When God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his family escape to the mountain. After Lot’s wife turns her head to look back at the devastation and immediately is transformed into a pillar of salt, Lot hides with his two daughters in a cave, whereupon the biblical text tells us: “And the first-born said unto the younger: ‘Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of [or, from] our father’” (Genesis 19:31-32).
Lot’s daughters have sexual intercourse with their father after intoxicating him with wine, each become pregnant, and each has a son: The eldest daughter calls her son Moab and her younger sister calls her son Ben-Ammi. The Torah informs the reader that the two sons are the fathers of two nations: Moab and Ammon.
The account of the debauchery of the mothers of these two nations has a clear didactic function: to convince the reader that these two Others − the two nations − have an inborn flaw of major proportions, and therefore provide mythological, moral justification for the hatred that Israel must feel toward the Other, in this case, Moab and Ammon. Similar rhetoric is used in the story of the birth of Canaan, Ham’s son and Noah’s grandson (Gen. 9:20-27). That tale explains why Canaan becomes the slave of Noah’s other two sons, Shem and Japheth.
Surprisingly enough, the sages do not take a dim view of the actions of Lot’s two daughters: “It is written: And the first-born said unto the younger, ‘Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth.’ Lot’s daughters believed that, like the generation that perished in Noah’s Flood, the world had come to an end” (Bereisheet Rabbah 51:8). Since they think that they are all that is left of the human race, their theft of their father’s sperm is an act of rescue, not a sin. This interpretation is anchored in the literal reading of the text: “and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth.”
The sages provide additional assistance to support their approach. Lot’s daughters carry the burden of
mythological memory with them. They are familiar with the story of Noah’s Flood, they recognize what has happened before their very eyes − or, to be more precise, behind their backs − as a reenactment of the Flood and create for themselves an analogy between the two narratives, just like the laconic graffiti that someone wrote on a wall in Pompeii before being buried under the lava. The conclusion Lot’s daughters arrive at is that they and their father are like Noah and the inhabitants of the ark, and that incest is the only way to save the human race.
Not only do the sages explain the logic behind the actions of the daughters − they describe the results of those actions: “It is written: Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father. Rabbi Tanhuma, citing Samuel, stated: The biblical text does not say, ‘that we may preserve a son from our father’; instead, it says, ‘that we may preserve seed from our father.’ That seed will come from another place. And what is that seed? The Messiah.”
The homily’s textual basis lies in the term “seed,” which is not limited to any single generation but can extend over many. Lot’s eldest daughter gives birth to Moab, from whom Ruth the Moabite, many generations after him, is a descendant; Ruth converts to Judaism, marries Boaz, and their son Obed is the father of Jesse, who is, in turn, the father of King David, from whom the Messiah of the House of David will be descended. The Messiah is destined to “come from another place” − that is, from Moab. The origin of this splendid dynasty, which is presented in the last verses of the Book of Ruth, is the historic theft of Lot’s sperm by his elder daughter.
In fact, there are also problems of a sexual nature on the other side of the dynasty of the House of David. When Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, one of Jacob’s sons, continues in her state of widowhood because Judah is in no hurry to give her his son for the purpose of a levirate marriage, she sits along the roadside, disguising herself as a prostitute. Judah has sex with her, unaware that she is his daughter-in-law, and she becomes pregnant with his child. From this, Perez is born and, according to the explanation at the end of the Book of Ruth, Boaz is descended from him.
Regarding the Judah and Tamar episode, the sages provide a short, beautiful midrash in which the narrator transcends the turbulent relationships and tangled emotions described in Genesis 38, and instead describes the events from a bird’s-eye view: “Rabbi Samuel, son of Nachman, began the discussion, saying it is written: ‘For I know the thoughts [that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope]’ (Jeremiah 29:11).
The tribes − that is, Jacob’s sons − are busy selling their brother Joseph into slavery, Jacob is busy wearing sackcloth and fasting, Judah is busy looking for a wife, and God creates here the light of the Messiah, as it is written, ‘And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren” (Gen. 38:1)’” (Bereisheet Rabbah 85:1).
All of the chief protagonists in Genesis are busy with their own affairs: Joseph’s brothers are busy selling him into slavery, Jacob is busy mourning Joseph’s purported death and Judah is busy with his marriage to Shua’s daughter, while God, who is the puppet-master of all these protagonists, is busy with his affairs: namely, planting the seed from which the Messiah of the House of David will one day be born.
The genealogical facts support the sages’ midrash: The Messiah is destined to be born to the House of David, and the birth of King David himself is brought about through, on the one hand, the theft of Lot’s sperm by his elder daughter and, on the other hand, the theft of her father-in-law’s sperm by Tamar. However, the sages go further: In this didactic, xenophobic myth, they see themselves, not the Other. What is common to both Lot’s daughter and Tamar is the manner in which they interpret reality and the actions they undertake in the wake of that interpretation.
In the sages’ view, the tales of whoring by the Other’s mother become, firstly, accounts of the subversive actions undertaken by the Messiah’s mother, and
secondly − and most important − a prototype of the Messiah himself. Through their interpretation, the sages describe their ideal image of the Messiah and, through that image, the reality surrounding them.
Lot’s daughters and Tamar consider their situation a fatal catastrophe. That perception can be mistaken, as in the case of the former, or it can be precise, as in Tamar’s case. It can be universal, as in the case of the daughters, or it can be particularistic, as in Tamar’s case. Nonetheless, in both instances, the female protagonists recognize that a catastrophe has indeed occurred, and that they must undertake an unconventional course of action if they are to open a horizon of hope. In any other context, their actions would be seen as sinful; however, the gravity of their respective situations provides complete de facto justification for their behavior.
This is the sages’ Messiah, who is not “a shoot out of the stock of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1) on whom “the spirit of the Lord shall rest ... the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:2). Nor is their Messiah someone who is “lowly, and riding upon an ass” (Zechariah 9:9), and will speak of peace among the nations. Their Messiah is not some high-ranking official, nor a monarch nor a high priest. Their Messiah is the Other − an underdog, a revolutionary, who, through the undertaking of radical actions, will dramatically change reality and rescue it from disaster; and who will interpret reality as a catastrophe and will work within that reality to alter it completely.
This is how the sages interpret the reality in which they live: one of exile, of a slow death in which there are ups and downs. However, if someone will ever dare to interpret that reality as catastrophic, its redemption can be achieved.