[Editor’s Note: The following article is taken from a soon-to-be-released book Hidden Meanings Buried in the Bible.]
A horrifying incident is recorded during the lifetime of Abraham involving his nephew Lot and the angelic visitors who came to Lot to warn him to flee the city:
Now before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them carnally.” So Lot went out to them through the doorway, shut the door behind him, and said, “Please, my brethren, do not do so wickedly! See now, I have two daughters who have not known a man; please, let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you wish; only do nothing to these men, since this is the reason they have come under the shadow of my roof” (Genesis 19:4-9).
The western mind—indeed, the Christian mind—has difficulty processing this incident, specifically, the callous, despicable behavior of Lot regarding his daughters.
One must remember that pre-Christian civilizations did not possess the refined moral sensibilities that a nation like America has enjoyed. Generally, the pagan societies of human history have engaged in all sorts of wicked, depraved, dehumanizing, and savage behaviors that were considered by those cultures to be perfectly appropriate. Consider, for example, those societies that have practiced cannibalism—including a number of American Indian tribal groups1—literally devouring other human beings and forcing others to do the same. Likewise, many cultures have had disgusting family relationships and relaxed sexual mores that are jarring to the Christian mind.2 As astonishing and objectionable to us—completely inexcusable and unjustifiable—as it may seem for a father to sacrifice his own daughters in such a fashion, it verifies the fact that the unnatural lust of homosexuality was considered far more repugnant than even illicit heterosexuality.
Nevertheless, scholars have documented the fact that Lot’s rationale was rooted in a cultural norm that informed his decision. The biblical notion of hospitality is given a prominent position in Christian thinking and behavior. It is imperative that God’s people “practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13; cf. Romans 16:23; 1 Timothy 5:10; 1 Peter 4:9; 3 John 8). One cannot even be considered for the high church office of elder without possessing this critical quality (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8). Americans have practiced a number of cultural amenities that manifest hospitality, including taking a guest’s coat, offering something to drink, indicating the location of the restroom, and offering for the guest to be seated. But Lot was being more than just hospitable. He was acting in harmony with a deeply honored obligation of antiquity—what Clarke referred to as “that sacred light in which the rights of hospitality were regarded among the eastern nations.”3 “A guest was sacred and his person inviolable.”4 These rights required him to protect the lives of those whom he had “taken in” for hospitable purposes at all costs. He was to protect his guests—even with his own life.5
In his Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, Fred Wight explains: “In the lands of the East, when a host accepts a man to be his guest he thereby agrees at whatever the cost to defend his guest from all possible enemies during the time of his entertainment.”6 Based upon his travels to Egypt and Palestine to visit biblical sites, H. Clay Trumbull, Lyman Beecher Lecturer at Yale Divinity School, wrote in his Studies in Oriental Social Life about an occurrence of this very custom. An American missionary visited in the home of a Turkish governor who handed the American a piece of roast mutton and stated: “By that act I have pledged you every drop of my blood, that while you are in my territory no evil shall come to you. For that space of time we are brothers.”7 In the Oriental mind, hospitality is “the virtue of virtues,” “the trait of traits,” and involves “a profound sense of obligation to a principle.”8
Lot hinted at this profound commitment when he reminded the mob: “only do nothing to these men, since this is the reason they have come under the shadow of my roof” (Genesis 19:8). The word “shadow” refers to the sacred duty of protection that Lot was under obligation to provide.9 English translations render the phrase: “They have come to my house, and I must protect them,”10 “I am responsible for them,”11 “They have come under the protection of my roof.”12 Hence, from the perspective of the Oriental mindset, Lot was “a courageous champion of the obligations of hospitality in a situation of extreme embarrassment.”13
But the Eastern commitment to the principle of hospitality went even further. The Eastern tribal groups known as the Khonds possess the same passion for hospitality, as reflected in this Khond proverb: “For the safety of a guest, life and honor are pledged; he is to be considered before a child.”14 This perspective, indeed, this narrow-minded fixation, explains the absurd behavior of Lot in the treatment of his daughters.
