October 9, 2017

The Patristic Interpretation of the Seduction of Lot By His Two Daughters

By John Sanidopoulos

Genesis 19:30-38 describes how Lot's two daughters, shortly after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, got their father drunk on wine, engaged in sexual intercourse with him on two successive nights, though he was unaware due to intoxication, and became pregnant, and eventually gave birth to two sons Moab and Benammi. Their sons, born of incest, are described as founding the Moabite and Ammonite nations, which became continuous enemies of Israel.

This scandalous event in the Book of Genesis has long troubled interpreters, especially when one considers the fact that Ruth was a descendant of Moab, and her offspring became a descendant of Jesus Christ. This means that one of the descendants of Christ was born through incest, between Lot and his oldest daughter. It also troubles readers because they don't know what to make of it, since incest seems so obviously wrong on many levels.

However, the Church Fathers for the most part read this passage with a great level of mercy, insight and compassion, almost unusually so. For example, in his 38th Hymn to Virginity, Saint Ephraim the Syrian portrays Lot and his two daughters as suffering very real survivors trauma. He says that Lot drinking wine was a way to get himself to sleep due to his anxiety after witnessing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the turning of his wife into salt. Lot and his daughters were terrified and grief-stricken, thinking they were the only people left in the world. This is why they all began to drink, and under the influence of alcohol and grief, while worrying that they would be able to never produce children, Ephraim vindicates them, allowing no blame to be apportioned to anyone, and concludes, "wine consoles old age; conception consoles youth." Now as Lot notices their stomachs getting bigger and bigger, he questions his daughters, since he thought them to be virgins, and they lie to their father, saying they were raped by the men they were betrothed to, and at the advice of their mother they kept it from him. Lot was satisfied by this answer, since the people of Sodom were known to rape each other, and even attempted to rape the angels.

This understanding of Saint Ephraim is what is commonly found in the writings of the various Church Fathers who explained this passage, especially those who were not influenced by the Jewish teachers who interpreted this passage as a sin of Lot and his daughters (like Saint Jerome). Saint John Chrysostom, in his 44th Homily on Genesis, offers up some advice to readers before exploring this passage. He writes:

"Let us listen, dearly beloved, with caution and great fear to the contents of the divine Scriptures; there is nothing written there idly and to no purpose; instead, everything is said carefully and to our advantage, even if we don't understand parts of it. You see, we can't understand everything precisely; on the contrary, even if we try to assign causes for some things to the extent possible to us, yet it still holds within it some treasure that is hidden and difficult to interpret. So consider how Scripture narrated everything clearly and made known to us the intent of the just man's daughters, in one place making an adequate excuse for them, in another for the just man, lest anyone should have regard only to what took place and condemn either the good man or his daughters on the score of the licentiousness of this union."

Chrysostom goes on to explain that this passage carefully tries to excuse both Lot and his daughters of any sin. He says that the daughters had a legitimate concern and intention, while the father was drunk not because he was licentious but because he was depressed. Thus he says, "Therefore, let no one ever presume to condemn the just man or his daughters. After all, how could it be other than a mark of extreme folly and stupidity on our part, laden as we are with such countless burdens of sin, to condemn those whom Sacred Scripture discharges of all sin and for whom rather it even supplies such a remarkable defense."

This type of interpretation goes even further back, such as in the book Against Heresies by Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. He says:

"This happened without Lot's knowledge and without his having been a slave to pleasure; it was accomplished wholly by divine arrangement, through which the two synagogues [Samaria and Judea] born from one and the same father, without carnal pleasure, were evoked. For there was no one else that could give them vital seed and the fruit of children, as it was written."

Saint Ambrose of Milan wrote also that the patriarchs of the Old Testament not only had personal failings, but when placed in historical context, especially before the Law of Moses, they were living under different rules. This is how he explained to catechumens approaching baptism the sexual liberties of the patriarchs, such as when Abraham slept with his concubine while Sarah was assumed sterile, or when Jacob took two wives, but he explained that these were also special circumstances, and the more they grew in their understanding the more they veered away from polygamy and other frowned upon sexual practices, which they did not do for the sake of licentiousness, but by these means God made it so that it became not only profitable to readers but to salvation history as well.