Saturday, April 10, 2010

Who Else?” A Mother’s Midrash On 1 Samuel 5-12

Shay Robertson
A Mother's Midrash

You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for he will cause your child to turn away from Me and they will worship the gods of others.
Deuteronomy 7:3-4.(NSRV)

The Law tells us that the faith of the Chosen People must pass from mother to daughter. And it tells us why.  But G-D, rarely gives us a law without giving us an example to remind us of His reasons. Deuteronomy tells us what to do, or not to do.  That is the Law. But it is in 1Samuel, that the Holy One, Blessed be He, tells us why: that is Love.”

This is a story that does not reflect well on the Philistines, not that there are many that do.  They have taken possession of the Ark of the Covenant.  It is, you remember, an elaborate golden box that contains the fragments of the word of G-D to his people Israel, as it was handed down to us at Sinai.  The Philistines have taken it as a spoil of war.

They took it home with them, first to Ashdod.  Now Ashdod was a major Philistine town, which sat a few miles from the sea east of Jerusalem.  In this town they had a large statue of a god named Dagon.  He was a Canaanite god of grain who had been adopted by the Philistines as their own.[1] Already, you see the Philistines are looking pretty silly; you may remember what they clearly forgot:  the God of Israel has not historically been very keen on sacrifices of grain (Gen 4:5). So, the Philistines placed the Ark in the temple next to the statue and went to bed.  When they woke, the statue had been tipped over and was face down in the dirt in front of the Ark.  It must have looked to everyone as if Dagon were worshiping the God of Israel. Embarrassed, they righted Dagon but the next morning, there he was again, this time his head had fallen off and his hands were broken away. This was sufficiently repulsive a sight to have discouraged anyone from stepping on the threshold there again.[2]  But that was just the beginning of what the Ark was to bring to the Philistines.  Almost immediately, there erupted among the people of Ashdod, a plague of boils that they were helpless to heal.[3] They threw up their hands in dismay and began to run wild with fear and panic.  Like Dagon, they had lost the usefulness of their hands and their heads.  Finally, the people of Ashdod shipped the Ark to another Philistine city.

The Ark travelled from one city to the next, five great cities in all. One after another, the Philistine cities were struck with boils, panic and death with the arrival of the Ark.  Finally, the Philistines called out to their lords to get rid of the Ark of the God of Israel because it was killing them (1 Sam 5:11)!

And so the lords of the Philistines assemble, along with priests and diviners. These lords and intellectual elite were not the proletariat screaming for release.  No, indeed, they have a prize in the Ark and they are not in any hurry to give it back if there is no reason to do so.  Someone must prove that the source of the plague on their people is the Ark.  But how to do that?  It is a scene one can easily imagine:

"We've all be struck with boils and chaos and death whenever we take possession of the Ark of the Covenant," some one of them must have said.
"Likely that is just a coincidence," says another.
"Oohhhh…," says one of the diviners, "I think the God of Israelites wants his box back."
The lords cross their arms over their chests and look around skeptically. "What if we don't want to give back the Ark?"
Here the diviners and the priests shake their heads. "Remember what became of Pharaoh when he negotiated with the God of Israel.  He was stubborn, he was made to look a fool and ultimately, he lost."
"Weren't there boils in that case, too,” one asks.
Another nods, "Bears a striking resemblance…."
The first priest shrugs and says, "You can see how G-d would use it again, after all, it worked the first time…"
The lords hear these words and look from one to another: "So, if we give back the box, the plague will cease?"
"I think so," says the diviner. “I think so….”
But nothing is easy between the Philistines and the God of Israel.  The lords lean back in their chairs and say, "Prove it."

 Here's where things get a little silly, and when things get silly, that's when we should begin to ask ourselves just exactly why. The priests are assigned to make a test to see if the God of Israel really, really wants his Ark back.[4] Their test, therefore, should incorporate as many obstacles as it possibly can.  These are the instructions of the priests; the men who were expected to best understand and know how to please G-D:

 "Make a new cart and load it with the Ark and guilt offering."[5]
The Philistines made a guilt offering: gold "tumors" representing the boils with which the Philistines had been cursed, and "mice" representing the damage done to the land under the Philistines. There were five of each of these, one for each of the cities to which the Ark had travelled.[6]  The Ark, as we have said, is golden, very heavy and elaborate.  Further, it contains pieces of stone slabs.  Who knows what something like that weighs?  This, all this gold, all these articles, plus the Ark and the tablets, all of this, they loaded into the cart.

"Get two milk cows."
Why two? Remember that these are men devising this test; they believe that the two cows will argue, fight and pull away from one another.

