It’s funny how one story can take on different meanings, reveal different themes, and speak to us in new ways depending on who we are during the time of reading. Case in point – I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye three times (conveniently in seven year intervals – at ages 14, 21, and 28). Reading #1 was during ninth grade. I did not care for the book. I was put off by Holden’s bad words and found his narrative tiresome. Reading #2 came when I was in college. Surprise, surprise – I loved the book. I totally got Holden’s yearnings and confusions. His pain spoke to me. With a few years under my belt, the narrative brilliance was revealed. Reading #3 was after I gave birth to my first child. As a new mother, a little shaky with worry about the world my son would inherit, I found Salinger’s book depressing, unpleasant, and, yes, tiresome. Did not like it. But for different reasons than I had experienced as a young teenager. And who knows? Next time I read the book, I may be bowled over again.
This story rediscovery phenomenon has made it possible for me to enjoy, for example, short stories that I have taught for semesters to hundreds of students and not feel completely burned out. Taking a break from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” for example, also helps to facilitate that seeing anew experience when I do crack open the literature anthology a year later.
Speaking of horror stories, I’ve had an opportunity to rediscover another famous tale, though not one from a literary anthology, unless you consider the Bible…well, let’s just say that I’ve been studying Genesis with new eyes, equal parts feminist reading, maternal instinct, and midlife crisis survivor viewpoint.
For years, my understanding of the story of Lot and his wife was the standard one – she was disobedient and willful and was punished for her sins. My thoughts about Lot’s wife, borne along by cultural momentum since I hadn’t even read the story itself more than a few times, were simplistic and judgmental. I am quite sure I never believed, even in my laziest Bible student days, that she had literally turned into a pillar of salt, but I understood the story to be a symbol of the price of worldliness, selfishness, disobedience, and the like. My first rediscovery of the story happened a few years ago after reading this Ensign article, “The Best is Yet to Be” by Elder Holland,which was adapted from a BYU devotional speech he delivered. Elder Holland said, “It is possible that Lot’s wife looked back with resentment toward the Lord for what He was asking her to leave behind…. So it isn’t just that she looked back; she looked back longingly. In short, her attachment to the past outweighed her confidence in the future. That, apparently, was at least part of her sin.”
And his interpretation spoke to me. It still does. I have been known to say, in conversations about ‘likening the scriptures unto ourselves’, that I recognize myself best in the character of Lot’s wife. Yes, saying that in Sunday School class can raise a few eyebrows. But I too struggle with having faith in future opportunities and know all too well the unpleasant grip our attachment to the past can have on us.
In fact, it was my connection to Lot’s wife that nudged me toward a closer reading of the King James Version of Genesis chapter 19 (and the preceding chapters). We actually meet Lot much earlier though, back in chapter 12. He is the son of Abram’s brother, and Lot travels with Abram and Sarai to the land of Canaan. During these travels, Abram talks with God and receives inspiration. He is also, as chapter 13 tells us, “very rich, in cattle, in silver, and in gold.” Lot had plenty too, so much so that they need to split up to avoid overgrazing and herdsmen fighting. Abram takes the high road and says, “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee…Is not the whole land before thee? separate theyself, I pray thee from me,” thus offering Lot first pick of land. And Lot happily picks the well-watered plain of Jordan, then pitches his tent “toward Sodom.” Did he know he was picking Wickedville as his future hometown? We don’t know. We do read that God takes Abram aside right after and basically says, “Yeah, this amazing Canaan is going to be yours for generations without end. You got the sweet part of this deal!”
Lot then stumbles into civil conflict, Zelig-style, since there are some kings in the area fighting back and forth, then rebelling after twelve years under Chedorlaomer. Ye olde Chedorlaomer comes a-calling after this rebellion (I love this quirky detail, that this whole “vale of Siddim” where the fighting and rebellion and dominion is taking place is “full of slimepits”, slimepits that the kings of Sodom and Gomorroh actually fall into.) and seems to capture everybody who is left after the kings fall into the pits, plus capture all their stuff. So Lot is carried off into the mountains. And who has to come save him? Uncle Abram. Which he does. Successfully. Melchizedek, the king of Salem, even blesses Abram after the heroic rescue and offers him the rescued loot. Abram does not take it, however. He is a man of integrity and vision who is being prepared for a game-changing covenant. He also seems to be a man of humor, since we learn in a few chapters (17:17) that he, now called Abraham, laughs when God tells him that his wife, now named Sarah, will be blessed with a child. Sarah also laughs, rather delightfully (18:12) at both herself and her husband, or their ages anyway, when she receives the news. They are being prepared for something incredible. God even wonders in that chapter if he should let them in on his plans. He also seems aware of the problems (a/k/a “grievous sin”) of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham, compassionate and wise, asks “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” and God crunches some numbers for his prophet, concluding with the magic number ten. If there are ten righteous men to be found in the city, it will be spared.
Well, let’s just point out that Lot probably didn’t make that list. He may have been the dealbreaker even. And that’s a shame, because it seems that he came from good family and had been privy to the heroic example of Abraham for many years.
So in the spirit of Sunday-afternoon scripture study, here’s what happened. I present to you Genesis chapter 19 with verse numbers removed for ease of snark, err, commentary on my part:
And there came two angels to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom: and Lot seeing them rose up to meet them; and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground; And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in, I pray you, into your servant’s house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your ways. And they said, Nay; but we will abide in the street all night. And he pressed upon them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat. But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them. And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly.
I will say this for Lot: he is a good host to those angels. They don’t even ask to come in, nor are they are afraid of the street, but he insists. And I will add that the other folks of Sodom do seem to be bad news, not because men desire men, but because the citizens seem to be violent, lustful, and insatiable. Lot may not not the worst of the bunch, but …
Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.
