Bereishit

Lot’s Wife Was Never Salt (And Why That Highlights the Greatness of Abraham)

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Mark Glass

 

I.

It is one of the best-known biblical stories. As Lot and his family are fleeing Sodom, his wife, ignoring the instructions of the angels, looks back and is turned to salt (Genesis 19:26). As it is a simple story found within a parashah with other narratives that demand far more attention – the Akedah, for example – it is easy enough to gloss over. “Listen to what others tell you, or else” seems to be its core message.

But take one step back to assess the narrative, and cracks start to emerge. For starters, while Lot’s wife’s transformation is typically understood as a punishment, it is difficult to identify her crime. True, she violates the angels’ command, “Do not look behind you” (v. 17), but her punishment seems an extreme reaction, particularly when we notice that Lot, too, ignores the angels by tarrying in the city (vv. 15–16), yet faces no punishment. Indeed, just a few verses later, he receives a reward: a city is saved so that it can become his future home (vv. 18–21).

And even if we ignore this disparity between Lot’s treatment and his wife’s and accept that she deserves punishment while he does not, the punishment itself is uncharacteristic. Nowhere else in the Torah does God punish via transfiguration. God never threatens to turn an insolent people into stone; no enemy is ever miraculously defeated by being transformed into sheep. Lot’s wife alone suffers this unique fate.

The story demands reassessment. Thus, Radak argues that Lot’s wife is not singled out to be transformed into salt as a punishment per se, but instead is overrun by the destruction sweeping the city. Given that God is raining sulfurous fire upon the land (v. 24) and Lot himself expresses his fear that he cannot outrun the storm (v. 19), it makes sense that, should one member of Lot’s party stop to look back one last time, it would slow that person down long enough to suffer the same fate as Sodom’s other inhabitants. Radak’s comments solve some of the above problems. Lot’s wife does not turn to salt as a supernatural punishment for ignoring a divine command, but as a repercussion of her lack of faith in the angels’ words. Lot’s wife’s death is simply the consequence of her own slowing down.

But a far more fascinating interpretation of the story is offered by Hizkuni (R. Hezekiah b. Manoah, 1250–1310, France). His comment not only changes the entire narrative but also shifts its focus and leads to a deeply disturbing conclusion given the continuation of the story. Nonetheless, it is a comment from which we can learn plenty.

II.

After quoting Rashi’s explanation of the episode, Hizkuni offers an additional understanding, rooted in the ambiguity of verses 25–26, which state: “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 va-tehi a pillar of salt.” Given that Lot’s wife is the most recent subject of the sentence, our instinct is to translate va-tehi as “and she became.” Yet Hizkuni applies it, instead, to the subject of the previous verse, the cities of the Plain:

Alternatively, “Lot’s wife looked back and the entire land had become a pillar of salt.” As is found [in Deuteronomy 29:22] “all its soil devastated by sulfur and salt.”

Hizkuni bases his understanding on Moshe’s warning to the people that should they violate the will of God, they will suffer the same fate as Sodom:

And later generations will ask – the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that the LORD has inflicted upon that land, all its soil devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing, no grass growing in it, just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in His fierce anger – all nations will ask, “Why did the LORD do thus to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?” (Deuteronomy. 29:21–23)

Hizkuni’s application of Moshe’s threat, then, changes the entire way we understand the story. Going further than Radak, Hizkuni’s understanding leaves us with Lot’s wife still alive! The narrative is not recorded to illustrate a punishment, but to provide us with a dramatic scene in which to encounter the destruction. Rather than viewing the destruction of Sodom from a distance as dispassionate readers, we see it through Lot’s wife’s eyes: she looks back briefly and sees her hometown destroyed.

