Feminists portray the patriarchal world of the early parts of “Genesis” as one which engaged in the oppression of women. That view makes the elementary mistake of confusing setting with plot. Women do hold subservient positions in the social structures; that is taken for granted by the texts. The important point, however, is that the social arrangements of tribal and nomadic life are described rather than advocated, for to advocate suggests that the arrangements are problematical, which they were not, while, on the other hand, the moral qualities of the people observed are problematical, and are therefore to be judged. That distinction made, the literature from patriarchal times has some very pointed things to say about how men and women get on with one another. Indeed, what George Bernard Shaw said was happening with the post-Victorian “New Woman”, that she was becoming opinionated and feisty and independent and fully able to handle her own intellectual and emotional needs, seems to have been largely accepted by those in Exilic Persia who edited the Old Testament, which gives some additional credence to Harold Bloom’s claim that the primary editor might well have been a woman, and certainly gives credence to the idea that there is something very secular about family relations in patriarchal times. Secularism presumes independence for women in that they are part of the workforce, make their own decisions about marriage, rather than leave that to their families, and have all the weaknesses and strengths of the other sex. Indeed, the absence of human rights or an adequate place in the workforce remains a cardinal indicator of whether, as in Saudi Arabia, a country has not yet emerged into secularism. A world of suppressed women is just what the secular world overcomes, testament to which are all the popular songs of the Twenties and Thirties that made love and marriage freely chosen rather than arranged and so the tangible meaning of a child of an immigrant generation taking his or her place among the modern people of America.
Most of “Genesis” has a quite different texture and meaning than is the case with what is related in the Adam and Eve story, where great attention is paid to what is fitting to men and to women in general, and some kind of explanation is offered for why things are the way they are: women suffer pain in childbirth and men earn their livings by the sweat of their brows, both of these fates punishment for sins. Those fates are the crucial ways in which men and women are different, though it should be added that “Genesis” does not suggest that either Adam or Eve is the more responsible of the parties for the transgression against God’s instruction that they not eat of the tree of knowledge.
The plots in the body of “Genesis” often do deal with the stresses and strains between the particular personalities of particular men and women, whatever the general social station of men and women, these conflicts working out sometimes one way and sometimes another. Sarah gets Hagar exiled and Rebekah gets Isaac’s patrimony passed to her favorite son, but Dinah does not get the husband she wants, seeing all of his people slaughtered by her brothers instead. The point is that men don’t always get their way nor are they the moral superiors of women.
One way to get at the difference between the background, which is the role of women in patriarchal societies, and the foreground, which is the role played by women protagonists in stories set within that patriarchal society, is to look carefully at the only full blown incest story in the Old Testament, that of Lot and his daughters. The story is usually neglected as an unpleasantness not very well tied to the rest of patriarchal history. But its placement and its brief unfolding helps to transfigure what has been placed previous to it in the unfolding narrative and so sets the stage for the even more serious events that are about to take place in both the relation of men to women and the relation between God and his people.
The complete story in the Revised Standard Version goes as follows:
Now Lot went up out of Zo’ar, and dwelt in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zo’ar: so he dwelt in a cave with his two daughters. And the first–born said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring through our father. So they made their father drink wine that night; and the first-born went in, and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. And on the next day, the first-born said to the younger, “Behold, I lay last night with my father; let us make him drink wine tonight also; then you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve offspring through our father.” So they made their father drink wine that night also; and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father. The first-born bore a son, and called his name Moab; he is the father of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites to this day.
It is worth rereading the story freshly to see how ceremonial and stately the proceedings are. First of all, note is taken of the fact that the first-born initiates the scheme, as if this were a parody of all those other stories in “Genesis” where brothers (particularly Esau and Jacob) act in conflict with one another rather than in cooperation. Second, the daughters are not named, while their children and, of course, their children’s father, are named, which suggests that the daughters have acted shamefully, their anonymity serving to protect the guilty. Thirdly, they go into their father separately on separate nights, the instruction and explanation for doing so offered by the older daughter to the younger daughter is repeated, and then the action that was planned is described again as having taken place and then the results of the action even though what would happen had already appeared twice as an explanation of the impending action.
“Genesis” repeats for a reason. The obvious one here is to make it clear that the daughters knew what they were doing, carried out their plan in a deliberate manner and did not change their minds over the course of the action. The incantation of what is to be done and then the doing of it stretches out time, just as the time between the planning and the (near) accomplishment of another sacrifice, that of Isaac, which will happen not so long afterwards in the text, is also stretched out into the stately rhythms of the gathering of the materials of sacrifice, the journey, the preparation of the sacrifice. As Kierkegaard quite properly suggests, God must have meant it; and, here too, the daughters meant to do what they did. (Robert Alter provides evidence for this interpretation when he notes that the term used for coitus in this story is a relatively vulgar one, while the standard euphemism “to know” is used in this story only in its literal sense.)
