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Lot Can't Get His Family to Leave Sodom Behind -- a depressing study of Genesis 19

Updated: Feb 23

Beware the company you keep.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 19

This is a truly disturbing passage -- Lot is basically dragged out of Sodom before God destroys it with fire from heaven. He whines the whole time, his son's-in-law won't even leave, his wife would rather go back than with him, and his daughters manage to behave even worse. Kinda like how people respond to God's warnings today.

But he hesitated. (19:16)

[This painting is "The Burning of Sodom" by French painter Camille Corot.]


When We Studied This Passage in 2015

There's enough going on in here that I'm going to talk about this below in my "Big Idea" --

That study of these chapters focuses on chapter 18, and then it skips to some of the verses we talk about this week. Topics from that post you might be interested in:

  • Challenges of parenting

  • Skittles and M&Ms

  • The purpose of prayer

  • A pillar of salt? Really?

These chapters are a treasure trove of interesting and important topics.


Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Unheeded Warning

This is such a trope in movies -- a person runs out frantically saying "don't go in there!" or "don't touch that!" or "run away!" or "hide!". Inevitably, one person ignores the warning, and something terrible happens to that person. (Or it's the main character, and the rest of the movie is about that person navigating the warning.)


What ignored warning bugged you the most? Some of them are really obvious. Like in every episode of Scooby Doo when Shaggy says "don't go in there" and they go in there, and what did they expect would happen? And honestly, every movie I can think of has at least one example of a character ignoring a really obvious warning. Like in Goonies when the kids tell Mouth to shut up, but he doesn't shut up and almost causes an incident. Or in The Last Crusade when Indy tells Elsa to put down the grail, but she doesn't and bad things happen.


How much do ignored warnings bother you, and why? And then the follow-up -- if you were in that situation, do you think you would heed the warning? And this leads into the next idea:


Urgent

Readers of a certain age might think of a song by Foreigner. Nope, wrong idea. "Lack of self-control" does not equal urgency.


There's a great activity suggestion in the Lifeway material in which you read a scenario, and you ask your group to classify it as "urgent" or "not urgent". Their examples include (1) the building fire alarm goes off; (2) your check engine light come on; etc. I love that, and you could come up with scenarios uniquely applicable to your group.


But I would recommend going deeper -- how do you determine urgency? For example, when the fire alarm goes off in our building, sometimes nobody even bats an eye. Why not? What are the cues you use to decide if a situation is urgent or not?


And then the big follow-up question: when was a time you thought a matter was not urgent but was wrong? Why did you misjudge it, and what was the outcome? You would want to tread lightly here; I would venture that many of our biggest regrets in life come from misjudging the urgency of a situation. What lessons have we taken away from those experiences, and what do we never want to forget about them?


This week's Bible passage covers such an incredibly obviously urgent scenario that the main character's foolish and annoying whining should set all of our teeth on edge. The behavior of Lot in this week's passage bugs me.


Vanity Fair

The events in this week's passage are so upsetting that they almost sound like an allegory for the Christian life. And then I remembered that John Bunyan wrote a similar episode to this in his Pilgrim's Progress. You might know the phrase Vanity Fair -- you might not know where it came from. Find your copy of Pilgrim's Progress and read that chapter (here's an online summary if you're short on time). As you study this week's passage, I want you to think about the different ways it illustrates the challenges of (1) deciding to follow Jesus, and (2) actually following Jesus.


Yes, I don't often recommend "spiritualizing a passage", but in this passage, Lot's experience can serve as a warning to us all.


This Week's Big Idea: Everything Not Covered in This Week's Passage

[i.e., Where We Are in Genesis]

Last week, we talked about God's promise to Abraham in chapter 17. In verse 22, we read that God departed, and the next day every male in the household was circumcised.


Chapter 18 describes the next visit from God. It is a visit of two purposes -- (1) to give a specific timeline for the birth of Isaac, and (2) to announce the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Our passage this week picks up the end of that thread, after the two angels have traveled to Sodom to rescue Lot and condemn the town. But we will get to that later.


We could spend a month of Sundays in these chapters, so I understand that the Lifeway people had to leave something out. In 2015 (see the top of the post), we covered some of the other very important topics; I want to call attention to them here.


Critical Topic #1: The Three Visitors

This is such a fascinating passage. "18:1 The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent during the heat of the day. 2 He looked up, and he saw three men standing near him." Moses' audience would have assumed that the "three men" were the Lord and two angels (see 19:1). (Note that Abraham doesn't "recognize" the Lord (how did God appear in 17:1? we don't know) -- but he treats his guests with great hospitality.) A number of Christians have believed this to be a reference to the Trinity. My favorite piece of Christian art is actually this Russian icon by an artist named Rublev, who painted this picture of Abraham's visitors as how he imagined the Triune Godhead to appear in human form. There is way more symbolism in there than we can address; know that he used it to educate his illiterate neighbors about his church's doctrine of the Trinity.


