Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, Simhat Torah—the closing festivals of the New Year in the Hebrew calendar—mark a time of great agricultural significance in the land of Israel. As the warmer season fades and winter’s clouds begin to gather over the westward sea, the order of prayer undergoes a small but substantial change: instead of thanking God for His summer gift of dew alone, Jews begin to praise Him for the winds and rains. Two weeks later, an entreaty—“give dew and downpour for a blessing”—is added to the thrice-daily standing prayer, a plea perhaps most fervently expressed by farmers who have toiled furiously to plant their fields in time.
Last year, when a deluge hit Israel, some of those farmers may have felt they had prayed a bit too vigorously. Indeed, it is hardly a coincidence that the Torah portion for the Sabbath immediately preceding the resumption of this annual petition contains the story of Noah and humanity’s best-known record of rain’s destructive potential. Less obvious, however, is the way the following two Sabbath readings of Lekh l’kha (Genesis 12:1–17:27) and Vayera (Genesis 18:1–22:24) implicitly continue the same theme, clarifying just how important it is to reflect on where our water, and our sustenance, come from.
Rain as a purely meteorological phenomenon is not a subject of marked interest for the Torah. Yet in the mind of any inhabitant of the ancient world, rainfall carried many weighty connotations: the life-sustaining power of hydration, the unpredictability of weather, the regularity of the seasons. Beyond this, rain—and fresh water in general—continues to have far-reaching implications for the development of any human society, as well as for the role of government in upholding social and economic arrangements. The Torah appreciates these implications—though, as always with this text, much is ingeniously concealed beneath the surface.
People in the land of Israel have always had to worry about water, much more so than they do today. Indeed, the whole story of Genesis might be told in these terms, beginning with man’s expulsion from a lush garden in Eden, the relentless digging and re-digging of wells by the Israelite forefathers, all the way to the drought and famine that drive the sons of Jacob altogether out of their homeland. Israel is no desert, but it needs rain to make it bloom, and the rain is not particularly reliable.
Precisely this problem was on the mind of Lot, Abraham’s kinsman, as he considered a move to the city of Sodom. The city sat, “well-watered,” beside the Jordan River and looked to him “like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt” (Gen. 13:10). The implicit syllogism is simple: guaranteed water means guaranteed food and comfort, two things that can make a Sodom, or an Egypt, seem like a garden of Eden. Reading on, however, we find to our surprise, that the biblical narrative marks down both Sodom and Egypt for the harshest brand of divine retribution.
In the case of Egypt, it is easy to understand why: the irrigated fields of the fertile Nile delta fed the expansion of a vast slave empire, whose overlords and taskmasters eventually had the captive Hebrews crying for redemption. But the case of Sodom poses something of a mystery: we know that a “great cry” went up to God from there (Gen. 18:20), but the text is quite vague as to what the crying was about, or why it provoked so drastic a heavenly response.
For one thing, the fragments of narrative that include Sodom seem to have little to do with each other. Lot first moves to Sodom after quarreling with Abraham, but then, along with the rest of the Sodomites, he is kidnapped when King Kedurlaomer sacks the city. Abraham comes to the rescue, delivering everyone back into the hands of Sodom’s own king. Through prophetic insight, Abraham then discerns that the city will be destroyed on account of its evil ways. He proceeds to argue with God over whether the righteous must perish with the wicked. After protracted haggling, God agrees to spare the city for the sake of ten righteous citizens, but then dispatches a pair of angels to annihilate it.
Next, Lot welcomes the two visitors into his home for a feast, an act that inexplicably provokes a mob to surround the house and try to break down the door. Dazzling the rioters with flashing lights, the angels lead Lot and his family from the city just before it is wiped out in a rain of fire and brimstone. Along the way, Lot’s wife looks back and (for no apparent reason) turns into a pillar of salt. Lot himself escapes, first to a nearby town and then to the mountains where he ultimately gets drunk and copulates with his own daughters.
