“Lot, Nephew of Abram: The Promise and the Tragedy”
(updated and revised from Lech Lecha 2000-5761)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, we encounter the fascinating relationship between Abram (note that this is before his name was changed to Avraham/Abraham) and his nephew, Lot. It is a complicated and evolving relationship, from which we can learn much.

According to the Midrashic tradition (see Rashi, Genesis 11:28), when Abram was a young man he was caught destroying his father’s idols, and, at the bidding of Terach, Abram’s father, the local king, Nimrod, also known as Amraphel, ordered Abram cast into a fiery furnace. At the same time, King Nimrod asked Abram’s brother, Haran, whether he supported Abram or the idols. Haran attempted to hedge his bet and said that he would wait to see what happens to Abram. When Abram emerged unscathed from the fiery furnace, Haran said that he supported Abram. Nimrod had Haran thrown into the fiery furnace and he was burnt to a crisp.

Haran’s now orphaned son, Lot, joined Abram’s family for the long trek from Mesopotamia to the Promised Land. Scripture relates, Genesis 11:31: וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ וְאֶת לוֹט בֶּן הָרָן בֶּן בְּנוֹ וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ , And Terach took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth with them from Ur of Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan. And they came unto Haran and dwelt there. We see from the juxtaposition of Lot’s name, mentioned right after Abram’s, and even before Sarai, that Lot was considered to be an essential part of the family.

When Abram was 75 years old, G-d tells him to go to Canaan. The Torah, Genesis 12:4, describes the journey:וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו השׁם, וַיֵּלֶךְ אִתּוֹ לוֹט , So, Abram went, as the L-rd had spoken unto him, and Lot went with him.

Continuing the description, the Torah adds, Genesis 12:5: וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת לוֹט בֶּן אָחִיו וְאֶת כָּל רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ , And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and entered the land of Canaan. We see that Lot’s importance had diminished, and that now Sarai’s name is mentioned before Lot’s. This is understandable, since the Torah now focuses on Abram and his family, whose relationship with his wife, logically takes precedence over his nephew, Lot.

Soon after they arrive in the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:10), there is a famine, and Abram goes down to the land of Egypt to dwell there. Scripture mentions that Sarai goes down to Egypt with Abram, but there is no mention of Lot.

Abram becomes prosperous in Egypt. However, because Pharaoh feels that Abram has deceived him, he is expelled from Egypt. Genesis 13:1 reports: וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ הַנֶּגְבָּה , And Abram went up out of Egypt, he and his wife, and everything that he had, and Lot, and went to the South. Once again Scripture describes how even more removed Lot had become. While Lot is mentioned as part of the family, it appears to be only as an afterthought.

As soon as they settle back in Canaan, Abram brings an offering. Scripture records that Lot, because of his relationship with Abram, is also wealthy. The Torah, Genesis 13:6, candidly states the difficulties between uncle and nephew: וְלֹא נָשָׂא אֹתָם הָאָרֶץ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו , the land was not able to bear them to dwell together, for their substance was too great. An argument ensues between the shepherds of Abram and the shepherds of Lot. Abram tries to resolve the argument, and begs Lot not to quarrel. After all, says Abram, Genesis 13:8: אֲנָשִׁים אַחִים אֲנָחְנוּ , “We are brothers.” He tells Lot that the whole earth is before them, “Let us separate. If you go to the left, I will go the right; if you go to the right I will go the left.”

The Torah has a subtle way of teaching important lessons. It relates these invaluable lessons through stories and narratives, rather than directives. For instance, the fact that not a single polygamous marriage in the Torah is successful, is the Torah’s way of conveying that having multiple wives does not result in healthy family relationships. Similarly, the Torah indirectly coveys its messages about drunkenness and about the unity of the human race. In this case, as well, through the story of Lot, the Torah beautifully and subtly conveys several vital life lessons.

