Beyond the Lectionary Text: Genesis 19:1-29
by Al Postma
There’s a good chance that if you selected the entire chapter of Genesis 19 for your upcoming sermon, you’re questioning your choice. After all, reading these words in front of the entire congregation is rightfully uncomfortable; at the very least, it may feel best read after the children have been dismissed for Sunday School. Those unfamiliar with Scripture may also be surprised that the details are recounted so vividly and the story told without the sense of propriety usually expected for a worship service. In short: it’s gritty and raw, attempting to show clearly the level of sin that had infected these cities.
It becomes clear, though, that the details of the sinfulness are not meant to be distractingly obscene, but serve a purpose as the foundation for how the rest of the chapter unfolds. After this vivid description of the type of behaviour in Sodom & Gomorrah, Lot is told that the cities will be destroyed. Lot pleads with his family to follow him out since he’s been warned by the angels that the destruction is imminent and he they have been afforded the opportunity to be saved should they follow him. Having been given that opportunity, it’s actually quite sad to read that Lot couldn’t convince his daughters’ future husbands. It’s not that they were obstinate; instead, they laughed him off. You can almost hear them: “Impending judgement? City to be destroyed? Ha! Sleep it off, Lot, and we’ll see you tomorrow.” Nevertheless, I wonder if Lot didn’t give up on them easily. After all, we’re told that Lot had to be rushed out of the city at the last minute with just his daughters and wife, finally leaving the two men on their own as time ran out. His paternal authority over his immediate family was effective, his persuasive authority was not.
Why they thought Lot was a joker, we’re not told. Could it be that these two men just couldn’t see it? That perhaps they had grown up in the city and couldn’t believe that their experiences were such awful examples of the brokenness in the world? Or that they simply couldn’t believe that what was allowed for so many years suddenly would be acted upon by God? In either case, their response was, if I can call it such, slothful (more on this later). It was either blind to the sin or unconcerned with it. And so they became subject to a judgment they could have avoided had they believed and followed their father-in-law.
Then there is Lot’s wife. The family is running from the city, and they were told explicitly to not look back. While we often don’t think of it, there’s more going on here than which direction her face is pointing. The angels are telling Lot and his family that they aren’t supposed to simply flee for their lives, but leave the city behind. To drop their past without any desire to touch it again. It’s understood, then, that Lot’s wife isn’t looking back simply out of curiosity or to make sure the city is burning sufficiently. Lot’s wife, it seems, is looking back because she can’t let the city go. Her feet may be running from it, but her heart stands still. She isn’t judged for looking, but for longing. The Lord, it seems, looks to the heart rather than just the feet.
So let’s talk briefly about Sloth, the Capital Vice or Deadly Sin. Quoting Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s excellent book, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies: “Traditionally, Lot’s wife was taken to be a picture of sloth, because even while being rescued, she is unwilling to fully turn her back on the only home and life and friends she had ever known. How many of us have felt like we need two angels to drag us out of Sodom, while we look back over our shoulders, wistfully wishing for what we must leave behind?” (p.92). Sloth, it turns out, is not primarily about how fast your feet are moving, but how fast your heart is moving.
So, we have Lot, who’s been living in a city longer than he probably should have if he was attentive to his and his family’s spiritual health. We have his future sons-in-law, who laugh him off and stay in the city because they’re either blind to how bad things are or don’t care. And Lot’s wife, who gets out but can’t seem to let go. The story is utterly saturated with the vice of Sloth with each character living it out in their own separate yet similar ways.
The remedy to Sloth is not general activity, but repentance. In this story, you can probably hear echoes of calls to repentance throughout Scripture. They are calls that urge us to both get out and stay out. To open our eyes to the sin we’re involved in. To become uncomfortable at injustice or moral filth rather than become those who laugh it off. To leave our old ways behind, set free into new life in the Spirit. Theologically speaking, to experience mortification & vivification as individuals and as a community.
