יח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו עֹבְרִים אֲנַחְנוּ מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה עַד יַרְכְּתֵי הַר אֶפְרַיִם מִשָּׁם אָנֹכִי וָאֵלֵךְ עַד בֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה וְאֶת בֵּית יְ־הוָה אֲנִי הֹלֵךְ וְאֵין אִישׁ מְאַסֵּף אוֹתִי הַבָּיְתָה. יט:יט וְגַם תֶּבֶן גַּם מִסְפּוֹא יֵשׁ לַחֲמוֹרֵינוּ וְגַם לֶחֶם וָיַיִן יֶשׁ לִי וְלַאֲמָתֶךָ וְלַנַּעַר עִם עֲבָדֶיךָ אֵין מַחְסוֹר כָּל דָּבָר. יט:כ וַיֹּאמֶר הָאִישׁ הַזָּקֵן שָׁלוֹם לָךְ רַק כָּל מַחְסוֹרְךָ עָלָי רַק בָּרְחוֹב אַל תָּלַן. יט:כא וַיְבִיאֵהוּ לְבֵיתוֹ ויבול [וַיָּבָל] לַחֲמוֹרִים וַיִּרְחֲצוּ רַגְלֵיהֶם וַיֹּאכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתּוּ.
Judg 19:17 He happened to see the wayfarer in the town square. "Where," the old man inquired, "are you going to, and where do you come from?" 19:18 He replied, "We are traveling from Bethlehem in Judah to the other end of the hill country of Ephraim. That is where I live. I made a journey to Bethlehem of Judah, and now I am on my way to the House of YHWH, and nobody has taken me indoors. 19:19 We have both bruised straw and feed for our donkeys, and bread and wine for me and your handmaid, and for the attendant with your servants. We lack nothing." 19:20 "Rest easy," said the old man. "Let me take care of all your needs. Do not on any account spend the night in the square." 19:21 And he took him into his house. He mixed fodder for the donkeys; then they bathed their feet and ate and drank.
A fourth biblical example of such hospitality appears in Exodus, when Reuel, the Midianite Bedouin of Sinai, hears from his daughters about Moses, the stranger who has helped them at the well:
שמות ב:כ וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל בְּנֹתָיו וְאַיּוֹ לָמָּה זֶּה עֲזַבְתֶּן אֶת הָאִישׁ קִרְאֶן לוֹ וְיֹאכַל לָחֶם.
Exod 2:20 He said to his daughters, "Where is he then? Why did you leave the man? Call him and let him eat bread."
Reuel is embarrassed that they haven’t offered the man hospitality, especially in light of his having helped them.
Even an Enemy Has Guest Rights
The value of the host acting as protector of those in his dwelling is so ingrained in the Bedouin mentality that even an enemy must be received as a guest. As the Bedouin proverb states, “A guest is inviolable, though he’s a foe.”
To get a sense of how far this goes, one documented story from the late 19th century tells of Himayd Hamdan al-Sufi, a Bedouin living in the Negev in the late 19th century, who was visited by Dahshan Muhammad Abu Sitta one night. Abu Sitta had murdered al-Sufi’s brother, and his appearance at al-Sufi’s tent was an accident. (He apparently got confused about where he was in the dark.)
Upon seeing Abu Sitta in the light of the fire that he then kindled to prepare coffee, al-Sufi, honoring the inviolability of a guest, immediately rose and darted for the women’s section of the tent, claiming that he had become a woman, unable to execute his revenge like a man, thus giving Abu Sitta a chance to flee the tent unharmed. (For a biblical account that inverts this rule, see addendum.)
Protecting One’s Guests
A Bedouin host is obliged to protect anyone who enters his tent from outside threats. For this purpose, Abraham, too, walks his guests a distance when they depart, confirming that they remain under his protection:
בראשית יח:טז וַיָּקֻמוּ מִשָּׁם הָאֲנָשִׁים... וְאַבְרָהָם הֹלֵךְ עִמָּם לְשַׁלְּחָם.
Gen 18:16 The men set out from there… Abraham walking with them to see them off.