"These cows should never have known a yoke."
A cow who has never pulled a cart will not know what to do, will balk and fight in its traces.

"And put away their calves where they cannot see them." 
Here we see what the priests are really about.  What mother could stand to pull away from her dependent child?  What mother can embark on a journey not knowing where her child is or that it is in safety?[7] The weight of the contents, the power of gravity, this only holds the cart in place.  It is the urgency of the mothers to return to their calves which will turn the cart backward from its path. Here is the coups de gras for the priests; the greatest of all the obstacles they have dreamed up.  The only force that they can imagine more powerful than the will of G-D must be the maternal instinct.

"If the cows can take the cart all the way to Bethshemesh without turning off the path, then we will know that it is G-D's will to return the Ark and the curse will be lifted."
We have to pause to wonder what would have happened if the test had not worked.  Imagine the priests and diviners standing with the lords covered in boils and watching attentively while two milch cows pulled a heavy cart off the road and meandered aimlessly into a field.  However amusing that sight might have been to G-D, it was not what occurred.

All was done just as the priests prescribed and the cows walked the long, straight road to Bethshemesh.  It says in the text that they were crying (6:12). To be sure those mother cows were crying, but they arrived, never having left the path, never having turned back.  When they arrived in the field at Bethshemesh, the people of Israel rejoiced, burned the cart and sacrificed the cows.

 So, when we ask why “the faith of our fathers” passes through the mother, I have only one reasonable answer to give: “Who else?”

The Philistines took two mother cows; they separated them from their calves and took those calves out of their protective sight.  They yoked these cows together; they hitched them to a heavy cart and set them an impossible task.  One cow alone could never have moved that cart.  But these are two cows, they were women pulling together; the yoke, the work, the two, together. They would have to have faith in one another and in the community of their companionship.  They would have to have faith in G-D, for it is written that among women:
Where you go, I will go;
   where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
   and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
   there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
   and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!
(Ruth 1:16)

They left behind their suckling calves.  Their children would be hungry unless another mother was found for them.  There was no assurance that they would ever see their children again, or that their children would survive. Still, they leaned into their burden, and into one another, depending on the maternal instinct in others to protect their young.  And they depended on G-D, just as Jochebed trusted that her only son would be protected by whoever plucked him from the river:
When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. (Exod 2:3).

They cried on the path as they walked away from their children as everything in them cried out to return to their young.  But the path had been set before them by G-d; they would have to have faith to walk it.  They would have to have the faith of Hagar:
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink
(Gen 21:15-19).

In the end, they arrive at Bethshemesh, having completed the task they were set at great personal cost, and they are sacrificed. They are killed, right there and their essence rises up to heaven as a prayer. The mission of motherhood is one of sacrifice:
Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had a difficult labour. When she was in her difficult labour, the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.’ As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni, but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.(Gen 35:16-20)

This story is sometimes called “the Exodus story of the Ark.”[8]  Let me ask you something, when you think of the Exodus, you imagine Moses and Pharaoh, but who packed those houses and children to be ready at a moment’s notice? Who kept kosher in the dessert for forty years?  Who bred, bore and buried the people of G-D all that time?  Mothers: anonymous, insignificant, and utterly reliable. 

Why hitch the cart to cows? Any other animal could have pulled the cart. If He were desperate, if the only way to return the Ark to the people was penguins, G-D would have worked it out. But G-D is never desperate, and He always a poet.  He chose milch cows: mothers.

Our faith passes through mothers because this is the preferred method of G-D for insuring that the covenant is carried from one generation to the next. Mothers, grandmothers and sisters, a community of people uniquely endowed with those qualities that are required to keep a faith community alive:
Together overcoming the laws of nature,
Trusting their welfare to one another,
Cleaving together in suffering,
And sacrificing themselves in the end,
As an act of worship and as an act of love.

When G-D wished to pass is Word on to His Chosen people, who could he trust with the task?  The answer, it seems to me, came to Him with a shrug: “Who else?”

Works Referenced
Birch, Bruce, C., “The First and Second Books of Samuel” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume II (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998) 110-114, “Birch.”
“Rashi’s Commentaries,”cv. Shmuel 1, Chabad.Org, (accessed 4/24/09), “Rashi.”
The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 4 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009), s.v. “Mother,” Patricia K. Tull, ed., “Tull.”
The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible, Third Edition, “Oxford.”

