Remember Lot’s Wife
Having lived a life of intimate involvement and vital necessity – a life of women’s work – she stands as a monument which cries out in distress to heaven. For, as Gunn writes, “salt is [also] tears, anguish for the women and children of Sodom.”
A Literary-Feminist Analysis of Lot’s Wife in Genesis 19:1-26.
“As the sun rose upon the earth and Lot entered Zoar, Yhwh rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from Yhwh out of heaven. He annihilated those cities and the entire Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the ground. Lot’s wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt.”
“[Feminist] re-vision [is] the act of looking back…”
The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah has traditionally been associated with notions of wickedness and divine retribution, with the petrification of Lot’s wife serving as a cautionary tale about attachment and disobedience. While the Genesis text does not disclose her reason for looking back, the act has been read to reveal her longing for the city of Sodom and its wicked way of life.
In the rabbinic literature she became a cautionary memorial for passer-by, a “monument to an unbelieving soul.” She serves both to contrast with Lot, who did not look back, and to generate sympathy for him: “It is not so much his bereavement that evokes sympathy but the fact that he… did not enjoy whole-hearted support from his wife.” In the writings of Josephus it is suggested that this helps the reader appreciate a contributory cause of Lot’s personal “lapses” as well as the behaviour of his daughters: “Like their mother, they too had imbibed a love of Sodom and its attitudes.” Thus Lot’s wife is imagined responsible not only for her own perceived wrongdoing but also for that of her husband and daughters. One midrash suggests that she informed on Lot when he welcomed the visitors into his home: having no salt for the feast she was instructed to prepare, she asked the neighbours for salt, which alerted them to the presence of the guests. Thus, she is also imagined responsible for the mob action of Genesis 19. Modern biblical commentary was no kinder to her.
Her appearance in Genesis 19 constitutes her first and last in the Hebrew Bible. She is given no origin story, no name, and no voice. The text allows her one moment of explicit agency when she looks back at the destruction of Sodom and thereupon becomes a pillar of salt. She is mentioned once in the New Testament when Jesus compares the approach of “the day the Son of Man is revealed” with the approach of both the Flood “in the days of Noah” and the destruction of Sodom “in the days of Lot,” and warns listeners to: “Remember Lot’s wife.”
What if this is not the story of the destruction of the cities of the plain, the story of Abraham’s negotiation with Yhwh, the story of Lot’s rescue from Sodom; what if this story is not about Abraham, Lot, the men of Sodom, or even Yhwh? What if, instead, this is the story of Lot’s wife. What if she becomes the story’s central figure, her subjectivity the text’s primary concern, her transformation its climactic moment. What if Lot’s wife is the character from whom we derive our redeeming model and message. Based on the assertion that this text – its compositional history as well as its subsequent interpretations and religious uses – is steeped in patriarchal systems of social organisation, this literary-feminist analysis goes looking for Lot’s wife and deliberately foregrounds her subjectivity in order to find a new way of remembering her.
We first encounter her only by inference when the two visitors enter Lot’s home. Lot, we are told, “prepared a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate” (v.3). Just as Abraham, in the previous chapter, was credited with the food preparation that was the work of Sarah and the servant (18:6-7), so here we may assume that Lot is no more likely to have baked bread than Abraham. The men of Sodom gather around the house, demanding the visitors be brought out to them, that they may “know” (yada) them. Lot goes outside in an attempt to appease the mob, offering his two virgin daughters in place of the two visiting men (the simplest reading is that Lot is willing to sacrifice his daughters in order to uphold his honour as a provider of male hospitality). The mob refuse Lot’s counteroffer and threaten him with violence at which point the visitors intervene. Throughout the commotion, no mention is made of Lot’s wife. Eventually, the visitors seize Lot, his wife, and the two aforementioned daughters, and remove them from the city by force. They instruct: “Flee [masc. sing.] for your [masc. sing.] life. Do not look behind you [masc. sing.] … lest you [masc. sing.] be swept away.” (v.17). As sulphurous fire rains down upon the cities, she looks back, and becomes a pillar of salt.
