The Unnamed, II: Lot’s Wife

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January 22, 2023

The Unnamed, II: Lot’s Wife

Passage: Genesis 19:12–29

During the season of Epiphany Christine and I are preaching the sermon series called “The Unnamed,” which we are looking at many, maybe hundreds of characters in the Bible that import to the story, but never get a name. This sort of gives us the excuse to follow the broad sweep of the story of God’s history with God’s people, from Genesis to Jesus, including this story:

Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city—bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up, get out of this place, for the Lord is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city.” …

Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven, 25 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…

So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had settled.

Well, what a strange and archaic story, huh?  How is this God’s word for you and me in a time like this? Well I’m glad you asked and I’ll tell you in a minute. But the Bible sure thinks it’s important.

The chronicle of Sodom and Gomorrah is the story from Genesis the rest of the Bible refers to most frequently.

Now, think about that for a moment.  Genesis gives us such beloved and foundational stories as Adam and Eve in the Garden, Noah’s Ark, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Yet the Bible mentions Sodom and Gomorrah more frequently than any of those.

It's easy to see why. The fiery demolition of these impressive but wicked cities is the Bible’s paradigmatic warning about the fires of hell. Behave!—as Austin Powers might put it—behave, or you’ll end up like all those of Sodom and Gomorrah.

We’re not really sure where Sodom and Gomorrah were located, because, as the story so helpfully points out, there’s nothing left, but the best guess is that they were located at the southeastern corner of the Dead Sea.

Many of you have been there, so you know that the Dead Sea is the lowest land point on earth, 1414 feet below sea level. The earth’s crust is flimsy there. Just below the surface, volcanic and brimstone-like activity frequently threaten to heave up there. Pillars of salt loom above the landscape, literally. The story from Genesis might be the ancient memory of an actual volcanic event. In a word, Sodom and Gomorrah were next door to hell, in more ways than one.

Lot and his wife have lived in Sodom for 20 years. They raised their daughters there. This is home. The story is too salacious for me to get into the details, but Sodom and Gomorrah are so wicked God wants to annihilate them and all their inhabitants.

I attended Christian schools, K–12. We had Bible class Every. Single. Day. It’s no accident that I still do Bible for a living. I have heard this story a hundred times, and even at a young age when my Bible teachers talked about Sodom and Gomorrah, my young mind conjured images of Las Vegas, famous for gambling, greed, vice, racketeers, and garish, undressed floor shows.

But you know what? They’ve cleaned it up. A little bit. They still gamble there. I wouldn’t exactly call it family-friendly, but it is dog-friendly. In May we were on our way from Bryce Canyon in Utah to Death Valley in California, and we needed a place to stop in between, so Kathy the Travel Agent Par Excellence finds out that the New York, New York Hotel in Las Vegas takes dogs. To get from the lobby to your room, the dog has to thread his way across the casino floor, acres and acres of slot machines and blackjack tables.

We could barely get there. People kept stopping us to talk to Doogie. I bet 20 people stopped to take a selfie with Doogie. I guess they were all far from home and missed their dogs. They were disappointed he didn’t do autographs. Finally someone stopped and asked us, “Who is this dog?” We said, “What do you mean?  This is just Doogie.” And this guy from Nebraska or wherever says, “Everybody is making such a fuss over him, we thought he was a movie star or something.  Is he Air Bud?” The next morning, we had breakfast on the Strip and Doogie got his own order of bacon.

So maybe we need a new contemporary American image for Sodom and Gomorrah, but in any case, God thinks those cities are wicked and means to put an end to all the gambling, greed, and gaudiness.

Lot, however, is the favorite nephew of God’s favorite person Abraham, the chosen one, so God does Abraham a favor by spiriting Lot and his family out of the city before the holocaust. “Scram!” says God. “Now!” says God.  “Don’t even look back!” says God.

But Lot’s wife can’t help herself. Mid-sprint, she looks back over her shoulder. First of all, the blitzkrieg is like a trainwreck—you can’t look away. You want to, but you can’t. More importantly, this wife and mother has lived there for 20 years. These are her friends and neighbors. They’re doomed. They’re gone. “Don’t look back!??” As if!!! Nevertheless, she is instantly ossified into a pillar of salt. Could it be that some ancient minstrel spun this wild legend after seeing a rock formation between Masada and the Dead Sea?