[1] Oxford, 406.
[2]  Oxford, 406
[3]  Very likely the tumors were bubonic plague, which was common on the coast and frequently associated with the expression “the heavy hand of God” (Birch).
[4] Rashi tells us: “This is for the test. Since these cows are not capable of pulling a load, and furthermore, they will low after their young, if the Ark will have the power to enable them to pull it by themselves, we shall know that He wrought this upon us” (Rashi).
[5] This would be in keeping with the requirement that an offering be new and unblemished (Tull).
[6]  V. 18 indicates that there were more than five, that there were enough to represent “all of the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords.”
[7] “The portrayal of mothers in biblical narrative is complex... unlike men, women are depicted as without ambivalence toward their parental roles… “ (Tull, 155)
[8] There is a prevalence of Exodus language and imagery in these verses which supports the interpretation of this episode as an “Exodus Story” for the Ark:  the priests determine that the Ark can’t be sent back “empty handed” (Exodus 3:21); the seven months during which the Philistines possessed the Ark are reminiscent of the 7 days of the first plague against Egypt (Exodus 7:25); the plan to return the Ark is meant to “give glory to God” (6:5b) which parallels the “gaining glory” in Exodus 14:4. (Birch)

Sarah Laughed

Mother’s Day Missal

Then the Lord said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year and Sarah your wife will have a son."
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years and Sarah was past the age of child bearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I am worn out and my master is old will I now have this pleasure?"
Then the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son." 
Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, "I did not laugh." 
But he said, "Yes, you did laugh."
Genesis 18:10 – 18:15

When I was 37, I was training for a marathon. My husband and I had worked very hard five years before to have our beloved children, a boy and a girl, five and six years old, respectively. When our son, Sam, was born we knew our family was complete and we never again tried to have children. Now, because we had struggled with infertility, we did not have to work very hard to keep from having more. In fact, in those intervening five years, we enjoyed that special privilege that only infertile couples enjoy. It was a free and wanton lifestyle, I admit and we took it for granted. Then, that infamous fall, a few weeks after 911, I began to feel unwell. I went to the doctor and explained that my racing times were slowing down and asked if I was overtraining. She said: "Pee in this cup.”

At first I was confused but then it dawned on me. I shook my head, blocked the cup with the palm of my hand and said, "No. No no no no no. I can't get pregnant. I'm infertile." I said that. And then I laughed.

The next trip to the doctor was to a specialist. I was not entirely clear on why I needed to see a specialist but it didn't really matter, it was near the Dunkin Donuts where my Dad and Sam and I had coffee on no-school days and so it was no biggie. Until I got into the gown and into the room and the nice young man in a doctor's coat – the man who still had acne and a high voice but managed to scribble the words MD after his name, that man- came in and explained to me that I was a high risk pregnancy. 

"Why am I a high risk pregnancy?" I asked. I was in perfect shape, I didn't smoke or drink, I had never been promiscuous, I hadn't conceived on the full moon or pulled a Scarlet O'Hara on horseback.
            "Because of your age," he said gently. "You are 37 years old."
            I did not laugh. I snarled. "You're saying I am too old to have a healthy pregnancy?"
            “I'm saying being this close to forty, you are a high risk."
            I sat there for a while, letting my blood pressure rise to pre-ecclamptic levels and then hissed, "One of us is as risk, Doogie, but if I were you I'd mind my manners in the presence of my elders."

Being the "older mother", the "non-standard" mother, the "experienced mother" is not all it’s cracked up to be. My mother was forty-two when I was born and she only made appearances at school on Halloween so she could show off her cackle and make everyone think I lived with my grandmother. 

But I, I was never that woman. I was a slender, attractive mother of two, active at school and well respected in the community. I was my husband's child bride and we had "rich man's family" with the prospect of the two children, close in age, liking the same rides at Disney World and going off to college and leaving us in peace while we still had our hearing. Now, I was an "at risk pregnancy" because I did not get knocked up at prom.

Telling my Dad was the hardest part. He was himself thirty six when I was born, so to him I must have seemed ready to be a grandmother. My husband told him several days after we found out. I wasn't saying the words, yet. I was in denial. When I had to leave Disney on Ice (Toy Story) to throw up in the bathroom, it was because the show was that bad, it was not morning-all-day-sickness. But not my husband. Dave was a balding, almost forty, vibrant man who knocked up his wife – again – ha HA!

And my Dad's response was, "No." Like he could just say it and it wouldn't be so. Like we were asking him if I could be pregnant. He was decisive, he was firm and he was openly shocked. My step-mother laughed.

Over the years, the strangest kinds of things have occurred as the result of the late baby. I have had to tell my eldest daughter about her menstrual cycle while poking mashed bananas past perma-sealed lips. I have stood with Dave's grandmother touring a Senior Care Center with a baby in a stroller. I have had one child in the diving pool, one in the 6foot pool and one in the wading pool for three years in a row. And I have not had a good night's sleep since Bill Clinton's first administration. 