It’s here that the rubber meets the road. As a preacher, you know just as well as anyone how your feet can walk while your heart lags behind. How your eyes are drawn backwards rather than straining ahead to see what God has in store. My suggestion is to prepare personally for this sermon, give yourself the space to identify and know the sin that you may keep returning to. Wonder why you keep returning to it. Consider spending time in confession with a trusted friend. And receive the freeing forgiveness that Christ offers. That he does not simply call you to come and die, but to come and live in the new life he has for you.
What is the sin that precipitates Sodom & Gomorrah’s destruction? It’s often assumed that it is homosexual behaviour, as is evident by the way “sodomy” has been an interchangeable term with “homosexuality.” When the men pound on the door, they demand that Lot send them out so that they can, literally, “know” (yada) them. In Hebrew, yada is the word often used for sexual relations, but, of course, it is often used in its most direct meaning of simply “to know.” In v.5, the ESV allows the ambiguity to stand (“…that we may know them”) while the NIV gives a more direct interpretive grid (“…so that we can have sex with them”). In either case, the action is implied to be violent and inappropriate.
In Genesis 19, the most important thing is not the precise nature of the sin but the fact that it is a city saturated by sin. Whether it is rape, homosexual behaviour, or violent inhospitality is not the central point, and need not take centre stage in a sermon.
First, there seems to be some interpretive flexibility regarding Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt. Most often, she’s considered to be zapped into a pile of salt immediately upon glancing back while fleeing alongside her family. However, some have suggested that perhaps she simply is lagging behind the rest, or physically turns around. It isn’t so much, then, that God turns her into a pile of salt as it is that she is simply standing in the path of destruction along with everyone else. She becomes, then, one pillar of salt among many. In both cases–a physical return or a looking back–there is support for seeing her as a representative of the vice of Sloth.
Second, why is Lot willing to give his two daughters to be raped while he seems intent on protecting his guests from the men of the city? How can he have concern for the men but not his daughters? Surely any code of hospitality with a responsibility to protect his guests would be matched by a need to protect his own family. The text doesn’t dwell on this, but a lack of addressing it should not be seen as condoning (see also Judges 19-21). I wonder if it is helpful here to remember that God didn’t save Lot because Lot was such a stand-up guy, but because of Abraham. Just because he is the person that God saves doesn’t mean that he is worthy of that salvation. Lastly, particularly for those in your congregation who have suffered violence at the hands of someone who should have protected them, this part of the passage may be very difficult. Depending on your circumstances, it may be worth addressing directly in some way even if you don’t wish to have it be the focus of the sermon.
If you are open to bringing an object up with you, consider figuring out a way to remove the rear-view mirror from a vehicle. When I preached on this passage, I had the benefit of a vehicle where it easily slid off.
Imagine that you’re moving away from a city, with a slim likelihood that you will ever return. Your house had become your home, however imperfect it was. The people living nearby had become your neighbours and friends. After you load up your vehicle with the last of everything, you turn out of the driveway and make your way down the street. This whole time you find you can’t keep your eyes off of the rear-view mirror. Memories flood back, and perhaps a deep sadness overcomes you. You’re looking forward, but it’s hard to let go.
Now compare that to leaving a place that was painful. Your landlord made life miserable, there was often violence on your stoop, and your own children suffered at the hands of your neighbours. You load up, turn out of the driveway, and your eyes are not even tempted to get one last glimpse; the rear-view mirror might as well not even be installed in your vehicle. Instead of sadness, you have a sense of relief.
When it comes to our walk with God, we always seem to face the danger of mixing these two scenarios up. We often drive off from the healthy place to live without hardly glimpsing in the mirror, while leaving a place of brokenness can cause us to glimpse back with longing. It’s mixed up desire and mixed up direction. Genesis 19 reminds us that not all nostalgia is good nostalgia and not all longing is good longing.
Al Postma is the pastor of Bethlehem CRC, Thunder Bay, Ontario.