The Lot–Sodomski Family portrait: Consanguinity and Conflagration

The Lot–Sodomski Family portrait: Consanguinity and Conflagration
Type: Oil
Dimensions: Width/Height (in inches) 60/48
Year: 2006

This painting portrays the complex family history of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, the once upon a time, happy resident of the beautiful land of Sodom. His family consists of his wife, his two daughters, and his two sons/grandsons. The painting meshes multiple time frames of this biblical story into one image. The fulcrum around which this painting begins to turn is the parting of the ways between Lot and Abraham, when Lot chooses to reside in Sodom because of its geographically appealing advantages. Subsequently, Abraham and Sara are visited by three angels who convey the news that Isaac will be born to carry on their heritage. G-d then confides in Abraham that because of the absolute corruption of Sodom and Gomorrah, he will utterly destroy them.

Abraham, in a biblical first, poignantly challenges G-d. He pleads for mercy, and bargains for the lives of these targeted people, thus attempting to soften and to humanize G-d. Abraham, after excusing himself for being mere dust and ashes, humbly appeals to G-d with the pontificating words “Woe unto you, the judge (Shofet) of the land, if you do not execute justice (mishpat)”. In this painting these words are written on top of the cave opening where Lot’s family resides. Abraham further challenges G-d’s morality by pleading him with the words “will you include the righteous with the wicked (in your plans for destruction)?” These words are written in blue Hebrew within the cave above Lot. Then, Abraham, in typical market bargaining style begins a moral dialectic within the context of an ethical business transaction asking G-d whether he would still destroy the entire population if there existed within them fifty righteous men. “No”, answers G-d, “for the sake of fifty righteous men I will forgive them all”. The bargaining give and take lowers the price of redemption to forty five, forty, thirty, twenty and finally ten righteous men. God agrees that if there is a quorum of righteous men, he would abstain from utter destruction. Upon arrival at that number, he abruptly ends the discussion, and will bargain no more. In this painting, G-d’s answer to each of these numerical bargaining questions is written on the left and right hand sides of the cave. Each lower number ascends higher on the cave wall. Thus the spirit and presence of God and Abraham’s ascending dialectic, precipitating and driving the events portrayed in this painting, are conveyed with words and not images.

Needless to say, there were not ten good men; therefore, two out of three angels that visited Abraham are now off to Sodom and Gomorrah to utterly destroy them. For Abraham’s sake, the angels stop off at Sodom, and warn Lot that he should take his family and escape before it’s too late. After “hesitating” (“Vayismahmeya”, written above Lot’s head in red with a cantillation “shalshelesh”, indicating the drama and length of the hesitation) Lot gathers his wife and two daughters, and escapes to Tzoarah (root word is tsar: pain). The two angels, who are portrayed on top of the painting, tell Lot and his family not to look backwards, lest they be harmed. Lot’s wife does not heed this advice, and as soon as she looks back is turned into a pillar of salt. She is portrayed to the right in the painting, frozen in position, turned into a pillar of salt as she is looking back. In the background to the left and right of the cave are strewn multiple corpses, partly aflame from the fire and brimstone rained down by G-d via the two angels. The angels are portrayed creating a scintillating ball of fire together with their combined four hands forming a tetrad, (symbolizing the tetragramaton) which are extended and joined in priestly benediction (obscured by the fire). This is a cherubic image with two angels, betwixt whom G-d’s voice emanates from, in this case the voice of fire, power and destruction. Written within the fire are the words in Hebrew “Fire and Brimstone from the heavens”. The multiple orange spiral sparks in the painting are the descending fire and brimstone which utterly destroy Sodom, leaving a corpse-drenched, and scorched earth in its wake. Written in Hebrew on the left and right upper backgrounds are the words “and the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah were great, and their sins were very heavy”.

Lot, after losing his wife, proceeds to Tzoarah, and from there to a cave, seeking protection from utter destruction. In these surroundings his daughters, reared in Sodom, believe they are the last survivors on earth. To save the human race, the eldest daughter suggests to the younger daughter that they take turns in getting their father drunk at night, so that they may preserve his seed. Their plan is successful, and two sons are sired. One son is called Moab, meaning “from my father”. The other is named “Ben-Ami”, meaning “son of my nation”. Situated comfortably in their cave while the world is literally going up in flames around them is Lot , seated and probably inebriated, surrounded by his daughters and his two sons/grandsons near his lap. The daughter to his left, his oldest, is caressing a jug of wine which was used to inebriate him. She is leaning gently and somewhat seductively on her son “Moab” (which is written in Hebrew on his belt). There is a subtle implication that she is as capable of seducing her son as she is of her father. His other daughter is leaning on him, and appears ambivalent about the whole affair. The son underneath her is “Ben-Ami” (which is written in Hebrew on his belt). Moab has three eyes, and six fingers per hand. Ben-Ami has large ears and spooned fingers. This represents the possible congenital effects on children of such a consanguineous relationship. On Lot’s belt, written in Yiddish are the words “the best of the Lot”, a pun on the word Lot, also ironically implying that this was the level of morality of the individuals who were saved, and nevertheless they were “the best of the lot”.

