Deuteronomy 34: The Secret Burial

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After reminding all the people of the laws and blessing them, Moses finally goes up to Mount Nebo – and, somehow, also to the top of Pisgah – to look on the Promised Land and die.

Moses's Testament and Death (detail), by Luca Signorelli, 1482

Moses’s Testament and Death (detail), by Luca Signorelli, 1482

If Moses’s simultaneous duo-location doesn’t seem to make sense,my study Bible explains: “Two traditions about the place of Moses’ death are included here: Mount Nebo is in Transjordan east of Jericho; Mount Pisgah is a peak in the same range, slightly west” (p.262).

So while the giant Moses was standing with one foot on each peak, he looked out on the Promised Land. He saw all the different tribal lands, and even as far as the “Western Sea” (which I assume must be the Mediterranean).

After he sees the whole of the Promised Land (no word on his reaction to the sight, which is a real missed narrative opportunity), Moses dies and God gives him a secret burial somewhere in Moab, opposite Bethpeor (Deut. 34:6).

The text specifically tells us that “no man knows the place of his burial to this day” (Deut. 34:6). The possibilities are, of course, that a burial site was known but was lost, that God really did bury Moses personally, or that there was no Moses to begin with. Assuming the second possibility for the sake of narrative, I’d like to think it had to do with the possibility of idolatry.

We are told that Moses was 120 years old when he died, and that he was in perfect health (Deut. 34:7). In Deut. 32:1, Moses said that he is “no longer able to go out and come in,” which could be a reference to the limitations of his health and therefore a contradiction.

The people mourned Moses’s passing for 30 days, then turned to Joshua as their new leader. Prior to this, with Moses as the king-like secular leader and his brother/nephew as the high priest and religious leader, power was concentrated in Levite hands (though Moses’s membership in the tribe of Levi is never emphasized, and it would be easy enough to see him as some kind of Divergent).

Now that the secular leadership has passed to Joshua – who is apparently from Ephraim (Num. 13:8) – the power structure evens out just a little.

Genesis 19: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

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Lot offers his daughters to the crowd, Lot leaves the city, the destruction of Sodom by Francois Maitre c.1475-1480

Lot offers his daughters to the crowd, Lot leaves the city, the destruction of Sodom by Francois Maitre c.1475-1480

In Chapter 18, we were told of three men who spoke in unison and were called “Lord.” These three men were heading towards Sodom to see if it was worthy of destruction. We’re now told that “the two angels came to Sodom” (Gen. 19:1). So God(s) has turned into angels, and three have become two. No word on what happened.

So these two angels get to Sodom and find Lot hanging out by the gates of the city. No word on why he would just be sitting at the city gates. He’s just there because it’s important that he be the one to meet the angels first. Plot critical, and all that.

Like Abraham, Lot plays the good host and invites the angels to spend the night with him. They resist, saying that they would prefer to spend the night in the street, but Lot manages to convince him that his house is a bit better than the street.

What’s for dinner? Rape.

Once the angels are in Lot’s house, every man (young and old) comes to Lot’s house and asks him to produce his two guests so that they can have sex with them. This passage is traditionally interpreted to be about rape, but I think the citizens of Sodom are just really friendly.

In any case, Lot takes his duties as a host a little too seriously and offers his virgin daughters for the crowd to rape. That’s right, his daughters. Not himself – the only person he has any real authority to give to someone for sex. No, his daughters. I’m sure they’re real happy to have a dad like that.

Luckily for the girls, the crowd wants none of this. They’ve already decided to have some angel-butt and no substitutes will suffice.

Lot is spared

The crowd presses in on Lot, but the angels grab him and pull him back into the house. Once in safety, they explain to him that they are here to destroy the city (but first, they blind all the men outside – not to worry, though. They won’t have to spend much time blind).

Lot tells his sons-in-law – not yet wed, they “were to marry his daughters” (Gen. 19:14) – to flee the city, but they assume he’s just pulling a prank and ignore him. So the angels tell Lot to just grab his wife and two daughters and forget the rest of the family. Lot “lingers” (Gen. 19:16), so the angels grab him and his family and pull them out of the city.