Whatever the resolve with which they carried out incest, the motives of the two sisters remain ambiguous. Could they not have looked around first to see if there were other survivors? After all, as many a rabbi says of the Abraham and Isaac story, perhaps Abraham could have asked God why this sacrifice was necessary. The daughters seem too willing to draw the only conclusion they can and that accounts for their lapse in judgment. Moreover, it is not even clear that they thought all of mankind had been abolished. It is clear only that Lot did not want to live in Ko’ar, which may have had people, and that the daughters wanted to make sure that Abraham’s seed, rather than that of all mankind, would be propagated. It is possible to argue that a daughter’s lust for a father is all a male author’s projection. But who is to say, first of all, that the redactor of “Genesis” was a male, or that Lot the character was suppressing a desire let loose by alcohol? That last would be to follow the Jerry Falwell School of interpretation: there are no contradictions in the Bible or, in this case, no voiding of your interpretation of a Biblical story, because whatever evidence you need is there but unmentioned.
The morality of the situation portrayed in this story is rendered neither fanciful nor relativistic just because the motives for actions are complicated or ambiguous. The daughters did what they did. Other stories in the Old Testament are told with a similar awareness that there is in life a combination of the ambiguity of motivation and the objectivity of the events themselves. There is the case of David and Bathsheba. When Uriah says he does not want go home to his wife, but wants to sleep away from her so as to share the sufferings of his men, it sounds like an excuse, and so the reader can surmise that he knew his wife had been unfaithful, and so when he did not open the note he took from David to his General it was not because he did not know that the letter was his death warrant, but that he knew it to be just that, and so a release from his dishonor. But, on the other hand, maybe he did not know what was going on behind his back. The narrator provides no conclusive evidence. Clues as to motivation are as inconclusive in the Old Testament as they are in real life; while, on the other hand, the significance of action—that Uriah is sacrificed so David can marry Bathsheba—is not ambiguous. People will act on indications, while a narrator knows only what happens, which is as close as one comes to an implicit metaphysics in the Old Testament, the narrator taking the place of God: we know things well enough to form judgments but not so well that we know what to God’s eye is really going on. (We do not have to accept Wayne Booth’s idea that a third person narrator is like God, knowing whatever about his characters and their situation that he cares to know.)
According to James Kugel, the usual interpretation by religious commentators on the story of Lot’s daughters going into his tent has to do with the functionality of the incest: the world had to be repopulated because the holocaust on Sodom had left the rocky area around it bereft of people. Which means the daughters did the wrong thing for the right reason. That it was wrong is shown by the consequences of their actions: the incest brought forth two races which would be enemies of the Israelites.
That interpretation, however usual in religious circles, will not wash. If the story is about repopulating the world, then the story would cast light back on the Adam and Eve story, making it a story about people whose children also engaged in incest, in that Adam and Eve must have had other children and those brothers and sisters must have intermarried to supply the women for Cain and other sons to marry. But that is an interpretation that appeals only to a Clarence Darrow “gotcha” mentality, which allows for no context.
Cain goes off to marry a woman from another place-- a stranger to his family-- and is further separated from his own family because he is given a mark as a protected exile, which presumes that there are customs already in place where exiles cannot be harassed. And he founds a city, which need not mean he founds the first city, but some city that separates him, once again, from the nomadic families that will descend from Adam and Eve. Or at least that is a more or less satisfactory way of resolving the story of Adam and Eve into the main line of the narrative of “Genesis”, which follows a nomadic people back and forth to Egypt, a place defined by its settled and urban character, until Joseph, finally, comes to bring his entire family to Egypt and so finish the prologue to “Exodus”. If all that is the case, then why treat the Lot story as one about repopulating the world? We might instead have had a story like the one about Cain. We might have learned of the sort of people Lot’s daughters encountered when they wandered through the neighboring cities trying to understand a post-holocaust world. The standard rabbinical response to the story, then, is a tribute to the prudishness of the rabbis rather than their insight because they focus on the pretext for incest rather than the context for it, much less the events of the incest itself.
The center of the Lot story is the incest itself rather than what motivates it. The incest is center stage, the problem of the story. Moreover, the incest is not between brothers and sisters, a kind of prequel to “Moses and Monotheism”, which ponders how a younger generation bands together to separate themselves from their fathers. Nor is the incest between sons and mothers, which makes it different from “Oedipus Rex”, where, perhaps, Freudian terms are indeed applicable: a man full of his powers takes as his due the widowed queen of the place he has saved, broken in his triumph by having possessed the mystery of his own mother and so a demonstration of the limitations incumbent even on the most reckless and accomplished of people.