…then again, he might be. Reading the above verses with clear, adult, mother eyes makes me sick. And furious! Lot offers these roving rapists his virgin daughters to protect the angels. He understands the depravity of the men in the street and seems perfectly fine with tossing his girls to these wolves. I imagine Lot’s wife standing near the hearth, hearing this entire exchange, and beginning to wonder if life with Abraham’s nephew is even worth living.
And they said, Stand back. And they said again, This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge: now will we deal worse with thee, than with them. And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and came near to break the door. But the men put forth their hand, and pulled Lot into the house to them, and shut to the door. And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great: so that they wearied themselves to find the door.
So even the angels seem stunned, but they do rescue Lot from the crowd, which I probably would not have done at that point, and then smite everybody in a memorable way. If anyone in this family lacks faith, it seems to be Lot! Rather than trust God’s messengers, he resorts to his own troubleshooting ideas, which seem to be almost uniformly terrible.
And the men said unto Lot, Hast thou here any besides? son in law, and thy sons, and thy daughters, and whatsoever thou hast in the city, bring them out of this place: For we will destroy this place, because the cry of them is waxen great before the face of the Lord; and the Lord hath sent us to destroy it. And Lot went out, and spake unto his sons in law, which married his daughters, and said, Up, get you out of this place; for the Lord will destroy this city. But he seemed as one that mocked unto his sons in law.
The angels have come with a message. Lot has received this message and witnessed the miraculous power of said angels, and even with that knowledge, he still mocks his sons in law about the impending doom. Wha? He thinks this is some kind of joke? Here’s what’s not funny to me – that the common interpretation of this story casts Lot’s wife in the villainess role. How have so many readers of the Bible not picked up on his cowardly and at times despicable actions? He has already shown himself to be a terrible father, both with his unmarried and married daughters.
And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying, Arise, take thy wife, and thy two daughters, which are here; lest thou be consumed in the iniquity of the city. And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the Lord being merciful unto him: and they brought him forth, and set him without the city. And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed. And Lot said unto them, Oh, not so, my Lord: Behold now, thy servant hath found grace in thy sight, and thou hast magnified thy mercy, which thou hast shewed unto me in saving my life; and I cannot escape to the mountain, lest some evil take me, and I die: Behold now, this city is near to flee unto, and it is a little one: Oh, let me escape thither, (is it not a little one?) and my soul shall live. And he said unto him, See, I have accepted thee concerning this thing also, that I will not overthrow this city, for the which thou hast spoken. Haste thee, escape thither; for I cannot do any thing till thou be come thither. Therefore the name of the city was called Zoar. The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar. Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.
So despite the miracles and the literal handholding and the divine direction, Lot is filled with fear. He is the one who cannot stomach the unknown, yet God is merciful to Lot. He seems to be saying, “Fine, whatever. I tried to give you the mountain. Just do what you want, but scram so that I can torch this place!” So Lot and his family start walking toward Zoar. Behind them come the sounds of destruction, the smell of smoke and burning and horror. In that moment, Lot’s wife acts.
But his wife looked from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.
She is consumed by whatever is raining down and burning up their home city. Just as they were warned, looking back does bring destruction. Makes me wonder about the nuclear-bomb-like qualities of this Sodom and Gomorrah destruction, first of all. I also have contemplate Lot’s wife’s actions in light of his actions of the previous days. She has seen callous, cowardly, and criminal behavior from him. And she knows that they are leaving everyone and everything they have known. Perhaps she experiences an epiphany that there are some fates worse than death. Perhaps the thought of spending another moment with Lot in Zoar or anywhere broke her spirit. Perhaps she turned back to look because she knew exactly what would happen.
And Abraham gat up early in the morning to the place where he stood before the Lord: And he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace. And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in the which Lot dwelt.
I don’t know what the scholarly reading of the above passage is, but the words seem to suggest that God spared Lot because of Abraham. Once again, the uncle has rescued the nephew. And once again, I have to ask, why oh why do we read this story as an indictment of Lot’s wife when the cautionary tale seems to me to center on the inappropriate actions of her husband?
And Lot went up out of Zoar, and dwelt in the mountain, and his two daughters with him; for he feared to dwell in Zoar: and he dwelt in a cave, he and his two daughters. And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto 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. 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 morrow, that the firstborn said unto the younger, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father: let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou 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 bare a son, and called his name Moab: the same is the father of the Moabites unto this day. And the younger, she also bare a son, and called his name Benammi: the same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day.
So he ends up in the mountains anyway. Talk about learning the hard way! He’s so afraid of the mountains that he goes to Zoar and then he’s so afraid of Zoar that he goes to the mountains.
As for what happens next? All I can say is, I’m glad Lot’s wife is already dead. The seduction of their father by these daughters is disturbing, but I do not blame these young women. They are likely damaged. How could they not be? Just a few nights earlier, this same father was ready to throw them to the violent mob. We can only imagine the kind of upbringing they have experienced from him. He has not shown himself to be brave or thoughtful or principled. And these daughters have inherited – by force and nature – his fear.
Now I didn’t pick up on any of this back when I was a seminary student. I guess it took a little life experience and a lot of close reading to rediscover the tale of Lot and his wife. Perhaps other translations reveal other nuances. Perhaps other tellings shine new light on the story, on the character of Lot, and the motivations of his wife. But in the meantime, I want to clear the name of Lot’s wife. If indeed she lacked faith that her life ahead would be an improvement on her life in Sodom, I think Lot is to blame. And such is the sad lot of too many silent, unnamed women in our history books and religious texts.
But rediscovery is just a page turn away!