Origen’s Literal Interpretation of the Story of Lot and His Daughters

OrigenIn the introduction to his fifth homily on the book of 1 Samuel, Origen makes the following observations about the usefulness of stories interpreted on the literal level: “There are stories that do not touch us, and there are others that are a necessary basis for our hope.  I say ‘stories,’ because we have not yet arrived at elevated interpretations useful to every person who knows how to make them or who hears them.  Among stories there are some that are useful to everyone, some not to everyone.  Take for example, the story of Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-8): if it teaches something useful in an elevated sense, God knows, as does that person who has received the gift of grace to expound these matters.  As for the usefulness of the story itself, it would take quite a search to find it!  Indeed, what profit can I find from the story of Lot and his daughters?[1]

In many ways, the question that Origen asks at the end of this quotation is essentially the question that he asks for all three levels of interpretation: “What profit can I find from the story of Lot and his daughters?”  In this quotation, Origen seems to be suggesting that the story of Lot and his daughters is not useful to Christians when interpreted exclusively on the basis of the literal sense.  Any possible benefit from this story, it would seem, would have to be found on the moral or spiritual levels.  This does not mean, however, that Origen placed no value on the literal meaning of the text.  Origen’s point is that the story by itself is incapable of edifying believers without careful theological reflection.  Origen recognizes the simple fact that this story, like most stories in the Old Testament, does not explicitly state how believers can benefit from it.  The problem is compounded by the fact that the story was written before the coming of Christ, which means that any specifically Christian interpretation or application would lie well beneath the surface-level meaning of the texts.

Despite these caveats, Origen expends a great deal of effort trying to come to terms with the literal meaning of this text.  Origen does this because the moral and spiritual levels of interpretation are based on the literal level of interpretation.  This principle applies both to Origen’s interpretation as well as to Celsus’s interpretation of the story.  On the literal level, Celsus saw a level of immorality that far exceeded similar immorality found in Greek sources.  Celsus concluded that Lot’s sexual relations with his daughters met with divine approval in the book of Genesis and that Lot and his daughters were presented as models to emulate.[2]  These conclusions go beyond the literal meaning of the text and are somewhat analogous to Origen’s moral level of interpretation.  Celsus uses this as evidence for the mendacity of Judaism and Christianity.  Origen is quick to point out, however, that Celsus’ moral interpretation is based on a misunderstanding of the literal level of the text.  So the literal level of interpretation is vital for a proper understanding of the moral and spiritual levels of the text.

Origen’s literal level of interpretation may be examined under five headings, each corresponding to a major interpretive issue that Origen discovered in the literal level of the text: (1) Why was Lot was rescued from Sodom? (2) Why did Lot flee to Zoar rather than to the mountains? (3) Why was Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt? (4) Why did Lot’s daughters commit incest with their father? and (5) Why did Lot say that Zoar was small but not small?[3]  Each of these issuess will be discussed in turn according to Origen’s exegesis in Contra Celsum and his fifth homily on the book of Genesis and will be critiqued, when necessary, according to a close reading of the biblical text.

So, firstly, why was Lot rescued from Sodom?  According to Origen, Lot was rescued from Sodom because of the hospitality he showed to the angels who were sent to destroy the city.[4]  Origen knew from 2 Peter 2:6-9 and from Abraham’s prayer in Genesis 18:16-33 that Lot was a righteous man.[5]  However, the only evidence for Lot’s righteousness in the book of Genesis is the hospitality he showed toward the angels.  So Origen concluded that Lot was rescued because of the hospitality he showed toward strangers while the Sodomites were destroyed because they closed their doors to strangers.

