Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Revisiting Lot’s Wife

“But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.”

Wow. That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?

As a child, I certainly did. That image stuck in my head: righteous family fleeing from a condemned city, scrambling frantically for the shelter of the little town of Zoar, as instructed by angels. Then sulfur and fire begin falling from heaven.

And … poof! The wife takes one fleeting glance over her shoulder and gets incinerated.

Was God looking to make a point or something? As a believing youngster, I found it more than a little scary. And it raised very practical and personal questions, like “Is this sort of instant, inescapable judgment the type of thing I can expect from God if I slip up?”

Maybe, but a few of my assumptions as a child appear to have been a little off.

Bring On the Assumptions

And I’m not the only one to bring my assumptions to this Old Testament account. Writing for Ethics Daily, Professor Miguel De La Torre complains that “elaborate character portraits of Lot’s wife are constructed … to justify her demise”. That’s not untrue. From rabbinical tradition to evangelical Sunday School moralizing, I’ve heard ’em all where Lot’s wife is concerned.

However, as goofy and speculative as some of these portraits of Lot’s wife may be, they can’t hold a candle to the counter-speculations raised by De La Torre, who assumes without evidence that the patriarch Lot failed to tell his wife what was at stake, and that she was possibly a “victim of homicide”. He paints a picture of Lot’s wife as:

“… an invisible member within a patriarchal society, she probably did the wash with her neighbors — also nameless women. They might have been present when she twice gave birth, as she might have been when they gave birth to their own children.

She shared gossip and stories with them as she tended her garden, prepared meals or simply rested under the stars after a long day of heavy, menial work. The men of the city may all have been wicked, but these women with whom she shared a similar fate of patriarchal oppression, more than likely, were her friends.

Sodom, with all its imperfections, was her home — just like many of us have made our homes in the entrails of the empire. She might have looked back to see the life that would no longer follow the well-established rhythms of the everyday. She might have looked back to mourn friends swallowed up in God’s wrath who were now no more. She might have looked back to say adieu to all the daily rituals and routines that marked her life and provided meaning to her existence.

Who among us would not have also taken a peek, along with Lot’s wife and Abram? Those of us who have known exile, being cast from the land that witnessed our birth, are always in a quest to see the cause of our estrangement. Only then can we hope to find healing and create healthy, well-adjusted lives. We look back, lest we forget our identity.”

If you can’t successfully spot the agenda in that mess of progressive propaganda, you are probably still watching Leave It To Beaver reruns. There’s more unwarranted speculation in De La Torre’s four brief paragraphs than from everyone else I’ve read or heard comment on this passage combined.

So let’s try to avoid assumptions as much as possible, pro or con, and stick to the text.

The Things I Didn’t Notice

As a child, what did I miss here?

1/ It Wasn’t Necessarily a “Righteous Family”

First, we have zero evidence from anywhere in scripture that anyone but Lot was actually “righteous”. None. Mrs. Lot may have been a sweetheart, and a believing lady, but there is no proof whatsoever of that.

In fact, she was in all probability herself a native of Sodom. Scripture records the individuals that left Ur of the Chaldeans with Terah, and those that left Haran with Abram. While Abram’s wife is mentioned by name in both instances, Lot is never said to have a wife at either time. So he picked up his wife either in Egypt or Canaan; there are no other options I am aware of. If she was not a native of Sodom, she was at very least a pagan, which would certainly explain any ongoing interest she may have had in the welfare of Sodom and its people.

Further, as a child I assumed that because the discussion between Abraham and the Lord in chapter 18 involved not judging the righteous with the wicked, all those who left Sodom with Lot were of necessity righteous. But that is not the case. The angels who saved Lot did not require that those who were to leave with him to be righteous themselves in order to escape judgment. They said to him:

“Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city, bring them out of the place.”

God’s grace was such that even Lot’s unbelieving would-be sons-in-law would have been allowed to leave with him, but they were not willing. In fact, neither was anyone else: the angels had to seize them all by the hand and escort them out.

All to say, there is no scriptural evidence that anyone living in Sodom but Lot himself was righteous.

2/ God’s Patience and Grace

Second, speaking of that previous chapter of Genesis, it’s remarkable the grace extended to Lot’s wife and everyone else in Sodom by God, despite the men of Sodom being “great sinners against the Lord” about whom the “outcry” was great. God would have pardoned them all if fifty righteous could be found among them, or forty-five, or thirty, or twenty, or even ten. We cannot speculate about how much more grace God might have been willing to extend if Abraham had asked about five, or three, or even two, because he couldn’t bring himself to presume that much.

