The interaction between Lot and Abram is interesting. The Fathers of the Church, and especially St. Ambrose delved deeply into the moral sense of the story. How are we supposed to deal with conflict? Some people basically avoid it, other people like it. We know that both meekness and courage collaborate in a prudent response to disputes and hostility. St. Ambrose tells us that the name “Lot” is interpreted in Latin to mean, “declinatio” or deviation. A deviation can be for good or for evil, but it represents a departure from the present course. Abram, wisely, understood that a departure was necessary. Even though there was no dispute between Lot and himself, he understood that if they went their separate ways they could remain friends. Sometimes a good friend makes a terrible roommate. But notice the humility of Abram when they separate – even though Abram is the one being magnanimous, even though he is the elder, he calls Lot his brother and therefore makes him his equal. In some ways this story reminds me of the prodigal son and his father. Abram is willing to let Lot have the first choice of land because he values peace and quiet most of all. Abram is already rich because he is satisfied with what he has – whereas we do not read that Lot is rich even though he has many possessions. Abram relies on God’s promise to provide, so, without judging Lot, he gives him freedom and space with the hopes that he too will become satisfied.
A final point we could make about this passage is also about discernment. Lot chooses a rich and fertile land – but it is full of vicious scoundrels: Sodom and Gomorrah. The goodness of a place only partially depends on its natural qualities and rich soil. The goodness of a place has mostly to do with its inhabitants. We might spontaneously draw the same conclusion: “the weather is nice” here or there, “but the people are crazy.” We understand after they go their separate ways how Abram was abundantly blessed by God in his choice, and Lot had to deal with the consequences of his. We are taught that the underlying qualities of humility, magnanimity, satisfaction with what already belongs to us, and an overarching aim for peace and quiet will help us discern what is best in dealing with our fellows even if we can’t see all the consequences clearly. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you. This is the Law and the Prophets.” The road is narrow, but the God who leads us and walks with us is very good.
So to satisfy these and at the same time to abide by the rule of Scripture, we would say that there is one person who takes on two roles, that in one and the same individual two things are signified. Numerically Lot is a single individual; virtually he is two. In fact, Lot, according to the Latin interpretation, means declinatio (“a deviation”). But one can deviate either from the good or from the bad. So when Lot deviated from the bad, that is, from error, from base and criminal behavior, he was joined to his uncle. When he deviated from the good, that is, from what is just, innocent, holy and sacred, he was joined to baseness. This is why it says, “now Lot too, who accompanied Abraham,” because he had not yet chosen Sodom, and he was not dwelling among those who are authors of evil. Thereafter he did go to live in Sodom. And so it was that he became alienated from himself; he thought of himself as of another, as of one, that is, who withdraws not only from the just man but even from himself.1
In fact, since [Lot] had already deliberately begun to deviate from his uncle, the land could not support both of them dwelling together; indeed, no space can be large enough for those who love discord.… Even limited spaces are more than adequate for those who are meek and peace-loving, while for those whose mentality is one of discord even wide open spaces are too restricted.2
Now cattle, as we have said, signify the irrational senses of the body. Who then are the shepherds of the senses, if not their masters and, in a certain sense, their rulers and guides, that is to say, the monitors of a certain way of speaking or the thoughts of our mind? If these are expert and constant in the pastoral exercise, they do not permit the flock of the senses to wander off and to stop to graze in useless or positively harmful pastures, but with wise leadership they call them back and apply the brakes of reason to block their activity when they rebel. But the bad leaders or useless disputes allow the cattle to be carried away by their own impulsiveness, to run toward the precipice, to trample on planted fields and to feed on their produce, so much so that if at present there are still fruits of virtue to be found, they destroy even these.3
He [Abraham] thought it preferable that the two separate than that good harmony among them be broken. This is what you should do whenever you find yourself in a similar situation, to forestall a hotbed of discord. In fact, you are not stronger than Abraham. He thought it best to withdraw from the servants’ disputes, not to treat them with contempt. And if you are strong enough, take care lest someone weaker than you gives ear to the whisperings of the servants. It often happens that by their undivided service they sow discord among relatives. Better it is to separate from each other so that friendship might remain. When two cannot live together in a house with common property, is it not better graciously to withdraw than to live together in discord?4
Notice how he addresses Lot on terms of equality—and yet I have the impression that the outbreak of trouble had no other origin than in the refusal of the patriarch’s herdsmen to allow Lot to enjoy the same privileges as they. The just man, however, handles everything with restraint, demonstrating the remarkable degree of his own good sense and teaching not only those present at the time but also every one in the future never to settle their differences with our relatives by feuding. Their squabbling brings great disgrace on us, and instead of trouble being attributed to them, the blame reverts to us.5
How appropriately then Scripture says, “Lot,” that is, deviation, “chose for himself.” Indeed, God has placed before us good and evil, so that each may choose what he wishes. Let us not then choose that which is more pleasing at first sight but that which is truly better, so that, having been granted the ability to choose what is preferable, we lift up our eyes and be attracted by false beauty while we leave concealed the truth of nature, as one who looks the other way.6
- ON ABRAHAM 2.6.25. Sheridan, M. (Ed.). (2002). Genesis 12–50 (p. 13). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON ABRAHAM 2.6.24. Sheridan, M. (Ed.). (2002). Genesis 12–50 (p. 13). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON ABRAHAM 2.6.27. Sheridan, M. (Ed.). (2002). Genesis 12–50 (p. 14). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON ABRAHAM 1.3.10. Sheridan, M. (Ed.). (2002). Genesis 12–50 (p. 15). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILIES ON GENESIS 33.8. Sheridan, M. (Ed.). (2002). Genesis 12–50 (pp. 16–17). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON ABRAHAM 2.6.35. Sheridan, M. (Ed.). (2002). Genesis 12–50 (p. 17). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.