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 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 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 unheard of 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 detect the morality of the deed.
On that matter of the reader’s perception, 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 a reader 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 comes upon hard times (whether in debt, bondage, or loss of financial support) and has no one closer in familial relation to care for them they may seek care 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 that family unit, including Lot. Conceivably, Lot could have been taken care of by Terah, but perhaps he was too advanced in age to do so.
Nonetheless, we must look at another word 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.
HALOT lists “descendants” as well as “relatives” as being in the semantic range of מוֹלֶדֶת:
The use of the word 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.
Frank Spina, Professor of Old Testament at Seattle Pacific University, writes the following, for example:
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
Considering Lot Himself
Finally, there is the matter of Lot himself and his active role in it all. Imagining him to be 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 him to have some measure of real faith that God would keep his promise to Abram. Who knows what his reasons may have been? Perhaps he wanted to benefit from it indirectly, even though 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.
Though we are not told much of Lot’s relationship with God personally, perhaps not a few have been surprised to see the description in 2 Peter 2:7 of Lot being called “righteous”. This could be so because, while he did seemingly compromise his standards by living among a wicked people, he never approved of the wickedness around him and trusted God during his family’s escape from Sodom. He paid for his choice to live among the Sodomites though by vexing his soul. Nonetheless, Lot feared God enough to heed his command to flee when he was warned of God’s intent to destroy Sodom.
Essentially, at the end of the day, the text is silent on the matter: it neither commends nor disclaims the decision of Abram to bring him along. 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.
Whatever the case may be, the drama of the story arc of Abram’s life certainly includes Lot at many significant points. 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.