Preventing harm from befalling anyone who has entered a man’s tent, who has thereby become his guest, is reflected in the legal directive, “Defend a guest if he’s done good or done bad; keep a violator at bay or pay for his faults.” Defending a guest may mean stopping assailants from assaulting their intended victim by admonishing the assailants, especially if they are still outside the tent. Such was the means chosen to protect a guest, for example, in 1899, by a tent owner from the Syrian Desert.
During a bloody raid that the Transjordanian Huwaytat tribe made on a camp of the Aneza Sibaa, one of the attackers, having killed a lad of the encampment and seeing his retreat blocked, rode his horse close to the tents, leapt into one belonging to a man called Rushayd Ibn Masrab, and asked for protection. Since Ibn Masrab, at that moment, was away fighting off the attackers, his daughter shouted instantly to a group of pursuers, “Stand still! There is a tent before you. He is under our protection.”
When her father finally arrived, he too posted himself in front of his tent, liberating the Huwayti from the enraged crowd. Even after the grandfather of the slain lad, learning that the killer was in Ibn Masrab’s tent, came and offered him twenty camels to turn the man over, the latter stood his ground, pleading: “Would you tarnish my tent, so that I should become an object of contempt?”
He was putting his life at risk for the safety of his guest, in keeping with the legal directive, “You will die in front of the one you’re protecting.” Moreover, this behavior came despite the fact that the protégé was not only an enemy, but also an enemy from a hostile tribal confederation, toward whom the normal niceties of Bedouin law need not apply.
Lot and the Ephraimite Protect Their Guests
The Bible describes this kind of extreme behavior in the story of Lot. With a Bedouin’s sense of responsibility for the safety of his male guests, Lot, in an effort to avert delivering them over to the lust of the rowdy Sodomites, proves willing to sacrifice his honor and the virtue of his virgin daughters to save his guests:
בראשית יט:ז וַיֹּאמַר אַל נָא אַחַי תָּרֵעוּ. יט:ח הִנֵּה נָא לִי שְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ אִישׁ אוֹצִיאָה נָּא אֶתְהֶן אֲלֵיכֶם וַעֲשׂוּ לָהֶן כַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵיכֶם רַק לָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵל אַל תַּעֲשׂוּ דָבָר כִּי עַל כֵּן בָּאוּ בְּצֵל קֹרָתִי.
Gen 19:7 And he said, “I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. 19:8 Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
The Ephraimite in Gibeah has the same reaction:
שופטים יט:כג וַיֵּצֵא אֲלֵיהֶם הָאִישׁ בַּעַל הַבַּיִת וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אַל אַחַי אַל תָּרֵעוּ נָא אַחֲרֵי אֲשֶׁר בָּא הָאִישׁ הַזֶּה אַל בֵּיתִי אַל תַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת הַנְּבָלָה הַזֹּאת. כד הִנֵּה בִתִּי הַבְּתוּלָה וּפִילַגְשֵׁהוּ אוֹצִיאָה נָּא אוֹתָם וְעַנּוּ אוֹתָם וַעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם הַטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵיכֶם וְלָאִישׁ הַזֶּה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ דְּבַר הַנְּבָלָה הַזֹּאת.
Judg 19:23 The owner of the house went out and said to them, “Please, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Since this man has entered my house, do not perpetrate this outrage. 19:24 Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. Let me bring them out to you. Have your pleasure of them, do what you like with them; but don't do that outrageous thing to this man.”
From a plain ethical perspective, one cannot condone allowing the rape of two innocent women in order to protect a man or two. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine a father making such an outrageous choice of an outsider over his own flesh and blood. Nevertheless, against the backdrop of Bedouin-style, desert hospitality, we can understand that allowing a guest to be harmed under one’s own roof was a sin beyond forgiveness, which some, at least, would do anything to avoid.
Yael Breaks the Host’s Code
The story of Yael and Sisera uses this code as the backdrop for an inversion of this host-like behavior. In the book of Judges (4:18–19), the Canaanite enemy general Sisera escapes from the battle:
שופטים ד:יז וְסִיסְרָא נָס בְּרַגְלָיו אֶל אֹהֶל יָעֵל אֵשֶׁת חֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי כִּי שָׁלוֹם בֵּין יָבִין מֶלֶךְ חָצוֹר וּבֵין בֵּית חֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי. ד:יח וַתֵּצֵא יָעֵל לִקְרַאת סִיסְרָא וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו סוּרָה אֲדֹנִי סוּרָה אֵלַי אַל תִּירָא וַיָּסַר אֵלֶיהָ הָאֹהֱלָה וַתְּכַסֵּהוּ בַּשְּׂמִיכָה.