Given his history, Lot should have been completely beholden to Abram. After all, Lot had been virtually adopted by Abram after his father’s death, and Abram had taken him in and nurtured him, during the arduous journey from Haran to Canaan. It was by virtue of his association with Abram that Lot becomes wealthy in Egypt. Now, rather than Lot saying to Abram: “If you go to the right I will go to the left,” it is Abram who gives Lot the first and best choice of land. It is at this moment, that Lot makes a fateful choice. Despite the fact that Lot knew that the people of Sodom were thoroughly corrupt, he consciously chooses the luscious plain of the Jordan, which the Torah (Genesis 13:10) describes as: כְּגַן השׁם , Well-watered like the Garden of the L-rd. Moreover, despite the fact that it was so close to Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot does not hesitate to choose that land as his future home.

The story continues. We are informed, in Genesis 13:12, וְלוֹט יָשַׁב בְּעָרֵי הַכִּכָּר, וַיֶּאֱהַל עַד סְדֹם , Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain, and moved his tent as far as Sodom. In distinction, in Genesis 13:18 we learn: וַיֶּאֱהַל אַבְרָם, וַיָּבֹא וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא אֲשֶׁר בְּחֶבְרוֹן , Abram moves his tent and comes to dwell by the Terebinths of Mamre which are in Hebron, and builds an altar to G-d. The commentaries tell us that Abram purposely chooses to dwell in Mamre, because the people there were the most moral people in the land of Canaan.

Imagine the conversation between Abram and Lot: Abram warns Lot not to become too friendly with the people of Sodom. Lot replies, “Don’t worry, Uncle Abe, I can handle it, I can withstand the temptations.” Slowly, but surely, Lot is seduced by the Sodomite environment. It is, after all, virtually impossible to live near Sodom and not be seduced by its attractive, but decadent, lifestyle. וַיֶּאֱהַל עַד סְדֹם , and he moved his tent as far as Sodom.Once Lot made the purely materialistic decision, once he decided that the spiritual life of Abram was not for him, and instead chooses the lush fruited plain, it was inevitable that Lot’s life and lifestyle would compel him toward the blandishments of Sodom.

In next week’s parasha, Vayeira, when the angels come into Sodom to destroy the city and to rescue Lot, we are told, (Genesis 19:1): וְלוֹט יֹשֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר סְדֹם , and Lot is sitting at the gate of Sodom. The Rabbis learn from this that not only was Lot attracted to reside in Sodom by its amenities and luxuries and the opportunity to become a leading citizen of Sodom, but much more. The fact that Lot “was sitting at the gate of Sodom,” indicates that Lot had become a judge and enforcer of the vicious, cruel and immoral laws of Sodom. The radical transformation had taken place.

That is why we see later in the narrative, that Lot, who grew up in the household of Abram, could say to the people of Sodom who wish to harm the visitors who had come to Lot (Genesis 19:8): “Please, my brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters who know no men. Let me, I pray you, bring them out to you, and do you to them as is good in your eyes. Only unto these men do nothing.” In his perverted “new Sodomite morality,” Lot offers up his daughters to be violated by the men of Sodom, in order to save the strangers who come to his home!!

There was great promise to Lot. He could possibly have become the material and spiritual heir of Abram, but instead chose the luscious plain–he chose Sodom. And, even after he suffers through the destruction of Sodom, he once again, because of his perverted altruism, gets drunk and allows his daughters to seduce him and produce two nations–Amon and Moab, two of the very cruel nations of ancient times.

True to the Torah’s unique style, the Torah never writes off any human being. There is always an opportunity for return, for Teshuvah. After all, it is Ruth, Lot’s great, great granddaughter, the Princess of Moab, who returns to Canaan, and re-introduces the quality of chessed, the quality of mercy and loving-kindness, to the families of Israel.

How deeply insightful is the Torah’s characterization and understanding of human nature. How low they can sink, and yet the Divine hand is always outstretched to welcome them back.

May you be blessed.