What makes the biblical texts so fascinating is – among other things – the fact that they are characterized by great intentionality. Every word and phrase is there for a reason and has been purposefully placed in a certain position in the text. This is true not only for individual passages, but also for collections of texts such as biblical books. It is therefore absolutely worthwhile to trace a certain word or phrase through an entire book and note possible patterns that emerge. An example I came across recently is the term “cave” in Genesis. A quick search in a concordance or Bible software program reveals that this term occurs eleven times in the book. The first occurrence is in Gen 19:30 where Lot and his two daughters leave the city of Zoar and move to a cave in the mountains. The other ten occurrences are found in Gen 23, 25, 49 and 50 and all describe the cave of Machpelah which Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite. Thus there are two caves in Genesis: the cave of Lot and his family and the cave of Abraham and his family. This is interesting in light of the fact that the author of Genesis seems to be comparing and contrasting the two men throughout the Abraham narrative in Gen 12-25. A careful look at the eleven “cave passages” suggests that they, too, highlight the contrast between Lot and Abraham.
While the cave of Abraham and his family is mentioned multiple times and seems to play an important role for the family even after the death of Abraham, the cave of Lot and his family is mentioned only once and forcefully illustrates the change of Lot’s fortunes. The once wealthy man who dwelled in the cities of the plain (Gen 13:12; 19:29) has lost everything save his two daughters with whom he must take refuge in a cave because he is afraid to live in Zoar (Gen 19:30). Yet in an ironic twist this place of refuge becomes a place of shame as Lot’s own daughters make him drunk and become pregnant from their father (note the repetition of the terms “father” and “to lie (with)” throughout the story in vv. 30-38). Seeing no other way out of their dilemma the daughters take matters into their own hands in order to preserve Lot’s lineage. Thus they exhibit the same attitude as their father who chose for himself the whole plain (Gen 13:11).
Abraham, on the other hand, waits on God in chapter 13, whereupon he is given the promise that he and his descendants will possess the whole land (Gen 13:15-17). In contrast to Lot, Abraham does not flee to a cave in fear after the death of his wife, but legally buys one from the Hittites in order to ensure that his wife will receive a proper and honorable burial. The purchase is significant, for the piece of land on which the cave is situated, is the first property Abraham owns in Canaan and is thus closely connected to the divine promise of chapter 13. At the same time the story in Gen 23 not only shows how wealthy Abraham is but also how much the sons of Heth respect him, again contrasting him to Lot who is ridiculed and threatened by the men of Sodom (Gen 19:9). And while Lot’s two daughters sleep with him in the cave, the two sons of Abraham bury him in the cave when he dies (Gen 25:8-9). While the story of Lot thus closes on a sordid and shameful note as his daughters fail to put their hope in God, Abraham’s story ends with rest and honor as well as with hope and faith in God’s promise that Abraham’s seed (which God miraculously provided for him!) will one day possess the land.