There is a surface similarity between the behavior of the Sodomites in regards to Lot’s visitors, and that of the Benjaminites in the notorious episode of the Concubine of Gibeah. (Judges 19)
Ramban points out the basic differences:
In Sodom, cruelty to visitors was an ‘established policy with the Sanction of law and custom.’ It’s purpose was to avoid sharing the generosity of Sodom’s lush prosperity with the needy.
Gibeah had no such law, it’s inhabitants tended to be ungenerous and inhospitable, but there was no sanctioned policy to achieve exclusion of outsiders. The perpetrators of the atrocity in Gibeah were a powerful hoodlum element; whereas in Sodom the entire population came to torment the visitors. The Gebeanites did not commit a capitol crime and there was no intention to kill the concubine who had previously committed adultery. The entire nation of Israel, by rising up in war against the sinful city, demonstrated conclusively that the atrocity was an unprecedented departure from the norm ~ while in Sodom there had never been a protest against the prevailing behavior.
19:1 “..two angels came..” – one to destroy Sodom and the other, Raphael, who healed Abraham, to save Lot.
Rashi notes that here they are referred to as angels while previously (18:2) they were referred to as men. When the Divine Presence was with them ~ as it was during their visit to Abraham ~ they were described as men. In relation to God’s Presence, their superior status as angels faded to insignificance and, relatively, they were like mere mortals. But now that the Divine Presence had ascended, they resumed their full status as angels. Alternatively, in connection with Abraham to whom visiting angels was not uncommon, they were referred to simply as men, but Lot was overawed by their presence in his house, and the Torah therefore call them angels.
“ in the evening..” – It certainly did not take the angels so long to travel to Sodom. According to the Midrash, they left Abraham in the mid-afternoon, and since angels move with ‘the swiftness of lightening’, what took so long from the time they left Abraham until they entered the city? They were angels of Mercy and so they waited until Abraham finished his pleading on the chance that Abraham would succeed in his intercession for the place. When they saw that he did not succeed, they entered the city to perform their mission.
Note: It must be re-emphasized that the Torah is not merely a history book and would not tell us that they arrived ‘in the evening’ unless a message was to be derived from the fact.
According to Or HaChaim, they enter ‘in the evening’ to provide Lot the opportunity of offering them hospitality and thereby justify his being saved. For though it was said that he was saved in Abraham’s merit, nevertheless, some personal merit had to be found. Furthermore, had they arrived by day, the citizens might have prevented them from entering the city altogether.
When Lot came to Sodom, he emulated Abraham and practiced hospitality. When the decree was made known in Sodom: ‘Whoever supports the poor with food shall be burned by fire’, he was afraid and did not venture to be hospitable by day but did it at night. That is why Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom in the evening. He was looking for night-travelers to whom he could secretly show hospitality.
“..sitting at the gate..” – The gates of a city were not a gathering place for idlers, but for the assembly of the dignitaries of the land. So we find throughout Scriptures that the elders, and judges, stationed themselves at the gate of the cities. Boaz who was a judge sat at the gate (Ruth 4:1); as did Mordechai who stationed himself at the gate of the king (Esther 2:19). Solomon praises the woman of valor whose ‘husband is known at the gate, where he sits among the elders of the land’ (Proverbs 31:23). Commercial transactions took place and disputes were settled at the gate of a city.
19:2 “..my lords..” – is not sacred. It is a humble reference to the two gentlemen.
“..turn about to your servants house;..” Were it still daytime, however, he might now have risked the consequences of so bold an offer; instead he might have simply brought them refreshments without inviting them into his home. It should be noted, however, that according to the Midrashim, guests were not unusual in Lot’s house; perhaps the idea of harboring two at one time involved more than the usual risk. These events should also be viewed in the light of the Midrashim which explain that the young girl who was smeared with honey and left to her painful death for feeding strangers was none other than Lot’s daughter. One can only imagine the deadly fear under which Lot must have made his offer. Nevertheless, his upbringing in Abraham’s house, in which he was exposed to constant hospitality, had its effects on Lot throughout his life ~ even while a resident of Sodom.
