So Abram said to Lot, “Please let there be no strife between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brethern. Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me. If you take the left, then I will go to the right; or, if you go to the right, then I will go to the left.”
And Lot lifted his eyes and saw all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere (before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah) like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt as you go towards Zoar.
Then Lot chose for himself all the plain of Jordan, and Lot journeyed east. And they separated from each other.
Abram dwelt in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain and pitched his tent even as far as Sodom. But the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the LORD.
Genesis 13: 8-13
Imagine yourself standing there with a choice spread before you, a choice in the form of the unfolding land. Which way do you go – to the right or to the left? It’s a little like those “choose your own adventure” books – if right, turn to page 34, if left, turn to page 75. When I read about Lot’s choice, I always feel like the question was a trick question. It’s like a fairy tale, in which you know the obvious answer is the wrong one – like Portia’s caskets in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Of course you wouldn’t choose silver and gold — of course you choose lead. That’s the logic of a fairy tale. It’s like a child growing up, developing a theory of mind. If the other person always takes the thing you want when you tell them that’s the one you want, you can trick that person if you say the exact opposite – but only if you grasp the concept that what’s in your mind stays private, that it isn’t common knowledge to that other person. In a way the choice here is completely transparent: the obvious choice is always the wrong answer, so you choose the bad side. But this isn’t a sphinx’s question; it isn’t a riddle or a test. It isn’t that you can game God, can guess the right answer by second-guessing him. The narrative logic of those tales is that appearance does not line up with reality, so it is better to choose the ugly, the plain, the quotidian, over the shiny surface. But behind Lot’s gaze is a far deeper tragedy, a tragedy that points us back in time to a reality where appearance did line up with reality, but which is now lost.
There is a hidden little mystery in the middle of these verses that gets lost in the usual sermons about it, and it comes from a tiny turn of phrase when Lot lifts his eyes up – “it was well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt as you go towards Zoar.” Lot looks on the beautiful land and compares it to two places: the Garden of Eden, and Egypt. The land is a dream of sufficiency, of sustainability: it waters itself, it is lush and fertile and green. There is something terrible about the comparison to that lost garden, a primeval nostalgia for a Golden Age, for a place and time Lot has never seen. it is a longing for a place where want is not the norm, where abundance is all – materially and spiritually, where we may plunge our faces in the water with no fear of danger, and drink.
We, too, have these visions: they stare at us from the happy glow of condominium advertisements, where the rooms are fresh and minimalist and the paint is perpetually new. Philip Larkin puts it best:
In frames as large as rooms that face all ways
And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,
Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise
Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon, shine
Perpetually these sharply-pictured groves
Of how life should be. High above the gutter
A silver knife sinks into golden butter,
A glass of milk stands in a meadow, and
Well-balanced families, in fine
Midsummer weather, owe their smiles, their cars,
Even their youth, to that small cube each hand
Stretches towards. These, and the deep armchairs
Aligned to cups at bedtime, radiant bars
(Gas or electric), quarter-profile cats
By slippers on warm mats,
Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares
They dominate outdoors. Rather, they rise
Serenely to proclaim pure crust, pure foam,
Pure coldness to our live imperfect eyes
That stare beyond this world, where nothing’s made
As new or washed quite clean, seeking the home
All such inhabit. There, dark raftered pubs
Are filled with white-clothed ones from tennis-clubs,
And the boy puking his heart out in the Gents
Just missed them, as the pensioner paid
A halfpenny more for Granny Graveclothes’ Tea
To taste old age, and dying smokers sense
Walking towards them through some dappled park
As if on water that unfocused she
No match lit up, nor drag ever brought near,
Who now stands newly clear,
Smiling, and recognising, and going dark.
The tragedy is that Sodom is not Eden, that in this disordered world there is no Eden. You see, the thing that made Eden the Garden of the Lord is the Lord – and that is precisely what is missing in the land. The nostalgia is a barren pointer, and the land’s beauty no longer a barometer for His presence. Rather, the scruffy, drought-and-famine-prone land to the left is the only land where God will be called upon, because sadly, only in those conditions will humans continually miss, and therefore, call upon Him. Lot compares Sodom to Egypt, the land Abram and he had just left behind, beating an ignomious exit (after the pretending Sarai-was-his-sister fiasco) – a land Abram had fled to without Godly orders in the face of famine. A self-sufficient land: the promise of a perpetual motion machine, a place that does not require the constant, humbling supplication for bare survival.
But we are barely surviving as it is. Glutted on the ridiculous visions of happiness just beyond our grasp, requiring only another ounce of “work harder”, we are starving for an Eden that has really already arrived. The Lord is the living, invisible water that courses through that dry land. If we could lift our eyes and see that!