Lot and His Daughters’ Motives for Their Incestuous Union
Lot’s Daughters – The Biblical Account (Genesis 19:30–37)
In Genesis 19, Lot and his family flee Sodom after being warned by angels of the impending destruction of the city and the neighboring city Gomorrah. While the angels warned them not to look back, Lot’s wife turns back to gaze upon the destruction and is subsequently turned into a pillar of salt (19:26). Now left with only his two daughters and frightened by the experience, Lot removes himself and his daughters from the city of Zoar, to which they escaped, to live in a cave in the hills away from any civilization.
Lot’s daughters are concerned about their solitude and the possibility of preserving humanity, so they decide to get their father drunk and have intercourse with him with the goal of getting pregnant (Gen 19:31–33):
וַתֹּאמֶר הַבְּכִירָה אֶל הַצְּעִירָה אָבִינוּ זָקֵן וְאִישׁ אֵין בָּאָרֶץ לָבוֹא עָלֵינוּ כְּדֶרֶךְ כָּל הָאָרֶץ: לְכָ֨ה נַשְׁקֶ֧ה אֶת־אָבִ֛ינוּ יַ֖יִן וְנִשְׁכְּבָ֣ה עִמּ֑וֹ וּנְחַיֶּ֥ה מֵאָבִ֖ינוּ זָֽרַע׃ וַתַּשְׁקֶ֧יןָ אֶת־אֲבִיהֶ֛ן יַ֖יִן בַּלַּ֣יְלָה ה֑וּא וַתָּבֹ֤א הַבְּכִירָה֙ וַתִּשְׁכַּ֣ב אֶת־אָבִ֔יהָ וְלֹֽא־יָדַ֥ע בְּשִׁכְבָ֖הּ וּבְקׄוּמָֽהּ׃
And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.” So they made their father drink wine that night; and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.
The concerns of the elder daughter, who is the only one of the two daughters to speak, are twofold: their father is old and may die soon, and that there are no other men available besides him with whom they could conceive children. Although it is not clear whether the daughters think that they are indeed the last three humans or whether they simply do not have access to other men, they certainly do not take their father into their counsel.
The verb used by the older daughter for giving their father wine, שקה, also means “to irrigate the ground.” Thus, the daughters do not simply intend to pour their dad a glass of wine, but to fully “saturate” him, that is, get him very drunk, before having sex with him. The next night, the younger daughter follows suit (Gen 19:34-36):
וַֽיְהִי֙ מִֽמָּחֳרָ֔ת וַתֹּ֤אמֶר הַבְּכִירָה֙ אֶל־הַצְּעִירָ֔ה הֵן־שָׁכַ֥בְתִּי אֶ֖מֶשׁ אֶת־אָבִ֑י נַשְׁקֶ֨נּוּ יַ֜יִן גַּם־הַלַּ֗יְלָה וּבֹ֙אִי֙ שִׁכְבִ֣י עִמּ֔וֹ וּנְחַיֶּ֥ה מֵאָבִ֖ינוּ זָֽרַע׃ וַתַּשְׁקֶ֜יןָ גַּ֣ם בַּלַּ֧יְלָה הַה֛וּא אֶת־אֲבִיהֶ֖ן יָ֑יִן וַתָּ֤קָם הַצְּעִירָה֙ וַתִּשְׁכַּ֣ב עִמּ֔וֹ וְלֹֽא־יָדַ֥ע בְּשִׁכְבָ֖הּ וּבְקֻמָֽהּ׃ וַֽתַּהֲרֶ֛יןָ שְׁתֵּ֥י בְנֽוֹת־ל֖וֹט מֵאֲבִיהֶֽן׃
On the next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Look, I lay last night with my father; let us make him drink wine tonight also; then you go in and lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.” So they made their father drink wine that night also; and the younger rose, and lay with him; and he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.
The description of the daughters as inebriating their father in order to carry out their plan emphasizes Lot’s passive role in the seduction. Given the daughters initiative here, it is not surprising that they name the sons born from these illicit unions.
What Is in a Name?
The eldest daughter names her son Moab (מואב), which means “from my father.” explicitly pointing to the union as an incestuous one. The younger names her son Ben-Ammi בן עמי, which means “son of my clan,” a more veiled reference to the situation. While the names of the sons are descriptive of their conception, they serve a negative etiological function for Israel’s neighbors (and frequent enemies), the Moabites and the Ammonites. This etiology does not reflect overtly on how the narrative portrays the two daughters or Lot, although it does serve to demean them indirectly.
Producing the Messiah: Genesis Rabbah
Genesis Rabbah portrays Lot’s daughters and their choices in a decidedly positive light, while exacerbating Lot’s culpability.
One of its main justifications for the daughters’ actions is the eventual arrival of the king-messiah, who will arrive through the line of Lot via Moab. Thus the midrash links the story of Lot’s daughters and the book of Ruth, in which the Moabite Ruth marries the Israelite man, Boaz, and conceives a child, Obed, who becomes the grandfather to King David.
This is made explicit in Genesis Rabbah 51:8:
ר’ תנחומא משום רבי שמואל ונחיה מאבינו זרע ונחיה מאבינו בן אין כתיב כאן אלא ונחיה מאבינו זרע אותו זרע שהוא בא ממקום אחר ואי זה זה מלך המשיח.