Later on, however, Origen attributes Lot’s rescue to Abraham’s intercession rather than to Lot’s personal character.[6]  This tension in Origen’s explanation may be explained as follows.  First, when Origen attributed Lot’s rescue to the hospitality he showed to strangers it was in the context of an exhortation to his hearers not to close their doors to strangers.  So Origen emphasized the role played by Lot’s hospitality in his rescue to drive home the application he was making for his audience.  Second, the two explanations that Origen gives for why Lot was rescued from Sodom are grounded within the text itself.  While it is true that the biblical narrator attributes Lot’s rescue to the intercession of Abraham (Gen. 19:29), it is also true that God would not have rescued Lot if he had not been a righteous man since Abraham’s intercession was grounded on the belief that there were righteous people in the city (Gen. 18:23).  Origen seems to acknowledge both truths in the way he words his explanation: “For even the fact that he escaped from Sodom, as the Scripture indicates, belongs more to Abraham’s honor than to Lot’s merit.”[7]  It is not a matter of one explanation being true and the other explanation being false; it simply means that one explanation has priority over the other.  The angels went down to see if the outcry made against Sodom was true but they also went down to see if there were any righteous people in the city in answer to Abraham’s prayer.[8]  Lot was the only one they found.  So the reasons Origen gives for why Lot was rescued from Sodom, though worded somewhat clumsily for rhetorical effect, accurately represent the reasons given in the text itself.

The second issue Origen deals with is why Lot fled to Zoar rather than to the mountains.[9]  According to Origen, Lot fled to Zoar because he did not deem himself worthy to flee to the mountains.[10]  Origen’s explanation is based on his interpretation of Psalm 121:1 where the Psalmist says, “I lift my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?”  For Origen, only the perfect –in the case of Psalm 121, the Psalmist – can look to the mountains for God’s help.[11]  Lot was “somewhere in the middle between the perfect and the doomed” because he was not wicked enough to perish with the inhabitants of Sodom but he was not righteous enough to flee right away to the mountains to dwell with Abraham.[12]  If Lot had been righteous, he would never have departed from Abraham (Gen. 13:1-13) and he would never have chosen to live in Sodom (Gen. 13:10-13).  Furthermore, even though Sodom was once like the paradise of God, it fell through sin and became like the land of Egypt (Gen. 13:10).  Thus it was impossible for Lot to go directly from the sinfulness of Sodom to the mountains reserved for the righteous.  So Lot humbly asked the angels to allow him to flee to Zoar, which lies somewhere between Sodom and the mountains.

Although Origen’s explanation seems to go beyond the literal level of the text, it should be remembered that Origen believed that Scripture ultimately had only one author so passages from one book could be used to illuminate the meaning of passages in other books.  Origen is using the literal meaning of Psalm 121:1 to illuminate the literal meaning of this passage.  Thus, Origen’s appeal to Psalm 121:1 remains on the literal level and is something quite different from his moral and spiritual levels of interpretation.

However, Origen’s explanation is not justified by a close reading of the story itself or of Psalm 121:1.  In Psalm 121:1 the Psalmist is looking for help to come from the mountains but, in Genesis 19, Lot was told to flee to the mountains.  Lot’s request to flee to Zoar rather than to the mountains was motivated by fear and lack of trust in God rather than piety.  The angels told Lot to flee to the mountains so he would not be swept away (Gen. 19:17).  But Lot said, “No, my lords, please!  Your servant has found favour in your eyes, and you have shown great kindness to me in sparing my life.  But I can’t flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I’ll die” (Gen. 19:18-19).  Lot failed to recognize that God was in control of the disaster that was about to overtake Sodom and that he was more concerned with rescuing him than he was with destroying the city.  The words the angels spoke to Lot concerning Zoar would have been true had he fled to the mountains instead: “But flee there quickly, because I cannot do anything until you reach it” (Gen. 19:22).

Origen’s explanation also runs into serious difficulties when one considers that the sinful actions of Lot’s daughters took place when they were in the mountains.  If only the perfect can find their help in the mountains then the actions of Lot and his daughters are difficult to explain.  This difficulty may be mitigated somewhat by Origen’s understanding of why Lot’s daughters committed incest with their father.  But this will be discussed further on.

There are also difficulties with Origen’s explanation of Genesis 13:10.  Origen takes this verse to mean that Sodom was once morally pure like the conditions that prevailed in the Garden of Eden but that it plunged into wickedness and became like the land of Egypt.  However, Genesis 13:10 makes it clear that the region surrounding Sodom was like the garden of the LORD and like the land of Egypt because the land was well watered.