Why does she look back, and why does she become a pillar of salt? Commentators have had little difficulty answering the latter question: she disobeyed the command. Few have asked whether the command was heard by her, let alone addressed to her. The Midrash tells us that Lot’s wife had four daughters, two married and two unmarried. This means she left behind children, and possibly grandchildren. According to this tradition, she turned back to see if her two eldest daughters, who were married to men of Sodom, were coming or not. Other readers have found different answers. For the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, the woman looks back to her town’s towers, to the square where she used to sing and the courtyard where she would sit at her spinning; she gazes at the windows, now empty, of the room where she gave birth to her daughters. In Kristine Batey’s poem, Lot’s wife is the one who cooked the meals in Sodom (“whoever is god – the bread must still be made”), raised her daughters in Sodom (“the Lord may kill the children tomorrow, but today they must be bathed and fed”), and visited her neighbours in Sodom (“well and good to condemn your neighbors’ religion: but weren’t they there when the baby was born, and when the well collapsed?”). Batey continues:
While her husband communes with God
she tucks the children into bed.
In the morning, when he tells her of the judgment…
she puts down the lamp she is cleaning…
she runs for a moment to say goodbye to the herd…
She smiles blindly to the woman who held her hand at childbed.
It is easy for eyes that have always turned to heaven not to look back;
those that have been – by necessity – drawn to earth
cannot forget that life is lived from day to day…
On the breast of the hill, she chooses to be human,
and turns, in farewell –
and never regrets the sacrifice.
The idea that the self develops detached from and in opposition to others is a core part of the mythological, psychological, and political bases of patriarchy. Western Christianity has long lauded the Abrahamic model of God-encounter through interpersonal detachment (leave your home, leave your family, slaughter your son), praising the arch patriarch’s willingness to follow the abstract ethic of obedience to a deity at any and all costs, even when the cost will not be paid primarily by him. Against this separative notion of self is the feminist affirmation of the communal character of selfhood.
Perhaps Lot’s wife offers an embodiment and example of this more desirable understanding of selfhood. When instructed to look away from the destruction of the city where she has made her home, nurtured relationships of mutual reciprocity, raised her children (and where two of her daughters now perish along with possible grandchildren), she chooses to look back. She displays her allegiance to her community and to interdependence over and against the abstract ethic of obedience to a static command.
At this point, the reader may raise the obvious objection: This is all well and good, but Sodom is evil in its totality. “The poet’s neighbourly, child-rearing, family-nurturing women… are fictions invented against the plain sense of the text.” To which I reply that this text is not quite so simple.
“Sodom must not have been perfect in evil.
Not, at least, to Lot’s wife,
who could remember days washed in sunshine,
setting the clothes to dry on prickly pear and eucalyptus,
talking to her neighbor with the sweet clean smell rising around them.
Quotidian work, oblivious of evil,
too ordinary to be of note to God, or Abraham, or Lot…”
“It’s true I didn’t want to go, and true I turned mid-step then stared,
stunned by the knife-sharp blast, the sting of wind,
as God withdrew my breath, drew back my blood –
depleting life till salt was all the body I had left.
But, Lord, what woman doesn’t look behind her as she walks,
what woman doesn’t shift her level gaze and know
her life consigned to crystallize in dread?
I know my sin. No fear of God eclipsed my fear of men.”
“All the men to the last man.”
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the condemnation of Lot’s wife are usually justified on the grounds of Sodom’s total wickedness, as outlined in Genesis 18. Abraham and Yhwh enter into a negotiation that ends when Yhwh agrees to spare Sodom if ten righteous can be found in the city (vv.23-33). Since he goes on to destroy Sodom, one assumes that ten righteous could not be found. The text itself does not give much help in determining who is wicked in these cities and what the precise nature of their wickedness is. Biblical references and allusions to Sodom and Gomorrah do not provide much clarity. The sin of Sodom is variously identified as (or likened to) social oppression (Isaiah 1; Amos 4); adultery, dishonesty, and strengthening the hands of evildoers (Jeremiah 23:14); arrogance, gluttony, indifference toward the poor and needy, and doing toevah (taboo) (Ezekiel 16:49-50); idolatry and abandoning the covenant (Deuteronomy 29:22-28); and wickedness, violence, and injustice (Psalm 11:6). Nahum M. Sarna described the sin of Sodom as “heinous moral and social corruption, an arrogant disregard of elementary human rights, a cynical insensitivity to the sufferings of others.”