The story makes little sense, to the point where we have to wonder why this zigzagging string of mishaps made it into the Torah at all. Is there an instructive purpose to be found beneath the absurdly incongruous narrative? The place to pick up the thread is in Lot’s initial syllogism: to make sense of Sodom, it helps to look again at its cousin Egypt.
The Torah’s opposition to Egyptian slavery is so fiercely reiterated in so many different places that it is easy to forget how many things the Israelites found to like about the conditions of their captivity. After their liberation, in the harsh and uncertain setting of the desert, the stubborn Hebrew tribes complain incessantly that in Egypt, at least, they had a stable supply of water to drink and food to eat. At one point they go so far as to claim they had eaten there “for free” (Num. 11:5), neglecting to mention that those meals had come at the price of their liberty. What the text seems to be pointing at is the powerful allure of guaranteed sustenance: so powerful that a people newly redeemed, and thus newly burdened with responsibility for their own free choices, will soon find themselves looking back fondly on enslavement.
In the story of Sodom, by contrast, slaves are never mentioned explicitly. True, just like in Egypt—and in the garden of Eden—the quality of life in the city was reliable, the addictively “well-watered” conditions making it reasonable to expect that tomorrow would be no less pleasant than today. But what could possibly be wrong with trying to lead a quiet, comfortable life?
Lot, for one, certainly thought he would be better off under such conditions. He left Abraham’s company because “the land would not bear them up together” (Gen. 13:6-7) and “contention” reigned between Abraham’s shepherds and his. The contention was not brought on by poverty; on the contrary, we are told that their possessions were “too numerous.” Evidently, what prompted Lot’s parting of ways with Abraham was frustration with the economic rivalry that can arise between two free and unruly groups of nomadic herders. Sodom was an escape from this sort of strife and striving, promising instead a regulated life in which the future could be equally bright for everyone, all the time.
The problem with the Edenic existence in Sodom becomes more apparent when we consider how this serenity is guaranteed. The method is best described by the city’s king, Bera, in his offer to Abraham after their victory over Kedurlaomer: “Give me the people, and take the possessions” (Gen. 14:21). Fundamentally, the Sodomite social contract is about centralized control. With a water supply yielding its bounty like clockwork, any remaining uncertainty will come from the wayward exercise of individual choice. And that is the very condition that the politics of Sodom are arranged to eliminate.
We see a possible hint of this idea when Bera is portrayed hiding in a pit of bitumen (Gen. 14:10): a substance used by ancient engineers—like the builders of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:3)—to cement individual bricks into one rigid, impermeable whole. Later, Bera meets with Abraham in Emek Shaveh, the “valley of equality” (Gen. 14:17), where he reclaims control over his subjects after their rescue from kidnapping.
The full character of the Sodomite polity goes on display when Lot offers his two strange visitors the hospitality of his home. A crisis erupts as people surround the house, demanding to “know” his guests (Gen. 19:5). Schooled in a standard reading, we tend to assume that the mob’s interest is purely sexual. But if that were the case, why, when Lot offers to substitute his own daughters, do the rioters decline? Could it be that the inhabitants of Sodom have a different and even somewhat legitimate reason to be interested in what foreigners in their midst are up to? And could this be why the whole city of Sodom—“both young and old, everyone without exception”—tries to storm across the threshold of Lot’s home? When he refuses to cooperate, the people warn that they will deal worse with him than with the visitors. Strangers are merely unknowns who need to be investigated; a dissenter who obstructs the majority in its efforts to regulate every variable is a danger to be crushed.
In the end, then, Sodom turns out to have much in common with any state or city that purports to act in the interest of the people as a whole. By showing how powerless the individual is in the face of a mob’s desire not to be caught by surprise, the biblical text illustrates beautifully where this governing principle leads when not held in check by other values. Before long, out the window go one’s privacy, the inviolability of one’s property, and even one’s freedom to do something as simple as inviting people over for an unsupervised meal.
