Saturday, April 10, 2010

Salt of the Earth: An Essay Bent on Redeeming Lot’s Wife

“But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.”

                                                                                                Gen 19:26

I am always bothered by the story of Lot’s wife. It seems to be invoked when we wish to condemn someone’s frailty, their lack of trust or love or inability to adhere to God’s command for them. I disagree.  I would like to try to redeem Lot’s wife.

Lot’s wife walked last. She let the men lead her, she followed in their footsteps.  In all the depictions I have seen of her, she is carrying a load on her back. She is a beast of burden, last on the trail.  No one will know if she falls back but she will catch the men if they stumble. She has put them first on this most important path in their lives. It seems to me significant that Lot’s wife, who has no name, is trailing behind her husband.  They are leaving town, and they are going uphill. Should she not be walking ahead of him?  Should he not be ushering her away from danger and helping her along to be sure of her safe passage?  He has no fear, evidently, of her tripping or becoming weary, of her falling behind for any reason. No, he is hot on the heels of Abraham; he is high tailing it out of town. What if he were to become concerned about her?  What if he were to think, to suspect that she had fallen, had mis-stepped or buckled under her burden? He could not look back to see her, could he? No, the only way Lot can be sure of his wife, of her safety, of her rescue, of her future, of her courage in the face of this terrible test, is to take a place in line behind her. But it is she who is behind him, not because she is inferior to him, but because she loves him. This, to me, is the first indication that there is something more in the story of Lot’s wife.

Why does she look back? I wonder. Perhaps she is thinking of the nine. There are nine, at least nine very good people remaining in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham negotiated with God, he pointed out that it would be unfair to destroy them all if even ten were good (Gen 17:32). This always bothers me.  If ten are good, let Abraham search them out and rescue them all. But Abraham only asks if there are ten, he does not say who they are, he does not rescue them.  He rescues Lot.Was he one of the righteous?  I don’ think so; he let his wife drag behind, afraid, unsure, and ultimately frail. So let’s do our Bible math. We know there are at least ten and that Lot is not one. 

Do we also know that his wife is one? Yes. Because she lets him walk ahead of her? No, well, possibly, but not necessarily.  Because she is married to Lot?  If he’s not a good one, she’s not made good by being married to him.  Being married to Lot is not what saves her from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: she is saved by proximity to Abraham, not her husband.  No, we know she is good because she does turn back. 

In the end, God relents and shows mercy on an entire nation because some small number were good.  God looked back, after the pronouncement, and felt pity. “For the sake of forty,” He says, for the sake of ten” (Gen 17-26-33).  So did Lot’s wife, in the final moments before she bridged the top of the hill, look back.  She pitied her neighbors, her family and her friends.  She hoped for God to show kindness one more time.  She hoped for mercy.

We are asked to love our neighbor as ourselves. We, none of us, are perfect. We sin by act and omission, we sin in our hearts, and sin lingers on the doorsteps of our lips (Gen 4:7). And yet we forgive ourselves (too easily perhaps) and go on loving ourselves day after day.  Lot’s wife loved her neighbors in this way.  Her neighbors, the people who lived in the worst town in Creation, flawed and frail and disappointing, she loved them as she loved herself, with indulgent and unswerving forgiveness. 

This is how I know there were only nine good people left in Sodom and Gemmorah: Lot’s wife was one of the ten.  When she walked out of town, she put her husband before her out of concern and respect, when she walked out of town, she still had hope of God’s mercy for the people, even the unholy ones, behind whom she had walked in her time there.  When she walked out, she still had hope – faith - that things would change for the better. Lot’s wife loved unselfishly, she loved at her own risk.  She loved perfectly and unconsciously. She put her husband’s calling ahead of her heart, she spared a moment in defiance of his command to love her neighbor as herself. And yet all of this is not the evidence that convinces me that Lot’s wife was really good. I know she was good because God turned her into salt.