He dared invite them only under cover of dark and even then he had to use every manner of precaution bidding the angels to follow him in devious ways ~ ‘take a turnabout route to my house so you can enter unnoticed.”
“..spend the night and wash your feet..” – Surely he should have first washed their feet as Abraham did (18:4) and then invited them to spend the night. However, Lot feared that if the visitors washed their feet first and were then discovered in his house, the Sodomites would have accused him of having harbored them for several days without reporting it. He, therefore, reasoned that it would be better that their feet remain unwashed, so it would appear that they had just arrived (Rashi); therefore, he asked them not to wash their feet until after they left his house in the morning.
Note: How were the guests discovered after Lot had taken such precautions? According to Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, a young boy saw the guests and summoned the others.
The more familiar version (which does not necessarily exclude the above), is the Midrash records that Lot’s wife was not anxious to entertain her husband’s guests, and accordingly did not permit them in her portion of the house. [That is what Lot implied in describing them as guests who have come under the shadow of my rafters (verse 8).]
As a result an argument ensued which is alluded to Midrashically by the word matzos (verse 3) which can also be translated quarrel (See Exodus 2:13, 21:22, Leviticus 24:10).
When Lot requested that a little salt be given his guests, his wife retorted: ‘Is it not bad enough that you invite these people into the house? Do you wish to introduce the evil practice of giving salt also?’
So she betrayed him. She went to a neighbor to borrow some salt. When asked why she could not have prepared salt during the day, she replied: ‘We had enough salt. But we need more for some guests.’
In this way, news of the visitors spread through the city.
“And they said, ‘No..” – They declined Lot’s invitation but they accepted Abraham’s invitation immediately, saying (18:5) “Do as you have said.” We therefore, infer that one may decline as invitation of an inferior, but not that of a superior (Midrash, Rashi)
19:3 Lot’s urgings were sincere and to his merit. The angels declined at first in order to increase his merit by having him insist further. Finally, they consented and took a roundabout route towards his house.
In the literal sense, this verse portrays Lot as preparing the meal, and even baking the matzos himself. What a sad contrast with the cheerful spirit of hospitality that prevailed in Abraham’s entire household. Here, neither wife nor child shared the mitzah of the father and husband. Even in his own home he stood alone.
Nevertheless, Lot did not hesitate to maintain the teachings of Abraham even though he faced the opposition not only of his adopted city but of his own family, and rendered personal service to his guests.
19:4 The Midrashic interpretation of this verse is: Before they had laid down, the angels questioned Lot about the character of the townspeople, and Lot replied that they were wicked. While the discussion ensued, the Sodomites, from every quarter of the city, surrounded the house. There was not one righteous person among them to protect.
The most striking and illustrative feature of this public degeneracy was that it united every shade of the population. Young people were given to sexual excess, but they tend to sympathize with the persecuted. Older people tend to be callous of suffering, but intolerant of public licentiousness. The powerful and wealthy are accustomed to treading upon the unfortunate, but they put a stop to public scandal. But not he Sodomites! In that corrupt city, all joined in their perverse inhumanity. (Hirsch)
This graphically emphasizes how even the ten righteous ones on whose behalf Abraham had interceded could not be found in the city and therefore justified God’s decree against them.
The vise of Sodom was well known among the prophets: Isaiah 1:10, 3:9, 13:19; Jeremiah 49:18; Ezekiel 16:46-57; Amos 4:11, Lamentations 4:6.
