“Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away.” – Genesis 19:17
I am haunted by the look in her eyes. Imagine with me the scene as it unfolds before us. A middle-aged woman struggles desperately to keep up with her husband and two daughters as they flee across uneven ground in the murky, slowly retreating shadows of early morning. The heavy folds of her clothing constrict her movement and seem to actively resist her urgent efforts to move forward.
The wide open plain surrounding her is covered with rocks and wild shrubs. Unforgiving in the darkness, they shift treacherously under her feet, mercilessly scratching her ankles as she quickly passes. Her muscles strain and her lungs are stung deeply from rapidly inhaling the chilly morning air while trying to run. Though she can hear the shouts and grunts of her husband and daughters ahead of her, it is her own labored breathing and the loud, relentless thumping of her heartbeat that is growing unbearably loud in her ears.
Catching herself with her hands against a large boulder, for a fleeting moment she notices the strange contrast between the cold, hard surface of the rock and the warm, soft contours of her own hand. Numerous creases and wrinkles crisscross the back of her fingers and palms. Aged and seasoned, they are knowledgeable hands still nimble enough to weave a basket and strong enough to butcher a goat, yet tender enough to soothe and comfort a newborn child.
Heavy folds of fabric cover everything past her wrist leaving her face as the only other exposed part of her body. It is a genuinely kind face. Careworn, but tender and motherly. The lines in her brow and around her eyes speak of a life that has been lived, accumulating memories and experiences, joys and sorrows, successes and failures, disappointments and triumphs. Gazing down at her hands, she realizes, for the first time, that she now has her own mother’s hands.
Suddenly, a vivid memory materializes before her. She clearly remembers being a little girl and standing around the kitchen hearth with her mother as they prepared the evening meal on a lazy afternoon many years ago.
It was summer and golden shafts of late afternoon sun slowly moved across the wooden cupboards and earthen countertops, gently caressing bunches of produce as it passed. Olives, dates, figs and other bounty would soon be transformed into salads, condiments and various delectables to accompany the roasted meat at dinner. Enveloped by the aromas of home, she and her mother were kneading bread. More precisely, her mother was kneading while she watched and listened.
Her mother worked the dough with a combination of confident firmness and intuitive delicacy that only a mother could. As she worked, tiny particles of flour slowly ascended around her, occasionally glinting in the shafts of sunlight as they quietly floated away.
Her mother was recounting for her, with great animation and delight, the morning of her birth. She told her how, after a long night of travail, she finally came into the world and the midwives were at last able to clean and wrap her. How, in the early hours of that very same morning, she was presented to her father. And how he, with great pride, took her delicately into his arms, kissed her, held her up towards the heavens and then blessed her to be a mother of many generations. While telling the story, her mother seemed to swell with real pride and delight at this. “That’s why he gave you your name.” she said with a smile. Her mother continued to knead and speak, “One day, you will marry such a man.” Then, she stopped kneading and looked deep into her daughter’s eyes, “What a happy day that will be.”
A violent tremor disrupts the memory. The kitchen abruptly vanishes from sight as the hard rock underneath her hands jolts with a small shudder. Dawn is nearly breaking and she only has moments before the impending cataclysm erupts behind her. Just then, a section of rocks and earth to her immediate left slumps briefly, then, without warning, instantly dissolves down into a growing crevasse. What was once solid ground, is now only a cloud of dust and a gaping, bottomless crack in the earth. Startled, she pushes herself up, off the boulder and lunges forward in an attempt to catch up with her fleeing family.
She knows she must not look back. The thought pounds in her head, growing louder even than her breathing and the thump of her heartbeat. The thought tears at her heart and she is torn between two violently diverging paths. She continues to run forward, but the thought in her mind grows ever larger and begins to slow her pace. She must not look back. But a new thought has appeared. Extremely small and insignificant at first, yet it quickly expands and crowds out all others, slowing her down further and pulling her mind backward.
Still looking forward, she sees her husband and daughters. They are running for their lives and receding ever further into the distance before her. She loves them deeply. Her pace slows even more as her resolve begins to weaken in the face of this compelling notion that has blossomed in her mind’s eye. Behind her the glow of dawn begins to break across the horizon. With it, the strange new thought has now fully ripened and she is no longer walking forward, but standing still.