Salt represents an enduring covenant, the preservation of a relationship beyond limits of nature and time. The Covenant of Salt (Num. 18-19) emerges in the Bible, very likely because salt was used in sacrifices, to flavor the sacrifice and make it more pleasing to God. “With all they sacrifices shalt thou offer salt” (Lev. 2:13).  According to Jewish tradition, salt is a food that never spoils and G-d made a covenant with salt at creation that it would not spoil and last indefinitely. Also, salt is considered to be a product of underground waters and G-d made a covenant with those waters during creation that they will be used for sacrifices in the Temple in the form of salt. The salt of Sodom was an ingredient in the incense used in the Second Temple.The returning exiles affirm their loyalty to the Persian king “because we eat of the salt of the palace” (Ezra 4:14). The priestly tithes and the kingship of David are compared to the covenant of salt to show that they, too, are forever. In the Ancient Near East, salt was deemed so necessary that serving it at a meal with friends indicated hospitality and a committed and long lasting friendship. The word “salary” emerges from the word “salt.” God transformed the anonymous and forgotten wife of Lot, therefore, into the most valuable of commodities, and her sacrifice appears to have been delightful and enduring in His eyes.

Salt also represents healing and frequently symbolized long life. Illnesses were treated with salt, newborns were often rubbed with salt.  The Talmud exhorts us to salt in our diets as a preservation of good health. The Talmud tells us that salt and water are the most essential elements of life: “The world can exist without wine but not without water. Salt is cheap and pepper dear; the world can exist without pepper but not without salt.”

Significantly, it also “absorbs blood.”  While it is at the center of the rendering of kashrut food, it is also a strangely symbolic presence at the sacrifice of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Is the blood of those who die at Sodom and Gomorrah purified by the altruistic sacrifice of Lot’s wife? Does her sacrifice offer them redemption?

But salt is also a symbol of “a complete break with the past.” Salt is sown into the ground of a conquered land to represent a fresh start. Elisha purifies water the water of Jericho with salt (2 Kings 2:20). The transformation of Lot’s wife marks a new beginning, as well.  The site of the sinful people of Sodom and Gomorrah subsequently becomes the location of the Salt of Gomorrah, which was part of the incense used in the Second Temple.

Lot’s wife, anonymous and forgotten, looked back in mercy and knowingly brought about her own destruction.  Frail and humble, selflessly loving and senselessly hopeful, in the eyes of God, Lot’s wife had value beyond gold. She became more real in that moment, she realized her essence.  Salt of the earth, was Lots’ wife.  Without her and her kind there is no flavor, there is no preservation, there is no covenantal water, no “forever and ever amen.” Lot’s wife, whose name we do not know, whose absence brought the number of good people under the agreed upon minimum, Lot’s wife was the 10th good person.

So highly esteemed was this person, and yet her grandsons were conceived in incest and became the Moabites and Ammonites. I believe that those are the sons of Lot, who wavered in his faithfulness and was immoderate in drink. I believe there are other heirs of Lot’s wife.

There is a certain Jewish legend that the world exists on the merits of a certain number of truly righteous people.  They do not know who they are. They do not know one another.  We as mortals do not know for certain when they are among us. The number remain constant, when one dies another is born, because the world exists in their merit. They are called “the Righteous” and they are privileged to “receive the Divine presence.”It is believed that one among them will be the Messiah. They number is subject to some debate. The Babylonian Talmud says that there are no less than thirty six of them, but the aggadah sometimes says the number is thirty, and it has been divided into fifteen and thirty. There is no knowing, however, if the number is actually ten.

At times of great peril to the Jewish people, these righteous ones, the lamedvovnik, emerge to employ secret powers to defeat the enemies of Israel and then disappear as miraculously as they appeared. In one Midrash a town sneers at the wealthy miser on the hill all his life.  After his death, the coffers of the local soup kitchen dry up.  There are stories of the lamedvovnik rescuing and hiding European Jewry during the Shoah.

