I’ve been encouraging my High School Bible Class to read through the narrative portions of Scripture this year and have been giving them a daily schedule to help. I think this is a good thing to do for many reasons, but one reason is that there are certain parts of the Bible which are often passed over in Bible classes and sermons, but it’s still important for people to know they are there (especially teens, who should be in the process of developing their own faith rather than relying on the faith of their parents).
When they made it to Genesis 19, I got a lot of questions, and as I discussed their questions with them, it struck me how often certain values that a culture emphasizes (which may be good in and of themselves) can be taken to dangerous and often sinful extremes.
The Importance of Hospitality
Genesis 19 covers the destruction of Sodom, which was something they were vaguely familiar with, but there were a couple of details that they had missed out on. Two angels, appearing as men, come to Sodom and stay with Lot, and the wicked men of the city bang on Lot’s doors and demand that Lot hand over the two men to them so they can engage in sexual relations with them. Lot’s response is shocking to our modern ears:
“Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have to 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.’”
Lot doesn’t seem to be in the running for any Father of the Year awards here, as he offers his daughters to the would-be rapists rather than his guests. That’s hard to understand unless you realize that the idea of hospitality and taking good care of one’s guests was of paramount importance in many ancient cultures (and some modern ones). It’s not that Lot was eager to give up his daughters—I’m sure he wasn’t—it’s just that hospitality was such an important cultural value that it led him to an extreme (and I would suggest, sinful) action. Fortunately for Lot’s daughters, the two angels intervene and strike the wicked men with blindness.
A Woman’s Value Through Child-Bearing
Another example of this phenomenon actually comes from the same chapter of Genesis. Ultimately, only Lot and his two daughters escape the destruction of Sodom, as his sons-in-law remained in the city and his wife was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back on the destruction of the city.
Lot and his daughters flee to the hills and live in a cave, and here, another shocking development is recorded:
“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 earth. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from 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 arose.
The next day, the firstborn said to the younger, ‘Behold, I lay last night with my father. Let us make him drink wine tonight also. Then you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.’ So they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.”
So a few days after Lot offers his daughters to rapists, they now get him drunk in order to sleep with him—Lot’s family seems to be the picture of dysfunction, right? Once again though, I think what we have here is a cultural value taken to an unhealthy extreme. In this case it seems that (as was often the case in many ancient cultures, and even some cultures today) for Lot’s daughters, their entire value as humans was derived from their ability to carry on the family line of their father through the bearing of children. With their husbands-to-be destroyed in the obliteration of Sodom and thus their means of child-bearing suddenly removed from them, Lot’s daughters turn to a sinful and (I imagine) undesirable last resort.
What About Us?
With a little careful reflection on the cultural forces that pulled on Lot and his daughters, I think their actions are a little more understandable. That being said, I don’t think these stories show us that the influences of culture validates sinful behavior—not at all. On the contrary, I believe one thing these stories do show us is how, if we’re not careful, the ideals we value as a culture can push us to do unthinkable things.
For example, in American society, one of our most sacred values is individual freedom. Many of the people who colonized the United States came here out of the desire to find freedom of one type or another. The American Revolution was fought because the descendants of those colonists felt that they should be free to govern themselves. The importance of liberty was hammered first into the Declaration of Independence and later into the U.S. Constitution, primarily through the Bill of Rights. As Americans, we pride ourselves on being free people.
But how could freedom be a bad thing? Well, it is the cultural value of freedom that, when taken to an extreme, is used to justify the yearly destruction of hundreds of thousands of unborn infants in the U.S. As a society, we are engaged in an ongoing genocide against our own unborn, but we pretend it is okay because supposedly, the mother should be free to do whatever she wants with her own body. It is cast as an issue of freedom and personal rights.
Clearly, our cultural values can cause moral blind spots for us today just as they did for Lot and his daughters some 4,000 years ago. Perhaps in the distant future, people will look back on our society and shake their heads in shame at the plague of abortion that we have embraced. And perhaps they will be able to somewhat understand our sin because of the cultural values that influence us and that we use to justify it.
But it will still be sin.