Avraham’s early days in Israel are beset by challenges. After being forced to flee to Egypt in order to avoid a famine, he returns to an internal split within his own family.
(ה) וְגַם לְלוֹט הַהֹלֵךְ אֶת אַבְרָם הָיָה צֹאן וּבָקָר וְאֹהָלִים. (ו) וְלֹא נָשָׂא אֹתָם הָאָרֶץ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו כִּי הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו. (ז) וַיְהִי רִיב בֵּין רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה אַבְרָם וּבֵין רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה לוֹט וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי אָז יֹשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ. (ח) וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֶל לוֹט אַל נָא תְהִי מְרִיבָה בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ וּבֵין רֹעַי וּבֵין רֹעֶיךָ כִּי אֲנָשִׁים אַחִים אֲנָחְנוּ. (ט) הֲלֹא כׇל הָאָרֶץ לְפָנֶיךָ הִפָּרֶד נָא מֵעָלָי אִם הַשְּׂמֹאל וְאֵימִנָה וְאִם הַיָּמִין וְאַשְׂמְאִילָה. (בראשית יג:ה-ט)
(5) Lot also, who went with Avram, had flocks, and herds, and tents. (6) The land was not able to bear them, that they might live together: for their substance was great, so that they could not live together. (7) There was a strife between the shepherds of Avram’s livestock and the shepherds of Lot’s livestock: and the Canaanite and the Perizzite lived in the land at that time. (8) Avram said to Lot, “Please, let there be no strife between me and you, and between my shepherds and your shepherds; for we are relatives. (9) Is not the whole land before you? Please separate yourself from me. If you go to the left hand, then I will go to the right. Or if you go to the right hand, then I will go to the left.” (Bereishit 13:5-9).
The episode is puzzling. Why did Avraham and Lot, his nephew and brother-in-law, argue (at least by proxy, via their shepherds)? And why does verse 7 seem to link the quarrel with the placement in the land of Canaanites and Perizzites? (The reference to the Canaanites seems not only to be out of place but also superfluous, given that their presence has already been described in 12:6)
One approach to this pair of questions is straightforward; there was limited pastureland available, especially when divided between the two sets of flocks (as implied in verse 6) and this caused an argument over the limited resources. The significance of the Canaanites and Perizzites was that these tribes had already taken their share of the land, leaving even less for Avraham and Lot. This is the view of the Hizkuni (13th century France).
But Rashi (11th century France) introduces more of a “back story” that underlies the dispute.
יהי ריב – לפי שהיו רועיו של לוט רשעים ומרעין בהמתן בשדות אחרים, ורועי אברהם מוכיחין אותן על הגזל, והן אומרים: נתנה הארץ לאברהם ולו אין יורש ולוט יורשו, ואין זה גזל. והכתוב אומר: והכנעני אז בארץ, ולא זכה בה אברהם עדיין.
There was a quarrel because Lot's shepherds were wicked and grazed their cattle in other people's fields. Avraham's shepherds rebuked them for an act of robbery, but they replied, "The land has been given to Avraham, and since he has no son as heir, Lot will be his heir: therefore this is not robbery". The verse states: "The Canaanite and the Perizzite lived then in the land", and Avraham had not yet merited (to inherit the land).
Thus for Rashi, the argument was about two worldviews. Even though Lot’s shepherds attempted as defence of their actions (and significantly did not just steal the land that they used), this justification - that the land would belong to them in the future and therefore they could use it now - did not pass Avraham’s test of strict integrity.
Rashi derives his conclusion from the need to explain the relevance of the Canaanites that are mentioned in the verse. Rav Soloveitchik (20th century America) uses context and logic to reach a similar conclusion, and also rejects the notion that the disagreement was merely about pasture:
"And the land did not bear them to dwell together. No feud, let alone one between people of higher caliber like Abraham and Lot, is precipitated by a mere shortage of pasture. After all, each had money, and they could have bought more land; surely there was enough for sale. The trouble was that Abraham and Lot could not dwell together spiritually. "Abraham and Lot did not have their old mutual respect and appreciation. The harmony was somehow affected in Egypt. Lot now had different ideas and different dreams." (Abraham’s Journey, p.123)
Nechama Leibowitz (20th century, Israel) suggests that this divergence between the characters of Avraham and Lot can be plotted as we read through the text. When they journeyed together to Israel we read:
וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת לוֹט בֶּן אָחִיו וְאֶת כׇּל רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן ... (בראשית יב:ה)
Avram took Sarai his wife, Lot his brother’s son, all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls whom they had gotten in Haran, and they went to go into the land of Canaan.. (Bereishit 12:5)
The party travels with Avraham and Sarah at the head, followed by Lot, followed by their property.
But on their return from Egypt, the order has changed.
וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכׇל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ הַנֶּגְבָּה. (בראשית יג:א)
Avram went up out of Egypt: he, his wife, all that he had, and Lot with him, to the South.(Bereishit 13:1)
Now the property comes between Avraham and Lot. Is this because of a distancing between uncle and nephew? We can even suggest that Lot’s original position in the caravan means that his gaze falls upon Avraham, his mentor and inspiration. But after spending time in Egypt, his eyes are now fixed only at the wealth that Avraham has acquired. As the saying goes, you can take the lad out of Egypt, but you cannot take Egypt - with its decadence and materialism - out of the lad.
Thus it is appropriate that Lot’s further descent is characterised by his choice of locale. He chooses to go to Sodom, even though
וְאַנְשֵׁי סְדֹם רָעִים וְחַטָּאִים לַה׳ מְאֹד. (בראשית יג:יג)
The men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinners against Hashem..(Bereishit 13:13)
What could have attracted Lot to such a den of iniquity? When Avraham insists that they separate:
וַיִּשָּׂא לוֹט אֶת עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת כׇּל כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן כִּי כֻלָּהּ מַשְׁקֶה לִפְנֵי שַׁחֵת יְהֹוָה אֶת סְדֹם וְאֶת עֲמֹרָה כְּגַן ה׳ כְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם ...(בראשית יג:י)
Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well-watered everywhere, before Hashem destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of Hashem, like the land of Egypt, (Bereishit 13:10)
Lot chooses to go to Sodom precisely because it resembled Egypt!
Lot’s descent is total. His stay in Egypt fills him with a desire for wealth; his shepherds are prepared to cut corners - i.e. steal - from their neighbours; Lot settles in Sodom, his own mini-Egypt, where exploiting the vulnerable is the norm.
Lot and Avraham commenced their journey together. But now they have parted. Avraham continues on a path to glory, while Lot’s trajectory leads him to a dismal cave and a drunken seduction by his own daughters, after which he disappears from history (Bereishit 19:30-38).
But one question remains. Avraham’s tent was open wide. All were welcome, even those who worshipped the dust of their feet (see Rashi on Bereishit 18:4). Why was there no room for Lot? Why did Avraham not let Lot stay and learn right from wrong?
The Emek Davar (19th century Lithuania) explains that Lot’s actions created a חילול השם - a desecration of Hashem’s name. The Canaanites and Perizites are mentioned in the verse precisely because Avraham feared that they would hear of Lot’s behaviour, and they would perceive that as a contradiction to the noble ideals and holiness of Avraham’s household.
Avraham’s mission was to make great the name of Hashem, to teach mankind the way of honesty and righteousness (see Bereishit 18:19). We, his descendants continue to be charged with this task. Then, as now, there could be no place for dishonesty, for skirting the rules, for creating a חילול השם. Lot had to go.