The Lamed Vovnik are said to emerge in the Babylonian Talmud, but I believe they emerge in the Torah: with Lot’s wife. We never know her name but we know that without her, all of her world tipped into chaos.  She loves selflessly, she loves absolutely and she loves unconsciously. And it is only after she is gone that we learn that she was a lamedvovnik, one of the truly righteous.  Perhaps we can only see righteous goodness in retrospect, when things are returned to their true essences.

Let us all make an effort to redeem Lot’s wife. She looked back, not because she was frail, but because she was essential.  Let us all hope for the fate of Lot’s wife. Let us all hope to be the salt of the earth.


Cohen, Abraham, ed. Everyman's Talmud. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1995.
Edithae, Thames and Hudson Publishing (London: 1983).

"Lamed Vav Zaddikim." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Eds. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 12. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 445-446. 22 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. Northwestern University - CIC. 23 Nov. 2009 

Rabinowitz, Louis. "Salt." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Eds. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 17. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 708-709. 22 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. Northwestern University - CIC. 23 Nov. 2009 

Jobes, Gertrude, Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore and Symbols, The Scarecrow Press, (New        York:1962), p. 967, p. 1391-1393.

Kestecher,  Natalie,Double Life”  - Producer, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Resound, August 29 , 2009 (#117)- The Secrets Show, cic November 21, 2009.

                        [1] Rabinowitz

                        [2] Ibid.

                        [3] Eerdmans, p.286-287.

                        [4] Cohen, 247.

                        [5] Rabinowitz, 711.

                        [6] Encylopaedica Judaica

                        [7] Ibid.

                        [8] Encyclopedia Judaica

                        [9] Encyclopaedia Judaica

                        [10] Ibid.

                        [11] Ibid.


                        [13] Ibid.

 [CH1]by whom?
 [CH2]with whom?
 [CH3]from whom?
 [CH4]I think there's only one man, Lot. I think Abraham is still in his place, where he was in Gen 18:33.
 [CH5]Why can't he look back?
 [CH6]I think there's only four of them, so what's wrong with Lot going first, the kids second & third, and Mom bringing up the rear? That's how we do it when we go hiking.
 [CH7]The angels rescue Lot and his family and no one else, so I assume that they are the only people found to be righteous in S & G. That's only four, and only one male, so no minyan and S & G goes up in smoke. If there had been ten, then God would have spared S & G according to his promise, but there weren't even 10.
 [CH8]Yes, because the angels save her. Of course that might have just been because Lot was considered righteous, and she was his property.
 [CH10]Okay, now you've got something!
 [CH11]I don't think you've established that she did it on purpose to sacrifice herself.
 [CH12]If she was the 10th good person, why didn't God spare S & G and "all those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew upon the ground", as previously stipulated per the Lord's and Abraham's agreement?
 [CH13]Yes, I think you have a great idea, that Lot's wife is one of the lamedvovnik, and how do we know? Because God turned her into this very precious substance, salt. I like this because it turns the idea that what happened to Lot's wife was a punishment because she did something wrong, right on its head. Also it kind of references all those Greek stories of virtuous women being turned into symbolic items to protect them. And then you nail your readers with that Matthew quote, which is great. But I couldn't follow the first 2/3rds of your argument, about her place in line, and her being one of the 10.
As for theology, I think you might be able to see this as feminist theology--recovering women's stories--or as ideological criticism--"Ideological criticism is a way of taking steps to correct points of view and attitudes found in scripture, tradition, and ourselves when those attitudes serve the desolation of life and the subjugation of human beings."  (Williamson & Allen, Interpreting Difficult Texts) You could say you want to recover midrashic techniques for the purposes of a Post-Shoah theology.  You could investigate Rabbi Schaalman's Covenantal Theology and use that. You could say you were challenging metaphors within the ScripturesJulia O'Brien has a great book called Challenging the Prophetic Metaphor). But, actually, I think what you have here is a sermon or a bible study, and I think it's too bad you can't go with either of those. Sorry. I'm not much with the theological foci either. 

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