She must look back.
The idea forcefully pulses in her heart and mind. The earth around her rumbles, but she barely notices and can’t stop thinking about one thing: her daughters. Not the two in front of her, but those two still in the city behind her. Young women now married to men who, though explicitly warned to flee, were unwilling to escape the unfolding disaster. Husbands who refused let them go.
A strange greenish light begins to flicker and reflect off of the clouds high overhead and the countryside around her. From the direction of the city far behind her, an unusual sound wells up. Somewhere between the hiss of a serpent and the guttural wail of an unknown, yet fearful animal, the sound roars across the open air with an unsettling force and disturbing specificity. Though entirely wordless, its meaning is immediately recognizable as an earth shattering declaration of guilt. The earth shudders.
Gripped with fear and terror of that unknown thing unfolding just behind her, her hairs stand on end and she shivers at the clarity of the unearthly noise. Just then, a strong gust of warm wind and dust crashes against her back, nudging her slightly forward. She resists the push, holding her ground where she stands. She wants to turn and see. Her feet are heavy and the fibers of her body seem to resist. But she needs to see, she must know what is happening. Summoning the courage and strength, with all her might, she forces herself to turn around and to look.
There, in her large, watery eyes, we see it all. On their glassy surface is the reflection of a horrifying catastrophe. An inferno in which strange, vibrant green flames pursue and consume their quarry with a ferocious accuracy and a merciless hunger. Intelligent, living flames they destroy and devour with an incredible speed and an unrelenting thoroughness. Before them entire city walls and buildings, stones and wood, pottery and produce all evaporate into an effervescent steam that rises for a moment then combusts into a cloud of impenetrable black smoke.
Most horrifying of all are the living prey. Animals and people running together, no longer any distinction between man and beast. Each one desperate to live, yet every single one meeting the same horrifying fate. Caught by one of the pursuing flames, they convulse and howl in torment as they are horribly devoured from the inside out by green fire. Disintegrated while still standing, they are transformed into a swirling cloud of ash that rises eerily upwards, joining the columns of smoke now blotting out the sun.
A deep ocean of tears wells up in that lone pair of eyes that now, viewing from afar, are seemingly the sole witness beholding the utter destruction of the city and its people. Having turned to look, she is now, at last, face to face with everything. In the depths of her watery eyes, we see her soul. Her naked humanity, utterly vulnerable and completely undone in the face of divine cataclysm. Welling up in those wide open eyes is the sorrow, the grief, the pain, the regret, the anger, the disappointment, the confusion, the terror, the questions and, lastly, the understanding that culminate in this final moment of life.
With her hands, hands that drew water, kneaded bread, mended clothes, nursed sick children and often caressed a weary husband, with those same hands she reaches out towards the destruction in a gesture at once plaintive and comforting.
The flickering glow from the scene before her dances across her face and, for the briefest of moments, she somehow appears young again. As she opens her mouth to speak, the earth beneath her feet trembles. Suddenly, a gust of wind casts the folds of her clothing backwards as a brilliant flash of purple light blazes across the scene. As its glow subsides, empty shreds of cloth flutter to the ground and a quiet stillness washes over the immediate vicinity.
The woman is gone.
Where she once stood, now a strange site stands in her place. A glistening, multifaceted pillar of pure crystalline salt thrusts upwards out of the earth. Composed of unusually large, translucent crystals, the pillar appears to have grown rapidly out of the earth and then stopped at approximately the height of a man. While both refracting and reflecting light it also seems to glow from within with the faintest hint of a greenish light. The frozen crystals cling and twist and cluster and swirl around each other in an unusual pattern that, taken all together and viewed from a certain angle, look not unlike the figure of a woman.
A woman reaching out with something to say.
“As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on, saying, ‘Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city…Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away.’
As the sun rose upon the earth and Lot entered Zoar, the LORD rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from the LORD 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.” – Genesis 19:15,17,23-26
Though nameless and silent, Lot’s Wife speaks to us from across the gulf of time. From this poignant account of motherhood documented in the Bible, we may indeed learn something important about what it means to see clearly and to live righteously.