In Genesis 18 Yhwh speaks of the myriad “cry of distress” (ze’aqah) of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of their “exceedingly grievous sin” (vv.20-21). Implied by the term “cry of distress” are many oppressed people. The cry of distress is the cry that the city and its inhabitants are making: literally “their outcry.” It is mainly the literary context and the traditional interpretation of that context that led to the common translation: the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah are presented as “a collective whose corporate identity is defined by need and distress.” Are they all at the same time and in equal measure oppressed and oppressors deserving of destruction? Neither the narrator nor Yhwh makes any attempt to clarify the matter. Their “cry of distress” remains, disturbing the notion of total depravity.
Gunn identifies another pointer to the text’s inability to sustain a notion of total wickedness, a simple verbal link between chapters 18 and 19. Having heard Abraham persist in asking what Yhwh will do if forty righteous, or thirty or twenty or ten, “are found (matsa) [there]” (vv.29, 30, 31, 32), Gunn notes the way the visitors later speak of Lot’s wife and daughters: “Arise, take your wife and your two daughters who are found (matsa) [here]” (19:15). The wife and daughters who are “found” recall the innocent/righteous who may be “found.” Repetition, in Hebrew narrative, often signals the boundaries of literary units as well as the connection between units. Do Lot’s wife and daughters, then, signal the presence of “innocence” in the city? Is the text raising, or perhaps encouraging the reader to raise, a question about the population of Sodom, about who may be “found” there; found perhaps not by Yhwh or Abraham or the visitors, but by the attentive reader. Perhaps Lot’s offer of his daughters to the mob may provide sufficient clue as to the identity of at least some of Sodom’s oppressed, whose cries have reached heaven. How many daughters have already been raped? Are all of Sodom’s inhabitants such by choice? Gunn writes:
Now we have another way of reading this story, for the excluded are beginning to appear and the included are beginning to look different. Turn back to the crowd gathered around Lot’s house and read again. “The men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house” (19:4). (Even the term “people” is routinely used of men as distinguished from women – for example, “there arose a great cry of distress of the people and of their wives” [Neh. 5:1] – so that this term cannot be adduced against my point.)
“The men of Sodom, both young and old” may be read as a clear case of merism, indicating that all, or most, adult males took part in the mob action. Lot, too, is implicated in this wickedness with his offer of his daughters; and perhaps the visitors, too, who do not intervene until Lot himself is physically threatened. Perhaps it is significant that the visitors are referred to as “messengers” (malak) only twice in the narrative: when they first arrive in Sodom, and when they instruct Lot to take his wife and daughters who are “found” and to leave the city. In all other instances throughout the narrative (vv. 10-11, 12-13, 16) they are referred to simply as “men” (ish). Gerhard von Rad calls “the men of Sodom” in v.4 a “clumsy phrase.” For the narrative critic, a clumsy phrase is a thread waiting to be pulled. Breaks with convention signal significant moments of potential subversion, they are a call for the reader to pay close attention. Gunn writes:
These are the men of the city. So where are the women? Where are the young, not the young men but the children – the daughters and sons? Where are the babies? Where are all these in this facile talk of the innocent/righteous and the wicked?
Patriarchy blinds us to their presence in the story, and to the horror of their destruction. Consider Gordon Wenham’s remark: “There are no righteous in Sodom except for Lot, who… will leave, so there is no question of divine injustice in the overthrow of Sodom.” When the male subjectivity is allowed to dominate the text to the exclusion of all others, interpreters accept the notion of the total wickedness of Sodom and the justice of its total destruction: the men of Sodom are wicked, therefore Sodom is wicked; all the male inhabitants participated, therefore all the inhabitants participated. Women, children, babies, livestock, vegetation – these are excluded, invisible; collateral damage rating neither mention nor concern. The text, however, by emphasising the men of Sodom, draws attention to and raises questions about the presence and complicity of others. Their absence alerts us to their presence: because we are not told about them, we wonder about them. By drawing attention to these others of Sodom, and by emphasising the wickedness of the men of Sodom, the text arguably excludes these others from the wickedness of Sodom.
