Lot, Morality, and Culture

Below is part of an email exchange I have been having with a devout Mormon. We’ve been friends for over a decade so in some ways I feel slightly guilty for posing hard questions to him. On the other hand, he’s eager to have a go at this. The topic that triggered this debate was, basically, is the bible the literal word of God? I pointed out that at one point Lot (someone declared righteous by God!) handed his daughter over to be gang raped. My email below expands upon this point.

Here’s the verse I was referring to. I was mistaken on the timing; it actually occurs before Lot was told to leave the city:

Quoting Lot, Genesis 19:7-8:

(7) …and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. (8) Look, I have two daughters who have not known a 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.”

The “men” under his roof are the angels. 19:5 has the mob saying they want to “know” the men (pretty clear anyway, but the footnotes further clue us in that it’s “sexual relations” that are being desired.)

The footnote for verse 8 notes:

Once guests had eaten in his house, Lot felt he had to obey the law of oriental hospitality which guaranteed protection. Thus his proposal to hand over his daughters showed his determination to put first his obligation as a host.

So Lot is literally handing his daughters over to be gang raped. (“know” is sexual, and 19:4 says “all the people to the last man”, so I don’t know a nicer way to accurately describe it.)

Furthermore, Lot begged the men to not act “wickedly”. Do not rape the angels (as that is wicked), but you may rape my daughters (which is therefore implied to be not wicked or at least less wicked).

Lot did exactly what his culture described that he should do. Refer back to the footnote that describes hospitality at the time. And within this culture, and to the god of this culture, this behavior was appropriate and righteous. After Lot did this, he and his family were saved. Therefore God at least implicitly approved of the behavior.

That shows to me that you have to understand this text as a historical (not divine) document. The fact that even after Lot handed his daughters over to be raped, God still thought Lot was righteous enough to be saved shows again that you have to interpret the bible in the context of the culture and time that it was written. You have to understand their values and world-view. Scriptures are not an absolute text with absolute morals. In fact I would call the “morals” in this text appalling. But look to the middle east still today (and in fact in much of the world) – women are still looked down upon. In much of to world they are second class citizens. And so in the culture and the time during which this chapter was written, what Lot did was nothing extraordinary, and therefore God was not out-of-line in calling him righteous and saving him.

So from this I draw two conclusions:

  1. At least in this example and perhaps more broadly, the golden rule proves to be a more accurate moral guide than a careful reading of scriptures.

  2. Scriptures are not absolute; they must be read with an understanding of the culture and time in which they were written.

April 26, 2011
598 words





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