The Sodom and Gomorrah story reaches its climax when Lot’s nameless wife is turned into a pillar of salt. This nameless biblical woman has been dismissed throughout history as a vain and materialistic woman who, because of her character, deserved her punishment.
The rabbinical text blames the destruction of Sodom on its wickedness, and the transformation of Lot’s wife on her unbelief. When people leave wickedness behind, some still pine for their previous evil ways symbolized by glancing reminiscently toward the past. As Jesus would eventually warn: “No one placing their hand on the plow and looking at the things behind is worthy for the reign of God” (Luke 9:62).
Her sinfulness has become normative in modern biblical hermeneutics. For example, The Interpreter’s Bible notes that Lot’s wife was “the woman caught in the whirlwind of fire from doomed Sodom because she was still too reluctant to leave the wicked city … she was representative of all those in every time who are caught in the consequences of the evil they cannot quite let go.”
Lot’s wife’s condemnation even comes from the mouth of Jesus, the only other place in the Bible where she is mentioned. When discussing the urgency by which the last days approach those accustomed to luxurious living, Jesus provides us with a warning to “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:31). The assumption is that Lot’s wife was narcissistic, seeking the pleasures of this world. This theology is read back into the text, even though the Genesis account is silent about the character of Lot’s wife.
All that the text tells us about her is summed up in six Hebrew words that translate to: “And his wife looked back from behind him and she became a pillar of salt.” Based on this solitary mention, elaborate character portraits of Lot’s wife are constructed. Why? To justify her demise.
If she is not portrayed as a foolish woman with a self-indulging heart, then her punishment would appear capricious, especially if, because she’s a woman, Lot did not bother discussing the options facing them as he did with his prospective son-in-laws. After all, the text fails to note any discussion with Lot’s wife concerning what could befall them. Verse 15 simply has the angels stating, “Take your wife and your two young daughters … lest you [masculine singular] be consumed.”
For most of us, our sense of justice is offended that the God of second chances, the God of love, mercy and forgiveness would act so harshly, especially when we consider that the text is ambiguous about who was informed concerning the danger of looking back. In order to justify Lot’s wife’s punishment, she must either be vilified or simply ignored.
Even though her presence is implied throughout the Sodom and Gomorrah story, she remains invisible. For example, when we are told that Lot prepared the two angels a meal of unleavened bread (Genesis 19:3), more than likely it was his wife, under a patriarchal rule, that did the preparing, serving and cleaning up.
Yet, for a brief moment, Lot’s wife takes center stage in the story. Lot’s wife becomes visible when she looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. This becomes a disturbing tale of a person who is punished for attempting to see the destruction of the city. And yet, when Abram also looked toward Sodom’s demise, he is not turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:27-28).
Rather than depicting Lot’s wife as either the totality of worldliness or the other extreme of virtuousness, maybe we should see her like we see the rest of us: a human who falls short of the glory of God. 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.
It does not really matter why she looked back. The reality is that we will never ascertain the motives of her heart. The fact is that she looked and was swiftly punished by God. If she did know of the consequences and still looked back, then she committed suicide. But if patriarchal rule meant Lot did not need to inform her of what was occurring, then her looking back was an accident, making her a victim of homicide. Lot’s wife is killed because she is prohibited from remembering. There are no opportunities for absolution or redemption offered to her. 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.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.