Whether this was the Trinity or not, this passage reveals that Sarah did not fully internalize what God had promised to Abraham in the previous chapter. She laughs at the notion, then lies when she knows she shouldn't have laughed. There are two great lessons here -- (1) acknowledging when it might be difficult to trust God's promise, and (2) acknowledging that we can't hide our true feelings from God. If there's a way to include those lessons, it would probably be when talking about Lot's unwillingness to believe the angels' warning. If we have a hard time believing God's warnings (which are "negative promises"), then we probably have a hard time believing God's promises (which are "positive warnings"?).


Critical Topic #2: Did Abraham Change God's Mind?

A favorite discussion is about Abraham's response to God's promise of judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah -- the "bargaining". "18:24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away instead of sparing the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people who are in it?" It's a really important discussion about ethics and judgment. And the entire point of the exchange is to demonstrate that in fact there are zero righteous people in the city, just like in the world today -- that the Judge of the whole earth indeed judges justly. Unfortunately, this discussion usually gets hung up on whether "Abraham changed God's mind". The simplest explanation I have heard of this is that God used this kind of characterization (anthropomorphism) to help the Hebrews internalize the importance of prayer, as well as why Abraham should be considered a model of faith. I cover that in more detail in the 2015 post.


Critical Topic #3: What Was Sodom's Sin?

Since 2015, a lot has changed about the culture's views of gender and sexuality. And as you might guess, a lot of people have taken up the cry that Sodom's sin wasn't homosexuality, but rather a lack of hospitality and a tendency to violence. And indeed, those two characteristics were absolutely part of God's judgment!

2 Peter 2:6 and if he reduced the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes and condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is coming to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, distressed by the depraved behavior of the immoral 8 (for as that righteous man lived among them day by day, his righteous soul was tormented by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)—

But the Bible is also clear about this:

Jude 7 Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns committed sexual immorality and perversions ["strange flesh"], and serve as an example by undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.

Now, the argument has been made that Jude is not talking about homosexuality as much as he is gang rape, and there's again no doubt that Sodom's violent sexuality is being condemned. So then I appeal to other passages:

Lev 18:22 You are not to sleep with a man as with a woman; it is detestable.
Rom 1:27 The men in the same way also left natural relations with women and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error.

I think we have to say that everything about Sodom's behavior resulted in their judgment. And wouldn't it make sense that their sin was greater than other cities' if it brought the direct judgment by God? Yes, it includes the horrific gang rape, but it also includes their homosexuality.


My guess is that this topic will come up at some point, so I want you to be ready for it.


Bonus Big Idea: Sodom and Gomorrah

In previous posts, I mentioned that no one agrees where Sodom and Gomorrah were located. And that should only make sense -- they were completely wiped out. The rough agreement is that they were somewhere around the Dead Sea.


This, of course, has led to the argument whether Sodom and Gomorrah existed at all or are entirely mythical. The Wikipedia article shares a shockingly thorough overview of the modern discourse on the subject:


Here's a pretty standard representation of how the world thinks of Sodom and Gomorrah:

Buried Secrets of the Bible with Albert Lin: Sodom & Gomorrah (Full Episode) | National Geographic




I am utterly shocked to tell you that there is a feature-length movie from 20th Century Fox called Sodom and Gomorrah (1962). You can find it on YouTube. (I decided not to link it because I'm not sure the film writers actually read the Bible before making the movie. Or at least if they talked to anyone other than their third grade kid who just read about it in Sunday School and thought it was gnarly.)


The scene where Lot's wife turns into a pillar of salt is, well, silly. But more on that below.


In fact, we will talk more about all of Lot's family in the lesson below. And the things we will learn and say about his family are, well, disturbing.


Aren't you excited to dive into this passage??

 

Part 1: An Urgent Warning (Genesis 19:12-17)

12 Then the angels said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here: a son-in-law, your sons and daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of this place, 13 for we are about to destroy this place because the outcry against its people is so great before the Lord, that the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” 14 So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were going to marry his daughters. “Get up,” he said. “Get out of this place, for the Lord is about to destroy the city!” But his sons-in-law thought he was joking. 15 At daybreak the angels urged Lot on: “Get up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city.” 16 But he hesitated. Because of the Lord’s compassion for him, the men grabbed his hand, his wife’s hand, and the hands of his two daughters. They brought him out and left him outside the city. 17 As soon as the angels got them outside, one of them said, “Run for your lives! Don’t look back and don’t stop anywhere on the plain! Run to the mountains, or you will be swept away!”