The virtue of hospitality has a pre-eminence, in its obligations and in its significance, not recognized to the same extent elsewhere in the world at large…. In the primitive East, hospitality is more far-reaching in its scope and more exacting in its obligations than anything which we know of under that name in the conventional West.15
Of course, this “exaggerated emphasis on hospitality”16 to the neglect of his obligations of fatherhood does not make Lot’s actions appropriate—let alone sanctioned by God.17 Even if we postulate that he didn’t expect the mob to accept his offer—due to their depraved sexual proclivities—even making the offer is unacceptable and to be viewed as unconscionable. We might add, however, that if the choice came down to preserving the lives of his guests versus preserving the lives of his daughters, and if the lives of the guests took precedence over the lives of himself and his own family (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31), we can at least understand that all human life, whether the lives of those closest to us or the lives of those who are complete strangers, is equally valuable—even if we question which should be preserved over the other. Since God does not sanction situation ethics,18 Lot’s predicament should not be viewed as an “either/or” situation. He should have sought to preserve all lives committed to his charge, refusing to compromise with the depraved mob. In any case, awareness of the peculiar notions of the Asiatic mindset at the time regarding hospitality helps us at least to make sense of Lot’s bizarre offer, though we reject it as completely unacceptable to God.
1 Thomas H. Maugh (2000), “Conclusive Evidence of American Indian Cannibalism Found,” Los Angeles Times, September 7, https://archive.seattletimes.com/ archive/?date=20000907&slug=4041058. See Dave Miller (2017), God & Government (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press), pp. 318-319.
2 See Miller (2017), pp. 317-318 for instances of depraved practices of the Indian tribes in 18th century America. The “Eskimos” of Alaska practiced wife swapping as an expression of etiquette—see Lawrence Hennigh (1970) “Functions and Limitations of Alaskan Eskimo Wife Trading,” Arctic, 23:24-34, from http://www.jstor.org/ stable/40507675; Arthur J. Rubel (1961), “Partnership and Wife-Exchange Among the Eskimo and Aleut of Northern North America,” Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, 10:59-72, https://www.uaf.edu/ apua/files/Rubel1961.pdf.
3 Adam Clarke (no date), Clarke’s Commentary: Genesis-Deuteronomy (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury), 1:123, emp. added. Also “the sacred rite of hospitality…the sanctity of hospitality”—C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch (1976 reprint), Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1:233. See also Mary Rogers (1865), Domestic Life in Palestine (Cincinnati, OH: Poe & Hitchcock), p. 237, who was told when visiting a home in Palestine, “This house is your house, and we are at your service.”
4 Wilfrid J. Moulton (1920), “The Social Institutions of Israel,” in A Commentary on the Bible, ed. Arthur Peake (London: T.C. & E.C. Jack), p. 110.
5 Thomas Whitelaw (1950), The Pulpit Commentary: Genesis, ed. H.D.M. Spence and Joseph Exell (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1:253, emp. added; E. Harold Browne (1873), Genesis, or The First Book of Moses (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co.), p. 127.
6 Fred Wight (1953), Manners and Customs of Bible Lands (Chicago, IL: Moody Press), p. 78, emp. added.
7 H. Clay Trumbull (1895), Studies in Oriental Social Life (London: Hodder & Stoughton), p. 110, emp. added.
8 Ibid., pp. 80-81,99. The term “oriental” is used by scholars to refer to the peoples that live in a large area consisting of Eastern Turkey to Central India, and from Northern Persia to Southern Arabia (Trumbull, p. 74).
9 Koehler, et al., pp. 1024-1025.
12 CSB, CEB, EHV, HCSB, NET, NIV, TLV.
13 John Skinner (1925), A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), revised edition, p. 307.
14 Trumbull, p. 98, emp. added; J.T. Gracey (1882), “Khonds” in Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, ed. John M‘Clintock and James Strong (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1969 reprint), 5:72-73. While the Khonds lived in India—quite some distance from Palestine—they still serve as an example of the Eastern mindset as it relates to the obligations of hospitality.
15 Trumbull, p. 74, emp. added.
16 H.C. Leupold (1950 reprint), Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 1:559.
17 See the discussion of why the Bible would label Lot as “righteous” in Eric Lyons (2008), “Righteous Lot”?, Apologetics Press, https://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=23&article=2400.
18 Dave Miller (2004), “Situation Ethics—Extended Version,” Apologetics Press, https://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=7&article=645&topic=38.