It’s interesting how often in the Bible you come across seemingly throw-away comments which turn out to hold great significance. You skim by them, not realising till later that they’re important. The focus on Genesis 12:4 is usually on Abram’s prompt obedience to God’s call (see my previous post: ‘Called out from the world to live for God’: https://mjhmusings.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/called-out-from-the-world-to-live-for-god-genesis-121-9/), meaning that the second clause in the verse is often overlooked: ‘So Abram left, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.’
Now until hearing a great talk by Mike Pilavachi at Momentum in 2013, I might have read on without batting an eyelid. If I even noticed this clause at all, I probably would have just thought something along the lines of, ‘Oh, he took his nephew along, that’s nice.’ I’m a huge fan of Mike Pilavachi’s, and have greatly missed his preaching after leaving Soul Survivor Watford in 2006. So it was a pleasure to hear him talk about Abraham and Lot at Momentum, where his key point was exploring the illustration of a satnav, and how, like God, it will re-calibrate to bring you back on-track if you wander off on your own, convinced you know a better way than it. A great point, and one that has stuck with me, but what equally struck me was the related point: Lot was never meant to go.
Rather than attempt to re-hash something that Mike has already done so well, I’d like to explore the story of Lot himself. God’s command to Abram was ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1); it mentions nothing about taking Lot. Indeed, his orphaned nephew Lot, who went with his grandfather Terah to Haran after his father died (11:28-31), was surely part of Abram’s ‘people’ and ‘father’s household’ that was supposed to be left behind. It’s fair enough that Abram ‘took his wife Sarai’, and some possessions (12:5), but taking Lot ‘and the people they had acquired in Haran’ seems at best to exceed God’s command, and at worst to contravene it.
Did Lot just tag along, or did Abram take him, encouraging him to come? The text could be read either way, since verse 4 says ‘and Lot went with him’, but verse 5 says that Abram ‘took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot…’ Even if Abram didn’t take him, and Lot came of his own volition, Abram must have at least tacitly consented to his presence, since he didn’t send him back. From this point on, Lot drifts in and out of the story, cropping up here and there. Unfortunately for him, although he seems to be a decent sort of bloke, and shows glimpses of true virtue, whenever he crops up it spells trouble for Abram.
Lot seems to have done rather well out of the detour to Egypt (12:10-20), like Abram himself, for he has ‘flocks and herds and tents’ so many in fact, that ‘the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great…’ They were not only straining the resources of the land, its food and water supplies, but also causing ‘quarrelling’ (13:7) between their herdsmen – that age-old cause of human conflict that always occurs when too many people occupy too small a space with too few resources (this in itself has lessons for us today). This could all have been avoided if Lot had stayed in Haran.
The strained relations, however, were not half as bad as what happened as a result. Abram and Lot part ways (13:9), and in a refreshing display of magnanimity and humility, Abram allows Lot first choice of where to go. Lot looked down on the region of Sodom and Gomorrah, and was enticed by its fertility and comforts, but either not realising, or not heeding, the fact that the people there ‘were sinning greatly against the Lord.’ By contrast, Abram settles for the less appealing uplands, content to bide his time and not give in to greed. He trusted the Lord to prosper him, as had been promised, even if it seemed like he had got the worse of the bargain with Lot.
So often it happens like this, the easy-looking route seduces us into an unhelpful situation which actually turns out to be much worse than we’d bargained, while the first few steps along the road to lasting satisfaction and prosperity are trodden in unpromising ground. The choices made by the two men reveal a lot about the differences in their characters: Abram stood firm in his trust of God; Lot compromised his faith to take advantage of what the world offered.
The ramifications of Lot’s decisions did not take long to come. While Abram minded his own business in the backwater allotted to him, Lot became swept up in a great conflict of many kings down on the rich plain. He was ‘carried off’ (14:12), losing everything he had. He found himself on the losing side, and owed his restored freedom to a remarkable rescue from his uncle Abram (14:14-16). Abram’s operation was a daring military feat that God blessed with total success, but if he was being honest, this was a hazardous complication that Abram could probably have done without.
The story progresses. Abram, living the quiet life out of the political limelight, continues to walk faithfully with God, and chapter 15 sees God reveal yet more detail to him about his future and the nature of the promise he’s been given. Free from tempting distractions, Abram is encountering the living God and deepening his relationship with Him. By contrast, Lot repeats his disastrous choice and returns to Sodom, attracted no doubt by the refinements that city life can offer. I’m not preaching against urban living, but the narrative makes plain that being in Sodom hadn’t helped Lot draw closer to God. He was stagnating spiritually, playing the part of the seed sown among the thorns in the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20), prevented from being fruitful by ‘the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things’ (v.19).
This might not be apparent when we meet Lot again in chapter 19, since the alacrity with which he offers hospitality to the visiting angels (v.2) is little less than that shown by Abram a little earlier (18:3-5). When I said that Lot showed glimpses of virtue, this is an example of what I mean: generosity of spirit; another would be the bravery of his attempt to defend his guests from the lust of his neighbours (vv.6-8 – although his willingness to allow his daughters to be defiled is not so admirable). But quite apart from Sodom clearly being an unconducive place for righteousness, the tell-tale signs are that Lot was a little too attached to it, to its comforts and abundance. This is why, even after faced with the brazen evil of his compatriots, he is reluctant to leave – needing urging by the angels (v.15), hesitating (v.16) and eventually having to be bodily whisked away (vv.16-17). For his sons-in-law, this was even truer – they never left at all (v.14). Sin really can be that entangling (Hebrews 12:1).
When Abraham looks out over the plain in v. 28, the prospect is no longer quite so appealing as it had been to Lot in 13:10. It’s a poignant way to book-end this whole section, a silent testimony about the importance of our choices. Lot’s choices flirted with the corruption of the world and distanced him from God, and in the end it cost him dear. Not only did he lose his home, all his possessions and even his wife (v.26) in the destruction of Sodom, but he ended up losing his dignity and self-respect. It’s a very unhappy and shameful end that’s described in vv.30-38 for a man who seemed at times to try and be righteous, but who ultimately fell well short of the example of his uncle, Abraham. He succumbs to drunkenness and incestuous intercourse with both his daughters, for which he is surely more culpable than the narrative seems to suggest. As far as we know, Lot died in this pathetic state in a cave in the mountains. Not only had his life-story been one long string of complications for his uncle Abraham who had taken him along, but the ill-begotten descendants he bequeathed to the world – the Ammonites and Moabites (vv.37-38) – went on to prove a massive complication for the descendants of Israel – becoming inveterate enemies of the nation of Israel.
The story of Lot is easily as tragic as that of Oedipus, which I have just finished reading in Sophocles’ Theban Plays. It wrenches the heart, and warns the soul. Ultimately it is a distraction from the real story, which is of the progress of God’s covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendents, but nevertheless it still has very real and important lessons for us: will we walk with God, or compromise with worldly values? Will we actively take hard decisions to avoid unhelpful things, or will we settle for an easy option of spiritual vulnerability? All choices have consequences. Choices made on the basis of how things seem often end in disaster; choices made in faith bring great rewards.