R. Tanhuma in the name of Samuel: “What is written is not, ‘So that we may keep a child alive from our father,’ but rather, ‘so we may preserve offspring through our father.’ That is to say, the king-messiah, who will come from another source.”
According to this understanding, the daughters may not believe that they are part of the only family left on earth, but intuit that it is essential that Lot’s line continues, since the king-messiah is destined to come from this line.
Lot Was Less Drunk than He Appeared
According to the midrash, Lot is not without fault in the situation, even though Gen 19:33, especially through the use of the verb שקה, literally “irrigate,” seems to remove any blame that may be placed on Lot based on his drunkenness. However, Genesis Rabbah 51:8 states that while Lot was drunk when his first daughter lay with him, he was sober enough to know when she got up. This is based on a peculiarity in the Hebrew text of v. 33, which includes a supralinear dot, on top of the vav in the word ובקומה (when she arose).
In general, the inclusion of such a dot—called puncta extraordinaria in academic parlance—was a sign that the scribe believed the letter should be erased. Although the simple intent of the scribe in this case could merely have been to remove a mater lectionis (the vav that functions as a vowel), i.e., to advocate for the defective spelling (ובקמה) over the plene (ובקומה), Genesis Rabbah believed that the dot in this case was meant to cast doubt on the word itself. According to the midrash:
נקוד על וי“ו של ובקומה שבשכבה לא ידע בקומה ידע.
There is a dot written over the letter vav in the word ‘when she arose,’ meaning that while he did not know when she lay down, he did know when she got up.
According to the midrash, while Lot did not know what was going to happen when he drank the wine, he was aware of the fact that he had sex with his eldest daughter by the time she left his bed. This would also suggest that his willingness to drink the wine on the second night means that he was complicit in the sexual relations that he subsequently had with his younger daughter.
Lot Desired His Daughters
In theory, this erasure might reflect Lot’s passiveness; he understood why his daughters wanted him to impregnate them, but could not bring himself to take an active, sober role in the plan. Genesis Rabbah 51:9, however, takes a much more negative view of the matter, suggesting that Lot actually desired his daughters:
א”ר נחמן בר חנין כל מי שהוא להוט אחר בולמוס של עריות סוף שמאכילין אותו מבשרו רבי יודן דמן גלוי ורבי שמואל בר נחמן תרויהון אמרי משום רבי אליהו עיני אין אנו יודעים אם לוט נתאוה לבנותיו אם בנותיו נתאוו לו מן מה דכתיב לתאוה יבקש נפרד הוי לוט נתאוה לבנותיו ובנותיו לא נתאוו לו.
Said R. Nahman bar Hanan, “Whoever lusts after fornication in the end will be fed with his own flesh.” R. Yudan of Galliah and R. Samuel bar Nahman, both in the name of R. Elijah Ene: “We do not know whether Lot lusted for his daughters, or his daughters lusted for him. On the basis of what is said in the following verse: ‘He who separates himself seeks desire’ (Prov. 18:1), it is clear that Lot lusted after his daughter.”
Thus, while the narrative in Genesis absolves Lot of any choice by describing him as completely intoxicated and totally unaware, Genesis Rabbah puts negative agency in Lot’s hands, accusing him of desiring and even bringing about the situation which led his daughters to seduce him.
The sages justify their interpretation through the obscure verse from Proverbs 18:1, “He who separates himself seeks desire,” understanding it to refer to Lot’s (poor) choice to live in the cave rather than to remain in the city of Zoar. This interpretation goes against the plain sense of the passage in Genesis, redeeming Lot’s daughters and placing blame into Lot’s hands.
While Genesis Rabbah does indict Lot for the incest, it does not present the act as ultimately problematic, since the daughters who directly initiate it are acting to produce the future messiah, which they correctly intuit must come from them. Even Lot’s participation in the event is, while frowned upon by the midrash, forgiven: while the actions are sinful, the sages accept the event as necessary and even good, based on the eventual outcome.
The End Justifies the Means
The rabbis’ concern with royal and messianic lineage prompts them to reinterpret this incest stories in a more positive light. It is justified because of the lineage it provides—leading to Ruth and through her to King David and the messiah. The other half of David’s lineage is similarly problematic. Tamar secures offspring by surreptitiously seducing her father-in-law, and their son Peretz becomes the ancestor to Boaz and thus David.
The positive reimagining of Lot’s daughters is in line with what we know about the treatment of the larger biblical narrative in Genesis Rabbah: its concern is to idealize the narrative past of Israel in order to highlight the royal and messianic trajectory of God’s people, all of which is in line with God’s will. As part of this tendency, Genesis Rabbah redeems the story of Lot’s daughters because they will lead to the eventual messianic redemption of the Jewish nation.
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Dr. Shayna Sheinfeld is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. She received her Ph.D. in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism from McGill University. Sheinfeld has published articles on the pseudepigrapha, apocalypses, and the reception of Jewish scripture in early Rabbinic and Christian circles. Her latest article, “The Euphrates as Temporal Marker in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch” is available in the Journal for the Study of Judaism. Dr. Sheinfeld also writes extensively on pedagogical practices in the classroom.
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