What is clear so far is that the Torah sees Sodom’s type of polity as a great evil. But is it so evil that it merits being overturned by a fiery cataclysm? This, after all, is Abraham’s question as he undertakes to defend the city from heavenly wrath by struggling with God Himself over His plan to wipe out the righteous along with the wicked. For His part, God expresses reluctance to reveal Sodom’s impending doom to Abraham in the first place (Gen. 18:17). It is as though something about the evil of the place is difficult to discern from a superficial glance, something sufficiently well hidden that it takes “the Judge of all the earth” (Gen. 18:25) to recognize it for what it is.
At the very least, this suggests that the classic identification of Sodom’s sin with rampant “sodomy,” which among other things would presumably be hard to miss, is misplaced. Indeed, when, not long after the rain of fire, Lot and his daughters commit incest—repeatedly!—God seems to be quite indifferent to the goings-on in their cave.
Rather, the text suggests that the problem with Sodom runs deeper than sexual license, and is connected with what led Lot there to begin with. So we can ask again: at the end of the day, what is really so wrong with basing a society on the pursuit of stability and predictability, if that’s what people want? Is there any moral problem here at all?
What the story of Sodom may help us appreciate is that the surrender of individual liberty to an authoritarian state need not necessarily be prompted by imminent danger or mortal fear; as Lot’s case demonstrates, it can also be born out of the rather mundane desire to lead a comfortable life—or even out of the humanistic impulse to guarantee such a life for everyone. After all, this is an ideal that our own modern democracies steadfastly pursue.
But what happens when unpredictables—rent hikes, lay-offs, bad weather, supply shocks—suddenly make tomorrow’s bread more difficult to obtain than today’s? How much liberty might we be willing to surrender to a government in exchange for security? How do we even define the difference between “legitimate” areas of public safety in which nearly all of us would be prepared to give up some measure of individual choice—at airports, even the most ardent free marketeers placidly strip half-naked in front of peremptory strangers and submit to the irradiation or groping of their bodies—and those government actions that just grant additional satisfaction and gratification to the majority by hemming-in the options of helpless individuals? Much like the disoriented mob struck by the dazzling light of Lot’s visiting angels, we might easily end up blind to what we have given up.
The Torah seems to acknowledge this issue as well. Elements in the text suggest that the full expression of Sodom’s evil comes only when statism has been allowed to sink deeper roots. We’ve already cited one telling detail: namely, that the whole city shows up to surround Lot’s house. For added emphasis, the Torah uses a highly specific formula here—“the young and the old”—and a few verses later its specificity is emphasized again: “the small and the big.” Something about the great evil in Sodom has to do with the passage of time, the slow accumulation of years.
Is this why Lot asks to flee to a town called Zoar (“youth” or “smallness”), hoping to turn back the clock on something that had rotted beyond repair? If so, it may also be why the angels warn that there can be no turning back, a warning confirmed when Lot’s wife, in the midst of her backward glance, is turned into a pillar of salt. In the ancient world, salt was a preservative, used to shield dead things from the further ravages of time. Even if Sodom, a living society, had once been filled with good and righteous people, the political principle on which it was based had succeeded in rendering it thoroughly malignant.
In seeking an explanation for Sodom’s demise, we have to plot things forward to their inevitable conclusion. The ultimate problem is that Sodom’s approach to guaranteeing human comfort eliminates the very possibility of making a moral choice. The rabbinic sages may well have had this condition in mind when they said of the Sodomite kingdom that its motto was “mine is mine, yours is yours,” and that its great sin lay in the banning of tz’dakah, the giving of alms.