Despite these difficulties, Origen’s explanation does capture something true about the character of Lot as he is depicted in both the Old and the New Testaments.  He was “somewhere between the perfect and the doomed.”  Although he was a righteous man who “was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (2 Peter 2:8), the “dwellings of Sodom” should not have pleased him.[13] As we will see later on, Lot’s decision to dwell in Sodom would have devastating consequences for him and his family.

The third issue that Origen deals with is why Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt.  Origen notes that, while Lot was fleeing from Sodom, the two angels commanded him not to look backward on the destruction that was consuming Sodom.  But Lot’s wife violated the “imposed law” and, as a result, was transformed into a pillar of salt.[14]  When Origen looks at the punishment that was given to Lot’s wife for looking backward, he considers the punishment to be somewhat excessive.  Simply looking backward at Sodom and the terrifying destruction that was consuming it does not seem to be a crime worthy of being punished by death.  Origen is probably right to see a deeper meaning to the death of Lot’s wife.  This will be discussed further when we look at Origen’s moral level of interpretation.

The fourth issue that Origen deals with is why Lot’s daughters committed incest with their father.  As was stated earlier, Celsus objected to this story because the actions of Lot’s daughters were worse than the Thyestian sins.  Celsus is referring to the story of Atreus and Thyestes in Greek mythology.[15]  Thyestes and Atreus were sons of Pelops, the king of Pisa.  Thyestes committed adultery with Atreus’s wife and tried to usurp Atreus’s throne.  Atreus retaliated by killing three of Thyestes’s children and by serving them to him as food without his knowledge.  When Atreus revealed what he had done, Thyestes consulted an oracle to see how he might get his revenge.  The oracle said that he could get his revenge by producing a child through his own daughter.  So Thyestes slept with his daughter and his daughter bore a son who eventually killed Atreus and gave the kingdom over to Thyestes.  Celsus considered the incest committed by Lot’s daughters to have been worse than the incest committed by Thyestes, presumably because Lot’s daughters were proud of what they had done.[16]

Origen defends the actions of Lot’s daughters by appealing to Greek philosophy.[17]  The Stoics believed that actions could be good, bad, or indifferent.  The determining factor in whether or not an action is good or bad is its motivation.  The Stoics believed that it was morally indifferent for a man to commit incest with his daughter if the rest of the human race had been destroyed.  Origen argues that Lot’s daughters were doing the same thing.  They had heard that the world would end by fire so, when they saw the fire that was raining down on Sodom, they believed that they were the only human beings to survive.  So, out of necessity, they slept with their father so that the human race would not be destroyed.  Scripture neither applauds nor condemns the daughters’ actions.  Stoic philosophy would then seem to justify the actions of Lot’s daughters.

In his fifth homily on Genesis, Origen makes a similar argument to defend the integrity of the story.  He begins by pointing out that Lot did not participate in the incest willingly by that he was deceived by his daughters and taken by stealth.[18]  Since he did not consent to what his daughters did he was not guilty of lust or in taking pleasure in his daughters’ actions.  Origen notes that the text itself seems to excuse him when it says that he did not realize when his daughters lay down or when they arose (Gen. 19:33, 38).   But Origen notes that Lot was not totally free from guilt because his daughters would not have been able to carry out their plans if he had not first become drunk.  Lot is “somewhere between the sinners and the just”[19] or, as he said earlier, “somewhere in the middle between the perfect and the doomed”[20] because he descended from the same family as Abraham but took up residence in Sodom.  It is in this context that Origen states that Lot was saved more for the sake of Abraham than for his own merit.[21]

