Why Does the Sodom Story Parallel the Flood Traditions?
The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19) contains many elements in common with the flood narrative (Genesis 6-9). These common elements appear twice in each story. As is well known, the Noah story is composed of two parallel accounts. Source critics attribute to J and P, and these common elements appears once in each.
Similarly, the Sodom story, even though it is one story from a single source (usually attributed to J), contains two distinct plot lines – one with Abraham as hero (18; 19:27-29), the other starring Lot (19:1-26, 30-38). If we isolate the common thematic elements of both versions of the flood and the Sodom story, we can see that they share a basic narrative structure.
Table 1 outlines these similarities in chart form, which I will use as a reference point in the fuller explanation that follows it:
Table 1: Common Thematic Elements in Biblical Flood and Sodom Narratives
|Element||Flood (J)||Flood (P)||Sodom (Abraham)||Sodom (Lot)|
|1. Righteous hero||6:8, 9b*||6:9a, 9c-10||18:1-19||19:1-3|
|2. Public sin||6:1-4||6:11||18:20||19:4-9|
|3. God/ angels see/hear situation||6:5-7||6:12||18:21||19:10-11|
|4. God/ angels warn hero||7:1-4||6:13-21||18:20-21*||19:12-13|
|5. Hero prepares||7:5, 7-8a||6:22; 7:6, 8b-9||18:23-33||19:14-22|
|6. Destruction||7:10, 12, 17a, 23a||7:21-22, 24||19:29a||19:24-25|
|7. Salvation of hero and family||7:16b, 23b||7:11, 13, 16a, 17b-20, 8:1-2a, 4-5, 7, 13a, 14||19:29b||19:23|
|8. Hero looks at aftermath||8:2b-3, 6, 8-12, 13b||8:15-19**||19:27-28*||19:26|
|9. Children abuse drunk hero||9:18-29||—||—||19:30-38|
The Opening: The Hero, the Villains, and God’s Taking Notice
The first three elements are much the same in all four narrative strands: The righteous hero (Noah, Abraham or Lot) is presented (#1) and contrasted with the sinning public (#2), while God sees the situation (#3), before He acts. The few minor deviations noted in the chart are to be expected in different stories.
Warning, Preparation, Destruction, and Salvation
All four strands contain a divine (or angelic) warning to the hero (#4) followed by preparation for the impending destruction (#5): Noah builds the ark (in P) and gathers animals (in both strands). Abraham argues with God in an appeal against His decision, and Lot warns his family of the impending destruction, and persuades the angels to spare the city of Zoar.
This is followed by a description of the destruction itself (#6), along with mention of the hero’s salvation (#7), not necessarily in that order. Of course, in Sodom it is only Lot who is saved, although God “remembers” Abraham, reminding us that it is he who is the true hero of the story as a whole.
Gazing upon the Aftermath
The end of the stories diverge. In the J flood story, as well as in the “Abraham” Sodom story, the hero looks at the aftermath of the destruction (#8). In the latter, Abraham’s looking toward Sodom is brought before both the city’s destruction and Lot’s salvation, as it is Abraham’s gaze that enables the narrator to mention the results of the destruction.
In a variation on the same theme in the Lot story, the hero is specifically warned not to look back (possibly to show he is not the true hero), but it is his wife who does, and she is immediately turned into a pillar of salt.
In the P flood narrative, on the other hand, Noah does not look at what remains after the flood. Possibly, this is due to P’s “playing down” of Noah’s role, as described by Baruch Schwartz. The hero’s gaze is replaced by his obediently leaving the ark at God’s command, without any initiative on Noah’s part.
Drunk and Abused
The final element (#9) exists in only two of the narratives: The “Lot” Sodom story and the J flood story. In both of these, the hero (Noah/ Lot) gets drunk, while his children (Ham or Canaan/ Lot’s daughters) sexually abuse their father. Here, too, we can blame the scene’s absence from the P flood story by citing its downplaying of Noah’s personality. Its absence from the “Abraham” Sodom story can be explained again by the double plot, in which there is no reason to recount this scene twice.
