VAYERA: A biblical mystery


Genesis 19:26 reads as follows: “But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.”

A very curious and enigmatic verse. Biblical commentators find it difficult to accurately ascertain what this means. And although no one can really and truly interpret this verse, a number of attempts are at least interesting. But first, some background.

Lot, Abraham’s nephew, lived in Sodom, a city that was known for its very evil ways. At some point, it seems that God had seen enough and was about to destroy the city by raining down burning sulfur.

In his kindness, God sent two angels to warn Lot and his family to get out of Dodge to avoid the catastrophe. As they began to flee, God warned them not to look back.

However, as they were running away, and as the sulfuric rain began, Lot’s wife turned to look upon the destruction, and was immediately turned into a Netsiv Melach – a pillar of salt.

How do we interpret this phenomenon? What meaning or lesson can we draw from it? What else could it mean? These are questions posed by both teachers and students of the Torah. Here are some of their thoughts: 

Rashi, a well-known commentator, wrote that it was not fitting that she should have witnessed their doom while she herself was escaping. Therefore, she was punished.

The feminist commentator Judith Antonelli summarizes these verses as reflecting the notion that watching the violent destruction of others is harmful to oneself. This adds to the concept that there are certain things one should not look at.

The voyeurism inherent in television shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother” attest to the notion that our urge to look at the private moments of others has spun out of control. The pillar of salt could stand as a reminder to just mind our own business.

Others offer that we’ll never know what motivated Lot’s wife to turn around and look. But her tragedy highlights our challenge: to develop our own “ethics of observation.”   

The midrash, a collection of folklore that attempts to explain the sometimes inexplicable, adds the following interpretation: The inhabitants of Sodom were known for their cruelty to strangers. In fact, inhospitality was included in their code of law. Lot was the exception. Although he lived in Sodom, the years that he had spent with his uncle Abraham had influenced him, and he had learned to emulate  Abraham’s hospitality.

When God sent two angels, disguised as men, to destroy Sodom, Lot invited them to his home and served them food. His wife, a native Sodomite, disapproved of his actions.

Lot asked his wife for salt for the guests and she replied, “Also this evil custom you wish to introduce into this place?” She had no salt in the house, and went from door to door asking neighbors for salt for her husband’s guests, letting everyone know that Lot had ignored the laws of the city by inviting in strangers.  The midrash thus explains, “She sinned with salt, and she was punished with salt.”

Yet another explanation for Lot’s wife being transformed into a pillar of salt offers a gentler approach. It is based on her having four daughters, two married and two betrothed. The two married daughters and their husbands remained in the doomed city. When Lot and his wife were saved from the destruction of the city, she took pity on her daughters who had remained in Sodom, and so looked behind her. 

One common view of Lot’s wife turning to salt is that it was punishment for disobeying the angels’ warning. By looking back at the “evil cities,” she betrayed her secret longing for that way of life. She was thus deemed unworthy to be saved and turned into a pillar of salt.

Another understanding is that when Lot’s wife looked back, she turned into a pillar of salt upon seeing God, who was descending to rain destruction on the city. And we read in the Torah (Exodus 33:20) that God says to Moses, “no one can see me, and live.”

And some claim that when the Torah relates that “she” turned into a pillar of salt, “she” may have been referring to the city itself, not Lot’s wife.

In 1985, London geologists claimed that they had pinpointed the probable site of the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and worked out a theory about why Lot’s wife was reported to have ended up as a pillar of salt.

The geologists said that Lot’s wife did not appear to turn into a pillar of salt because she dared to look back, but because of the briny nature of the Dead Sea. They explained that the Dead Sea was full of salt that might have been thrown up by surging water to resemble a female outline.  “Hence a story is created out of what can now be explained as a simple geological phenomenon,” they said.

So, what is the  “real” story behind this biblical event? Perhaps we will never know.

RABBI ETHAN ADLER is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth David, in Narragansett.

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