We aren’t told why Lot would linger once told that the entire city is about to be destroyed, but I would hope it has something to do with the family he’s leaving behind.

Pillar of salt

The angels warn Lot not to look back or stop anywhere in the valley. “Flee to the hills, lest you be consumed” (Gen. 19:17). I’ve found a couple sources saying that this story may be a “Just So” interpretation of a natural disaster. For example, my study bible says that this story is “a memory of a catastrophe in remote times when seismic activity and the explosion of subterranean gases changed the face of the area.” Another source explains it as earthquakes interacting with the bitumen in the area to produce the effect of “fire and brimstone,” tying the pillar of salt to a salt floe thrown up from the nearby Dead Sea.

Lot refuses to go into the hills “lest the disaster overtake me, and I die” (Gen. 19:19). Oh ye of little faith. Honestly, if the angels of God come to you and tell you that they are saving you, but you must run for the hills, you run for the hills. That’s just what you do. These are angels, for cripes’ sake! I think they would know if you’re likely to make it to the hills or not…

But this doesn’t occur to anyone, and the angels agree to spare Lot even though he’s running to the nearby city, Zoar, instead.

“Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomor’rah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground” (Gen. 19:24-25). Lot’s wife looks behind her and is turned into a pillar of salt.

Why spare Lot?

We’re given God’s reason for sparing Lot. “So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelt” (Gen. 19:29).

Despite being awkwardly phrased, it’s fairly clear what’s going on here. When Abraham asked “shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25) he didn’t reach God. Rather, this is just an extension of God’s special treatment of Abraham, as we saw in Chapter 18, where he decides to tell Abraham what he’s going to do to Sodom “seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation” (Gen. 18:18). Lot was not saved for being a good man, but for being a relative and friend of Abraham.

Why destroy Sodom and Gomorrah?

Three obvious possibilities present themselves from the text:

  1. Because of the homosexuality exhibited by the male residents of Sodom (and, certainly, this is the interpretation that’s gotten the most traction).
  2. Because of the attempted rape.
  3. Because the residents of Sodom are ignoring the rules of hospitality.

Ebonmuse, over at Daylight Atheism, has another suggestion. He’s found a passage that occurs later in the Old Testament that provides an explanation for Sodom’s destruction:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
–Ezekiel 16:49

He makes the (rather amusing) point that the term “sodomy” should not, then, be applicable to homosexual acts (or non-vaginal intercourse). Rather, all those televangelist and mega-church pastors are the real sodomites!

In any case, there’s a legitimate moral objection to this story. God has promised that if he found 10 people in Sodom who were not sinners, he would spare the city. He then went on his way to check the city out and assess the moral worth of its residents. But then, he destroyed the city having encountered only the male residents!

Were all the women also sinners? What about the children? What about the fetuses? This is a city we’re talking about. There’s a fairly good chance that at least ten women were pregnant at the time. Are we to understand that those fetuses were immoral? Or is the implication that fetuses are not persons? Neither explanation should provide the Christian with much comfort…

Dan Barker has this to say about the episode: “God did change his mind about the minimum number of good people required to prevent the slaughter, but he went ahead and murdered all the inhabitants of Sodom anyway, including all of the “unrighteous” children, babies and foetuses. It appears that Abraham was more moral than his god…” (Godless, p. 162).

Drunkenness and Incest

After Lot argued with the angels that he was too afraid to go into the hills and would prefer to go to Zoar instead, we get this: “Now Lot went up out of Zo’ar, and dwelt in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zo’ar” (Gen. 19:30). This book is really ridiculous sometimes…

Once Lot is settled in a cave with his daughters, his daughters decide to have sex with him. Really.

They want to have sex with Lot because “there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth” (Gen. 19:31) and they want to “preserve offspring” (Gen. 19:32). We’re not told why no man would want them. I can only assume that it’s because they had fiancés, but it seems rather cruel that two women would never be allowed/able to marry just because they were once promised to someone who has since died.

I’ve often heard this story as an example of sin, a condemnation of incest. But I wonder what was going on with those two women to make them desperate enough to sleep with their father. Now that they’ve been rendered unmarriageable by their culture’s ridiculous customs, with the pressure still on them to be the “bearers” of their family line, they must have felt like they were backed into a corner. After all, we’re told that Lot is old (Gen. 19:31), and probably won’t be around too much longer. At least if they have sons now, those sons might grow up and be able to support them once their father dies.