The Genre of “Total Destruction” Stories
In sum, two narrative strands from the flood, and two from the Destruction of Sodom have nearly identical thematic sequences. Different theories have been proposed to explain these parallels.
For instance, the French Protestant biblical scholar Adolphe Lods (1867-1948), writing ninety years ago, understood the Sodom tale as reflecting an alternative flood tradition in which the world is destroyed by fire and brimstone from the sky as opposed to by water. Others, such as the British evangelical scholar Gordon Wenham (1943-), suggest direct borrowing by the Sodom story of the flood story, perhaps in order to contrast the righteous Noah with the immoral Lot, as suggested by Laurence Turner. (See appendix for a more detailed response to Wenham’s suggestion.)
Nevertheless, I do not believe that direct borrowing is the best explanation here. Instead, the similar thematic structures lead me to suggest that both tales are making use of a known narrative genre or “form,” which I will call the “tale of total destruction.”
The likelihood that the authors of the flood stories and Sodom story were utilizing a known narrative archetype can be supported by comparing the Sodom narrative to other flood traditions from the Ancient Near East.
Parallels between the Sodom Story and the Mesopotamian Flood Tradition
The overlap between the biblical flood stories and the ANE versions are well known.Significantly, when we compare the Sodom story to these ANE flood stories, we find parallels that do not appear in either version of the Noah story: the deeds of those about to be destroyed are referred to as “noise” and the hero negotiates with angels or gods in his attempts to reverse the divine decree.
Table 2: Common Themes in Sodom Narrative and Mesopotamian Flood Tradition
|Element||Sodom (Abraham)||Sodom (Lot)||Atra-ḥasīs|
|Noise||18:20 – “Because the cry of (זעקת) Sodom and Gomorrah is great”||19:13 – “because the cry of them (צעקתם) is waxen great before the face of the Lord”||I:355-356 – “The god was disturbed with [their uproar] (ḥubūrišina)/ [Enlil heard] their clamor (rigimšin)”|
|Negotiation||18:23-33 – “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?”||19:20 – “Oh, let me escape thither”||I:371 – “Will they impose the disease on us [forever]?”|
In all three stories, the hero tries to annul the divine decree, or at least to mitigate it: Just as Abraham argued with God to save Sodom on the merit of a few righteous people who may live there, so the Mesopotamian flood-hero Atraḥasīs tried to save the world from the punishments meted out by the gods: disease in tablet I; famine and drought in tablet II. Neither Abraham nor Atraḥasīs is successful.
In a variation on this theme, Lot negotiates with the angels on his own behalf. But, surprisingly, he succeeds in obtaining his request – the sparing of Zoar – while the rest of the region is destroyed without any protest by Lot. Noah, in contrast, does not argue with God at all, as has been noted by commentators since antiquity (see e.g. Gen. Rab. 30:9).
Atraḥasis and both versions of the Sodom story mention “noise” (however defined), as evoking divine punishment; this is lacking in the biblical flood story.
The presence of common motifs in the ANE flood story and the Sodom pericope shows that the relationship between the Sodom narrative and the biblical flood story is mainly indirect; they both partake of the same ANE genre of “tale of total destruction.” In other words, the use of Mesopotamian flood motifs in the Sodom story shows that the author knew more than just the biblical story of Noah, different versions of the flood were known in Ancient Israel, and some of these, not preserved in the Bible, conformed to generic conventions that were picked up by the author of the Sodom story.
Tailoring a Genre for Individual Stories
Israelite “tales of total destruction” are based on a specific narrative sequence. Each such story utilizes motifs from the Ancient Near Eastern flood traditions. But genres are inherently flexible. Exactly how each story will conform to or deviate from the generic sequence of narrative elements, and exactly which motifs will be taken from the common Ancient Near Eastern flood tradition, may vary according to each story’s specific plot, authorship, theology, or artistic creativity. In the case of Sodom, this is apparent already from the double plot structure, in which each plot more or less conforms to the same generic conventions.
Generic conventions do not convey meaning in the same manner as direct borrowing, in which the reader is constantly reminded of the analogous story, and thus invited to compare and contrast the relevant plots, characters, etc. Instead, meaning is conveyed by the very choice of genre (chapters 18-19 are thus a story of destruction). Once the genre is recognized, the reader knows what to expect, and is thus interested only in how the story manipulates the generic conventions.