Indeed, Yehuda Sarna – in an article that sparked my thoughts on this topic – suggests that the word netziv in verse 26, typically translated as “pillar,” may also be translated as “garrison” based on the word’s occurrence in Chronicles. In his words, “she is met with the image of a cold, menacing, eternally desolate stare of city walls covered in (or composed of) salt.”[1]

As radical as this understanding may seem – as much as it runs counter to the story we have always known – it adds far greater depth to the narrative. But not just because it adds an emotive thrust to the episode. It also allows us to see Lot’s wife as a piece within the broader narrative being told within the Torah’s verses. Because in the next three verses, as we shall see, the Torah takes a detour from the story of Lot to turn to Abraham once again. And thus Lot’s wife becomes a foil for Abraham, so that we can gain a richer insight into both of their personalities.

III.

Chapter 19 has a curious feature. The entire chapter – all 38 verses – are about Lot, his escape, and Sodom’s destruction, save the three verses immediately following Lot’s wife looking back, in which the narrative abruptly switches to Abraham:

Next morning, Abraham hurried to the place where he had stood before the LORD, and, looking down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and all the land of the Plain, he saw the smoke of the land rising like the smoke of a kiln. Thus it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain and annihilated the cities where Lot dwelt, God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval. (vv. 27–29)

This abrupt switch of focus is explained by verse 29. The Torah underscores that Lot was not saved due to his own merit but due to Abraham’s. Yet, if this were the sole reason for the interruption, there would be no need for verses 27 and 28. The Torah could just add a parenthetical comment that Lot was saved because of Abraham. Why must the Torah interrupt the narrative to show us Abraham looking down at Sodom’s destruction?

For Zvi Grumet, these verses help us understand Abraham’s state of mind. The last time we encountered Abraham was during his negotiation with God to spare Sodom. Though we have learned Sodom’s fate, Abraham has not. God never told him that even ten righteous people were not to be found. Abraham has gone to sleep that night, says Grumet, believing he has saved Sodom. Verses 27 and 28, then, allow us to view Abraham’s reaction. This is when he learns his begging and bartering with God has failed. He also has no knowledge that Lot has been saved. “The morning after his valiant effort,” Grumet writes, “he wakes to the stench of an entire section of his domain incinerated.”[2] This is a dark moment for Abraham.

But these verses also contrast Abraham with Lot’s wife. If we adopt Hizkuni’s view, verses 26–28 provide us with two figures both looking at the same scene before them, yet drawn to different things. Lot’s wife is drawn to the sulfur and salt, while Abraham is drawn to the smoke rising from the land. This is not just a temporal distinction. It is not simply that Lot’s wife witnesses the sulfur raining down in the moment, while Abraham seeks the smokey aftermath. It is that each is drawn to a very different aspect of the destruction.

That God should destroy Sodom with sulfur and salt is important. It suggests a specific tactic with a history in the ancient world: to destroy the economic success of a region. Sodom, the Torah has taught earlier, is the most beautiful region in the land, “like the garden of the LORD” (Genesis 13:10) – indeed, that is what draws Lot to live there. While sulfur and salt will undoubtedly destroy people, too, its specific intent is to damage the land itself. A land sown with salt cannot produce vegetation. Sodom is not just destroyed for a brief period of time; it is destroyed forever. No one will want to settle in an uninhabitable place.

In the moment that Lot’s wife looks back – during the destruction of her hometown – she is drawn to the sulfur and salt coming to devastate her town’s growth. She is consumed by its lushness fading away, its economy dissipating forever. Never again will Sodom sprout forth what it has in the past. In the words of Hizkuni, she fixates on kol ha-aretz, “the entire land.” Sodom’s soil is worthless. It will cease to be a center of growth and wealth.

Yet Abraham notices something different. He is drawn to the fire. The smoke. It is an image that evokes a more blatant vision of death. His concern is not for the flora that gave Sodom its glory, but for the people he tried desperately – in vain, as he has just learned – to save, despite being told they were evil. Despite having no reason to either love or care for them.

Lot’s wife does not see her neighbors dying. She does not care for their screams. All she sees is a rich land being destroyed. Only Abraham notices the charred remains of Sodom’s inhabitants. Hizkuni’s understanding may spare Lot’s wife’s life, but it leaves alive a disturbingly callous person.

IV.