It may be said that Lot’s Wife indeed had a difficult “lot” in life. In the custom of the ancient Middle East, she had no choice but to follow the lead of her husband. She relied upon him for provision and for protection. Whatever he said or did was the law of the land as far as her world was concerned. Her life, and the lives of her children, were in his hands and could even be taken from them at his choosing. Fortunately for Lot’s Wife, her husband, as he is described in the book of Genesis, seems to be largely well-meaning, if also fundamentally flawed.
“Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan…So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward.” – Genesis 13:10a,11
The first real evidence of Lot’s flawed character is in his choice to move his family to the Plain of Jordan. According to the Biblical account, Abraham and his nephew Lot leave their pagan native land in the East and venture westward into the Promised Land. They soon begin to prosper and, as a consequence of their expanding wealth, they decide to separate in order to avoid further conflict developing between their growing estates. In a fashion that is consistent with his character, Abraham generously offers his younger nephew the first pick of the land. “If you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.” (Genesis 13:9b), he tells Lot. In a manner that also soon becomes typical of Lot’s particular character, he seizes upon the opportunity to choose what seems to be the best for himself. Ironically, the result of this is that he and his family now begin to journey eastward, their new trajectory taking them literally back in the direction of their pagan origins. A journey that begins with a descent downward to the Plain.
The Biblical record goes on to tell us in Genesis 13:12 that “Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom.” Shortly thereafter, Genesis 14:11-14 relates the account of Lot and his family’s capture by an invading army that sacks Sodom and takes all of its inhabitants captive. In verse 12 we read “They also took off Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, and his possessions, and departed; for he had settled in Sodom.” With this statement, we learn that in a manner of time Lot has gone from living near Sodom to living in Sodom. The consequence of this progression is that Lot and his loved ones are taken captive by cruel, murderous enemies. Genesis 14:16 relates that Abraham heroically intervenes and delivers Lot and his entire family from their terrifying situation. However, in a stunning reversal, we soon read in Genesis 19:1 that after their deliverance from danger, Lot returns himself and his family to again live in Sodom, the very city in which they previously suffered a terrible fate.
One can imagine how Lot’s Wife must have been distressed by the choices of her husband. First, she and her children were taken captive by a cruel enemy as a direct result of Lot’s decision to live in Sodom. Then, in an apparent demonstration of incredible indifference, or sheer stupidity, he chooses to return them to the very place in which they formerly encountered life-threatening danger.
Unfortunately, things only get far worse for Lot, his wife and their family. Genesis chapter 19 soon relates that two angels from God come to visit Sodom with the sole mission of investigating if it is indeed as wicked as its reputation suggests. When the angels arrive at the city, they encounter Lot sitting in the gate. This is informative because in ancient times in the Middle East, the city gate was traditionally the place that the judges and wise men of the city could be found and sought for advice. The fact that Lot is described as sitting at the gate suggests that the inhabitants of Sodom have come to view him with some regard. Verse 2 of Genesis 19 tells us that Lot invites the angels to come to his house to wash, eat and spend the night. When they intimate that they intend to spend the night in the city square instead, he insists so strongly that they acquiesce and retire with him to his home.
This is where things begin to take a turn for the worse as it becomes apparent just how wicked Sodom really is. A mob of men gathers at Lot’s door demanding the right to rape the two men that Lot has invited into his home. In an effort to placate them Lot offers his two virgin daughters instead. The gathered crowd reacts rabidly by seizing ahold of Lot and promising to do even worse to him because he refused their demands. At that moment, the angels reach out and pull Lot into the safety of the house, while simultaneously blinding the crowd so that they are incapable of breaking down the door. The angels then reveal to Lot that they have been sent to destroy the city and that God has mercifully granted him and his family safe passage. They instruct Lot to immediately gather anyone who belongs to him and to flee the city at once. Upon hearing this, he runs to tell his two sons-in-law of the impending catastrophe.