This message, too, has been frequently misinterpreted, in this case by readers assuming that the city is being punished for an excess of individualistic greed and indifference. In Tractate Sanhedrin, however, the Talmud provides enough details to clarify the rabbis’ meaning:
If one had rows of bricks, every person came and took one, saying, “I have taken only one.” If one spread out garlic or onions [to dry them], every person came and took one, saying, “I have taken only one.”. . . [Likewise, they ruled,] he who crosses by the ferry must pay one zuz, but he who does not must give two. . . . If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a coin, upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given him. When [the poor man] died, each came and took back his [coin]. (Sanhedrin 109b)
Greedy though the Sodomites may be, they’re no robber barons; nor is Sodom a place where each individual competes to create the most wealth for himself. Rather, it has become a collectivist pact of self-limitation and universal taxation, based on the assumption of a fixed supply of publicly-owned goods. In this light, the city’s motto may be understood to mean “my share is mine, and your share is yours.” Everyone is getting taken care of by the system, at least on paper, and a meticulous bureaucracy exists to keep track. The starvation of a beggar is no problem at all as long as the event is properly documented. Rather, the alarm bells sound only when someone tries to mess with the distribution, either by participating in a free exchange or by subverting the prescribed procedure for getting things done.
This was Lot’s crime in his act of spontaneous generosity: in Sodom, to offer free food and shelter to visitors was tantamount to stealing from the state. From the talmudic text, we can even infer the exact law that Lot broke: “They made this agreement among themselves: whoever invites a man [a stranger] to a feast shall be stripped of his garment” (ibid.). What Lot, an imperfectly assimilated immigrant, did not understand was that the goods that were his were his alone and could not be made someone else’s without the permission and supervision of the mob.
The anecdotes of Sodomite life recorded in the Talmud will sound familiar to anyone who had the misfortune to live in one of the now-defunct Communist societies of Eastern Europe. In the USSR, the statist mandate to regulate everything ensured that making a living was impossible without dodging a laundry list of statutes and fees, with the consequence that all citizens became potential targets for prosecution and mulcting by state functionaries. Soviet ideology idolized and celebrated “brave” citizens like Lot’s wife, who—a midrash tells us—was responsible for instigating the riot by informing against her family members to the secret police (Gen. Rabbah, 51:5). Tellingly, the very act of trying to leave the USSR was a crime; opting out of the social order reflected a critical judgment much like the one the mob angrily perceives in Lot’s refusal to cooperate.
Under such conditions, with the passing of time, the citizen of Sodom loses his ability to take independent action for the sake of himself or other human beings. It is no wonder that the crowd around Lot’s house reaches the end of the story “blinded” and “weary” (Gen. 19:11), robbed of their capacity for judgment and their will to act. As in the collectivist dystopias of our own era, the rules of the game in Sodom are torturously homogenizing. The Talmud, again: “Now, they had beds upon which travelers slept. If he [the guest] was too long, they shortened him [by lopping off his feet]; if too short, they stretched him out” (ibid). Put another way, the system of Sodomite law does not so much ban charity as render it impossible: in a land where everyone gets what he has from the collective and knows that everyone else who follows the rules will receive the same portion, there cannot be any kindness for the stranger.
Long after the demise of Sodom, the prophet Ezekiel would brilliantly locate the source of the city’s iniquity in, precisely, its “satiety of bread” and “quiet tranquility,” and would link the Sodomites’ pride in this condition to their refusal to “grasp the poor man and the beggar by the hand” (Ez. 16:49). Sodom took men and women created in the image of God—with all their infinite potential for creativity, generosity, and mercy—and made them cruelly impassive: indifferent to the needs of others, and afraid of what they might lose by devising self-reliant solutions to their problems. Over time, their deference to the system turned proper procedure into the ultimate authority, obscuring from view any moral obligations that might transcend the state’s laws.
And thus at last we can understand why Abraham’s line of argument with God could not save the city from destruction. In a place where everything, including the evil, is collective and systemic, taking a census of righteous citizens makes no sense. No, Lot had it right after all, when he first looked at Sodom and immediately thought of Eden: he saw a place where no one could know the difference between right and wrong.
Jeremy England is an assistant professor in the department of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Daniel Kaganovich is an assistant professor in the department of cell and developmental biology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.