Righteous Lot and His Daughters (St. Ephraim the Syrian)

NOTE: The following is the 16th Homily from St. Ephraim’s Commentary on Genesis:

St Ephraim the Syrian

After the three men promised Sarah fruit, they arose and looked toward Sodom.1 It was not revealed to Sarah that they were going to Sodom lest, on the same day that they had given her joy in the promise that a son was to be hers, she be grieving over her brother on account of that sentence of wrath decreed on Sodom and the nearby villages. They hid this from Sarah lest she never cease weeping, but they revealed it to Abraham2 so that he not cease praying, and so that it be announced to the world that nowhere in Sodom was there found a single just man for whose sake it might be saved.

The cry against Sodom and Gomorrah was great and their sins were very grave.3 (The cry just mentioned is explained by the sins which he recounts below). Then God said, “I have come down to see if they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me and if not, I will know.”4 It was not that God, who had just said, their sins were very grave, did not know that they had sinned. This was an example to judges not to prejudge a case, even based on reliable hearsay. For if He who knows all set aside His knowledge lest He exact vengeance without full knowledge before the trial, how much more should they set aside their ignorance and not effect judgment before the case is heard.

Then two angels set out for Sodom and they went directly to the gate where Lot was sitting to receive strangers who came there. Lot rose to meet them as if to meet strangers, but when he drew near to them there appeared in the second angel the same vision that Abraham had seen in the third, and Lot bowed himself with his face to the ground.5

Even to the Sodomites they appeared in a favorable aspect, for He said, “I have come down to see.”  For this “I have come down and see,” means “I have come down to test them.” If they had not run after the vision they saw with such rabid fury, even though their former sins would not have been forgiven, they still would not have received the punishment that they were about to receive.

Lot then hastened to bring them inside before the Sodomites gathered and caused them any offence, but the angels kept stalling on various pretexts so that the Sodomites would come and be tested by them. In the case of Abraham, they had not tarried because they were not in any way testing him; they had come down to give him a reward for his test. Since they had come down to test Sodom, they said to Lot, who was pressing them to enter, “No, we will spend the night in the street.”6

But Lot urged them more strongly and so they entered and ate, but before they lay down to sleep, the men of Sodom surrounded the house and said to Lot, “Bring out to us the men who came to you in the night, that we may know them.”7 Notice that the angels entered during the night, which obscures appearances, and not during the day, in which forms can be clearly seen. They spread a veil, so to speak, over the sight of the Sodomites with the darkness that lay over their appearances. Although they had entered at night so that, by their being invisible, they might make more manageable the test of those who were to be tried, still the Sodomites took no benefit even from this for they had been preparing themselves to do them harm whether it was day or night.

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After Lot had begged the Sodomites and they still refused, he promised them his two daughters. But the Sodomites would not take them, and they then threatened to do more harm to Lot than to the angels and they drew right up to the door to break it down.8 Then the men brought Lot inside with them and the Sodomites outside were afflicted with blindness. But even by this they were not admonished, for after this they wore themselves out groping for the door. Then the men said to Lot, “Take your in-laws, your sons, your daughters, and anyone else that belongs to you out of this place for we are about to destroy it.”9 Lot’s son-in-laws are here called “sons,” for Lot was soon to marry them to his daughters.

Lot went out and spoke with his sons-in-law and, although the Sodomites were gathered there, they neither saw him leave nor enter. When he returned, having been ridiculed even by his sons-in-law, the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hands and brought them out.”10 The Sodomites did not see them, even though they went out as a group among them.

Because the women of Lot’s household had not been tested in Sodom, they were to be tested by a law set down for them when they left Sodom. Lot begged that Zoar be preserved so that he might enter there because it was nearer. One of the angels said to Lot, “Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of Zoar,”11 it shall be given to you on account of the dishonor of your two daughters.”

When Lot entered Zoar, the Lord brought down upon Sodom brimstone and fire from before the Lord from heaven,”12 that is, the angel, in whom the Lord had appeared, brought down from before the Lord, who is in heaven, fire and brimstone upon Sodom.

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Lot’s wife then disregarded the commandment that had just been given as a test, and she became a pillar of salt.13 Because Lot’s wife thus remained behind, she doubled the trial of Lot and his two daughters. But not even by this did they succumb to lay aside the command of the angel.