Judg 4:17 Sisera, meanwhile, had fled on foot to the tent of Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was friendship between King Yabin of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite. 18 Yael came out to greet Sisera and said to him, "Come in, my lord, come in here, do not be afraid." So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket.
Notably, Yael does not begin by offering him food. Partly, this is because he is there to hide from enemies, but this may also foreshadow the fact that Yael has not really accepted him as a guest with guest rights, but has other plans. Nevertheless, Sisera is thirsty:
שופטים ד:יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ הַשְׁקִינִי נָא מְעַט מַיִם כִּי צָמֵאתִי וַתִּפְתַּח אֶת נֹאוד הֶחָלָב וַתַּשְׁקֵהוּ וַתְּכַסֵּהוּ.
Judg 4:19 He said to her, "Please let me have some water; I am thirsty." She opened a skin of milk and gave him some to drink; and she covered him again.
Again, it is noticeable that she does not exactly comply with his request, as emphasized in the Song of Deborah in chapter 5:
שופטים ה:כה מַיִם שָׁאַל חָלָב נָתָנָה בְּסֵפֶל אַדִּירִים הִקְרִיבָה חֶמְאָה.
Judg 5:25 He asked for water, she gave milk; in a princely bowl she offered buttermilk.
At first, this seems like classic Bedouin hospitality, going beyond the minimum, but as we soon see, Yael’s goal was to gain his trust and perhaps put him to sleep:
שופטים ד:כא וַתִּקַּח יָעֵל אֵשֶׁת חֶבֶר אֶת יְתַד הָאֹהֶל וַתָּשֶׂם אֶת הַמַּקֶּבֶת בְּיָדָהּ וַתָּבוֹא אֵלָיו בַּלָּאט וַתִּתְקַע אֶת הַיָּתֵד בְּרַקָּתוֹ וַתִּצְנַח בָּאָרֶץ וְהוּא נִרְדָּם וַיָּעַף וַיָּמֹת.
Judg 4:21 Then Yael wife of Heber took a tent pin and grasped the mallet. She approached him stealthily and drove the pin through his temple till it went down to the ground when he was fast asleep from exhaustion, and he died.
The story of Yael has often been described as one of inversion: A woman is the killer, she uses tent tools to do the killing, and she uses the life-giving milk to lull her victim to sleep. I would add a more fundamental inversion: She inverts her desert hospitality by using its forms as a way to fool Sisera into making himself vulnerable, killing him in her very tent.
In general, such behavior would be the ultimate expression of wickedness, but in this case, the Israelite author condones and even praises the behavior because he views it as an act of warfare against the military leader of a people who were an existential threat to the Israelites. As depicted in the Song of Deborah:
שופטים ה:ו …חָדְלוּ אֳרָחוֹת וְהֹלְכֵי נְתִיבוֹת יֵלְכוּ אֳרָחוֹת עֲקַלְקַלּוֹת. ה:ז חָדְלוּ פְרָזוֹן בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל חָדֵלּוּ…
Judg 5:6 …Caravans ceased and walkers had to go by roundabout paths. 5:7 Protection ceased, ceased in Israel…
This is the exception that proves the rule, however, since it is written against the backdrop of desert-hospitality culture, according to which guest rights are inviolable.
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November 11, 2019
October 28, 2020
Dr. Clinton Bailey is a leading authority on Bedouin culture, and has done fieldwork in Sinai and the Negev for the past 50 years. His B.A. is from the Hebrew University; his M.A. and Ph.D from Columbia University. His publications include, Bedouin Poetry (OUP 1991), A Culture of Desert Survival: Bedouin Proverbs (YUP, 2004), Bedouin Law (YUP, 2010) and, most recently, Bedouin Culture in the Bible (YUP, 2018). Bailey was born and raised in Buffalo, NY and made Aliya in 1958. In 1994, he was awarded the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award for his efforts to obtain civil rights for Bedouin in Israel.
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