We come back to the pillar of salt. While the transformation of Lot’s wife has traditionally been read as divine punishment, the narrator is not at all specific about the agency by which she becomes a pillar of salt. Given the emphatic way in which the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is ascribed to Yhwh, it is noteworthy that the narrator does not signal divine responsibility; Lot’s wife simply “becomes” a pillar – not of stone, as one might expect – but of salt.
In the ancient world salt was a necessity of life, used as a seasoning, a preservative, a disinfectant, a component of ceremonial offerings, and as a unit of exchange. The Hebrew Bible contains numerous references to salt. In various contexts, it is used metaphorically to signify permanence, loyalty, durability, fidelity, usefulness, value, and purification. Salt is a sign of table fellowship. Salt wards off corruption. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt to indicate that the child would be raised to have integrity. Further, salt is markedly connected with the covenant, so much so that it has been suggested to symbolize the covenant itself. It is also instructive to consider the Hebrew Bible’s uses of uniquely female and male associations with salt:
Salt is seasoning for the food the woman prepares (Job 6:6), seasoning for the cereal offerings she makes ready for her man to take to the shrine (Lev. 2:13). Salt is for purifying when she finds the drinking water to be bad (2 Kings 2:20-21). The woman uses salt for preserving food; her menfolk – and her god, Yhwh – use it to prevent food being grown (Judg. 9:45; Deut. 29:23).
In the New Testament, Matthew’s gospel account records Jesus calling his disciples “the salt of the earth.” Salt carried all these aforementioned connotations particularly within Matthew’s tradition and context. Salt is thus a metaphor for exercising a beneficial influence on the world, particularly through intimate, hands-on involvement with the everyday life of the earth and its inhabitants.
Further, Lot’s wife is transformed into a pillar (nesib)of salt, and such stone memorials generally serve a positive function in the history of Israel. In fact, Lot’s wife is the only “pillar” in the Hebrew Bible traditionally understood to serve as a negative sign. Thus, on the basis of the dominant biblical associations with both salt and pillars, and the indirect agency by which Lot’s wife becomes a pillar of salt, we may argue that the text does not punish but rather preserves her. Having lived a life of intimate involvement and vital necessity – a life of women’s work – she stands as a monument which cries out in distress to heaven. For, as Gunn writes, “salt is [also] tears, anguish for the women and children of Sodom.”
This analysis has shown that the text is unable (perhaps unwilling) to sustain the notion of total depravity within Sodom; its peculiar emphasis on the wickedness of the men of Sodom draws attention to and raises questions about both the presence and complicity of others within Sodom. In light of these concerns, the decision of Lot’s wife to look back at Sodom’s destruction in direct defiance of the divine command to look away from the divine violence, ought not be conceived as wrong action resulting in punishment, but rather as right action resulting in preservation. She does not become a negative “sign,” an object of cursing; but rather a positive “sign,” an object of blessing.
Perhaps Lot’s wife in Genesis 19 offers us a model of right response to the divine violence of the text. Yhwh rains sulphurous fire upon several communities, destroying all the inhabitants right down, we are told, to the vegetation. Yhwh burns babies alive, consumes children in their beds; young mothers and grandmothers, alike. The horse with her foal, the buds in their garden beds. He spares just four members of one family, and these he instructs to look away, to turn a blind eye. Three of the four apparently find themselves capable of obedience, and the vast majority of interpreters have nodded their ascent. Perhaps this is because the vast majority of interpreters find in themselves the same capability. We regularly look away, avert our eyes, from the divine violence of Scripture. The drowning of all flesh upon Earth, the slaughtering of the Egyptian firstborns, the annihilation of entire ethnic groups. The theft of land, the displacement of peoples, the stoning of children. These are not presented as evils Yhwh suffers or accommodates but rather evils Yhwh himself commands and actively participates in. We look away from these, stopping our ears against their cries. When pressed, we victim-blame, we tell lies that dishonour those dead at the hands of Yhwh. We march resolutely, eyes forward, bent on self-preservation. Theirs the lake of fire, ours the streets of gold. Let us return to Sarna’s description of the sin of Sodom: “an arrogant disregard of elementary human rights, a cynical insensitivity to the sufferings of others.”
