Thoughts on Lot and his Wife
On the face of it, the instruction of Jesus in Luke's gospel that we should ‘remember Lot’s wife’ (17.32) is a bit strange. ‘Do not forget the one who was turned to salt because she could not forget’, is what he seems to be saying to us. Keep in mind this woman who suffered because she was keeping something in mind, turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back.
Although it is found in that section of Luke that is most distinctive (Luke 9.51-18.14), the passage in Luke 17 in which Jesus refers to Lot’s wife has a parallel in Matthew 24. Both texts speak about the coming of the Son of Man and the events associated with it. Both refer to the days of Noah when people ate, and drank, and married until suddenly the flood came and destroyed them all (Luke 17.27; Matthew 24.37-39). The warning is given in apocalyptic terms: life will go on pretty much as normal until suddenly the end comes.
Luke adds a further Old Testament reference. ‘Just as it was in the days of Lot’, he says, ‘they ate, drank, bought, sold, planted and built. But on the day Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur destroyed them all and so it will be on the day the Son of Man is revealed’ (Luke 17.28-30). The message is the same as that drawn from the reference to Noah: life will go on pretty much as normal until suddenly the end comes.
On that day, Jesus continues in Luke 17.31, people will be on the housetop or in the field. They are not to re-enter the house or turn back. This instruction is mentioned elsewhere in Luke (21.21) and also in Matthew 24.17-18 and Mark 13.15. The immediately succeeding verse, however – ‘Remember Lot’s wife’ (Luke 17.32) – is unique to Luke who then strengthens the general warning by citing two other familiar sayings. The first of these is that ‘whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Luke 17.33; Matthew 16.25; John 12.25). The second is ‘there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left, … there will be two women grinding meal together, one will be taken and the other left’ (Luke 17.34; Matthew 24.40).
This is the only reference to Lot in the gospels and there is only one other reference to him in the New Testament (2 Peter 2.7). It is easy to see why Lot’s wife comes to mind in a text warning that the appearing of the Son of Man will be as unexpected, for most people, as was Noah’s flood or the destruction of Sodom. The instruction to leave what you are at and not turn back brings Lot’s wife immediately to mind.
The other New Testament reference to Lot is another apocalyptic text, a warning about wrath and judgement to come (2 Peter 2.7). God, we are told, is quite capable of sifting and picking out the few or solitary righteous ones from a mass of sinners. We know this from the stories of Noah and Lot (2 Peter 2.4-10).
Lot’s wife is to be remembered as one who looked back to, and was held by, what she was being asked to leave behind. It paralysed her and meant that she missed the moment. This is how preachers have often used Lot’s wife and the warning of Jesus to remember her. A certain kind of attachment makes it impossible for us to enter the kingdom. We must be alert, watchful, detached, ready to go out to meet the Son of Man when he comes.
Jesus had already made the same point earlier in the gospel of Luke when he said that ‘no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven’ (Luke 9.62). According to Jeremiah 46.5, warriors fleeing in terror do not look back, and there are other Old Testament texts which also speak about ‘not looking back’ in situations of fear, terror and threat (Exodus 14.10; Joshua 8.20; Judges 20.40; 1 Samuel 24.8; 2 Samuel 1.7; 2.20).
Luke 17.20-37 contains elements that are found elsewhere but combined with elements that are not, and in an order that is distinctive, it gives us a unique teaching about apocalyptic and vocation. For example, although Luke 17.31 and 17.33 are found elsewhere in the New Testament, they are never linked in the way that they are here and it is the instruction to remember Lot’s wife that provides the link. The saying of Luke 17.33 about losing one’s life and gaining it is a very familiar saying of Jesus but nowhere in the New Testament, perhaps, is its radical requirement so clear as it is here, illustrated by the case of Lot’s wife.
In Genesis 19, today's first reading, we find the only explicit reference in the Old Testament to this unfortunate woman. Lot and his family were warned to run for their lives in order to escape the destruction of Sodom. They were told not to stop and not to look back (Genesis 19.17), but Lot’s wife disobeyed these instructions with disastrous consequences.
‘Lot’s wife’, The Jerusalem Bible says, seems to have been the name of an oddly shaped boulder or column of rock-salt somewhere near the Dead Sea, long since dissolved or at least changed beyond recognition. Josephus, Clement of Rome, and Irenaeus all speak about this unusual geological phenomenon which, in their time, was still to be seen in Palestine. Scientifically minded exegetes suggest that perhaps Lot’s wife, not moving fast enough, was overtaken by the salty waters of the Dead Sea or was caught in a salt storm being literally covered and petrified with salt. Very recently scientists have gone looking once again for the location of Sodom and speak of Lot’s wife as a salt floe in the shape of a woman.
The famous haggling scene between God and Abraham comes just before the destruction of Sodom. How many just people would be enough to lead God to spare the city? At this point in the story Abraham is childless so that his nephew Lot, the son of his youngest brother Haran (Genesis 11.27), is the one on whom the fulfilment of God’s promise rests. This explains the solicitude of Abraham for Lot and his family. When Lot is captured in a war between various kings, Abraham goes to release him (Genesis 14.16). When God informs Abraham of his intention to destroy Sodom, Abraham once again acts on behalf of Lot, seeking to save them from the coming destruction (Genesis 18). But the conclusion of the story of Lot’s rescue from the destruction of Sodom is that ‘God thus remembered Abraham’. It is about securing the promise to Abraham and once Isaac is born Lot disappears from the patriarchal narratives.
Abraham and Lot had travelled together from Ur to Canaan, and had separated there (Genesis 13.10f) with Lot settling in Sodom, a city already notorious for being full of great sinners. In opting for life in the big city, Lot was taking serious moral risks. A theme running through these events is that urban life is bad and rural life good. Lot stubbornly resists the warnings of the angels, and does not take them seriously. They have to take him and his family by the scruff of the neck and deposit them outside the city. They tell them to get away from the cities and go into the hills. Lot suggests the compromise of moving to Zoar, a city nearby, which is ‘just a little one’ (Genesis 19.22). It will not be as dangerous to his morals, then, as the great metropolis that is going up in smoke.
The angels of the Lord go to Sodom to warn Lot and get him out in time. The sin of the Sodomites is not so much the one to which the city later gave its name, and perhaps not even the sin of failing in hospitality as is often suggested, but rather the desire ‘to see the genitals of God’. Bring them out that we might know them, they say to Lot. Sin, for the Book of Genesis, is an inappropriate knowing, or the desire for a knowledge beyond proper boundaries. A city of such blasphemous desire, we may be being taught, deserves everything God can throw at it.
It is arrogance, according to the Book of Sirach, that explains the destruction of the neighbours of Lot (Sirach 16.8) whereas wisdom saved Lot, the Book of Wisdom says, in a passage that anticipates 2 Peter 2.6-8: in witness, a desolate land still smokes where shrubs bear fruit that never ripens and where, monument to an unbelieving soul, there stands a pillar of salt (Wisdom 10.7-8). Lot’s Wife, whatever it is, stands as a memorial to folly.