We start by skipping over some very disturbing things. (Catching a theme word for me about this episode?) Two angels (again, they are implied to be the two "men" who were with the Lord and Abraham) visit Sodom to "observe" their behavior. They don't say anything about rescuing Lot, but it seems like Abraham's intervention and the angels' behavior is based on Abraham's family being there.


[Aside on Lot: the 2 Peter 2 passage above suggests that the angels rescued Lot because he was righteous, and his behavior toward the angels reveals how much he despised the wicked behavior of the Sodomites. Far be it from me to argue with Peter! But goodness, Lot's behavior in this passage tries my patience, and I'm just a fellow sinner! At what point do you consider moving out?]


Lot insists that the two men take refuge in his house because he apparently knows that the men of the city will come out to gang rape them. Lot's solution? To offer the gang his daughters so they can gang rape them instead. I'm speechless.


The angels strike the men with blindness (elegant) and more or less force Lot to evacuate the city. Lot doesn't want to leave. His daughters don't want to leave. His wife (evidently) doesn't want to leave. His sons-in-law (who are probably from Sodom; I'm guessing they were still just engaged to his daughters) won't even listen to him (not a good look for Lot the righteous father). I'm speechless.


Let's note this first delay. The attempted gang rape probably happened late night. Lot asked for time to go and talk to his sons-in-law. Now it's dawn. Hours later. And Lot is still hesitating. Having just watched these two men strike the men of the city blind, that didn't increase his urgency at all? Or even just living in a place where the men of the city know they have permission to gang rape his daughters, that doesn't move the needle? I'm utterly, utterly speechless.


Btw, note the "don't look back" warning.


Aside: Be Careful What You Wish For: The Scandoval

I'm not a reality tv person, but I had heard of "The Scandoval" (even if I didn't know anything about it). But then yesterday the Times put out an article with the title "How Tom Sandoval Became the Most Hated Man in America". (I'm a sucker for "Most Hated Man in America" articles; it's my personal equivalent of doomscrolling.) First, I learned that the reality show "Vanderpump Rules" isn't actually about anyone named Vanderpump. But second, and more importantly, I read a cautionary tale of a man who immersed himself in a debaucherous culture and was burned by it. Yes, I was thinking about Lot when I read this story. Yes, perhaps I need to get out more.


Here's the short of it -- Tom Sandoval was a struggling actor/model in LA who auditioned for a reality show (Vanderpump Rules) which is apparently about struggling actor/models in LA. (He was selected.) The show features these actor/models hustling for a buck, trying to catch a break, and cheating on one another. In season 10 (?), Sandoval's girlfriend of many years discovered that Sandoval had been cheating on her with a cast member in the show. (In fact, they had managed to keep it secret from everyone.) The season was then about how the cast members (especially Sandoval's girlfriend) processed the "betrayal". The show's audience immediately turned on Sandoval. His brother asked him to delete Instagrams of the two of them together. The woman he cheated with won't return his calls. It fell apart fast.


But here's my observation -- some things he said in this piece (I paraphrase): "lots of other people have cheated, and they weren't treated like this"; "people cheated on the show all the time"; "I was unhappy in my fake reality world, and I wanted something real".


Catch that? He was surrounded by people who were fake, who were promiscuous, who were manipulative, and who were vindictive, and he was crushed when he fell into a similar pattern of behavior.


That's a long way of saying "be careful with the company you keep", but there it is. Perhaps you have some examples that are closer to home that you can use to begin to explain Lot's family's behavior.

 

Part 2: Whiny McWhinerton Whines Back (Genesis 19:18-22)

18 But Lot said to them, “No, my lords—please. 19 Your servant has indeed found favor with you, and you have shown me great kindness by saving my life. But I can’t run to the mountains; the disaster will overtake me, and I will die. 20 Look, this town is close enough for me to flee to. It is a small place. Please let me run to it—it’s only a small place, isn’t it?—so that I can survive.” 21 And he said to him, “All right, I’ll grant your request about this matter too and will not demolish the town you mentioned. 22 Hurry up! Run to it, for I cannot do anything until you get there.” Therefore the name of the city is Zoar.

Oh my goodness. [I'm pulling my hair out.] What is the equivalent of this? The building is on fire, and you ask the firefighters if they will let you go down the hall where the fire isn't because you're too tired to evacuate? You're in a war zone, and you ask the military if they'll not shoot up your building because you're afraid to leave? What are we doing here?


Your leader guide offers two common explanations: (1) Lot didn't trust God to protect him in the mountains, or (2) Lot had gotten so soft in the city that he didn't think he could survive in the mountains. (Insert joke.)


"Thank you for saving my life. But could you make it easier on me?" I'm speechless. Oh and worse -- Lot soon after goes to the mountains anyway because he's afraid for his safety in that little town! [I'm beating my head against a wall.]


