Intertextuality, Literary Criticism, and Genesis 19: Part 2

Genesis 19 is one of the most famous episodes (involving minor characters!) in the Old Testament for numerous reasons. Well, the first half of the text is. The second half of the text tends to get skipped over in most children’s bible class curricula! We talked last time about the first half of Genesis 19, where God sent two messengers to test Sodom and Gomorrah to see whether they were righteous or not. When they failed their test, those same messengers rescued Lot and his family before destroying the cities. Because of this, Lot, his wife, and his daughters were saved (although his sons-in-law refused, since they thought Lot was crazy). Up to this point, the story is pretty familiar. Many probably even know that—upon turning back toward the city that “looked like Egypt”—Lot’s wife died a salty death. But what comes afterward is the real boogaboo. Alone near Zohar, without his wife, his sons-in-laws, and his city, we read:

Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to live in the city of Zoar. So he lived in a cave with his two daughters.

The firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and we have no male heir or progeny to come in to us after the manner of all the earth. Let’s get our father drunk on wine, and we will have sex with him, so that we may carry on our name from our father.” So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father. (He did not know when she lay down or when she arose.)

The next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Look, I lay last night with my father. Let’s get him drunk on wine again tonight. Then you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” So they got their father drunk on wine again that night. Then the younger arose and had sex with him. (He did not know when she lay down or when she arose.)

In this way both of Lot‘s daughters became pregnant by their father. The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab (he is the progenitor of today’s Moabites). The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi (he is the father of today’s Ammonites) (Gen 19.30–38).

Now, this story is doing all sorts of things. Among others, it’s an aetiological explanation for the Moabites and Ammonites; it functions as a polemic against Israel’s neighbors; and it neatly cuts off the potential for Lot (or his progeny) being the inheritors of Abraham’s promise, removing one more “logical alternative” on the road to Isaac. In other words, there’s a lot (sorry, I just couldn’t help it!) we could talk about in this episode. Even if we moved outside of the specific Lot storyline to see what is in the background, we could talk about the importance of progeny, ancient Israelite (and near Eastern, in general) ideas about sex, purity, or incest, and lots of other things. But, for today, I want to return to our ideas of intertextuality.

Intertextuality and literary criticism connects stories through verbal and literary connections in order to better interpret itself. This is particularly true when we’re reading episodes as part of the same book or written in the same fashion. So what episode am I going to connect to this? Well, first, lets see if we can figure out the major literary markers:
  • God Rescues a Single Family from Mass Destruction
    • We have information about the husband, wife, and children included
    • The narrative focuses primarily on the interaction of father and children
  • Others have a chance to flee destruction, but refuse and perish
  • The Destruction of the Masses and After-Episode of Salvation are interrupted by God remembering a covenant
  • Salvation of the Family is Immediately Followed by Sin
    • The sin includes parent and child (Lot and Daughters)
    • The sin includes drunkenness (Lot is drunk when this happens)
    • The sin includes sex (They lay with their father)
    • The sin explains the origin of one of Israel’s neighbors (Moabites and Ammonites)
By this point, you’ve probably figured it out. But let’s see how this plays out and turn to Genesis 9. After God has destroy the world with a flood, he nevertheless saved Noah and his family (including his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law), and—immediately after the flood—we read:

The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed.

Noah became a farmer: he planted a vineyard; he drank his wine; he got drunk; and he lay, uncovered, in his tent. Then Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the “nakedness of his father” and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their “father’s nakedness.”

When Noah awoke from his stupor and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said:  “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant\” (Gen 9.18–28).

Now, before we talk anything about the specifics of this passage (don’t worry; we’ll talk about the weirdness in a minute!), let’s just notice the literary connections. Just like with Genesis 19, we see:
  • The sin includes parent and child (Noah* and Ham)
  • The sin includes drunkenness (Noah is drunk when this happens)
  • The sin includes sex (Yes, debated, we’ll discuss this in a second, but at least *sexual*)
  • The sin explains the origin of one of Israel’s neighbors (Canaanites)
If we wanted to break these literary connections down further, we still could (e.g., a sub-point for the parent and child aspect would be that the first offender invites the other the siblings to do the same, or both separate the destruction and sin with a short note about covenant renewal).
So, in these two very short episodes (Noah = 9 vss; Lot = 8 vss) we have four of the same major literary markers. It provides both number, density, and specificity. This method shows that we’re supposed to link these two stories together, to let Scripture interpret Scripture, then what does it give us?
Let’s circle back around to Genesis 9. There’s a lot of weird stuff happening there, but the main source of disagreement is over what exactly Ham did. It breaks down to three options: 1) Voyeurism (the most popular view among recent evangelical commentators, focusing mostly on the comment that Ham saw Noah’s nakedness), 2) Paternal Incest (recently popular among some audiences, focusing mostly on the comment what Ham had done to him), 3) Maternal Incest (a minority view, focusing on how the term “nakedness of your father” is used in Lev 18 and like texts, the focus on progeny, and subversion of expectations).

Now, we’re already running a tad longer than I like so we can’t go in depth here (although, if you’re interested in learning more and don’t mind reading something longer, I’d highly recommend this article!), but what I want to touch on is how reading this story intertextually may also help resolve this question.

Because of the closeness of Genesis 9 and Genesis 19, I would suggest that we use the clearer example to help interpret the less clear. Because of their similarities, it’s extremely likely that these two texts were written in order to interact with each other! Because all of the rest of these connections, we are pushed towards the final connection: Ham’s sin (and why his progeny is cursed and emphasized repeatedly throughout the episode) is because he had sex with his mother just as Lot’s daughters had sex with their father! This fits, and makes the connections between these two episodes extremely similar. Now, of course, if we’ve already written off one of the incest views for Ham’s sin, or if we are necessarily convinced that it must be mere voyeurism, then this likely won’t influence us. But if we want to argue that these two episodes don’t interact or provide commentary, there are a few ways to disprove the tightness of the connection: 1) you show that these literary markers aren’t exclusive by finding other episodes of similar length which have all (or nearly all!) of the same literary markers, 2) you disprove one or more of the literary connections (not counting the one you’re trying to prove), 3) you show that later author couldn’t have known the text of the former author (or an Ur Text that both authors used to form their stories).But the thing that is really cool to me is that—once you recognize these sorts of things happen (and they do!)—then you’ll start seeing these connections all over the place. And that will make you a closer, better, more aware reading of text: we’re all interested in that!

Published by Jared Saltz

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

3 thoughts on “Intertextuality, Literary Criticism, and Genesis 19: Part 2

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