This is all speculation based on my very superficial understanding of the culture in that time and place, of course. Maybe they were just randy.

Either way, they get their father so drunk that, for two nights in a row, he “did not know when she lay down or when she arose” (Gen. 19:33). That’s very drunk. And I have to say that people don’t get that drunk through trickery. At some point, generally well before you pass out, you realize that something isn’t right. I can only assume, therefore, that Lot is a dirty old drunk just like Noah.

The eldest daughter has a son named Moab, who is the ancestor of the Moabites, and the younger daughter has a son named Ben-ammi, who is the ancestor of the Ammonites.

Genesis 14: The Rescue of Lot

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In this chapter, we get the first of the Old Testament’s many wars. It reads like a list of names (which it is), so it manages to be both terribly confusing and terribly boring. I had to read it over a couple names before I could make any sense of what was going on.

The Battle

The attackers:

  • Amraphel, king of Shinar
  • Arioch, king of Ellasar
  • Chedorlaomer, king of Elam
  • Tidal, king of Goi’im (the King James Version identifies him instead as the “king of nations”)

The attackees:

  • Bera, king of Sodom
  • Birsha, king of Gomorrah
  • Shinab, king of Admah
  • Shemeber, king of Zeboi’im
  • The king of Bela (also called Zoar)

For twelve years, the attackees served Chedorlaomer, but they rebelled in the thirteenth year. I would have assumed that this refers to some sort of tribute paying arrangement, and that the rebel cities banded together and refused to pay. My study bible, however, says that “the object of the invasion may have been to secure the trade routes to Egypt and southern Arabia.” A Christian source I found online says that it has to do with the people of Sodom being the descendants of Canaan, and therefore condemned to slavery. The rebellion therefore has to do with them attempting “to shake of the yoke.”

Another year passes, and then Chedorlaomer and his allies “came and subdued” (Gen. 14:5) the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim (or Emin, as they are called in the KJV) in Shaveh Kiriathaim, and the Horites in Mount Seir. Once they were done with this subduing, they turned around and “came to Enmishpat (that is, Kadesh)” (Gen. 14:7) and set to work subduing the Amalekites and the Amorites.

This is when our rebel kings head out to fight Chedorlaomer and his allies. They meet in the Valley of Siddim and promptly lose. The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, so the enemy took their stuff. They also captured Lot, “and his goods” (Gen. 14:12). It’s important that we keep track of Lot’s goods, apparently.

Rescuing Lot

Someone escapes from the battlefield and tells Abram about Lot’s capture. Abram gets his allies, Mamre the Amorite and his brothers, Eshcol and Aner. We’re told that Abram only had 318 men, which is very small for an army. This would make their win very impressive, except that it doesn’t say how many men Abram’s allies had.

“Then he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his kinsman Lot” (Gen. 14:16). Rescue the goods first, then your kinsmen. Awesome.

Priest of God Most High

Melchizedek and Abram by Caspar Luiken 1712

Melchizedek and Abram by Caspar Luiken 1712

When Abram returns with his spoils of war, he’s met by the king of Sodom and Melchizedek, king of Salem (or Jerusalem) and priest of God Most High. Melchizedek serves bread and wine, and then blesses Abram. As a reward, Abram gives him “a tenth of everything” (Gen. 14:20). What’s “everything,” exactly? The stuff that had been plundered by the invaders? Is that really Abram’s to give away?

The king of Sodom tells Abram that he only wants his people back, and Abram can keep all their possessions. This is rather uncharacteristic for “wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Gen. 13:13). But Abram refuses, saying that he’s “sworn to the Lord God Most High, maker of of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich'” (Gen. 14:22-23). Bit rude, honestly.

He does let Mamre, Aner, and Eshcol take their share of Sodom’s stuff.

Incidentally, I found some rather interesting stuff on Melchizedek while I was looking up this chapter. Apparently, there’s a whole lot of Christians out there who think that he’s a pre-incarnation of Jesus!