As I read the book of Genesis/Bereishit again this year, I feel sorry for the characters who try to rise to the challenge of walking with God, but are just too limited to keep up. Two of those who fall by the wayside are Noah and Lot, who both attempt to do the right thing, then collapse into drink and incest after they see their worlds destroyed.
Noah begins by following all of God’s directions; he sees God destroy all life on land with the over-the-mountaintop flood. Abraham’s nephew Lot begins by offering hospitality to strangers in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”). He sees the strangers, who are actually messengers from God, destroy the city of Sodom and the land around it.
After their respective catastrophes are over, and it is time to build a new life, both men think only about getting drunk.
And Noah began to be the man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank some of the wine, and he became drunk, and vayitgal in the middle of his tent. And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw the erat aviv and he told his two brothers outside. (Genesis/Bereishit 9:20-22)
vayitgal = he uncovered himself, exposed himself
erat aviv = nakedness of his father
Noah plans his drunkenness with the foresight of an alcoholic who hides stashes of liquor in strategic places. He has to wait a long time, through planting and harvesting and fermentation, before he gets his first drink after the flood. Although the Torah does not report Noah’s feelings, I imagine he is haunted by the deaths of everyone he knew outside his own immediate family of eight. Perhaps he dreams of children drowning. Perhaps he wishes he had said something to change God’s mind, or found some way to rescue more people.
I suspect that Noah cannot find a way to live with this knowledge and move forward. So he opts to escape into an altered state of consciousness, or unconsciousness.
After becoming drunk, Noah uncovers his nakedness in the middle of his tent. A modern reader might wonder what is so bad about lying down naked in the privacy of your tent—even if one of your sons barges in and accidentally sees you.
But in the Torah, to “uncover the nakedness” of someone is a euphemism for a sexual act. The book of Leviticus/Vayikra devotes thirteen verses to listing close relatives whose nakedness you must not uncover, using the same words for “uncovering” and “nakedness” as the passage above.
The implication is that Noah and his son Cham (whose name means “heat”) are guilty of some illicit sexual act. Furthermore, Noah begins it, by “uncovering himself”. Yet Noah shifts all the blame to his son.
And Noah woke up from his wine, and he knew what his youngest son had done to him. (Genesis 9:24)
Noah expresses his anger at Cham by cursing Cham’s son Canaan. Alas, it is a common human reaction to reject your own guilt by lashing out at someone else.
In this week’s Torah portion, Lot and his daughters act out a different version of the drunken incest theme.
Lot, like Noah, means well. His story begins with a good deed; when two messengers from God, disguised as ordinary men, come to the city of Sodom, Lot goes out of his way to give them hospitality and treat them with respect and kindness—just as his uncle Abraham did in the previous scene in this week’s Torah portion. After Lot has brought the strangers home and fed them, the men of Sodom converge on Lot’s house and demand that he bring out his guests, so that they can “know” them.
Just as it never occurs to Noah to question God’s plan to wipe out the earth, it never occurs to Lot that there might be an alternative to sacrificing two people to the mob. Since his two guests are out of the question, Lot steps outside and offers the would-be rapists his two virgin daughters instead.
Maybe Lot is so terrified of his neighbors that he cannot think straight. But we can still question his impulse to sacrifice his daughters—and perhaps after the crisis is over, Lot is tormented by remembering his own behavior.
The mob outside ignores Lot’s proposed substitution of rape objects, and crowd forward to break down the door. The messengers from God save the day (or night) by pulling Lot inside and blinding the men outside. Then they tell Lot that God has sent them to destroy the whole city, and they order Lot to flee with his family.
Lot panics, and at dawn he is still dithering in his house. The messengers grab him, his wife, and their two daughters by the hand and lead them outside the city. They tell Lot to save himself by escaping to the mountain, without stopping or looking back.
When God rains sulfur and fire down from the heavens, Lot’s wife looks back and turns into a pillar of salt, but Lot hurries on. He settles into a cave on the mountain with his two daughters.
And the elder said to the younger: Our father is old, and there is no man on the earth to marry us as the way of all the earth. Come, we will give our father a drink of wine, and we will lie down with him, and we will keep alive seed from our father. So they gave their father wine to drink that night, and the elder came, and she lay down with her father, and he did not know when she was lying down or when she was getting up. (Genesis 19:31-33)
They repeat the procedure the next night, with the younger daughter as the seed collector. And once again the Torah claims Lot did not know when she was lying down or when she was getting up. Both women become pregnant, as they planned.
Many commentators have pointed out that preserving a man’s lineage is a high value in the Torah, and concluded that Lot’s daughters were doing the right thing. But if incest were truly the right behavior in their situation, they would simply ask their father to cooperate, without resorting to wine. Lot may not have read the Torah’s prohibition against “uncovering the nakedness of your father”, but he obviously knows that incest, like mistreating a stranger, is wrong.
The Torah appears to view Lot as innocent of incest by reason of unconsciousness. Yet it is Lot’s decision to keep drinking the wine until he passes out; even two strong young women could not force it down his throat.
And where did the wine come from? The Midrash Rabbah, a collection of commentary from Talmudic times, speculates that either the Sodomites stored wine in distant mountain caves, or the wine appeared miraculously. However, I agree with modern commentator Jonathan Kirsch that Lot probably grabs some wine when they pass through the village of Zoar on the way to the mountain. Like Noah, Lot would anticipate a need for escape from sanity after the catastrophe. And as in Noah’s story, the Torah blames Lot’s subsequent sexual misdeed on his children.
It is easy for me to judge both Noah and Lot harshly. But if God gave me orders, would I have the imagination or the courage to talk back? If I were faced with a mob of evil men, would I have the imagination or the courage to divert them safely? I have lots of imagination—except when it comes to my own problems. I’m learning courage, but I still prefer avoidance.
If all my friends, most of my family, and every familiar thing in my life were suddenly wiped out, would I have the imagination and courage to build a new life from nothing? I think I would, but how do I know?
When life becomes unbearable, do I stick with reality and avoid any drugs of escape? Cookies don’t count, do they?
When something bad happens between two people, do I duck responsibility by blaming it on the other guy? Never—except for when I am fixated on escaping the situation.
As I read the book of Genesis/Bereishit again this year, I feel sorry for the characters who try to rise to the challenge of walking with God, but are just too limited to keep up. I might be one of them.