The salty fate of Lot’s wife (Genesis chapter 19)

  • Question 177, from Andrea

    Why did Lot’s wife turn into a Pillar of Salt?

    The story in Genesis chapter 19 of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah includes the escape by Abraham’s nephew Lot, who is warned of the imminent destruction by angels and told to flee. After much prevarication, he does so with his household. However, his wife turns to look back as they flee and is caught up in the carnage of the two cities’ destruction, with the writer of Genesis describing her being ‘turned into a pillar of salt’ (verse 26).

    Sodom and Gomorrah have become famous as two cities of great iniquity – where the vices of evil men ran free. In chapter 18 of Genesis, Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the city, because there were some good people living there. In contrast, Lot, a resident of Sodom, pleads with the angels to spare another nearby small city that he could live in instead – a place called Zoar (see chapter 19, verse 22). This is an effective way for the writer to contrast the characters of Abraham and Lot – one is selfless and the other self-preserving.

    Sodom and Gomorrah were located in the area of the Dead Sea; an area prone to geological and volcanic activity. It is rich in minerals, including sulphur and bitumen. The Southern end of the Dead Sea is very shallow and appears to have been formed in the very recent geological past, perhaps in a cataclysmic event that would have destroyed any human settlements in the area. Whether this was caused by God or was a natural event will depend on your point of view.

    It may be that the story of Lot is set during this event, when feasibly seismic activity triggered a natural explosion in the mineral deposits causing widespread destruction of the area. If Lot’s wife turned back to the city and was caught in the open when the blast struck, she may well have been filled by falling debris. Rock salt is a common mineral in the area and she may have been crushed by a large block of it so that it looked like she had ‘turned into a pillar of salt’.

    The story has been used widely in Jewish and Christian teaching as a warning to obey divine commands and not hanker after the things of the world. This is dependent on a belief that the destruction of the cities was an act of judgement from God.

    In common teaching on Lot’s wife’s fate, she died because she didn’t want to leave Sodom, where presumably she lived a life of luxury, or for not having faith in the warnings from God’s messengers and disbelieving them about the danger she was in. When used like this, the story becomes a very clear instructional tool and little more than a parable.

    Finally, the whole story can be regarded as ‘etiological’, meaning that it is a story that provides an explanation for something – a bit like the rainbow being a sign of God’s promise at the end of the story of Noah’s flood. The story of Lot fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah provides an explanation for the landscape of the Dead Sea, while his wife’s fate acts as an explanation for the large quantities of rock salt in the region. Even today tourists are shown large columns of rock-salt called ‘Lot’s wife’. Such ‘explanatory stories’ occur throughout the Old Testament (usually to do with place-names), and were common in other middle eastern cultures of the time as well.

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