Because the young women were afraid to dwell in a desolate city on a mountain, and because they thought that all Creation had come to an end in a flood of fire as the generation of Noah did in a flood of water, the elder said to the younger, “Behold, our father is old and there is not a man on earth to come into us. Let us make our father drink wine that we may preserve seed from him14 and there might descend, even from us, a third world like the second from Noah and the first from Adam and Eve.”15 Although there was wine for them, because everything in Zoar had been left for their possession, there was not a man in Zoar for at the very moment the angel said to Lot, “Behold, I grant this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city,”16 Zoar swallowed up its inhabitants. But all its goods were left so that through those who had possessed these goods the Just One, whom they had provoked by their deeds, might be appeased and through the goods that it left behind, the righteous Lot who had lost all he had in Sodom might be consoled.

Then the daughters began to bring forward various pretexts. “We were afraid to sleep because of visions.” Our mother comes and stands before us like a pillar of salt and we see the Sodomites burning with fire.” “We hear the voices of women crying out from the midst of the fire and young children writhing in the midst of the conflagration appear to us.” “So for the sake of your daughters’ comfort do not sleep, but amuse yourself with wine that we might rob the night with a vigil that is free from terror.”

After they saw that his mind had been stolen by the wine and that a deep sleep had spread over his limbs, the elder went in and stole seed from the sleeping farmer, without his perceiving anything. Then this elder daughter, who had found success the previous day, enticed her sister also to become a “bride of the moment” and to take on a life of widowhood.

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When the younger had thus been persuaded she too went in and departed without Lot perceiving her. Then, after the child within the daughters became evident the younger complained to the elder saying, “It would have been better for us to be barren than to die of disgrace, to remain with our father without children than that our father be alone without daughters. For what excuses can we make to him when he judges us? And what answer shall we give when he is about to kill us, saying, ‘I said that no man knew my daughters in Sodom. Who then is the one who has known them on this mountain? Should we say that we are bearing a spirit? When we reach the point of childbirth what will we do?”

Then, while they were fretting over these things, their father summoned them and said to them, “For days now I have been secretly watching your stomachs and day by day you confirm the suspicion of adultery that I have concerning you. Tell me then, whence has this pregnancy within you come about? When? How? By whom were you raped?”

The elder answered her father and said, “Our betrothed pressed our mother to conceal them from you but to show us to them. Although nature made us their brides, your lack of sons made us their sisters. These, who had come to us in the likeness of brothers, when our mother was compelled to go out for some reason or another, then rose against us and subdued us like tyrants. When our mother returned and saw us, she threw those wanton ones out of her house with the disgrace they deserved. But she consoled us, saying, “They were your betrothed and not adulterers; you have received the seed of your ploughmen even though you were, in all truth, raped.”

Their father accepted their explanations since these things they related about the Sodomites were relatively minor things. For it was nothing that those who had assailed both each other and angels from on high would rape and disgrace, before the time of marriage, those to whom they were betrothed.

The elder gave birth and she named him Moab17 and he became a nation because he was a son of Lot. The younger, too, gave birth and named him Bar-ammi,18 that is, he is the race of my father because he is from my father. Because the two daughters had yielded two disgraces their two sons became two nations; because the two daughters had been offered in the place of the two angels, their two offences were forgiven them. The young women could no longer be with Lot as wives, because he was their father, nor could they belong to any others, for the husband of their youth was still alive. These two thus condemned themselves and, because they rashly did what was not right, deprived themselves of what they ought to have had. By this last solemn modesty, however, their previous rashness was greatly pardoned.

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  1. Gen. 18:16.
  2. Gen. 18:17-19.
  3. Gen. 18:20.
  4. Gen. 18:21.
  5. Cf. Gen. 19:1.
  6. Gen. 19:2.
  7. Gen. 19:3-5.
  8. Cf. Gen. 19:7-9.
  9. Cf. Gen. 19:10-13.
  10. Gen. 19:16.
  11. Cf. Gen. 19:16-22.
  12. Gen. 19:24.
  13. Cf. Gen. 19:26.
  14. Gen. 19:31-32.
  15. See Hymns on Virginity 38, where St. Ephraim excuses Lot for getting drunk as well as the behavior of his two daughters on the grounds that they thought themselves to be the last persons on earth. See also Hymns on Virginity 1, 11. See also the same tradition in Genesis Rabbah 51:8.
  16. Gen. 19:21.
  17. Gen. 19:37.
  18. Gen. 19:38. The Syriac equivalent of the Hebrew “Ben-ammi,” literally, “son of my people.”
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