This week’s Torah parshah is Vayera (Genesis 18:1– 22:24). The parshah contains the the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the questionable hospitality of Lot, the incestual sexual relationships between a drunken Lot and his daughters, the revelation of Sarah’s pregnancy, the birth of Issac, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham’s family, and the legendary story of the binding of Isaac. Needless to say, there is much that can be said, but today I want to focus on the women from Lot’s and Abraham’s families.
Women figure prominently in Lot’s family. In the parshah, we first meet Lot as host. Two male visitors (angels) come to stay at Lot’s house. When some of the male inhabitants of Sodom learn of this, they come to Lot’s door wanting to harass and sexually assault the guests. To protect his guests, Lot offers his unmarried daughters to the men instead. Later in the text, we learn that Lot can safely leave Sodom because he is righteous (although what may have spared his life more is the fact that Abraham is his uncle).
As his family flees the city, they were told not to turn around to look at the city’s destruction. However, Lot’s wife did and was immediately turned into a pillar of salt. With their mother out of the picture, Lot’s daughters decide to have his children. They ply him with wine and each has sex with him. These incestuous unions between father and daughters birth nations – the Moabites named after Moab and the Ammonites named after Ben-ami.
Lot’s tale is fascinating in the ways in which it ties a people to a place, when Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt. To this day, the area around the Dead Sea has such pillars. I’ve always loved etymological tales. Yet, the Lot saga is considerably more questionable than it is fascinating for two reasons. First, it seems problematic that Lot is considered to be the only righteous inhabitant of Sodom left, immediately after he offers his own daughters up for assault. Even the Jewish rabbinical tradition has questioned such behavior (their line of thinking suggests benevolent sexism; Lot is criticised for his willingness to exchange the safety of his family for the safety of his guests). Second, why do his daughters sleep with him? It seems to be rather matter of fact in the text. In fact, the text highlights how well-established their sons and subsequent nations become. Yet, these were sons born of incest. Interestingly, rabbinical teaching too has struggled with these actions. (It has often favored and sympathized with Lot’s daughters by attempting to understand and rationalize their actions rather than view Lot as above reproach. For more, see here.).
Let us turn to Abraham’s family. The first story in this parshah that includes women, namely Sarah, starts when three heavenly beings visit Abraham and Sarah. They announce her impending pregnancy. Upon hearing the news, Sarah, who is offstage so-to-speak, laughs. To Sarah, it all just appears nonsensical. After all, how could a woman, well into menopause, end up pregnant? Months later when the baby is born, clearly the idea still brings a smile to her and Abraham’s faces. In the parshah Abrahahm names the boy Yitzhak (Isaac), which means “he will laugh.”
The next time we encounter Abraham and Sarah, they have reached the lands ruled by Abimelech. When asked, Abraham says Sarah is his sister because he is afraid they will kill him on account of her (beauty?). Abimelech takes her as another wife, only to be visited in a dream by the Divine telling him to return Sarah to Abraham. Abimelech, needless to say, is quite scared and tries to right the wrongs he has done. He pays Abraham and Sarah handsomely and gives them protection throughout his land. Abimelech is in turn repaid by the return of fertility to the women in his family.
Finally, after Isaac’s weaning, Sarah grows jealous of Ishmael and Hagar. It bothers Abraham to kick them out of his house, but the Divine says to do as Sarah wants. Abraham requests that they leave and sends them on their way with some food and drink. When that runs out, the Divine provides for them.
When looked at as a whole, Vayera contains two competing possibilities for women: vulnerability and problematic behavior. We can see vulnerability when: Sarah is shamed for laughing at and not believing the divine messengers; Lot’s wife turns to salt just for turning around; Lot offers his daughters to be raped to protect unknown male visitors; and Abraham trades Sarah for protection.
The women also behave problematically. Sarah laughs at the proclamation of the divine guests. She also becomes jealous of Ishmael and Hagar and has them thrown out. Lot’s daughters get him drunk and seduce him.
In Vayera, women are only central when the focus is marriage, motherhood, babies and sex. Without women having children, Abraham wouldn’t have had descendants as numerous as the stars, male lineages would die out and new nations would not come into existence. Women are also the currency through which men purchase their own protection from murder, harm and/or rape. Finally, women’s fertility returns when the men do right in the eyes of the deity.
The only story where a woman acts independently of marriage, motherhood, babies and sex is Lot’s wife, whose curiosity turns her into salt! Woah to the curious woman! Yet, her disappearance is crucial to motherhood and sex. If she were still around, her daughters would not have been able to seduce their father. So, even her actions play into patriarchy.
From a feminist perspective, examining the women in any Torah parshah is often quite disappointing as patriarchy is so all-encompassing. The women here clearly function for the sake of patriarchal values. Yet, something must be said for the ways in which they seem to defy them as well. Sarah laughed at the outrageous suggestion of her post-menopausal pregnancy. Lot’s daughters, by having sex, take control of their own destinies. Lot’s wife is curious. These actions defy convention. Patriarchy on rare occasion remembers the agency of strong, capable women, and Vayera is one example.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.