As we consider Genesis 12, God’s amazing missional purpose is plainly revealed in his blessing to Abram and the calling that he sets before him. Yet, not long after Abram arrives in Canaan he experiences one trial after another. Some of the troubles Abram clearly brought on himself. While the episode of Abram’s sojourn in Egypt will be considered in another article, I want to rewind a bit look to at Abram’s response immediately following the command God gave him to leave his homeland and investigate the following simple question: Should Abram have taken Lot with him?
It seems at first glance, since Abram is told to leave his father’s household that such a command would include any extended family members as well. Therefore, it is a legitimate question to ask why Abram took Lot with him and whether he should have. God did not command Abram to take Lot, so that was clearly Abram’s choice. Opinions seem split on whether this was an act of disobedience or not. We shall consider arguments for both views below.
In Favor of Taking Lot
Scholar and pastor J. Ligon Duncan III, CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary, comments on Abram’s response immediately following what God said to him in Genesis 12:1-3:
These are the four responsibilities that Abram has. He is first to leave his country. He is second to leave the predominant company of his family relations. Apparently Abraham is not in violation of this agreement by taking along Lot, his nephew. But you will remember that the presence of Lot gets Abraham into some, at least adventures, if not troubles. Okay. But he is apparently not in direct violation, so we can take this phrase to refer he is going to move away from the environment, from the surrounding, from the predominant company of his relatives. Thirdly, he is told to leave his father’s house. And again that has less geographical significance than it does have authority significance. He is coming out from under the influence and control of his father’s domain and household. And, finally, he is to go to the land which the Lord will show him. And so all those four directives are given immediately in this relationship.1
In Duncan’s opinion, Abram has done nothing wrong. There are a few things that are possibly in favor of this argument.
Firstly, Abram is commanded to leave his father’s household which could primarily mean to come out from under the authority of his father and strike out as the head of his own family. If the command’s scope was indeed limited to his father (however, cf. further discussion below) then one could say taking Lot was not disobedience. While one might point out that “father’s household” could include any other descendants of his father for multiple generations (cf. comment below on Genesis 11:31), Abram may have been Lot’s primary caretaker. Lot’s father Haran had died prior to moving to the land of Haran. This view would interpret Abram as responsible for Lot’s welfare and that he could not “abandon” him. Nonetheless, even if this were the case, one objection to this is that Abram was told to not only leave his father’s household but also his country and his “relatives”. The meaning of relatives will be considered further below.
If, on the other hand, Abram was not responsible for Lot and instead he desired to take him along so that he could inherit his estate after him then it colors that interpretation differently. Duncan even suggests that Abram may have seen Lot as an heir: “Abram apparently takes Lot along as his potential heir because as we’ve already observed, Abram had no physical heir at this point.”2 The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi also mentions the possibility of Lot receiving Abram’s inheritance should he die childless in his comments on Genesis 13:7.
Suggesting that the motive was one of security instead of responsibility would seem to play more into the counter argument that Abram made this decision amiss and outside of faith in God’s promise. Duncan elsewhere plainly refers to Lot as “one who is not the heir to the covenant promises.”3 So could Lot legitimately be heir to Abram? Perhaps he could have, but it clearly was not God’s plan.
A second possibility in favor of understanding Lot coming along as not contrary to God’s intention is giving the benefit of the doubt from the rather flat reading of Genesis 12:4. It simply says: “So Abram went away as the Lord had spoken to him; and Lot went with him.” This verse affirms that Abram departed according to God’s word to him and passes over the mention of Lot going with him without further comment. So it must be granted that there is no explicit word against Abram taking Lot in the narrative once he actually leaves. Nonetheless, that is no guarantee it was the right decision because it is not uncommon for wrongdoing to simply be portrayed in historical narrative in Scripture without comment. In such cases it is left to the judgment and sensibilities of the reader to perceive the morality or immorality of the deed.
On that matter of perception, of both contemporaries and later readers, there may be one final argument for seeing it as not only permissible but even recommended that Abram take Lot: honor. The Ancient Near East was pervaded with honor-shame cultures, and if Lot was officially Abram’s responsibility then he would have been bound by honor to take him, and others in honor-shame cultures may have interpreted it in that light. One can perhaps compare the later role of a goel (גֹאֵל) or “kinsman redeemer”. Under the Mosaic law, if someone came upon hard times (whether in debt, bondage, or loss of financial support) and had no one closer in familial relation to care for them, they could seek care and provision from the next closest of kin who is a goel (cf. the story of Ruth and Boaz, esp. Ruth 3:9).