Lot’s wife has not fared well in the annals of Christendom down the centuries. We were always taught that God chastised her because she could not make a clean break with an unworthy home and an unseemly past. Her backward glance meant that she longed for what needed to be done and gone. She refused to sprint forward to whatever new future God had in store for her.

But lately, interpreters are redeeming her reputation. Kurt Vonnegut wrote his eccentric novel Slaughterhouse Five after fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and witnessing the firebombing of Dresden in 1944–1945. The firestorm covered six square kilometers; 25,000 people died. He conjures the ghost of Lot’s Wife.

He acknowledges that there were lots of vile people in Sodom and Gomorrah. There were lots of vile people in Dresden. Dresden was full of hateful Nazis. Maybe the world is better off without them. But then he says “Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”[1]

What does she mean, Lot’s wife? Why is this brutal story part of Holy Writ? Maybe she symbolizes our ambivalent relationship to the past. So much has happened to us, good and bad. Sometimes we wish we could just leave it all behind and begin again. If we had a do-over, we’d make different choices: a different education, a different career, less career, a different partner; it just never worked out; we should have been so much happier. It’s like we wasted 20 years of a life that is already way too short. Those sad and bitter things that happened to us—we rue them and are glad that they’re gone. Let’s flee the wicked place and take refuge where it’s safer.

But all those sad and bitter things, all that lost love, all those questionable choices—they made us who we are, and a glance back is only natural, only human. Maybe God didn’t rebuke Lot’s Wife. Maybe God immortalized her—for all times, so that we’d remember. There she stands, forever and always, on a ridge overlooking the Dead Sea. Dash forward; glance back. It’s only human.

A woman is skiing with her husband in Sun Valley. They are having so much fun. She is so happy. Then she wakes up. And weeps. He’s been gone for six years. At least she had a few moments, even if they weren’t real. Race forward; glance back.

Names are so important. Giving someone a name is a way of honoring her, respecting her, loving her. You can tell from his poem that my hero Brian Doyle comes from a large, devout Irish-Catholic family. To keep everyone straight, they needed nicknames.

So there is John Kevin the Math Genius, and a sister: Betsy God Bless Her; she’s a nun, you see. There is Thomas More Patrick the School Principal, and Brian the Writer. It doesn’t matter if the child is current or past tense, either. The oldest child is Seamus Who Went on Ahead, whom none of his brothers and sisters have ever met. And Christopher Who Died in His First Hour, and their brother Patrick Born Too Early, just half-way through his wet voyage so he couldn’t breathe, my blessed boy Patrick.

So it is that sometimes there are five children at dinner, and sometimes more. I suppose this happens to lots of families. We don’t talk about it. Time seethes like the sea. But there, this morning, at the end of the table, is my brother Seamus Who Went on Ahead. His mouth is filled with stars. If I close my eyes, I can see him.[2]

Dash forward; glance back. That way we keep alive what’s supposed to be dead and gone. Time seethes like the sea.

Oh by the way. She never gets a name. Either the storyteller didn’t know it or didn’t think it worth mentioning. The rabbis thought this was so wrong. So they called her Edith.

Brian Doyle,  “Patrick Born Too Early”
The Christian Century,  April 27, 2012

In my first family, the children were referred to not only
By their given names and often their religious names also,
But often by an identifying characterization as well: John
Kevin the Math Genius, for example. Our sister, a nun, is
Betsy God Bless Her, and our youngest brother is Thomas
More Patrick the School Principal; Peter Joseph in Denver
Is in the middle with your humble scribe Brian the Writer.
It doesn’t matter if the child is current or past tense, either;
Our oldest brother is Seamus Who Went On Ahead, whom
None of his brothers or sister has yet met, and there is tiny
Christopher Who Died in His First Hour, whom we expect
To meet also at some undetermined hour. And there is our
Brother Patrick Born Too Early, born just halfway through
His wet voyage, and so he could not breathe, but that child
Would have been a giant, says our mother quietly—he was
Tremendous in size even half born, my blessed boy Patrick.
So it is that sometimes there are five children at dinner and
Sometimes more. I suppose this happens to lots of families.
We don’t talk about it. Time seethes like the sea. But there,
This morning, at the end of the table, is my brother Seamus,
His mouth filled with stars. If I close my eyes I can see him.

[1]Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, originally published 1969, from Novels & Stories 1963–1973, ed. Sidney Offit (New York: The Library of America, 2011), p. 359.

[2]Brian Doyle, Patrick Born Too Early,” The Christian Century, April 26, 2012.

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