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Lot sat at the gate of the city of Sodom… Before the guests lay down, the men of Sodom surrounded the house… saying: "Where are your overnight guests? Bring them out, so that we may get to know them..." Lot replied: "Brothers, do no evil… to these men, who are my guests" The men of Sodom retorted: "This person came to live here, and turned into our judge…" and they tried to break down Lot's front door. (19:1-9)
The only Biblical source that throws light on the underlying character of the people of Sodom is where Ezekiel makes an angry comparison between the Jews of his time and the people of Sodom:
Behold! This was the sin of your sister Sodom: pride, an abundance of bread, an abundance of idleness in it, and in its daughters. They did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy (Ez. 16:49).
In other words the Prophet refers to the people of Sodomites as economically successful, but lazy and sordidly selfish.
Indeed, the Talmudic tradition shows the people of Sodom in a similar light - with the famous story of a young woman who was tortured to death under the legal code of Sodom for offering hospitality to strangers in their city (Sanhedrin 109). As R. Samson Raphael Hirsch derives from the text, the reason that the Sodomites were doomed was because their society turned wickedness into the law of the land, and cruelty into justice.
Lot had chosen to settle in Sodom. He did not camp outside Sodom in the way that Abraham camped outside cities. Instead, he left the pastoral nomadic way of life that had become Abraham's - and his own, for the solid "security" of urban life and sought to become an established resident rather than a travelling sojourner. He did not just become a citizen, but became one of the elite. The text suggests that he became promoted to being a judge in Sodom. For the scene opens with Lot's "sitting at the gate of the city of Sodom". The expression to "sit at the gate" includes dispensing justice to the citizens, as demonstrated in the Torah text (e.g. Deut 22:15) and recent archaeology (e.g. at Tel Dan). Indeed, the entrances of cities had special chambers where the judges would take their place and seek to settle the inevitable disputes in and around the urban society.
Thus Lot was not merely required to follow the legal code of Sodom, but very quickly - and faster than what was for his own good - became part of the machine to promote it and enforce it. In offering hospitality to strangers, he broke the immigration laws and spirit of the "mind your own business" (c.f. Ethics of the Fathers 5:10). The people of Sodom lost no time in retaliating with: "This person came to live here and turned into our judge". He does not belong here. He is not one of us. And worse: he is enforcing a code which is against our laws, customs, and ways of thinking.
What can be learnt from Lot's behavior is implied in Jeremiah's Letter to the Exiles. His message to those already exiled and living in foreign lands was to co-operate positively where possible with the host society. "Build houses, plant gardens, eat its fruits… and seek the welfare of the city… for its peace will be your peace" (Jer. 29: 5,7). Cooperation with the host society, yes - but being sensitive to the norms of society, and not seeking to convert them immediately to your norms…
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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