Origen’s evaluation of Lot’s culpability in the actions of his daughters seems to fit with the evidence found in the biblical text.  Origen is a close reader of the biblical text so he is aware that the narrator does not want to present Lot as being a willing party to his daughters’ actions.  But the narrator also wants to make it clear that Lot was somehow responsible for what his daughters had done.  Origen is right to point out that Lot’s daughters would not have carried out their plans if he had not become drunk.  But the text seems to go further than this and suggest that Lot’s daughters would never have formulated such a wicked plan if Lot had not taken up residence in Sodom.  Lot believed that he could keep himself from being contaminated by the sinfulness of Sodom but he did not realize the effect that living in Sodom had on his wife and children.[22]  This is suggested by the ominous parenthetical clause in Genesis 13:13.  After noting that Lot had pitched his tent near Sodom the narrator states that the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning in grievous ways against the LORD.  Later Israelites who read this story were probably supposed to learn from the story of the consequences of associating too closely with the people who lived in the land they were about to enter (Cf. Deut. 7:1-6).  Particularly relevant is Moses’s command in Deuteronomy 7:3-4: “Do not intermarry with them.  Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.”  Although the book of Genesis says nothing about Lot’s daughters turning to other gods, it is clear that, having escaped the fire that rained down on Sodom, they took all that was wicked and shameful about Sodom with them.[23]  This evaluation will have implications for how Origen’s defense of Lot’s daughters should be viewed.

Next, Origen moves on to discuss the culpability of Lot’s daughters for their actions.  Origen’s discussion in his homily is quite similar to the discussion found in Contra Celsum but his arguments from Greek philosophy are missing.  However, even though Origen’s philosophical arguments are not explicitly stated, they clearly lie beneath Origen’s evaluation of the two daughters.  He begins his discussion by saying that it is important to consider the intentions of Lot’s daughters.  This goes back to the distinction that the Stoics made between good, bad, and indifferent actions based on a person’s intentions.  Origen argues that the daughters believed that the end of the world had come and that they did not know that it was only Sodom and the surrounding region that had been destroyed.  They had seen their mother killed and fire raining down on the city.  They had heard about the destruction that occurred during the time of Noah and believed themselves to be in a similar situation.  Thus they believed that it was their responsibility to repopulate the earth.[24]  The evil that would have been caused by not perpetuating the human race would have been more evil than deceiving their father and committing incest with him.  Indeed, their deception was somewhat commendable because Lot would have been tormented had he knowingly committed this sin.  Origen goes so far to say, though he hesitates, that Lot’s daughters were nobler than some Christian women because they did not continue to have sexual relations with their father once they had conceived while many Christian women continue to have sexual relations with their husbands even after they have conceived.[25]  So Origen acknowledges that what they did was wrong but he notes that their guilt was somewhat mitigated by the evil they believed would have taken place if they had not done so.

Although Origen’s discussion of the actions of Lot’s daughters has much to commend it, a closer reading of the text would seem to indicate that the motivations of Lot’s daughters were much more sinister.[26]  When Lot’s older daughter said to the younger daughter that “there was no man in the land to come to them as is the custom throughout the earth” (Gen. 19:31, my translation), there is no reason to think that she believed that the world had come to an end and that the only way to perpetuate the human race was through her father.  She knew that Zoar had been spared the destruction that overtook Sodom and the angels made it clear that the destruction was only intended for the cities in the plain (Gen. 19:13, 17).  When she said that there was “no man on the earth,” as Origen understood it, she meant that there was no one in the vicinity to become their husbands.  It should be noted that the older daughter prefaced her words by saying “our father is old,” which probably means that her father would have been unable to secure husbands for her and her sisters as was the custom in that day.[27]  The two daughters did not get their father drunk to spare his conscience but to make him do unconsciously what he would never have done while sober.  It would not be unjust to consider their actions as constituting an act of rape.  Although Celsus may in fact have been right when he said that the actions of Lot’s daughters were worse than the Thyestian sins, the text does not present these actions as something to be emulated but as something to be avoided.  These are the consequences that happen when the righteous choose to make their dwelling with the wicked.