19:5 Lot had been praying for mercy on behalf of Sodom that entire night, and the angels were inclined to hear his petition. (Note: Angels were sent to Sodom as God’s emissaries to make a final determination of the Sodomites guilt as explained in 18:21. The Sodomites fate had not yet been firmly sealed.) When all the people of the city converged upon the house with degenerate intent however, the angels warded off his prayers saying: ‘Until now you could intercede on their behalf, but after such morally wrong demands, have you still a mouth to plead for them? Plead no further.” (Midrash)
“..that we may know them.” – know them carnally – The same expression is used in connection with the men of Gibeah (Judges 19:22). (Rashi)
Ramban’s opinion is that their purpose – in so mistreating strangers – was to prevent the entry of strangers in their land. Because their fertile land was as excellent as ‘the garden of Hashem (13:10), they imagined that their territory would attract many poor ‘fortune seekers’, and they refused to share their bounty with the less fortunate. Although they were notorious for every kind of wickedness, their fate was sealed because of their persistent selfishness in not supporting the poor and the needy (Ezekiel 16:49), and because no other nation could be compared to the cruelty of Sodom.
19:7 Lot refers to them as ‘my brothers’. Perhaps he hoped to appease them, or it may well be that even this gross injustice did not inspire him to reevaluate his relationship to the wicked Sodomites.
19:8 The narrative up to this point related Lot’s hospitality; now it relates his wickedness. He made every effort to protect the guests because they had come into his home, but he shows himself ready to appease the Sodomites by offering his daughters for immorality, which was apparently not offensive to him, nor did he feel he was doing a great injustice to his daughters. It is for this reason that the Sages have said: Usually a man will fight to the death for the honor of his wife or daughters, to slay or be slain, yet this man offers his daughters to be dishonored. Said the Holy One, Blessed by He to him: ‘By your life! It is for yourself that you keep them!’ The Midrash also adds: ‘for eventually school children will read (v36) that Lot’s daughters came to be with child by their father.’
“come under the shelter of my roof.” – The Midrash notes that Lot’s expression ‘my roof’ implies that his wife had protested their presence and Lot sheltered them in his portion of the house.
19:9 To Lot’s offer of his daughters, the Sodomites calmly answered “Stand Back!” but to his attempt to be protective of the strangers – in defiance of every Sodomite law against hospitality – they responded ‘This fellow came to stay temporarily…” (Rashi)
Based on the Midrash interpretation: ‘You wish to destroy the judgments of your predecessors who forbade hospitality?’ Therefore saying ‘…and he would re-judge the judgments…’ ~ condemning them and introducing new ones. For the Sodomites made an agreement among themselves that whenever a stranger visited them, they should force them to submit to sodomy and rob him of his money.
“..upon the man, upon Lot,” – the undertone of ‘man’, one whom they themselves had proclaimed a magistrate over them, nevertheless, they pressed exceedingly upon him, and approached to break the door.
19:10 “The men stretched out their hand..” – This was measure for measure. When Lot had invited them into his home, he extended his hand to them and provided for their safety. Now they reciprocated by extending a hand to protect him. (Midrash)
“..closed the door.” – So that in trying continuously to find the entrance until they exhausted themselves (v11), the Sodomites would demonstrate how utterly dedicated they were to wickedness.
19:11 “..both small and great..’ the small (the young) had initiated the wrongdoing, as it is said in verse 4 ‘from young to old’. Therefore, they are mentioned here first – they are the first to be punished. (Midrash; Rashi)
Though stricken with blindness, they still did not redirect their efforts and cease their evil plan. Though blind they stilled sought the door, vainly trying to gain entrance.
19:12 The wickedness of the Sodomites had become irreversible and their doom is announced to Lot. (Hoffman)
Rashi explains that Lot had four daughters: two of whom were engaged and still lived in his home and two who were married and no longer lived with him. It is apparently necessary to so interpret because in verse 8, Lot describes his daughters who ‘have never known a man,’ while here sons-in-law are mentioned. Apparently then there were sons-in-law who married to other daughters and ‘betrothed suitors’ to the two who were with Lot at home.
