Parashat Vayera: The Messiah’s roots in illicit sexual relationships

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, contains a very odd story often neglected in discussion because the blockbuster stories in the parasha (akedat Yitzchak [the binding of Isaac], the destruction of S’dom and Amorah, and the exile of Hagar among them) usually take up all the airspace available in divrei Torah on any given year. The story I speak of follows the destruction of the cities of S’dom and Amorah. Lot and his two daughters have escaped the destruction unlike Lot’s wife who turned into a pillar of salt. The Torah teaches (Genesis Chap. 19:30-38):
And Lot went up out of Zoar, and lived in the mountain and his two daughters with him; for he feared to live in Zoar; and he lived in a cave, he and his two daughters. And the firstborn 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 seed of our father.

At this point, I am already thinking “Whhaaaaaaat?  Their city has been destroyed and this is the first order of business?  Even if they really DID believe that they were the last people on the entire planet, would this be a good plan?  I try to put myself into their shoes and imagine the scenario.  What would I do?  And I conclude “Ich.  Nope.  I wouldn’t do it.”  But wait, it gets better.  
And they made their father drink wine that night; and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.  And it came to pass on the next day, that the firstborn said to the younger, Behold, I lay last night with my father; let us make him drink wine this night also; and you go in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.  And they made their father drink wine that night also; and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father.  And the firstborn bore a son, and called his name Moab; the same is the father of the Moabites to this day.  And the younger, she also bore a son, and called his name Ben-ammi; the same is the father of the Ammonites to this day.  

Not only do Lot’s daughters go through with their curious plan, they both become pregnant with the progenitors of some of Israel’s enemy nations.  But it’s a bit more complicated than that.  Because we learn in the Book of Ruth that the Mashiach (Messiah) will eventually come from the line of David, who comes from the line of Ruth, who is—that’s right—from the line of one of Lot’s daughters.  Ruth’s husband Boaz also has an odd, sexually-charged story in his lineage.  It is that of Tamar, who seduced her father-in-law by disguising herself as a prostitute.  As if it wasn’t strange enough to encounter the story of Lot’s daughters, it becomes even weirder when we learn that the Mashiach will ultimately come from this encounter.  I searched for answers.

Chazal (our sages of blessed memory) praise Lot’s daughters for their behavior.  This is somewhat uncharacteristic as many of our interpretive texts paint the intentions of women to the negative, not to the positive.  Genesis Rabba 51:8 gives the daughters the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their stated belief: “They believed that the entire world had been destroyed, as in the generation of the flood.”   Similarly, even though relations between father and daughter are punishable by death according to the Torah, “The Holy One, blessed be He, knew their honest minds and good thoughts and rewarded them for their actions.” (Pesikta Rabbati 42)  

The Talmud goes so far to praise their behavior:  “A person should always be quick to do a mitzvah. Because Lot's older daughter preceded (having sexual relations with Lot) one night before her sister, she merited that her descendants joined [the people of] Yisrael four generations earlier. (Nazir 23b) This refers to Obed, Jesse, David and Solomon who came through the line of Ruth who was from the line of older daughter; while Rehoboam was a son of Naamah, who was from the line of the younger daughter.

None of these explanations were satisfactory to me, because they simply accept the story and the daughters’ altruistic motives at face value, while to me, the story is puzzling at best, if not disturbing.  A quick tour of the internet led me to a few modern commentaries.  An Orthodox rabbi, Dr. Meir Levin (faculty of Ohr- Someach Tannenbaum Educational Institutions) writes:

Traces of their Moabite heritage were a stumbling block for David and Solomon. Their task was to wholly purify themselves from the daughters of Lot within. Solomon married many wives and they turned his heart away from Hashem. Moabite lust destroyed the lives of David's other descendants: Adonijah, Amnon, and Absalom. David himself was tested in trials of Michal, Abigail and, of course, Bathsheba. Knowing his background, we can appreciate his ultimate success in overcoming temptation even more.
Rabbi Levin’s article in a larger sense is on the theme of redemption and how the Mashiach, who will be the ultimate redeemer, comes from many stories of personal and national redemption.  For me, this was meaningful insomuch as we learn that great people and great things can come from the most humble, or even the most corrupt beginnings.  

At the completely other end of the philosophical spectrum is an explanation by Rabbi Arthur Waskow a rabbinic leader associated with the Jewish Renewal movement.  He interprets the inclusion of licentious unions in the lineage of the Mashiach to mean that the Mashiach can only cure what he/she has somehow inherited.  He writes (full article here):

If Messiah is to redeem what is evil in the world and make it work for good, then the experience of such a redemption must have entered Messiah's inheritance.
If Messiah is to be made possible, then the tradition itself says that what is most frightening to the tradition must be lifted into consciousness, faced-and redeemed. And the redemptive process cannot be left until the end of days: it must be happening along the way. The worst nightmares of the Jewish men who rule and write the tradition seem to be assertive womanhood, idolatry, and unbridled sexuality. But even these nightmares must be faced-so the story of Ruth performs a kind of collective psychoanalysis.

Despite their incredibly different approaches to Jewish life and thought, both of these rabbis are pointing to a deeper meaning in the Mashiach’s roots in illicit sexual relationships.  Someday, somehow, we will all reach redemption.  But the path is never easy, not on a personal level and not on a national level.  We do, at some point, all have to face our demons.  But the lineage of Mashiach is showing us that no matter how low we have fallen (because, really, how much lower can you go than parent/child incest?) there is always a beacon of hope.  Perhaps those that fall the lowest will be precisely those that eventually rise to the highest heights.  Shabbat Shalom.