The final interpretive issue that Origen deals with in his interpretation of the story of Lot and his daughters is why the text says that Zoar is small but not small (Gen. 19:20).  This is an obvious contradiction when the verse is read in this way.  Drawing from Plato’s Republic, Origen says that a city can be small and not small because the lives of a great number of people are held together in one place.[28]  Origen also sees a deeper meaning in these words but this will be discussed further on when we look at Origen’s spiritual level of interpretation.  Origen’s explanation is creative but unnecessary.  The second part of Lot’s statement should be construed as a question because the Hebrew text begins with the interrogative marker.  The text would then read, “Look!  This city is close enough for me to flee to and it is quite small.  Let me escape to there.  Is it not quite small?” (Gen. 19:20, translation mine).  Lot mentions the smallness of the city twice in order to convince the angels that sparing the small number of people in this city would be a small price for allowing him to flee there.  So Origen’s interpretation of the literal level is simply based on a misunderstanding.


[1] Origen, “Homily 5 on 1 Samuel,” 200.

[2] p. 206-7.  p. 220. “For the Word does not want us to emulate those who did these things in respect of their physical acts, as they are commonly supposed, but

[3] Origen’s excursus on the eschatological fate of Sodom will not be discussed because it is a digression from his exegesis of the story of Lot and his daughters.

[4] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 112.

[5] Origen does not mention these passages but it is safe to assume that they were influential in his thinking.

[6] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 115.

[7] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 115.

[8] For Origen’s explanation for the apparent ignorance of God toward Sodom’s sin see Homily IV, 110.  Origen sees this as God giving the people of Sodom an opportunity to repent, an opportunity which only Lot took.

[9] The Septuagint, followed by the Vulgate, transliterates in the Hebrew word ṣôʿar as sēgōr.  This is because the Hebrew letter ayin used to represent two Proto-Semitic phonemes, one of which sounded similar to the Greek letter gamma.  When the Septuagint of Genesis was translated, these two phonemes were still distinguished.  Zoar, the form found in most English Bibles, is based on later pronunciation.  For the sake of simplicity, we will use the form found in English Bibles.

[10] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 112-13.

[11] See above for a discussion of what Origen means by the perfect.

[12] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 112-13.

[13] “Homily 5,” 112-13.

[14] “Homily 5,” 114.

[15] For the story of Atreus and Thyestes see Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, trans. Robin Hard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 145-46.

[16] This can be seen in the names given to their sons.

[17] Origen, Contra Celsum, IV.45, 220-21.

[18] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 114-16.

[19] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 115.

[20] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 113.

[21] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 115.

[22] Cf. Origen’s statements about the effect that Sodom had on Lot (“Genesis Homily V,”115).  “Drunkenness deceives him whom Sodom did not deceive.  He whom the sulphurous flame did not burn is burned by the flames of women.”  This will be discussed further in the section on Lot’s moral interpretation of the story.

[23] Cf. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, Volume I, The Pentateuch, trans. James Martin (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1872), 237.  “If it was not lust, therefore, which impelled them to this shameful deed, their conduct was worthy of Sodom, and shows quite as much as their previous betrothal to men of Sodom, that they were deeply imbued with the sinful character of that city.”  Some recent commentators have viewed the actions of Lot’s daughters more favourably but this seems to go against the grain of the text and the message that Israel would likely have taken from this story.  Modern interpreters need to recognize, with Origen, that the authors of the biblical text and those responsible for incorporating this story into scripture had a moral purpose in mind and not just an historical.

[24] This interpretation seems to have been quite prevalent during the Patristic period in both Jewish and Christian writings.  See, for example, Ephrem the Syrian, “Commentary on Genesis,” in Ephrem the Syrian: Selected Prose Works, trans. Edward G. Matthews, Jr. and Joseph P. Amar, ed. Kathleen McVey (FOTC 91; Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 162 and footnote 398.

[25] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 117.

[26] One of the difficulties with interpreting motivations in Biblical narrative is they are rarely spoken of explicitly.  Cf. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, OTL, rev. ed., trans. John H. Marks (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972); trans. of Das erste Buch Mose, Genesis, 9th ed. ATD 2-4 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1972), 223.  “As in the case of all these narrative, in spite of the coarse material, the emphases are always nicely put, and no judgment is expressed concerning the happenings.  The reflective reader must make his own judgments.”

[27] Cf. Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (WBC 2; Waco: Word, 1987), 61.

[28] Origen, Genesis, Homily V,“ 118, n. 31.

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