Posted on December 21, 2017 by Jamie Bornstein
In light of the #MeToo campaign and the ongoing soul searching that we are doing as a country about sexual harassment, I have shared some thoughts below on Parashat Vayera, the fourth Torah portion of Sefer Bereishit, the Book of Genesis. In this Torah portion there is a very jarring string of sexually charged scenarios, starting with the story of Lot and concluding with the birth of Isaac. These stories demonstrate the Bible’s direct recognition of abuse in its many forms, how abuse can be perpetrated by people in very different stations within society, and can likewise be inflicted upon anyone; the young, the old, men and women.
I share my thoughts here, on the Mental Health Safe Spaceblog, because the mental health implications for victims of sexual abuse are significant. In her recent article This Is Survival, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman very candidly describes how her life and mental health continues to be impacted as result of being sexually abused. Her story is worth reading. It is just one modern example of an ancient blight.
The Biblical stories I present here reflect a gradation of sexual behavior, starting with the reprehensible and concluding with holy, and demonstrate the complexities of power, agency, voice and consent, all themes that are as relevant today as they were in the times of the bible. Above all, these stories teach us the devastating cost of seeing and treating people as objects, and the revelatory power of seeing and treating people as humans.
Scene One – Rape
וַיִּקְרְא֤וּ אֶל־לוֹט֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְרוּ ל֔וֹ אַיֵּ֧ה הָאֲנָשִׁ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֥אוּ אֵלֶ֖יךָ הַלָּ֑יְלָה הוֹצִיאֵ֣ם אֵלֵ֔ינוּ וְנֵדְעָ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃
“And they shouted to Lot and said to him, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.’” (Genesis 19:5)
The first scenario takes place in Sodom, the infamous hotbed of licentiousness and depravity, where Lot, Abraham’s nephew, has made his home. While Lot traveled to Canaan along with Abraham, framing him as a potential co-star in the establishment of the covenant, he was cut from a different cloth. Everything that Abraham is, Lot is not, and his choice of home is a striking reflection of this.
One evening, as Lot is sitting at the city gates of Sodom, two angels appear. Lot, showing perhaps a glimmer of latent goodness, invites the men to spend the night in his home. They agree, but only three verses later we see that a mob of Sodomites have gathered around Lot’s home and are demanding Lot to release the angels to them.
“Bring them out to us, that we may ‘know’ them.” The word “know” has previously appeared in Genesis as a reference to sexual relations. It seems we are witnessing the Bible’s first instance of attempted rape. The mob is seeking a violent and non-consensual sexual encounter with the two visitors, whose lack of agency at this moment is further illustrated by their silence in the text itself.
Scene Two – Sexual Exploitation
הִנֵּה־נָ֨א לִ֜י שְׁתֵּ֣י בָנ֗וֹת אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־יָדְעוּ֙ אִ֔ישׁ אוֹצִֽיאָה־נָּ֤א אֶתְהֶן֙ אֲלֵיכֶ֔ם וַעֲשׂ֣וּ לָהֶ֔ן כַּטּ֖וֹב בְּעֵינֵיכֶ֑ם רַ֠ק לָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים הָאֵל֙ אַל־תַּעֲשׂ֣וּ דָבָ֔ר כִּֽי־עַל־כֵּ֥ן בָּ֖אוּ בְּצֵ֥ל קֹרָתִֽי׃
“Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (Genesis 19:8)
For a brief moment we believe that Lot might know right from wrong. “I beg you my friends, do not commit such a wrong!” he cries to the mob in verse 7. But seemingly without pausing for an answer, without any additional attempt to negotiate or persuade the mob to disband, beyond his woefully insufficient four Hebrew words of protest (in English, “I beg you brothers, do not act wickedly”), Lot follows up his entreaty in the very next verse with the shocking suggestion that the mob instead take his two maiden daughters to “do to them as you please.”
Just three verses after the bible’s first instance of attempted rape, we see the bible’s first instance of attempted forced sexual exploitation. Like the angels, the daughters are discussed as nothing more than objects for a violent and non-consensual sexual encounter.
In the end, the angels do exhibit agency by pulling Lot back into the house as the mob pressed forward to break down the door. Still, they remain voiceless in the text. The daughters, on the other hand, exhibit no agency and have no voice within the text. In fact, we never even learn their names.
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Jamie Bornstein is the founder of Mental Health Safe Space. He lives in Sharon, MA with his wife and three children. He is the Senior Director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, North America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.