19:13 Ramban’s explanation in verse 5 was that although there were other very wicked nations on earth, they were not as severely punished as Sodom. This is because Sodom was part of Eretz Yisrael which, as God’s heritage could not tolerate such a abominations in its midst… and it was also God’s purpose to make it an example to the children of Israel who were to inherit it as it says (Deuteronomy 29:17-24) “Lest there be among you….whose heart turns from Hashem our God… Hashem will not spare him… and shall blot his name from under the heaven… The land shall be brimstone and salt and burning… like the overthrown Sodom and Amorrah, Admah, and Zaboiim which Hashem overthrew in His anger. (Tur)
“..because we are about..” – The Midrash comments that for revealing God’s secret and intimating that they were going to destroy the place, the ministering angels were banished from their abode in the Divine presence for a period of 138 years (until they re-ascended at Beer Sheba in Jacob’s dream. These were the angels who Jacob saw ascending the ladder to return to their sacred precincts.)
The calculation is as follows: The overthrow of Sodom took place when Abraham was 99 years old. He lived until 175, leaving 76 years until his death. Jacob was 77 when he saw the dream, making a total of 153. Deduct the 15 years that Jacob lived during Abraham’s lifetime (Jacob was born when Abraham was 160) and that leaves a total of 138 years from the overthrow of Sodom until Jacob’s dream.
“..Hashem has therefore sent us..” – Having initially intimated that they were going to destroy the city – thus ascribing the act to themselves – they were now required to admit that the matter was not I their control but in Hashem’s, and that they were but His emissaries. Therefore, they restated the fact and said ‘Hashem has sent us to destroy it.”
It is significant that in the whole story God is called Hashem – the Name signifying His Attribute of Mercy and His care for the future of mankind. It was in His Attribute of Mercy that He decreed the destruction of Sodom. To such depravity, complete annihilation itself is an act of merciful love [for Mankind]. (Hirsch)
19:14 Lot’s initiative to his sons-in-law rather than to his daughters does not indicate an indifference to them. In the Middle East more than anywhere else, a woman becomes totally subservient to her husband from the time of her marriage. By the nature of the relationship, Lot could only speak to the husbands.
But Lot’s sons-in-law laughed at him and their dialogue apparently continued until dawn when the angels rushed him and permitted him to take only those who were at hand. However, Lot’s merit would have been sufficient – had they not laughed and run out of time – to save his entire family.
Lot referred to God destroying the city by His name ‘Hashem’ – which indicates His Attribute of Mercy. They therefore did not take Lot seriously because, they reasoned, ‘shall Hashem in His Mercy destroy a city?’ But indeed it is so, for ‘the wicked turn the Attribute of Mercy into the Attribute of strict Justice.
Note: Lot did not attribute the impending destruction to angels but to God Himself. His sons-in-law laughed because unlike an angelic Destroyer who does not distinguish between the good and the wicked, God does distinguish. Therefore, they reasoned that if God Himself was the destroyer, any attempt to escape would be futile for He would find them wherever they might flee, while if He wished to spare them, they would remain in the midst of the city and no harm would befall them. Therefore, they looked at him as foolish to suggest that they flee.
They did not realize however that the target of destruction was the city as an organized society that has selfishness and cruelty at the base of its social order. Therefore, those who escaped before the destruction would not be overtaken but would be judged on their own merit. Furthermore, while the Attribute of Mercy decreed the destruction, the execution of the decree was through an angel.
19:15 According to the Midrash, the angels waited until dawn when the Sodomites began to awake so Lot could depart in full view of them all.
Now that their true mission has been revealed, they are referred to as ‘angels’ for the first time since their arrival. (Ralbag)
The salvation of Lot’s immediate family was perhaps in reward for his hospitality as it is befitting for messengers to save their host and all his belongings, just as the messengers of Joshua similarly saved all the families of their hostess, Rehab (Joshua 6:23). As the Midrash notes: ‘Because Lot honored the angel by offering him hospitality, he accordingly befriended Lot.