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Temptations of Urbanity

‘But the people of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord, exceedingly.” This is presented to us (Genesis 13:13) as an aside, an observation to suggest that Lot’s choice of the plain of the Jordan was not, after all, the right one. We had just been told, in Genesis 13:10, that it was a very attractive tract of real estate, well watered, “like the garden of the Lord,” and “like the land of Egypt.” But as we are told, by the curious foreshadowing phrase in the same verse, “before the destruction of Sodom,” bad things are going to happen. Lot “set up his tent” near Sodom, and, as Robert Alter suggests, this represents a change from a semi-nomadic to an urban existence, which may be Lot’s real offense and which brings with it inevitable but unspecified temptations.

It is a puzzling literary stratagem, that foreshadowing phrase about Sodom. We are not so much told as reminded of the destruction of Sodom that is going to come. I wonder if Sodom’s status as a city could not be the real temptation, those well-watered vistas merely a pretext, something morally unimpeachable upon which Lot could claim to have based his choice. The desert is dry and pure and untainted; the city is lush, easy and full of blandishments of all kinds.

But of what kinds, exactly? The evils of Sodom are never actually specified. Sodomy, one supposes. (And in Gomorrah, were they guilty of Gomorrah-y?) But where had that been proscribed? And were the children also guilty? They are never mentioned, even as “collateral damage.”

The trouble is that Sodom is a joke catastrophe. I remember one of the great moments in movies when, in “Sodom and Gomorrah,” Anouk Aimée as the queen of Sodom (presumably married to Bora, whom the scripture actually mentions in Genesis 14:2 as its king) raises her arms and addresses in high oratorical fashion: “Hebrews and Sodomites…” and nobody ever hears the next sentence because the audience is — quite correctly — laughing.

What God doesn’t like is “evil,” but we are left to imagine what that is and to supply, from our own sense of pudeur, some shamefulness, probably sexual. This is what the Lord found offensive back before the flood, and why he destroyed everybody but Noah and his clan. Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence was dramatized by their realization that they were naked. Ham’s great offense was looking at his father’s nakedness. In Sodom, they were less troubled by these bizarre inhibitions. Cities are where you find civilization, culture, art (nudes, even) and all the “corruption” of humanism. And Lot, even in a tent outside the city limits, would have been aware of these possibilities and at least curious. Maybe even fascinated. And on top of everything else, there was water, which means that agriculture is easier and that there can be moments of leisure that allow for the first small steps in the direction of culture! And by the time of the destruction of Sodom, Lot has moved out of the tent anyway and is in a more substantial structure, one that has a “roof-beam” (Genesis 19:8, in Robert Alter’s translation), so we can see that he was giving way to these blandishments.

By culture, I don’t mean just arts and refinement but science, too, which is not likely to improve the Lord’s standing among the urbane types who dwell in cities. Out in the countryside, they take weather very seriously. Crops and herds depend on it. In cities, where there are tradesmen, merchants and administrators, they understand that weather just happens. Even floods. They don’t have a moral dimension or anything to do with wickedness. There are, to be sure, some hard-right evangelicals convinced that Hurricane Katrina’s ruin of New Orleans was a punishment for the decadence and depravity of the French Quarter. But as was pointed out by a number of pundits and comics (the last bastion of common sense in the media), the Lord seemed to be even more angry at those who were living nearby, in the Ninth Ward, and He actually spared the Quarter, in which case the point of the catastrophe might have been to instruct us not to tolerate perversity on the part of those who live within a few miles of us.

I read somewhere that the destruction of Sodom might have been a result of its location among those bitumen pits, so that when somebody’s fire ignited an outpouring of natural gas — whoosh! And I must admit that I am more comfortable with that than with the citizenry being judged guilty of “wickedness,” which is not only troublesome but also implies an entirely different relationship between events on earth and the intentions of the Lord. Abram was prepared to go to any lengths to embrace a God whom I wouldn’t have the least trouble disobeying. (You want me to take my son and do what?)

Lot, it seems, was leaning in another, more enlightened direction. He was a sane, normal person, like any of us. He might have been wrong about this, but his is the choice I would have made. In a New York minute.

David R. Slavitt’s latest book is “Blue States Blues” (Wesleyan University Press), an account of his campaign as a Republican for State Representative in Cambridge, Mass. His translation of “The Theban Plays” will appear next spring from Yale University Press.

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