Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. —Genesis 19: 24-26
Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Lot’s wife. Forever nameless, she is typically perceived as one of the story’s “bad guys,” the character who gets her just desserts. Like the rest of her family, she has been warned by God to flee the city of Sodom and not look back. But as we know, she disobeys and takes one final peek, turning into what the Bible describes as “a pillar of salt.” Scholars disagree on what that really means—is she covered in volcanic ash, is she buried in some kind of thermal brine?—but the important thing is this: She doesn’t make it out.
Why she looks back is also subject to debate. Some argue that she was too attached to her cushy lifestyle and couldn’t bear to give it up. As explanations go, that’s plausible. Lot’s wife does indeed serve as a lesson in the value of detachment, of not clinging too tightly to possessions and status. But this isn’t the only hypothesis. Perhaps she was stubborn and didn’t really believe that God would destroy the city, or maybe she was just curious.
Surprisingly, the story of Lot’s wife has intrigued more than a few poets, all of them offering possible motives for her action. Among these is Kristine Batey, who in the opening lines of “Lot’s Wife” writes,
While Lot, the conscience of a nation,
struggles with the Lord,
she struggles with the housework.
Could it be, Batey suggests, that Lot’s wife was simply worried about the friends she was leaving behind? Could it be that she, like Mary’s sister Martha, was the one to whom the responsibilities of daily living fell?
What I appreciate most about Batey’s poem is that she doesn’t overlook the complexity of moral decisions—not those of Lot’s wife or, by inference, our own. More often than not, our choices are between two equally uncomfortable options, not between black or white, good or bad. As Batey insinuates, Lot’s wife could easily have been torn between her compassion for the friends she was leaving behind, and the demands of her faith. Which should take precedence?
Toward the end of the poem, Batey describes just such a dilemma. “Well and good to condemn your neighbors' religion,” she has Lot’s wife saying by way of explanation,
but weren't they there
when the baby was born,
and when the well collapsed?
How do we respond to those whose culture and religion are different from our own, yet who live with us as good neighbors?
O God, when I imagine that my choices are easy and the way ahead is clear, give me the wisdom to see the complexities of life and the humility to know that even my best answers may be flawed.