Lot’s wife is unreservedly condemned by generations of biblical interpreters. She comes from nowhere, she is no one (but the wife of someone), and she meets her strange end without ever having uttered a word. Yet she is the character in the story who embodies the self defined through connection with others over and against patriarchy’s separative notion of self. She is the one whom – eschewing self-preservation – is preserved by the text on that hillside of horror, as a monument to neighbour love, a memorial to shared suffering, and a witness to covenant hope.
In refusing to look away from the suffering of those others with whom she has shared her life, surely hers is the kind of presence upon the earth that renders it better than it was before; surely, she is the salt of the earth. In returning to Jesus’ warning in Luke 17:32 “Remember Lot’s wife,” notice the sentence that immediately follows: “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it” (v.33). Indeed, the life of Lot’s wife is simultaneously lost and preserved in the solitary moment of agency the text allows her, made more palpable and vivid against a background of rhetorical exclusion.
Our literary-feminist approach has given us a different way of reading this story, and a different way of remembering Lot’s wife. May our new reading inspire us toward new ways of hearing the cries of others, responding with empathy and courage, and being a healing and hopeful presence in the world.
“The righteous man then trailed Jehovah’s guide,
hulking and bright, across a ridge of black,
but in his wife a keening anguish cried:
‘It’s not too late. You can look back
upon your Sodom’s old red towers,
the square where once you sang,
the garden where you wove,
the emptied windows of the house where
you bore your children by your husband’s love.’
She turned and looked. The bitter vision blurred,
welding her eyelids shut with mortal pain.
Into transparent salt her body turned,
as each quick foot took root into the plain.
Who will weep for such a woman?
For so small a loss in such a brutish circumstance.
Yet ever in my heart I will recall
that wife who gave her life for a glance.”
“Remember Lot’s wife.”
cooperative fellow and PhD student at the Australian College of Theology
 For helpful summaries and perspectives see esp. Brian Doyle, “The Sin of Sodom: yada, yada, yada. A Reading of the Mamre-Sodom Narrative in Genesis 18-19,” Theology and Sexuality 9 (1998): 84-100; Scott Morschauser, “‘Hospitality,’ Hostiles, and Hostages: On the Legal Background to Genesis 19.1-9,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 27 (2003): 461-85; Ellen van Wolde, “Outcry, Knowledge, and Judgment in Genesis 18-19,” in Universalism and Particularism at Sodom and Gomorrah: Essays in Memory of Ron Pirson, ed. Diana Lipton (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012); and Lyn M. Bechtel, “Boundary Issues in Genesis 19.1-38,” in Escaping Eden: New Feminist Perspectives on the Bible, ed. Harold C. Washington, Susan Lochrie Graham, and Pamela Thimmes (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 30-31.
 Wisdom of Solomon 10:6-7.
 Quoted in Michael Avioz, “Josephus’s Portrayal of Lot and His Family” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 16 (2006): 10.
 Luke 17:26-32.
 David M. Gunn, “Narrative Criticism” in To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Applications, ed. Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Hayes (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 188.
 Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1966), 145.
 van Wolde, Outcry, Knowledge, and Judgment, 82-84.
 Gunn, Narrative Criticism, 189.
 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis (UK: Fletcher and Son Ltd., 1972), 218.
 Gunn, Narrative Criticism, 189.
 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (Texas: Word Books, 1994), 55.
 Gunn, Narrative Criticism, 189.
 Matthew 5:13.
 Gunn, Narrative Criticism, 189.
 Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 145.
Cover image: “The Lot’s wife” CC BY-NC-SA 2.0