Comparing Lot and Abraham
In the Sodom story, the main deviation from generic convention is the double use of the genre, with both Abraham and Lot portrayed as the main character, respectively. This invites the reader to compare the two characters at every step along the way, from the moment Lot is introduced, welcoming the angels to Sodom, to Abraham’s gazing at the aftermath of destruction a comparison.
All points of comparison – all common plot elements – show Lot as Abraham’s equal. But the Lot strand contains other elements as well such as his sacrificing his daughters and later being sexually manipulated by them. These plot elements illustrate Lot’s complex character, referred to by Turner as “Jeckyll and Hyde.”
What Do the Verbal Parallels between the Sodom and Flood Stories Prove?
As noted above, Gordon Wenham believes that the Sodom story was written based on the flood story, i.e., that the author of the former directly borrowed from the latter. In order to prove his point, Wenham attempts to show that in addition to the thematic or structural parallels between the flood and Sodom accounts, the two share a number of verbal similarities, that “prove” that one story is directly dependent on the other.
Wenham bases his thesis of direct borrowing on the number of parallels rather than their quality. Contra Wenham, however, I do not believe that there are nearly enough such parallels to determine common authorship or direct influence between the two (or three or four) stories, let alone find a deliberate analogy here.
For such a determination, we would have to find word choices common to these texts that stand out in comparison to the rest of the biblical narrative corpus. But looking at the actual parallels, this is not the case. Again, I’ll begin with a chart (Table 3) and flesh out the details in the following paragraph:
Table 3: Verbal parallels between Flood and Sodom Narratives
|Word/Expression||Function||Flood (J/P)||Sodom (A/L)|
|1. Finding favor
|Hero’s status w/God/angels||6:8 (J)||19:19 (L)|
|Varies||6:9, 7:1 (J – Noah is righteous)||18:19 (A – Abraham teaches righteousness to family)|
|Varies||6:9 (P – Noah “walks with” [obeys] God)||18:16 (A – Abraham walks with angels to accompany them)|
19: 13-14 (L)
|Varies||6:19-20 (P – animals to be spared)||19:19 (L – Lot begs to be spared)|
|Varies||7:3 (J – animals for reproduction after flood)||19:32, 34 (L – Lot has children with his daughters)|
|7. Rain (המטרה)||Means of destruction||7:4 (J)||19:24 (L)|
|8. Closing (סגירה)||Protection||7:16 (J)||19:10 (L)|
|9. God remembering hero (“ויזכר”)||Cause of salvation||8:1 (P)||9:29 (A)|
|10. Mountain (הר)||Refuge||8:4 (P)||19:17,19,30 (L)|
|11. Putting out hand (שליחת יד)||Varies||8:9 (J – Noah extends hand to welcome dove)||19:10 (L – Angels extend hand to save Lot)|
|12. Knowledge (ידיעה)||Regarding abuse||9:24 (J)||19:33,35 (L)|
The list here is actually less impressive than it may seem at first glance. Parallels #1 (finding favor), 2 (righteousness), 3 (walking), 8 (closing), 10 (mountain), and 12 (knowledge) are all common terms in Biblical Hebrew. Moreover, taking into account Joshua Berman’s cautious observation that only parallels with the same narrative function should be considered, the number of parallels is reduced further to three: #4 – destruction; #7 – rain; and #9 – remembering (this is especially important, as this is the only place in the Sodom narrative where God is called “Elohim”).
In short, this is an insufficient amount of parallels to establish direct borrowing as opposed to the more likely possibility that both texts were simply utilizing the same motifs for stories that both participate in the same genre.
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November 2, 2017
September 19, 2020
Dr. Baruch Alster teaches Bible at Givat Washington College in Israel. He received his Ph.D. from Bar Ilan University in 2007, writing his dissertation on the history of Jewish interpretation of the Song of Songs. He has published articles on various aspects of the Bible and the history of Jewish exegesis, and is currently working on a critical edition of a medieval French commentary on the Megillot.
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