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.’
Still he delayed. So the angels seized his hand, and the hands of his wife and his two daughters – in God’s mercy – and brought him out and left him outside the city.
When they had brought them outside, one said to Lot, ‘Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away!’
But Lot argued with the angel, ‘Evil may take hold of me if I flee to the hills,’ he said. ‘Look — there is a small town nearby. Let me go there and save my life!’ The angel relented. ‘Go quickly,’ the angel said, ‘for I can do nothing until you get there.’
As the brimstone and fire then rained out of the heavens onto Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife looked behind him and became a pillar of salt.
I confess, I have always had a certain affection for the woman in the Bible we know only as “Lot’s wife.” Any way you look at it, she got the raw end of a really raw deal.
For starters, she was married to a dolt — and even that descriptor is too generous when you look at just how incompetent Lot really was.
First, in Genesis 19:8, he offers his two virgin daughters to the men of the town to “do with as you please.” It is only thanks to the intervention of the angels that the young women are saved. Then, in verse 20, when the angels urge Lot to take his family and flee the city before it’s too late, he dilly dallies so long, the angels have to physically take his hand and lead them out of town.
Once outside, the angels urge him again to flee, and what does Lot do? He stands his ground and argues with them! “It’s too far!” he complains. “Can’t I just go to that town over there instead!?!” The angels acquiesce again, holding back the brimstone and fire until the family has reached safety.
Then, in a final act of irresponsibility, Lot fails to tell his wife and daughters the warning one of the angels had given him in verse 17 — that crucial piece of information about how, if they look back at the destruction, they too will be swept away. The text states clearly that the angels warned him — “al tavit achareycha” — in the masculine singular. These crucial words of warning were only spoken to Lot, not to the rest of his family. And Lot, being the kind of guy Lot was, never relayed them. We all know how this tragic series of events ends. Lot’s wife looks behind them and turns into a pillar of salt.
The question that has been occupying rabbinic commentators ever since is: Why did she look? Some have answered generously.
Writing in 12th century Egypt, Maimonides said Lot’s wife was looking behind her husband to see who might be following him, acting as a rear guard for all his household, who were hurrying to be saved.
The late 14th century agaddic collection Midrash ha-Gadol says she felt concern for her married daughters, whom they had left behind, and she was turning to see if they were following.
Other commentators, overlooking the crucial fact that she had never heard the angels’ warning, concoct far more damning explanations. The 3rd century midrashic collection B’reishit Rabba said she had once refused to give salt to a poor person, so being turned into salt was a punishment ‘measure for measure.’
Jacob Chinitz, rabbi emeritus of Beth Ami Congregation in Philadelphia, now living in Israel, imagines that she looked back only to delight in the destruction of her townspeople. “She could not resist enjoying their failure and her success even though it was only her good fortune to be married to Abraham’s nephew,” the USCJ explains.
Good fortune!?!? Being married to this schlemiel was good fortune!?!
To my thinking, the question isn’t why did Lot’s wife look back — it’s why wouldn’t she!?
Here she is, the world literally raining down on her in flames, and her future, her fate is entirely dependent on this man who has proven himself paralyzed by indecision. And when he finally does make decisions, they are disastrously bad ones!
Lot’s wife may very well have been looking back out of concern for her other daughters, or out of sorrow at the destruction of the people she knew. We can never know because the text doesn’t give a clue about her inner life.
But what I do know is that I would have looked back — if for no other reason that to make sure we were on a safe path, that we weren’t being pursued, that flame and fire were not lapping at our heels. I would have not only looked back, I would have looked forwards and sideways too, to check, and recheck, that this course of action was the right one. To make sure my inept husband was not leading us into disaster.
When you are tethered, without recourse, to an unfortunate man, you can never be too careful.
I respect Lot’s wife for not following her husband blindly. I admire her for being cautious in a perilous situation in which she had no power. I love the woman depicted by 20th century American poet Shirley Kaufman, who offered this to say about a person so brave and so resolute, whom our history-writers never saw fit to even name:
But it was right that she
looked back. Not to be
curious, some lumpy
reaching of the mind
that turns all shapes to pillars.
But to be only who she was
apart from them, the place
exploding, and herself
defined. Seeing them melt
to slag heaps and the flames
slide into their mouths.
Testing her own lips then,
the coolness, till
she could taste the salt.
Original artwork by Charles Dickinson.