University Congregational Church
Jan. 19, 2014
“Bad Girls; Good Stories: Lot’s Wife”
She was told not to look, and she looked.
Her punishment came swift and horrible – death.
Frozen in the moment of her transgression,
Exposed to the eyes of all in her act of rebellion,
She was fixed there into a spectacle for everyone to see,
Reduced to a ridiculous statue. And for what?
She was told not to look, and she looked.
“Why did she look?” I asked my Sunday School teacher.
“It doesn’t matter why she looked,” my teacher answered. “God said not to look, and she looked. She thought she could get away with disobeying God, but of course she couldn’t. Nobody can get away with anything because God sees it all.”
She’s another of the Bible’s no-name women. Her identity is locked into the story of her husband. H.V. Morton says of her “The poor woman truly had the shortest biography in literature.” She has no words – not a one – recorded for history. Only her one bad moment in life is preserved for us. How would we like it if we were old enough to have grown children, but no words from our mouths, food we prepared, work we did, or lessons were taught were even remembered? Just one mistake? Hanging out there for all to see. One mistake, forever etched in the story preserved for millennium.
Her husband had only one claim to fame. He was the great patriarch Abraham’s nephew. And his story is a disturbing one. It is one of the harshest reminders of the status of women. A father was willing to hand over his young daughters to be gang-raped in order to save his male houseguests from the same humiliation. In a nutshell: this is a story about hospitality; not sexuality. Lot’s action is judged by the hospitality rules of the culture and not our modern ideas about sexual perversion. But that is a sermon for another day.
Being an inquisitive child, I gave Mrs. Lot more thought. At the time, I truly believed that God sees everything. But why did she look back? I didn’t believe that she thought she could get away with it; a person doesn’t look back simply out of rebellion. She had to have a reason for looking back.
I didn’t want to press the issue with my teacher, but I was fairly certain that whatever it was that made Mrs. Lot look back in her flight was something like an overwhelming compulsion – a sort of irresistible urge. I don’t know about you, but I share this with Mrs. Lot.
- Like speeding. I know what the speed limits are – but I like the feeling of speed, the reckless and carefree world-be-damned feeling that comes with going fast. Like Mrs. Lot, I know about irresistible urges.
- Like tickling Eric. I know he hates it – but I love the feeling of his ribs and the stern look he gives me. And I know that if I persist long enough, he will give me a cute, little-boy smile that I don’t see very often. Like Mrs. Lot, I have these irresistible urges.
- Like playing the car stereo too loud when I’m alone in the car; going down the street with an opera or a musical soundtrack blaring – and me singing and directing the orchestra at the same time. I like to remember what it’s like to be on stage, to be someone else, to feel that passion, to escape into the sounds of the melody.
These are some of my regular irresistible urges. And I, like Lot’s wife, would have a difficult time if God told me not to do these things anymore. I can’t help myself. But I still don’t know why Lot’s wife looked back.
I wondered if God just doesn’t allow questions. In that case, I would really be in trouble because as a child I had many questions, especially about God. Were there times, I wondered, when God simply would not tolerate the existence o a skeptic and that’s why Lot’s wife died?
On my quest for the answer to the question, I found some interesting tidbits. According to Jewish midrashim, her name was Irit. Irit and Lot had four daughters. Two of the daughters fled with them. But there were two other daughters who were married (or at least engaged). When Lot warned his two sons-in-law that their city was about to be destroyed, they did not believe him and refused to leave town. Therefore, two of Irit’s daughters were left to choose between the wishes of their husbands and the warning of their father. According to the midrash, Irit had pity on her two older daughters, who chose to stay behind with their husbands and she turned around to see if they were following her.
Have you ever been told not to look? And what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Looking.
- Don’t watch that movie.
- Don’t go out looking for it if you don’t have the money.
- Don’t even look at that beautiful woman.
- Don’t look at the scene of the accident.
But once you look, you can’t take it back – you are forever frozen with the choice, just like Irit.
Jesus even used Irit as a sermon illustration. “Remember Lot’s wife!” (Luke 17:32). Don’t look back; don’t go back. “Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 dollars.” Drop what you are doing. Be ready to move when God says move. Don’t stop. “Don’t try to save your stuff – your iphone or your keepsakes, mementos, pictures, or even your child – and move along with me.”
Rabbi David Kimchi, a thirteenth-century rabbi, pointed out that Genesis tells us that it was sulfur and fire that are said to have rained down on Sodom. But later, in Deuteronomy, when Moses, before dying, warns the children of Israel not to repeat the sins of the past, he speaks of sulfur and salt as having been poured onto the doomed city. It is easy to deduce, then, that the physical devastation at Sodom turned the city into sulfur, while the people became salt-like. Some people believe that this story is what gave rise to our metaphor “fire and brimstone”.
In fact, at thirteen hundred feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is full of chemicals, salt, and the smell of sulfur. Archaeologists place the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah at the north end of the Dead Sea but legend places them at the south end. There are salt masses known as Jebel Usdum (or Mount Sodom). Perhaps there was a supernatural event – an earthquake accompanied by lightning and the ignition of the natural gases in the Jordan Valley – which was the basis for this story.
Whatever the cause, the fate of Irit is the fate that all the remaining Sodomites experienced. She was not singled out of the crowd; she died just as the rest of them died. Add it all together: Irit looked back to see if her two other daughters were following and she saw that they weren’t and what had become of them. She wasn’t betraying anyone – she was looking for the ones who were lost with love in her eyes. I’m sure that the people in the South Asian tsunami or the Haitian earthquake looked back to see what or who was lost.
But O’’s word is always a word of forgiveness-so let’s look at this story through that lens. Remember the story of the shepherd who would leave 99 sheep to look for the 1 lost sheep? God is compared to that shepherd. And we can compare Irit to the shepherd as well. Mrs. Lot was acting like God, not against God. She looked back to see what was happening to her daughters. In such a moment of grief a person only knows one desire: to follow after her child, to experience what that child is experiencing, to be one with the child in every aspect. And it was in that moment that Irit suffered the same fate as two of her daughters.
She turned into salt either because God couldn’t forgive her for looking back … or because God understood her and saved her from the grief of losing everything and she treasured.
Curtis Higgs, Liz. “Bad Girls of the Bible and what we can learn from them”. Waterbrook Publishers, 1999.
Goldstein, Rebecca. “Looking Back at Lot’s Wife”.
Hollyday, Joyce. “Clothed with the Sun; Biblical Women Social Justice and Us”. Westminster Press, 1994.
West, James King. “Introduction to the Old Testament” second edition. MacMillian Press, 1981.