Now, forty three years old, a year older than my mother was when I was born, I begin to get the point. I am still very active at the elementary school, I am now, always have been and seemingly always will be training for a marathon, and I am still my husband's child bride, but things are a little different for me now.

For one thing, orientation at school? That should only be attempted after one large margarita. Because first grade teachers, bless them, are WAY too enthusiastic. And we have seen it all. All the other mothers who are dolled up for Orientation in cute little cropped sweaters and snazzy shoes are all a-twitter about the innovative way the children will be learning the denominations of money. I'm sitting in the back thinking, "Oh, no, please not "buying recess" again!" They are all about "what should my child be reading in summer to prepare for first grade?" I groaned, I actually groaned out loud. My goal for the summer is to keep Betsy from eating so much sand that she gets worms. Again. 

"Tell me, Mrs. Foster, may I come in and just watch little Cooper in class on occasion? I just love to watch him learn. It's such a magical time." 

Mrs. Foster patiently gives the detailed parameters for parent involvement in class… I'm picking my cuticles thinking: because if you come every day you'll screw up his life! Get a JOB, a HOBBY, a HABIT for goodness sake! Find a modifier for your name tag that is not "Cooper's Mommy."

 "Oh, and if you have any questions, you can ask Mrs. Robertson, she is your room mom and she is a veteran at these things."

A veteran. Now I'm a veteran. Because anyone who has seen my eldest knows I've been in the trenches. Because aside from the obvious emotional and intellectual toll it takes on a person to bring three other humans safely and sanely into the world, my body very closely resembles a battle scarred war vehicle. My feet are two sizes bigger, at any rate. And yet, if I were a veteran, I would have free healthcare. Gee, I guess that's not accurate then, is it?

But I smiled. Indeed, yes, it is true, I laughed. Do you know why? Because I could not see it at the time, but just as surely as Abraham and Sarah were given a gift from God, so was I. Just as Isaac was the beginning of something his parents could not know, so my little last lamb is the start of something new.

She can sing the entire Patty Page Songbook. She knows how to call her older sister "stupid" in American Sign Language. She can run so fast that her "colors run together" and every day when I sing, "Whoa, whoa, hey, hey," she answers, "I love you more than I can say."

At forty three when I had envisioned myself working at NPR and wearing Anne Taylor suits, I am now giving up coloring my hair, because who has time for that and when the mail comes I sing the Mail Song from Blues Clues. And while the mothers of middle schoolers I know have pop songs for their ring tones, mine plays the Wonder Pets Theme Song: "The phone! The phone is ringing! There's an animal in trouble somewhere." 

But unlike Sarah, I have companions. There are two other moms in the kindergarten class who have children in middle school as well. And we are old and grey and young and stupid together. We sit in our cars and laugh and try to figure out how to handle our eldest child's first crush. We sit at the dining room after dinner and laugh as we are confronted with pre-algebra, a blank map of the continent of Africa to be filled in, and a book-in-a-bag about circles. It's okay, we laughingly tell one another, to spill wine in the "Sound Jar" and to sign the report card in green crayon. Even at Winter Program when our children sing the dirty lyrics to the Carols because their older siblings taught them to, even then we giggle and snort behind our hands. 

So, here is how I envision the whole Genesis 18 thing coming down: Abraham is out there with the three visitors and they tell him he will have a son with Sarah in a year. She is inside, cleaning up, mind you, having just served an impromptu meal complete with fresh bread to these guys, while Abe is out there shooting the breeze. She hears the prediction that they make and – no doubt about it – she laughed. "I'm way past it," she says, "And Abraham is older than me!" She snorted, you know she did, but to herself. It says "to herself." A girl is not even aloud to laugh to herself! And the Lord gives her the old evil eye and she waves her hands, trying to suffocate the laughter in her throat and says, "No, I wasn't laughing!" 

Then he says, because even the Bible can read like a Seinfeld script sometimes: "Yes, you did! You laughed!"

See, it's her laughter that does her in. It’s not that she doesn't believe or that she's incredulous at the proposition. She does herself in because she has laughter. God knows in that moment that she has the key ingredient to being a mother in your older years. She can laugh, even in her "advanced age" and so God feels confident giving her a child to raise.

So, a year later when she is a new mom, and ten years later when she is older than dirt and still a mom, in fact, long after everyone else has begat and moved on to other chapters, Sarah and her friends are still raising children. And they are still laughing. 

And thank God for that.


Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter everyone who hears will laugh with me.”  Genesis, 21:6

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.