If we look carefully at the charred corpses in the background, they are somewhat similar in appearance to images of dead Holocaust victims. Indeed on a certain level, the mechanisms of death and destruction at Sodom and Auschwitz are quite analogous. SODOM: Death and destruction by fire and brimstone, absolutely almost no survivors, and no escape. “Behold, smoke arose from the land like the smoke from an oven” (written underneath the angels wing on the right). HOLOCAUST: Death and destruction by crematorium fire, almost no survivors, no escape, smoke arising to the heavens from ovens. To further draw parallels to this analogy, written on the top of the cave, are the words “Sheyris Hapleyta”, “Surviving refugees”, referring to Lot and his daughters and their children who survived Sodom’s destruction.

The biblical narrative portrayed in this painting gives rise to several moral conundrums. G-d promised not to destroy Sodom if there were ten good people. Thus by virtue of destroying Sodom, we know that nine righteous people are acceptable divine collateral damage. Furthermore, utter destruction of cities and /or peoples, according to this narrative, only takes place if the majority population is evil. We can thus surmise that other historical cases of utter destruction e.g. holocaust, tsunami, and hurricanes must be divinely ordained because the victims are evil. Had they not been evil, according to the Sodom narrative they would have been spared. The moral tale: Bad things happen to bad people. Good things happen to good people. This is why there are those who look for guilt in victims of mass destruction. However, this conundrum may be solved if we assume that after Sodom and Gomorrah, G-d had a learning curve.

To analyze this further we must go back to the prequel of the Sodom and Gomorrah story and then back again to its epilogue. In the prequel, prior to the destruction of Sodom, Abraham establishes a dialectic with G-d, an “I and Thou”, a moral give and take. G-d is ready to utterly destroy these cities no matter what. Abraham injects some compassion into the equation, and because of his involvement in the divine plan, G-d is willing to spare the town for ten good people. This is a significant divine moral leap compared to G-d’s last foray into utter destruction where he extinguished almost the entire known world in the Flood. In the prequel, Abraham is the good guy; God is the bad guy, turned good by Abraham.

We now turn to post-Sodom destruction. Abraham who so elegantly fought for the lives of evil strangers, when asked by his wife to get rid of Ishmael, and throw him into the desert, and when asked by G-d to sacrifice Isaac, there is neither a whisper nor a whimper of protest. For Abraham’s own flesh and blood, where’s the pleading, the bargaining? Don’t his kids rate? Absolute faith in G-d’s plan? Where was his absolute faith when pleading for the Sodomite strangers? In both cases of Ishmael and Isaac, even though God sanctions or orders these inhumane decrees, it is God who ultimately comes to the rescue and saves them. Here God is good, Abraham is bad, and turned good by G-d.

In the Sodom prequel, Abraham humanizes God. Abraham discovers monotheism. In the epilogue, G-d humanizes Abraham. God discovers monohumanism. Thus a moral equilibrium i.e. a covenant of mutually agreeable human and divine moral behavior is established, and carved into human flesh for all eternity. It turns out that individuals, good ones are worthy of divine redemption. As much as G-d tested Abraham with Isaac’s sacrifice, Abraham was certainly testing G-d, and was possibly thinking that G-d would come through, and in fact he did. Based on this new post-Sodom, biblical moral equilibrium, mass destruction may not necessarily be the consequence of group evil. It may merely be the consequence of random natural events unrelated to individual or group morality. Individuals such as Isaac, Abraham, and Ishmael, are judged as individuals, not as part of a greater whole. Who knows? But the nagging rhetorical plea bargaining of Abraham spoken to G-d , and written on the cave walls of this painting , still echoes and reverberates throughout time and space into the dark eras of inquisitions, pogroms, holocausts and tsunamis; “Will you include the righteous with the wicked?” “It is forbidden to you, G-d, who is the judge of the earth not to practice justice.”