God is bringing judgment on the wickedness of mankind, and this guy is asking for a neck pillow!


The Point of the Lesson: This lesson exists to remind us all of God's judgment on sin. Don't get distracted by how annoyed I am with Lot.


But that takes us into an interesting place: how seriously do people in the world today take our warnings about God's judgment on sin? Not very!


Divide your group in two and pose two questions:

  1. What warnings are in the Bible about the coming judgment on sin?

  2. Why don't people listen to us about those warnings?

And once you've gone through that, you'll probably discover that you're having a discussion about why people don't respond positively to your presentations of the gospel.


[I don't think I need to say this, but remember that God doesn't put you in a position to bargain about the gospel, unlike the angels with Lot.]


The word "Zoar" roughly means "little place". I've often wondered what the inhabitants of Zoar thought when they woke up the next morning.


One more thing to make sure you see: the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is almost always solely associated with God's judgment, but ask your group to identify all of the demonstrations of God's mercy!

 

Part 3: Judgment Cometh (Genesis 19:23-26)

23 The sun had risen over the land when Lot reached Zoar. 24 Then out of the sky the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah burning sulfur from the Lord. 25 He demolished these cities, the entire plain, all the inhabitants of the cities, and whatever grew on the ground. 26 But Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt.

"Burning sulfur" is the same phrase as the proverbial "fire and brimstone".

When you hear the phrase "hellfire and brimstone preacher", what do you think about? To be clear, at our church, we have some members who think David needs to preach more hellfire and brimstone, and we have some members who think David preaches too much hellfire and brimstone. What do you think those groups mean by that?


Anyway, one of the most famous examples of hellfire and brimstone is Jonathan Edward's

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire.

It's almost funny that this is the lasting impression of Edwards on the world. His sermons are characterized by joy and hope and peace with God. But in this sermon, he called out those people in his congregation who were relying on their church membership to get them into heaven. Not coincidentally, the First Great Awakening started at this time.


We get "fire and brimstone" from Sodom and Gomorrah. The few other places in the Bible with similar imagery all seem to be drawing from this same well.

  • Let him rain burning coals and sulfur on the wicked; let a scorching wind be the portion in their cup. (Ps 11:6)

  • I will execute judgment on him with plague and bloodshed. I will pour out torrential rain, hailstones, fire, and burning sulfur on him, as well as his troops and the many peoples who are with him. (Ez 38:22)

  • The devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Rev 20:10)

"Brimstone" is a combustible form of sulfur that can still be found around the Dead Sea today. I have no reason to believe this video is doctored.


This also leads us to a common secular narrative about the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah -- that it's a "fable" used to explain natural phenomena in the area. Why is there combustible sulfur around the Dead Sea? Because God rained it down on Sodom and Gomorrah. Why are there grotesque salt figures around the Dead Sea (see picture below)? Because God turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt (?).


Or, the other possibility is this is what happened. And God left these bizarre things as reminders.


Now let's talk about Lot's family.


Lot's wife "looked back" and turned into a pillar of salt. The angels warned them not to do that. Clearly this is more than a passing glance to see what was causing the giant explosion noises. The Hebrew word is the intense form of "look". Lot's wife longed for the city that had been destroyed. She wanted to go back. That's what she thought of God's merciful provision of salvation.


The leader guide notes that the Hebrew can also mean that Lot's wife died or froze, and her body was coated with salt. You don't need me to tell you that being coated in salt would kill you.


Lot's daughters are even worse. The lesson passage mercifully cuts off before we learn that Lot's daughters got him drunk and slept with him. We get the impression that this happened pretty quickly after the destruction. The daughters give the reason that they want to preserve their family line. But it's hollow -- they know that God didn't kill every man on earth. The way these events are put together, we are made to think that this is the lasting influence of Sodom on the girls. In Sodom, sexual immorality (drunken sexual immorality?) was the norm, and so nothing about this seemed wrong to them.


And this also creates some awkward conversations about the Moabites and the Ammonites. The name "Moab" is essentially "from father", and "Ben-Ammi" means "son of my people". A bit on the nose.


Lot's sons-in-law didn't even make it out of the city. They regarded Lot so little that his warnings meant nothing to them. There are some humorous events in that Sodom and Gomorrah movie -- during the destruction of the city, people are still making out and killing one another. That seems to be these guys' general oeuvre.


The point -- they had absorbed the wicked culture of Sodom so deeply that they resisted not only God's warning of destruction but also God's call to righteousness.


And that's the warning to us -- are we so comfortable with the behavior of the culture around us that we would rather "join in" than "call it out"?


This is such a disturbing passage, but if we read enough news, we find plenty of examples of human behavior that should be just as disturbing to us. Some of that is happening not far away. Are we outraged? Or are we indifferent?

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