In truth, the idea that Lot’s wife has no care for other humans is hardly alien. Rashi’s explanation (quoting Genesis Rabbah 50:4) as to why she deserved to be punished by being transformed into salt highlights her selfishness: she was unwilling to offer even salt to guests. And the greatest indication as to what Hazal saw as Sodom’s ultimate crime is found in the Mishnah:

There are four types of character. One who says “what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” is a typical person. Yet there are those who say that such a person is a Sodomite. (Avot 5:10)

Contrary to the English language, Hazal saw the great sin of Sodom, the definition of Sodomy, as selfishness. A refusal to share with another. And though, at first glance, such an attitude does not seem so destructive – indeed, the Mishnah itself suggests it is the disposition of most people – there are dangers to such a mentality. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has diagnosed the notion that individuals may do broadly as they please with no responsibility to the wider population as the root cause of many of contemporary society’s ills. Defining this notion as what he terms “cultural climate change,” Lord Sacks devotes his latest work, Morality, to an extended analysis of this problem:

Divisive politics, inequitable economics, the loss of openness in universities, and the growth of depression and drug abuse are the result of what I call cultural climate change. They are the long-term consequences of the unprecedented experiment embarked on throughout the West a half-century ago: the move from “We” to “I.”

All countries and cultures have three basic institutions. … [The third] is the moral system, which is the voice of society within the self; the “We” within the “I”; the common good that limits and directs our pursuit of private gain. It is the voice that says No to the individual “Me” for the sake of the collective “Us.” Some call it conscience. Freud called it the superego. Others speak of it as custom and tradition. Yet others call it natural law. Many people in the West speak of it as the will and word of God.[3]

Lot’s wife is the ultimate Sodomite. She never sees the “We,” but only the “I.” And so, when God rains destruction upon her town, she does not care about the people, because that was not the mentality of Sodom. Only Sodom losing its lushness matters. Only those parts of the town that benefited her matter, either as the source of her own wealth or providing her with enjoyment. This is what Abraham stands against. The Abraham from whom the obligation of hesed is learned.

The Torah interrupts the narrative of Lot’s escape from Sodom immediately after Lot’s wife looks back to contrast her focus with Abraham’s. To underscore, emphasize, and highlight the abhorrence of her mentality. And to provide us with the correct model for our own lives: Abraham, sensitive even to the loss of those God saw as meritless.

V.

With Lot’s wife still alive, the narrative’s already disturbing conclusion becomes darker still. Read traditionally, with Lot’s wife dead, the story of Lot’s daughters’ decision to conceive through him is already tough to read. But read with Hizkuni’s comment, Lot’s wife is still alive. Either she abandoned her family upon her town’s destruction, or she is with them in the cave. (That verse 30 only mentions Lot and his daughters need not imply her absence. Not only does she go unmentioned in scenes earlier in the narrative, but it is a common enough feature of biblical narratives for characters not taking center-stage to go unmentioned, particularly when they are women and children. Genesis 3:24, for example, only describes Adam being driven out of Eden, not Hava, despite the fact that she is obviously exiled with him.)

But, with Lot’s wife in the cave, how can she allow her daughters to go through with their plan? If she is the ultimate expression of Sodom, then her callousness is not so surprising. Why should she care about her daughters? Why worry for her husband? Why concern herself with the future of humanity? That would reflect a concern for other people. It does not impact her. After all, we know her daughters’ wellbeing counts for naught in her eyes. Given she offered no protest when her husband offered them to be raped by a mob, why would this bother her?

It may be one the best-known and simplest biblical stories, but the assumption that Lot’s wife is turned to salt leads us to rarely investigate the alternative narrative path. But when we do so, it leads to a disturbing, yet important realization, and a message particularly relevant for our times. That Sodom’s selfishness was the antithesis of Abraham – and that it is upon us to follow his path and not hers.


[1] Yehuda Sarna, “The Salt Saga: Lot’s Wife or Sodom Itself,” Nahalah: The Yeshiva University Journal for the Study of Bible (1999): 75–84, quote from 81.

[2] Zvi Grumet, Genesis: From Creation to Covenant (Maggid Books, 2017), 214.

[3] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (Basic Books, 2020), 11.