Against Taking Lot
On the other hand, possibly working against these arguments, there is no way around the observation that Abram alone is the one who was commanded to go and the one is the recipient of the promise. Sarai, being one flesh with him, would be included in that of course; as God certainly was not ordering divorce! Nonetheless, the basic family unit is the husband, wife, and their direct offspring. Adoption was an existing practice, but specifically in God’s promise his own descendants are mentioned as recipients of the blessing.
Lot, however, was not a descendant of Abram. Neither was he an addressee of the command to ‘leave’, nor included in the promise. There is nothing in the text which says that Lot went with Abram out of necessity. Furthermore, it’s not impossible to interpret Lot as part of the household which Abram was to leave. Tribal societies often had multiple generations of family living together in close proximity, and we see three generations of Terah’s family moving together in Genesis 11:31. Hence, Terah was considered the head of that family unit, including Lot. Conceivably, Lot could have been taken care of by Terah, unless perhaps he was too advanced in age to do so.
Nonetheless, we must look closer at one of the words used by God in identifying who Abram was to leave. Abram was told to leave not only his father’s house but also his “country” and “relatives”. The meaning of מוֹלֶדֶת (môledet; “relatives”) in Genesis 12:1 is somewhat unclear here. It comes from a root which normally denotes offspring or to give birth, and could mean relatives who are direct offspring (which, if that were the case here, would seem to include even “adoptive offspring” whom one is a guardian over!), or can mean any extended relative.
The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT) lists “descendants” as well as “relatives” as being in the semantic range of מוֹלֶדֶת:
The use of the word môledet in Genesis 24:4 seems to lend credence to the sense of extended relatives and not descendants, as is the sense elsewhere as in Esther 2:10, 20. That latter sense seems to be what fits best contextually in Genesis 12:1.
Overall, God layering the descriptors of country, relatives, and ‘father’s household’ seems comprehensive enough to lead one to think that it would include Lot among those who are to be left behind. Because of this other commentators have seen this action of Abram as disobedience to God.
As Frank Spina, Professor of Old Testament at Seattle Pacific University, argues:
At the very outset there is an ambiguous response. Having been summoned, “Abram went as the Lord had told him” (12:4). That is laudable. But in the very next breath we learn: “and Lot went with him” (12:4). Lot is Abram’s nephew (11:27). While it might have seemed natural for Lot to tag along, the Lord had explicitly instructed Abram to leave his kin (12:1). Taking Lot along constituted Abram’s first disobedient act. It comes as no surprise to discover that every episode featuring Lot negatively affects Abram and threatens God’s agenda.5
It is not difficult to take this conclusion based on the prima facie meaning of God’s command to Abram, the narrow application of the promise to Abram’s direct offspring exclusively, and observations of the negative consequences of Lot’s attendance with Abram in his sojourning. The ultimate separation of Lot from Abram also weakens the argument that Lot was dependent upon Abram as something like a kinsman redeemer. Or at least that fact might allow for some initial dependence but clearly not later, as Lot formed a family and wealth of his own and chose to separate from Abram. As it stands, the possibility that Abram should not have taken Lot with him should be seriously reckoned with.
Considering Lot Himself
Any conclusion on the matter must of course actually consider Lot himself and the matter of his active role in it all, and not merely Abram’s choices. If he was materially unable to support himself then that could ultimately explain why he went. However, if we instead suppose him to be able to provide for himself and old enough to make some of his own decisions and not simply be dragged along for the ride, it seems that to go with Abram would have required Lot to have some measure of real faith that God would keep his promise to Abram. Else, why risk the journey? Who knows what Lot’s reasons for going may have been if not necessity? Perhaps he wanted to benefit from it indirectly, even though he knew the promises did not include himself. Whatever the case, Lot apparently accepted the risks of travel to a strange and far land. So we must give him that much. Yet as noted above, Lot also eventually separated from Abram, causing their stories to gradually diverge.
