What About Lot?
What can be said about the moral character of Lot? Was he a good man, or not?
Conflicting traditions: one says Lot was righteous and pious and wise, while another says Lot was, in the words of Philo, "an unsteady and indecisive person," and was further corrupted by his residence in wicked Sodom. For a survey of traditional interpreters on this subject, see James Kugel, The Bible As It Was, pp. 181-185.
How could anyone claim that Lot was a righteous man? For example, the New Testament makes an extravagant claim for Lot: "And [God] rescued righteous Lot, who was distressed by the indecent conduct of the lawless, for by what that righteous man saw and heard while dwelling among them, his righteous soul was tormented day after day by their lawless deeds." (2 Peter 2:7-8) Note the triple reference to Lot as righteous.
I can see at least 4 reasons for this claim:
(1) Abraham's argument focused on the number of righteous in the city of Sodom (Gen. 18:23-32), so if Lot was rescued it may mean he was considered one of the righteous. However, see the Talmud’s view of Lot below.
(2) Lot shows kindness and hospitality to the strangers, in contrast to the inhospitable behavior shown by "all the men" of Sodom.
(3) Lot appealed to his neighbors, "Don't do this wicked thing." (Gen. 19:7)
(4) The story of Lot's rescue may be compared to Noah's ark, so perhaps we are to understand that Lot, like Noah, was a righteous man surrounded by the wicked.
But Lot does not fare so well in the Talmud:
For Lot and his wife two blessings are said. For his wife we say, "Blessed be the true Judge", and for Lot we say, "Blessed be he who remembers the righteous". R. Yohanan said: Even in the hour of his anger the Holy One, blessed be he, remembers the righteous, as it says, “And it came to pass when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, that God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow…” (Gen. 19:29)
That is, Lot was rescued on account of Abraham’s righteousness, not his own. The Talmud also squarely blames Lot for the incest with his daughters (Nazir 23a, Horayot 10b). This seems to me a more accurate view of Lot than the New Testament’s concern for “his righteous soul.” When it came time to leave the city of Sodom, Lot “hesitated” so that the angels were obliged to drag him out of the city (Gen. 19:16). Even then he was not willing to seek refuge in the hills, but bargained for a more comfortable solution.
So what about Lot? Lot may be compared to the average American today, caught in an immoral, wicked society but not willing to leave its enticements behind. He is pressured (cf. Gen. 19:9b) to tolerate and even sanction the “alternative lifestyles” of his fellow citizens. And he stays close by, in the vicinity of the culture of inclusion. Neither righteous nor wicked, he is just an average guy.
That is why God can take pity (chem’lah) on Lot and his family. (Gen. 19:16) In the Hebrew Scriptures God does not show pity or compassion to the wicked, to those who are outwardly rebellious against him. But he may show pity to those who, like Lot, are not entirely righteous either. “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord on those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he is mindful that we are dust.” (Ps. 103:13-14) “Their heart was not steadfast toward him, and they were not faithful in his covenant. Yet he, compassionate, atoned for iniquity, and did not destroy; and often he restrained his anger, and did not arouse his entire wrath. He remembered that they were flesh, a passing breath that does not return.” (Ps. 78:37-39)
And that is the difference between Noah and Lot. Both found favor in the eyes of the Lord (Gen. 6:8, 19:19). But Noah was “a righteous man, blameless in his generation, and he walked with God.” (Gen. 6:9) He also “did according to all that God commanded him.” (Gen. 6:22, 7:5) Lot was just an average fellow, neither righteous nor wicked. He hesitated and hedged, yet he received God’s pity.
It has been taught: R. Jose the Galilean says, The righteous are judged [or swayed] by their good inclination, as it says, “My heart [i.e., evil inclination] is slain within me.” (Ps. 109:22) The wicked are judged by their evil inclination, as it says, “Transgression speaks to the wicked, within my heart, there is no fear of God before his eyes.” (Ps. 36:2 MT) Average people are judged by both inclinations, as it says, “For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him from those [i.e., his two inclinations] who judge his soul.” (Ps. 109:31)
[For additional references on the Talmudic use of the intermediate category of average or ordinary, see Shabbat 152b, Yoma 75a-b, Sukkah 28a, and Ta’anit 11a.]