But when even the bargain basement standard of ten righteous could not be met, God still sent angels to extricate Lot, and with him as many as were willing to come. On top of that, when Lot delayed, God saved him in spite of himself. That’s astonishing. And furthermore, in direct contradiction of De La Torre’s accusation that information was somehow withheld from Lot’s wife, it appears the angels warned Lot in the presence of the entire family about the danger of looking back:

“And as they brought them out, one said, ‘Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away.’ ”

It occurs to me that after a display of grace on such a scale — not to mention the display of unbelief, reluctance and outright obstinacy from those for whom God had provided a way of escape — complaining about the death of anyone inside or outside Sodom seems a trifle unreasonable.

3/ It Wasn’t a Casual Glance

Third, Lot’s wife was NOT a victim of innocent curiosity. Bear in mind the following:

  • She was warned by angels of the danger of looking back. Hebrews tells us that the word of angels is notoriously reliable, and that disobeying it is cause for “a just retribution”. Lot’s wife was no more guilt-free in her choice than Eve was in hers.
  • When the Lord Jesus urges his disciples to “remember Lot’s wife”, he implies that she “turned back”, not just looked back.
  • Merely “looking” at the destruction of Sodom was not, in itself, a problem. Abraham did it and survived just fine. The problem was that in order to look, Lot’s wife had to deliberately put herself in danger.
  • The word translated “look” in Genesis primarily bears the meaning of “regard” or “look at steadfastly”. When God is enjoined to “look” on his people in the psalms, it is sometimes translated “consider” or “have respect”. In no instance does its usage imply a quick glance.
  • The Genesis account also says Lot’s wife was “behind him”. Lot (and presumably his two daughters, who survived with him) had already arrived at the city of Zoar, where he had been told they would be safe. Unless Lot was a complete cad, it was his wife’s deliberate choice to lag behind. But we are told by Peter that Lot was characteristically a “righteous man”. It would be a surprise to find that he had failed to prioritize the safety of his wife if he’d had any choice about it.
  • Leaving aside exactly how she became a pillar of salt, which is not described for us, had Lot’s wife been anywhere near Lot or her daughters, the same fate would surely have befallen them. It didn’t.

Whatever her motives may have been, the only logical conclusion is that Lot’s wife was some distance behind the others, and was there by her own choice. She had almost surely stopped. She may even have been hurrying back toward Sodom.

4/ Lot’s Wife Was Not Unambiguously “Punished By God”

Professor De La Torre concludes that “She looked and was swiftly punished by God”. He goes on to add this:

“This is one of those verses in Scripture that is profoundly disturbing, for it seems as if the God of Lot is not the merciful and forgiving God to whom we have become accustomed.”

If we had not seen the mercy of God displayed in Abraham’s conversation with the Lord in chapter 18, and if we had not read about the extravagant lengths to which God went to save not just Lot but his wife and extended family, we might be inclined to agree with De La Torre. As it is, I wonder if we are reading the same account (or discussing the same God, for that matter).

In fact, scripture does not say that Lot’s wife was “punished by God”. It says she “became a pillar of salt”. It is not presented as a miracle, even a (rare) miracle of destruction. And it does not say that she became a pillar of salt immediately. It’s entirely possible Lot’s wife perished in a hail of bitumen and ash and was subsequently covered with salt over time (salt being ubiquitous in that region).

Looking at the passage carefully, it seems to me that despite all God’s efforts to save her, in disobedience to the angels, Lot’s wife put herself in harm’s way. Her death may well have been a simple consequence of that act, rather than any specific judgment on her as an individual. We do not know enough about the mechanics of what took place in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to say one way or the other.

The Motive That Doesn’t Matter

What was Lot’s wife’s motive? Unlike some, I’m not going to speculate. Genesis doesn’t tell us and I don’t pretend to know. Materialism? Vanity? Love of home and hearth? What do such considerations mean to a pillar of salt?

Equally, I have no idea what goes through the minds of the millions around me who have died and continue to die in their sins by virtue of their own unwillingness to hear the word of God. Just as Lot experienced, some of these are much-loved friends and family members.

Like Lot’s wife, each and every one of them is offered a way of escape.

Over and over again.

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