“Were Lot’s Daughters Moral or Immoral?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, Abraham famously bargains with G-d in order to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction.

Although Abraham does not succeed in saving the cities, G-d does allow, in Abraham’s merit, for the rescue of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and some members of his family. The Torah tells us in Genesis 19:29: “Vah’y’hee b’sha’chet El’oh’keem eht ah’ray ha’kee’kar, va’yizkor El’oh’keem et Avraham, vah’y’sha’lach et Lot mee’toch ha’ha’fay’chah, ba’ha’fohch et heh’ah’reem ah’sher yah’shav ba’hain Lot,” And so it was, when G-d destroyed the cities of the Plain, that G-d remembered Abraham; so He sent Lot from the midst of the upheaval when He overturned the cities in which Lot had lived.

At first, Lot and his daughters flee to a small city named Zoar, where the angels, who had come to destroy Sodom, allowed Lot and his daughters to escape. Eventually, Lot and the two women go up from Zoar and settle in a cave on the mountain.

Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman points out that one might have expected Lot to return to his loving uncle, Abraham, who had saved his life now for a second time. Instead, a final break between Lot and Abraham occurs because of Lot’s decision to remain in the area of Sodom.

Soon after their rescue and their relocation to the cave on the mountain, the eldest daughter says to her sister (Genesis 19:31-32): “Our father is old, and there is no man in the land to marry us in the usual manner. Come, let us ply our father with wine and lay with him, so that we may give life to offspring, through our father.” According to Rashi, the women were under the impression that the whole world had been destroyed, as had occurred in the time of the flood. The Ramban adds that this conclusion was confirmed by their father’s insistence that they leave Zoar and go to the mountains, leaving them with the impression that Zoar, too, was soon to be destroyed.

Other commentaries point to the text itself, which emphasizes that the daughters’ first concern was about their father’s advanced age, rather than the lack of men in the land. Hence, Rabbi Joseph Karo suggests that Lot’s daughters’ scheme was prompted by their concern that it would be unlikely for Lot to find a new wife and start a new family. They were also worried that they themselves would be unable to find men to marry, because of their own unsavory reputation, having once lived among the wicked Sodomite people who had deserved to be destroyed. Consequently, they devised a plan to assure continuity through their father.

The scheme was to give their father wine to drink and to sleep with him, in order to bear offspring through their father.

Despite the immodesty of their plan, many commentaries labor valiantly to justify the daughters’ actions, claiming that they really were modest, righteous women, whose actions were motivated for the sake of Heaven. The commentators point to many subtle hints in the text, underscoring the daughters’ righteousness. They never directly asked their father to consort with them, instead, they gave him wine to drink. Furthermore, the Torah never labels their actions as adulterous or wicked. Obviously, they had concluded that there was no other way to continue the propagation of the species.

The Ramban points out that, technically, the daughters could have asked their father to marry them, since Noachides (gentiles who follow the 7 moral principles of Noah) are permitted to marry their own daughters, but their modesty prevented them from doing so. Further proof of their righteousness is that they each merited to have righteous descendants. The older daughter merited that Ruth the Moabitess would descend from her, who in turn would eventually become the progenitor of King David. The younger daughter would be the great-grandmother of Naama, the Ammonitess, the mother of Reheboam, who would succeed his father Solomon as the king of Judah.

The Mizrachi asks why Rashi chose the Midrashic opinion that suggests that the wine that the women used to make their father drunk was provided by Heaven, rather than assume that the wine was routinely stored in caves by the people of Sodom. After all, Rashi does note that the older daughter had initiated the unchaste conduct, indicating that their intent was immoral, and not for the sake of Heaven.

The Mizrachi responds by arguing that even though Lot’s daughters’ intentions were unchaste, G-d provided the wine to indicate that G-d willed it so, in order that the two nations, Moab and Ammon might descend from Lot’s daughters.

The older daughter of Lot is singled out in many of the commentaries for her lack of modesty. Scripture specifically says in her case (Genesis 19:33): “Va’tah’vo ha’b’chee’rah va’tish’kahv et ah’vee’hah,” And the older [daughter] came and lay with her father. Whereas, regarding the younger daughter, Scripture, in Genesis 19:35, only says that she lay with him, without explicitly stating that it was her father. They also specifically note that the younger daughter was only following the example of the older one.

The Netziv points out that when the Torah says that the older daughter slept with her father, it employs the indefinite Hebrew article “et,” indicating that she took the initiative in setting up the situation with her father. The younger daughter is described (Genesis 19:35) as being “ee’mo,” with him, indicating that the deed was a joint one, and that her sense of shame would not allow her to take the lead. Instead, she enticed her father, and he took it from there.

Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffmann notes that the older daughter, who planned and orchestrated the entire scheme, is not at all embarrassed that her son, whom she names Moab (from my father!), was fathered by her own father. The Moabites, therefore, were always a more licentious nation than the Ammonite nation (see Numbers 25:1).

Regarding the birth of the children, Scripture, in Genesis 19:36, states: “Va’ta’ha’reh’nah shtay v’noht Lot may’ah’vee’hehn,” Both of Lot’s daughters conceived from their father. Rashi, based on the Midrash, points out that they both conceived from their first intimacy, which is quite unusual. The Midrash Bereishith Rabbah 45:4, cites Rav Chaninah ben Tazi, who compares Lot’s daughters’ immediate pregnancies to thorns that grow in the field that are neither weeded nor sewn, but grow of their own accord. The Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah), on the other hand, were much like grain that involves much preparation, pain and toil, who experienced much travail and anguish before they conceived.

Rashi also notes that later, in the time of Moses, the older daughter was punished for her lack of modesty and for openly proclaiming that the child’s origin was from her father. Moses declared, in G-d’s name (Deuteronomy 2:9) that, while Israel was not to wage war against the Moabites, they were allowed to harass them in ways short of war. Her younger sister, who named her child Ben Ami or Ammon, the son of my people, was rewarded for her modesty by G-d through Moses, who commanded Israel that they must not contend with the Ammonites or even annoy them.

The ambivalence of the commentators with respect to the actions of the daughters is best illustrated by the proclamation of the sages in Baba Kammah 38b, who declare: “Let a man do a good deed at the earliest opportunity, for on account of the one night whereby the older preceded the younger, she merited to precede the younger by four generations in Israel: Obed, Jesse, David and Solomon, who are descendants from Ruth, the Moabitess. Whereas, the younger daughter had to wait until Reheboam [son of Naama, the Ammonitess] through Solomon.” The Tur, however, points out that the oldest daughter is still criticized for having disgraced her father’s honor for all eternity, by giving her child an indecent name.

May you be blessed.