We read in Parashat Lekh-Lekha of the fight that erupted between Avraham’s shepherds and those of his nephew, Lot, after they returned to Canaan from Egypt with great wealth. Avraham suggested that he and Lot part ways, and Lot chose to relocate in the Jordan River Valley. The Torah tells that whereas Avraham remained in the Canaanite hills, Lot settled in the cities in the valley, “va-ye’ehal ad Sedom” – “and he pitched his tent until Sedom” (13:12).
Rashi explains this phrase as a reference to tents which Lot pitched for his shepherds and herds. It seems likely that Rashi’s intent is that Lot himself lived in the city of Sedom, and he pitched tents “ad Sedom” – near the city – for his flocks and the shepherds tending to them. Rashi felt compelled to arrive at this interpretation because we know from later verses that Lot resided in Sedom, not near Sedom. When the four kingdoms plundered Sedom and its surrounding cities, taking the residents – including Lot – as captives, the Torah writes explicitly that Lot was living in Sedom (“ve-hu yosheiv bi-Sdom” – 14:12). Moreover, when the two angels arrived in Sedom, Lot approached them and invited them into his home, clearly indicating that he lived not near Sedom, but in Sedom. Therefore, Rashi felt that when the Torah speaks of Lot pitching his tent “until Sedom,” it must mean not that his home was “until Sedom,” but rather that he pitched tents outside the city for his cattle and shepherds.
Malbim explains differently, understanding this verse to mean that Lot’s migration occurred in several different stages. In describing Lot’s decision of where to live, the Torah (13:10) does not say that Lot chose Sedom, but rather that he desired the “kikar ha-Yardein” – the Jordan River Valley. Malbim understood that Lot did not initially plan on moving to Sedom, because he was aware of the corrupt nature of the city’s population. Rather, his plan was to live in isolation elsewhere in the valley. At a later stage, however, Lot journeyed away from his original location (“va-yisa Lot mi-kedem” – 13:11), and settled “be-arei ha-kikar,” in the towns in the valley (13:12), and eventually, “va-ye’ehal ad Sedom” – he ended up settling in Sedom. According to Malbim, then, Lot’s transition from living with his righteous uncle to living among the wicked people of Sedom unfolded incrementally, in several stages, and this is the meaning of the phrase “va-ye’ehal ad Sedom.”
Somewhat similarly, Rabbeinu Efrayim writes that Lot initially settled outside the city of Sedom, until he received permission to join the city. And thus the Torah tells, “va-ye’ehal ad Sedom,” that he arrived near Sedom, without actually moving into the city, as it was only later that he was accepted as a resident of Sedom.
Chizkuni advances a much different approach, claiming that Lot did not, in fact, live in Sedom, but rather settled just outside the city, and this is the meaning of the phrase, “va-ye’ehal ad Sedom.” For this reason, Chizkuni writes, the Torah later (19:1) tells that when the two angels arrived in Sedom, “ve-Lot yosheiv be-sha’ar Sedom” – Lot resided “in the gate of Sedom.” According to Chizkuni, this means that Lot’s home was situated in the area of the gate, just outside the city. He explains that although Lot wished to enjoy the material benefits of the prosperous Jordan River Valley region, he did not want to reside among the wicked people of Sedom, and so he settled just outside the city. As for the Torah’s description of Lot residing in Sedom at the time of the city’s plundering by the four kings, Chizkuni (14:12) explains that due to the war situation, Lot entered the city for safety. The Torah mentions that Lot was residing in Sedom at the time of the plundering precisely because he normally did not live in the city, but he went inside the gate into the city hoping to find refuge from the approaching armies of the four kings. After he was captured and then freed by Avraham, he returned to his home by the city gate.