As for Lot’s character and devotion to God, we are not told much of Lot’s relationship with God personally but in 2 Peter 2:7 he is called “righteous.” Perhaps not a few have been surprised to see such a description of Lot, given his choice to live in Sodom and especially what happened with his daughters after he survived the destruction of Sodom. While he did seemingly compromise his standards by living among a wicked people, the descriptor “righteous” may have been applied to Lot because he never in fact approved of the wickedness around him. He also trusted God during his family’s escape from Sodom. Even so, he paid for his choice to live among the Sodomites continually by vexing his conscience (2 Peter 2:7) and nearly gave his daughters over to vile men to be sexually abused.
Lot feared God enough to heed his command to flee when he was warned of God’s intent to destroy Sodom. Yet apparently not with complete readiness, since after being warned to flee Genesis 19:16 reports, “But he lingered” (ESV). His hesitation could have led to his family perishing if the angel had not forcibly taken them out of the city (Gen 19:16). In that regard, Lot seems to have had only barely more resolve than his wife, who actually looked back at the city. The remainder of the story after fleeing is also quite sordid, presenting Lot as a rather mixed and morally ambiguous character. In some ways, Lot getting drunk after surviving the massive destruction rained down by God himself may harken back to Noah getting drunk after the destructive flood (Gen 9:21) which was also (literally) rained down by God. On that note, we might instructively observe though that despite Noah’s fault in his drunkenness he still was considered righteous. Perhaps that has something to do with why Lot could still in the end be called righteous by Peter. God has grace to cover even dark moments and sinful decisions and justify men by faith, as he did Abram (Gen 15:6).
In narrative analysis terms, Lot is more of a “round” character than a “flat” one in several stories (though certainly Abram is even more rounded); but at other times he is merely a side character to Abram. Genesis ends up showing us several different aspects of Lot’s life though, warts and all. While we may not know what exact factors led Lot to go with Abram in the first place, we can at least observe all the other details we know about him regarding his person and character and try to discern if it shows signs that God intended Lot to come along.
Essentially, at the end of the day, the text is silent on the matter: it neither commends nor decries the decision of Abram to bring Lot along with him to Canaan. Yet it is undeniable that Lot brought many problems along. He even sired the progenitors of what became two enemy nations later in Israel’s history (Genesis 19:30-38). Not unlike Abraham siring Ishmael, who sired a people group who seem to have later settled in Arabia and perhaps intermarried with the Midianites (who afflicted Israel in the period of the judges; Judges 6:1-6).
One might think from the constant problems that Lot was never intended to come along. God never said to Abram, “You and Lot go”; only that Abram should go. So it may be understood that Abram added to God’s command. On the other hand, perhaps Abram was bound by duty to bring Lot. However, my inclination is to conclude that Lot should not have come along and that Abram probably wanted Lot to come as “heir insurance,” but that God dealt with it the way he handled other weakness and disobedience and let the full consequences of it play out over time but extended grace throughout it nonetheless.
Whatever the case may be, it did not thwart God’s ultimate plan for Abram, and the drama of the story arc of Abram’s life certainly includes Lot at many significant points. God made it all work out. From those stories involving Lot significant theological lessons are drawn elsewhere in Scripture, either from something directly involving Lot and his family (cf. the destruction of Sodom & Lot’s wife; Genesis 19; Matthew 10:12, 15; Luke 17:28-32; Romans 9:29; 2 Peter 2:6; Jude 7; Revelation 11:8) or major events surrounding a story in which Lot is involved (cf. Abram tithing to Melchizedek; Genesis 14:18-20; Hebrews 7:1-10).
Lot certainly had a significant part to play in the drama of Genesis and beyond, and none of it took God by surprise. Rather God used the circumstances of the situations involving Lot to demonstrate his sovereignty time and again for his own glory and to edify, warn, and instruct us today (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
1 J. Ligon Duncan, “Covenant Theology The Covenant of Preservation Noah and Abram,” RPM Magazine, http://reformedperspectives.org/articles/jl_duncan/jl_duncan.CT005.html.
For a relatively recent academic article on this topic see:
Rickett, Dan. “Chapter 1: Abram’s Problematic Taking of Lot and the Beginnings of Separation”. In Separating Abram and Lot. Leiden: Brill, 2019. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004413887_003