But his sons-in-law do not believe him and think that he is merely joking. (Genesis 19:14) With this critical moment of disbelief it becomes expressly clear that Lot’s lifestyle of compromise has undermined his credibility with those who know him best. This will have tragic ramifications for everyone around him, not least of all his wife. After the sons-in-law refuse his plea, the angels insist that Lot grab his wife and his two virgin daughters and flee the city. But Lot lingers, seemingly unmoved by their urgency. In response, the angels seize him, his wife and his two daughters by their hands and drag them out of the city. Just outside of the city, the angels urge them “Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away.” (Genesis 19:17)
Though delivered from certain death against all odds, as the family flees, and in complete disregard for the explicit instructions of the angels to not look back, Lot’s Wife does so anyway and is transformed into a pillar of salt.
Why? Is she so foolish, rebellious or wicked that she would actually dare to tempt God in such a brazen manner? Or is there some other reason that would explain such a shocking decision?
A close inspection of this scriptural text reveals that Lot’s Wife indeed had an altogether different, yet compelling reason to disregard the warning. Consider the fact that when Lot appeals to his sons-in-law to flee the imminent destruction, this clearly suggests that Lot and his wife actually have two unmentioned daughters, equaling a total of four daughters.
There are the two previously mentioned virgins who still live at home, but there are also two married daughters living with their husbands. Like Lot’s Wife, these married daughters are completely at the mercy of their husbands. The women no longer belong to their father and his only means of saving them is to appeal to their husbands who now have final authority over their lives. This may also explain why, after returning home from speaking to the incredulous sons-in-law, Lot lingers so long at his house that he has to be dragged by hand out of Sodom. Perhaps he was attempting to buy time, hoping that his married daughters would eventually arrive and be saved after all. Further, when Lot proposes Zoar as an alternate destination, it might be that he wittingly shifts the geographical zone of safety closer to Sodom, thereby possibly giving his married daughters an increased chance of reaching the boundary of safety in time.
This fact of two married daughters left behind in Sodom as God’s fiery judgement rains down upon the city, radically alters our understanding of what motivated Lot’s Wife to look back. As a woman she knows all too well the reality of a wife’s status. As a mother, she most certainly has deep desire and longing for her daughters who now are at the mercy of men who do not recognize the danger they have put their wives in. The facts of this text suggest that Lot’s Wife is very likely overwhelmed with compassionate thoughts of her daughters and turns with the hope that she might see them just steps behind her, possibly even needing her helping hand. It is the empathetic, self-sacrificing character of a mother that turns and faces certain doom if only it will somehow save her children. Consequently, it may actually be that she turns and looks out of a moral certainty that one must do the right thing, no matter what the personal cost.
“With all your offerings, you must offer salt.” – Leviticus 2:13b
With this notion in mind, we must wrestle with a final thought as we take one last look back at Lot’s Wife. It must be noted that her choice to pay the ultimate price and sacrifice herself may actually be viewed as an important contribution towards preparing the way for the Messianic Age.
Consider that in sacrificing her life, she removes herself from the scene, which sets up the circumstances that beset Lot and his daughters in the cave. Out of that dark cave of fear and shame, after many generations, arises the Moabitess Ruth, grandmother to King David and, through the Davidic line, an ancestor of the Messiah. From this perspective we can see that there is a line that connects the sacrificial actions of Lot’s Wife, in their own small, yet significant way, directly to the long awaited dawn of the Messiah.
This may be why she was transformed into salt. Not dung, nor dirt, nor even stone. Salt. With salt, we stop decay and preserve life. With salt, we enhance flavor and better enjoy otherwise mundane things. With salt, we heal. Most importantly, with salt we seal covenants and complete necessary sacrifices. It just may be that God turned her into salt as a sign that He acknowledged and accepted her willingness to sacrifice herself for the greater good. The transformation into salt may be a seal of approval and acceptance.
This is a provocative thought, but one worth considering.
As we leave this scene and reflect upon its lingering meaning, I can’t help but wonder if in that last moment of transformation, as she beheld the awesome, righteous judgements of God and her body gave way to a different substance, did she perhaps glimpse the final outcome of His efforts at the end of the age, when all men dwell in safety and the nations stream to Zion? As she looked back, did she perhaps glimpse, ever so fleetingly, the Messianic future? (Micah 4:1-7)
We cannot know for sure, but we may ponder what it means to live a righteous life that sees clearly that which truly matters.
Though we never see or hear from Lot’s wife again, she remains frozen as a silent monument that still speaks to us. She is forever fixed in our imaginations, gazing at the truth for all eternity.