Incest occurs in “Oedipus Rex” during the course of things and without the knowledge of the parties involved, a consummation publicly honored until the incest is found out. The incest in “Genesis” is much starker. The sisters in the Lot story not only plan to engage in incest, they calculate how to keep the incest hidden even from the person with whom they do the activity-- but only when it first occurs. If they think the world needs to be repopulated, they can hardly plan to offer as an excuse that they ran into strangers. They must presume that once they are pregnant, the offspring will be accepted as a good result however they came to be produced, and so neither they nor the children will be punished. The problem is how to get through the dirty work that must be done to get to a situation which, once accomplished, is an accomplishment.
Their plan has two parts. They will dress up so as to entice Lot and then they will make him drunk. The sisters made themselves attractive, which means that they were appealing to and had need to appeal to their father’s prurient instincts, which suggests either that Lot had to be enticed into such feelings or that even fathers are not immune to such feelings. In either case, the father becomes implicated. He is not an innocent party, and that may, later, provide some protection for them when the fact of the children comes to light. Then they get him drunk, which may have been to allow him to go through with what he was by now contemplating. That he had to be drunk is to his moral credit or at least an excuse for his deed. The immediate consequence, however, is the one which the story mentions: that he awoke with no knowledge of what he had done, even if he had some knowledge of what he might have contemplated by the time he lost his wits.
Why is it so important that he not know what he had done? That consciousness might have gravely wounded him and led him to an act similar to that of Oedipus. He must be sheltered from a memory of what occurred. The daughters, however, do not require such psychological shelter. They knew what they were going to do and retained knowledge of it since the story picks out only the father as not knowing what had happened. The obvious conclusion is that they could bear the knowledge of what they had done even if Lot could not. They could commit incest as a means to an end and live with it, but their father, and presumably other men, could not, but would be overwhelmed by the means no matter how justified the ends-- and one can think of no end more justifiable than saving the human race.
The sisters then have engaged in their little plan not to fool their father but to spare him. It is not just that he is not culpable for his action, for then they would also be culpable for actions that are presumably justifiable. It is that he would be devastated by incest even if it were justifiable. The daughters are not so burdened. They just did what had to be done, and that is why they are regarded by commentators as mistaken but not sinful. They retain their composure even if not their innocence. Moreover, they were not innocent even before the incest, since they were the ones who conceived the plan. So men are innocent and women are not since women are the engines of doing what has to be done.
If that is the case, then women, in spite of their subordinate social positions, are the psychologically stronger of the sexes. Or perhaps they are in subordinate positions because that is the only way to regulate the fierceness and practicality of their visions. That is very different from the modern view that women are the civilizing force that calms the violent and erotic spirit of men, but it is not too different from a Greek idea that women embody an earlier set of inchoate gods and need to be suppressed so that an idea of justice can emerge. What idea of justice might emerge from men rather than women is just what the round of stories that concern Abraham rather than his cousin Lot will tell. This, the line of patriarchal succession that proves more fruitful than that descending from Lot, involves God giving and maybe taking away children, intruding on childbearing, as well as, later on, stories of women intruding on the orderliness men would impose on history, the women acting in the name of what they see as justice (Sarah, Miriam, and Esther. to name but three).
If that is the case, then the story of Lot’s daughters is indeed an extension of the story of Adam and Eve because it goes back to an original time, to a founding moment for the human race, so as to establish one more time what is the nature of men and women, to elaborate that ever puzzling but fundamental distinction, all aside from the particular personalities or family dysfunctions involved in the relation of Esau and Jacob, as that is influenced by their mother, or the relation of Jacob’s sons to their sister, Dinah, of whose virtue they seem overly protective.
If the message of the story of Lot’s daughter is that women understand elemental things more clearly than men do and, as a result, are more practical than men, their eyes not obscured by fear of betraying what might on other occasions seem the necessary order of life, then consider the other story in “Genesis” that most clearly has an incest-like theme. Noah’s son is innocent when he approaches his drunken father in his tent and finds him naked. He did not intend to find him this way nor had he planned, like the sisters, to make him that way. Moreover, Noah was already drunk all on his own. So there is no need to treat the fact that Noah happened to be seen naked by his son as a moral transgression. And yet Noah treats it as such, even though there is no sexual undercurrent. It is enough that Noah has been seen-- whether that is interpreted as in a defenseless state, or an intimate one, or that Noah is merely seen to be only a human being. Any one of those reverberations can still hold up as a psychological reading of the story. The structural point of the story, however, is that men can be in some way damaged by the sight of their unclothed father. It is not proper, even if done for the best of motives.
That is just the opposite of the message to be taken about women from the story of Lot’s daughters, a story whose reversals of the Noah story are clear enough so that the redactor can be said once again to have organized his (or her) traditional stories in a way where one sheds light on another in a continual complication and unfolding of how life is, as that is compressed into the evolution of a patriarchal people (rather than an evolution of God) from their barbaric and nomadic roots into their being a civilized people. So, it should go without saying, other than that Feminists have said the contrary, that the Old Testament does not demean women or portray them as the weaker sex. It just doesn’t contain some modern day political agenda.