Lot’s wife is an unnamed character in the biblical Old Testament whose strange and horrifying tale has become widespread in religious circles as a symbol of the apparent danger in not trusting in God.
When delivered from the sinful city of Sodom, Abraham’s nephew Lot and his wife are warned by the Lord to not look back while the iniquitous city is utterly trashed. God destroys the locale because “the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly” (Genesis 13:13).
Unfortunately, Lot’s wife disobeys. As she takes a peek she is transformed into a pillar of salt. Lot, however, does not look back and survives the ordeal.
Feminists point out that the name of Lot’s wife is not mentioned in the Bible. And for many contemporary commentators, her punishment does not seem to fit the crime.
The Jewish Women’s Archive has more about what might have really been going on, historically speaking, behind the creation of this odd tale.
Like much of the Bible, historians, tour guides and geologists each have their own take on what happened or perhaps motivated this story. A prevailing naturalistic theory argues that Lot’s wife is a natural rock salt formation that occurs in the Dead Sea area, which can still be viewed today. Essentially, salt floes in the dead sea were thrust upward by surging waters, “hence legend is created out of what can now be explained as a simple geological phenomenon.”¹
For me, the story of Lot’s wife reminds us to “not look back” when our physical or psychological survival demands we must move forward and not get stuck in the past.
This is valuable advice in the heat of any kind of battle—physical, interpersonal or personal. Soldiers on Juno beach, for instance, could not stop to feel sorry and pay their respects for their dead comrades. And when life pushes our buttons (which often come from the past), it is usually better to stay focused on the present instead of succumbing to a knee-jerk reaction.
But reflecting on the past can also be healthy at the appropriate time. I believe it is important to integrate our past with our present and potential future, an approach that will probably become increasingly relevant for humanity in years to come.
Biblical writers, however, and those who adhere to a vulgar, literal interpretation of the Bible, seem to be stuck in a kind of archaic mindset. The upside of this mindset is that it does account for spiritual powers. Nobody could say the Bible is just a materialistic tract. However, the downside is that Biblical writers represent where humanity was at, philosophically and scientifically, thousands of years ago.
So the Bible sometimes speaks to me and other times it does not. I’m actually not alone on this. The famed Catholic monk Thomas Merton openly admitted that the Bible is difficult and challenging.²
The tale about a woman – Lot’s wife – being killed by God for simply looking at something seems to my untutored self a good example of ancient misogyny. And since it has been uncritically picked up by pastors around the world, the story of Lot’s wife could be seen, in part, as a reflection of sexism as it persists today.³
But I guess we could say the same about a great deal of the Bible, Old and New Testaments alike.
¹ “The geologists said that Lot’s wife did not appear to turn into a pillar of salt because she dared to look back but because of the briny nature of the Dead Sea. But the research shows it was more likely a case of mistaken identity. Mr. Harris said by telephone from Canada that the Dead Sea was full of salt floes that might have been thrown up by surging water to resemble a female outline. ‘Hence legend is created out of what can now be explained as a simple geological phenomenon.'” Source: “Geologists Zero In on Sodom and Lot’s Wife” in New York Times » http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B03E0D71739F934A25751C1A963958260
³ If any Old Testament scholars would like to help out here, I would be interested to hear more about possible political motivations behind this story.