Intertextuality, Literary Criticism, and Genesis 19: Part 1

Genesis 19 in one of the most famous episodes (involving minor characters!) in the Old Testament for numerous reasons. In this chapter, we are told that two travelers come to a city: they arrive at evening among strangers, they plan to sleep in the city square but Lot begs that they stay with him and provides hospitality. Lot acts as a host: he washes their feet, he shares a meal with them, etc. But during the night, we read that the “men of the city” surround the house and demand that Lot send out his travelers so that they can rape them. Lot at first tries to protest and—when that doesn’t work—he offers his daughters as substitutes. The story is obviously awful, but—surprise!—these two travelers are not common men but angels sent to judge the city and save Lot. They blind the men of the city and bring Lot and his family out, safely (at least temporarily).

Now, there’s obviously a lot (heh) we could talk about in this episode: treatment of stranger, importance of hospitality, the value of women, etc., and perhaps I’ll address some of those episodes in the future, but for today I instead want to talk about something else even more exciting: intertextuality and literary criticism!

You see, literary criticism is the idea that we should read individual episodes as part of larger stories. And students of the Bible—whether religious or areligious, whether they think the Bible is inspired or not—all do this in some way, if for differing reasons. But for (largely Protestant) “conservatives” who believe that the Bible is (in some way) ultimately the product of a single, divine author, and that “Scripture Interprets Scripture” then it’s obvious that you should want to connect stories to other stories (although see some issues, here). But how do you know which stories to connect? There are two primary ways.

The first way to connect stories together is by finding verbal connections. Now, you don’t want to succumb to parallelomania, where any and every minor connection is a reason to make any and every major connection, so there are some ground rules. Generally the way I explain this to my students is:

  1. The higher the number of verbal connections, the better
  2. The higher the density of the verbal connections, the better
  3. The more exclusive the verbal connections, the better
Number is easy: two stories connected only by a single verbal connection is week; three or more verbal connections within two episodes is quite strong. Density is related: if we have two stories with three verbal connections, but those stories are very long, it’s less certain than if the episodes are very short (in other words, the more connections per space, the more likely you should connect them). Exclusivity means that these connections are more likely to be legitimate the rarer the words that connect the stories are (i.e., you don’t get to count “the” or “that” or “a” etc!).

The second way to connect stories together is tougher: you find literary connections. These are where the same thing happens in the same way within two stories. Although we have a harder time thinking this way, and certainly (thanks to software like Accordance or Logos which can make searching for verbal connections a snap!) a harder time finding these connections, in many ways they’re more convincing. But, otherwise, the same rules apply: number of connections, density of connections, and exclusivity of connections is important! But we add one more: the sequence of the connections is also important (not just the same things happening, but happening in the same order).

So, with that in mind, let me tell you the story of another biblical passage: Judges 19. In this chapter, we are told that two travelers come to the city of Gibeah: they arrive at evening among those who shouldn’t be stranger, they decide to sleep in the city square when no one provides them hospitality until at last someone does. This man acts as a host: he washes their feet, he shares a meal with them, etc. But during the night, we read that the “men of the city” surround the house and demand that the host send out his male traveler so that they can rape him. The host at first tries to protest and—when that doesn’t work—he offers his daughter and the Levite’s concubine in exchange. But these two travelers are not angels and the Levite is heinous enough that he throws his own wife out to be gang raped by the men while he sits back down to eat his meal.

When aligned this way, it’s obvious that these two stories are meant to be read against each other. But let’s see if we can add a little specificity to the why. So we’ll look at verbal connections and then at literary connections:

Verbal Connections:

Literary Connections:

  • Two travelers arrive at a city
  • They arrive in the evening
  • The travelers are strangers
  • They decide to sleep in the square
  • They receive an invitation from a host
  • The host washes their feet
  • The host and guest share a meal
  • Depraved men surround the house
  • The men demand the male guest(s) to rape
  • The host protests the wickedness
  • Two female substitutes are offered
Clearly, these two stories are connected, intertextually, but now we can show for certain that the connections are numerous, dense, and relatively exclusive. But what’s the point? There are two main strategies that the ancient authors intended when they linked such stories so closely together. The first is to compare and the second is to contrast.

This is already a much longer post than I normally like, so let’s look at just two points from this passage, one of comparison and the other of contrast:

Gibeah is Sodom. If these two connections are made, then the connections between the cities is clearly one of the points. But whereas everyone expects the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (those terrible, evil, Canaanite cities!) to be wicked, they did not think the same about Israel. But if God destroyed Sodom for what she tried to do, then if Israel does the same thing then she should expect the same to be done to her. What’s good for the goose is good for the Gander.

Israel is worse than Canaan. But these two stories aren’t exactly the same! Although the two angels are truly stranger to Sodom, the Levite and his 2nd class wife are Israelites and they come to an Israelite town. They should be safe (in fact, they pass up a Canaanite town to get to a safe place!)! But they aren’t. And just as it was awful for Lot to offer his two daughters, it is even worse for the Levite to offer his own wife, and the callousness with which he treats her (sitting back down to eat a meal while she is being raped, and then—I would content—killing her himself since she shamed him, afterwards) are far worse than what happened at Sodom. So if God destroyed Sodom (and certainly any Israelites who knew that story would have agreed she deserved it), will not God destroy Israel too?

Now, I’m far from the first person to note these connections. If you want more information you could definitely check out the commentaries by Susan Niditch or Ken Way or many others (if Sasson would finish the second volume…). If you’re more interested in learning more about how literary criticism, a great place to start is Robert Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative.

But just as I’m far from the first person to note these connections, this is far from the only stories that should be connected! In fact, in my next post I’m going to show how the second half of Genesis 19 is also connected in a similar way, even if it’s not as well known.


Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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