Origen’s Moral Interpretation of the Story of Lot and his Daughters

As we saw in a previous post, Origen’s moral level of interOrigen Picturepretation deals with practical lessons that can be learned from the text that go beyond the literal level of meaning.  These lessons are specifically meant for Christians but they do not depend for their application on the coming of Christ.  Sometimes Origen states the moral principle simply and directly but at other times he states the moral principle symbolically using the details of the story, often in terms of the soul’s struggle to choose between the spirit or rational faculty and the flesh.  In his exposition of the story of Lot and his daughters, Origen draws several moral applications.  We will examine each of these in turn, evaluating whether or not they are legitimate lessons that can be drawn from the story.  We will also examine the issue of whether or not the moral level of interpretation is a legitimate tool that can help the church appropriate the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

The first lesson that Origen draws from the story of Lot and his daughters is the need for Christians to show hospitality toward strangers.  Origen makes it clear that the only reason why Lot and his family were saved was because he showed hospitality to the angels who came to the city.  He makes it equally clear that the people of Sodom were destroyed because they failed to show hospitality.  Lot’s hospitality proved to the angels that he was righteous whereas the lack of hospitality shown by the people of Sodom proved that the outcry that was made about their wickedness was true.[1]  According to Origen Christians should imitate Lot in showing hospitality to strangers lest they fall under the same judgment that befell the people of Sodom.

This first lesson seems to be a legitimate moral principle that can be taken from this text.  Even though Origen overstates his case somewhat when he says that the only reason why Lot was because of the hospitality he showed toward the angels, Lot’s hospitality does play an important role in demonstrating that he was righteous, which ultimately led to his rescue through the intercession of Abraham.  Christians can learn the importance of being kind to strangers and that hospitality is a mark of true righteousness.[2]  The New Testament itself picks this up in the book of Hebrews when it encourages Christians to entertain strangers because some have entertained angels without even being aware of it (Heb. 13:2).  The mentions of Lot’s hospitality in scripture was not written for its own sake but was meant to be an example for us even today (cf. Rom. 4:22-23).

The second lesson that Origen derives from this story is the importance of fleeing sin and pursuing righteousness.[3]  Lot’s wife, who looked back toward Sodom when it was being destroyed, represents the flesh, which causes souls that are pursuing salvation to look back toward vice and the pleasures of sin.  Lot, on the other hand, represents the rational understanding because the rational understanding can look beyond the momentary pleasures of sin and pursue salvation, which is by far better.[4]  Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt because salt represents the prudence that was lacking in her character.

Origen extends this moral application near the end of his homily to include other events that took place in the story.  Christians should learn that even after escaping the flames of this world and the fires of the flesh and even after climbing up the mountain of knowledge, pride and vainglory, represented by Lot’s daughters, could still be lingering within.  Christians should therefore be on their guard lest they fall prey to them unawares and produce children that, like the Ammonites and Moabites, cannot become part of the people of God.  By “children” Origen means the results that come from vainglory and pride.  On the contrary, Christians should seek to produce “children” in the Spirit because the one who sows to the Spirit reaps everlasting life.  Rather than embracing vainglory and pride, Christians should embrace wisdom and thus live lives worthy of God.

This type of story-as-symbol application (allegory) is quite different from the moral application given in the previous example.  Rather than deriving simple moral principles from the plain-sense meaning of the text, this type of application produces its own narrative that bears little resemblance to the plain-sense meaning of the text.  There are two main problems with this type of application, as with all allegory.  First, regardless of how compelling this alternative narrative might be, there is no reason to believe that this alternative narrative was intended by God or by the human author.  The symbolic meanings that Origen gives to the text are somewhat arbitrary.  Why should Lot’s daughters represent vainglory and pride?  Why not lust?  In the end, the alternative narrative may be  interesting or even edifying but it is ultimately a story of Origen’s own making.  The second problem is that this alternative narrative lacks coherence and consistency.  If Lot’s daughters represent vainglory and pride, why did the angels tell Lot to take them with him?  Lot would have been better off to leave them in Sodom.  The same thing could be said about Lot’s wife, who represents the flesh.  Perhaps he should have encouraged her to look back at Sodom so that the flesh could be mortified and he would be unhindered in scaling the heights of the knowledge of God.  This lack of consistency speaks strongly against divine or authorial intent and reveals the ad hoc nature of Origen’s use of symbolism.   That being said, there may be some validity to Lot’s wife being identified with the flesh.  However, rather than interpreting the story symbolically, it would be much better to focus on the plain-sense meaning of the text and suggest that Lot’s wife turned back because she was swayed by the flesh.  This still moves beyond the plain-sense meaning of the text because the text does not reveal why she turned back but it is consistent with the plain-sense meaning of the text.

The final lesson that Origen derives from this text on the moral level is that women should follow the example of Lot’s daughters and only engage in sexual intercourse for the sake of producing children.  Once they had conceived children, Lot’s daughters no longer engaged in sexual intercourse with their father.  Origen chastises Christian women for continuing to have sexual relations with their husbands even after they have become pregnant.  For Origen, sexual union is only appropriate when there is a chance for producing children.  Sexual intercourse for any other reason is to lower human beings to the level of unthinking animals.

While it is true that one of the main purposes of sexual union is to produce children, the Apostle Paul also makes it clear that sexual union is a marital duty quite apart from the purpose of producing children.  The only reason why a husband and wife should cease to fulfill this duty is when they have agreed to devote themselves to a short period to prayer (1 Cor. 7:5).  The Apostle Paul also teaches that sexual union between husband and wife is a means for combating sexual temptation (1 Cor. 7:1-7).  Origen’s views on sexual union  seem to be based more on Greek asceticism than on the clear teaching of scripture.[5]  Like the previous lesson, this story-as-symbol application is both arbitrary and inconsistent, revealing it to be a story of Origen’s own making rather than something that can legitimately be derived from scripture.

In conclusion, the problem with Origen’s moral level of application is not so much the concept but the way it is carried out.  When Origen stays close to the plain-sense meaning of the text his moral application can be quite insightful.  However, his story-as-symbol approach breaks down under closer examination.  Moral application goes beyond the plain-sense meaning of the text but, to be legitimate, it needs to be consistent with the plain-sense meaning of the text and with moral values and duties that are clearly expected of Christians elsewhere in scripture.  When this is done, the church will discover that the Old Testament is useful for teaching, correcting, reproof, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).

[1] Sodom’s lack of hospitality came in the form of trying to attack the angels who had entered the city.

[2] Note that Paul includes hospitality among the qualities that should characterize the overseers of the church (1 Tim. 3:2).

[3] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 114.

[4] Cf. 4 Maccabbees.

[5] This would appear to be the reason why Origen refrains from deriving moral application for husbands and wives from the Song of Solomon.


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