As a child I remember the scariest thing about Sodom and Gomorrah was that Lot’s wife turned to salt for looking back at her home as it was being destroyed. I felt completely scared that I, or my family would somehow disobey God and immediately turn into a pile of white powdery mineral. But now as an adult I’ve begun to wonder why the other parts of the story didn’t scare me as much. I mean, how did my Sunday-School teachers explain how men wanted to raped other men?
As I began to search the stretches of my mind I realized, they didn’t tell the whole story. The reason that I was only scared as a child by what happened to Mrs. Lot was that she was the only part of the story that was emphasized in Sunday School. There were other equally distressing parts to that story, though. I’m surprised the room filled with curious kids didn’t erupt with all kinds of questions, the most obvious being, what made the town so evil that God had to destroy it? Still, we somehow took this “simple” story in as it was presented, no questions asked.
The theological (always a student) side of me is upset by the fact that we as children didn’t get the whole story for accuracy sake. In trying to imagine how the felt-board my Sunday school teachers used would look, or how they would choose to reenact the whole story, I realize the story of Lot’s wife was enough to put the fear of God into any child in order to keep us obedient. And wasn’t obedience the point of the story? There was no need to share the entirety of the story. The teachers didn’t need to cut out a bunch felt characters of little angry men wanting to rape and harm the visitors to their town. Nor can I quite imagine how my teachers would have reenacted Lot being willing to have the angry group of men do whatever they wanted sexually to his two virgin daughters instead of harming the strangers he had only met earlier that day. Not to mention if we continue reading past the destruction of the city that Lot’s daughters end up getting him drunk and essentially raping him! I guess what goes around comes around?!
Obviously as a Lesbian I’ve had many people use this scripture to try and prove that God hates that I happen to be married to a woman, that his heart is to destroy us. But when I read this passage, I find that I’m so much more curious about lots of different parts of the story. For instance, why does Lot seem to be exonerated for offering his daughters to the mob? I’m pretty sure that would land someone in jail for the rest of their lives if done today! And why did his son-in-laws think Lot was joking when he told them to leave because God was about to destroy the town? Did Lot often mislead these men that they didn’t trust him, or had they come to know him as an old senile man who spouted off nonsense often? No matter how crazy my dad sounded, if he was warning me to leave a dangerous place, I would listen.
If you’re gay, one of the most important questions about this story is that if the sin of Sodom was homosexuality were all the men who came to rape the visitors gay? The text says, “all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old surrounded the house.” Does this mean somehow Lot lived in a town where every single man was gay – except him? And if they weren’t all gay, why would straight men enjoy or even want to have sex with other men, much less demand it? All the straight guys I know definitely don’t want to have sex with other men. And let’s keep the ball rolling here. If the sin of Sodom was anal sex, why isn’t all anal sex sinful? Is it only anal sex when it’s considered rape, or all gay anal sex? And if it’s that God considered gay anal sex so bad, why isn’t he outraged over rape? That’s not the God I know, one who could care less about rape.
What if the “sin of Sodom” wasn’t about sexual behavior, but was actually something else completely?!
Did you know that the sin of Sodom wasn’t considered homosexuality until the Hellenistic period? Even if we’re generous and say “let’s start the story of Sodom as an issue of sexuality” as a reading of the text coming out of the Babylonian period, that’s centuries that people believed “the sin of Sodom” was something other than men having sex with men; rather, people believed “the sin of Sodom” to be a lack of hospitality. The Talmud (a collection of Jewish thought on scripture) allows for a meaning where Sodom’s lack of hospitality through till today as a complementary reading rather than mutually exclusive reading. You see, the Jewish tradition believes that the men of Sodom were so intensely unwilling to share of their resources that they were willing to inflict any amount of harm on the poor, or outside visitors. In fact 19 out of the 20 other times Sodom and Gomorrah is mentioned in the Bible, they all focus on such things as their treatment of the poor. The men of this town were so evil that they would go to any lengths to maintain their prestige, power and wealth. This is the harm/sin that was done in Sodom; Men, willing to do any amount of violence in order to keep their wealth intact. It seems even just in the first few minutes of study we learn that a reading that has Sodom being about homosexuality is actually a new way of interpreting the scripture. Some say that interpretation didn’t even get any traction until the 11th century, during the Western Medieval period.
I still have so many questions about how we read scripture, but going back to the only part of the story I was taught in Sunday-School, the part about Lot’s wife. Of course there’s the obvious issue that as young people we were taught that one of the worst people in the story was a woman. In fact, Lot’s wife is not even named – she doesn’t even deserve a name, we are supposed to understand. And Lot’s daughters get him drunk to have sex with him. Are we supposed to believe that Lot is the victim of circumstance, marriage, and overly sexual daughters? Of course in a patriarchal, male dominated system such as the church, if you’re gonna put blame on anyone, or focus on “sin” and failure, it will be because of a woman. For example, even though King David himself admits to starting an adulterous relationship and killing a woman’s husband, we still blame Bathsheba for “inciting” David’s lust because she was bathing. We don’t blame Ahab for being a coward, we blame Jezebel. We don’t blame Job for “checking out” on life, we blame his wife for telling him to get up and do something with himself.
I fear in writing such strong words and standing up for the female character in the story that some of you might write me off as a raging feminist. And perhaps I am, raging and a feminist, but the truest part of my heart that is thinking about Lot’s wife is actually filled with much more tenderness than rage. Instead of fighting against men for a woman’s right (what people think feminism is about), I feel tender in considering her story and want to join her in what must have been the most painful moments of her life. I’m also filled with hope as I consider who I know God to be. This space of tenderness and reflecting allows me to imagine that there was something in the story that we were never told; perhaps a different meaning in her story.
As I think about this part of the story as an adult, a mother and someone who feels deeply connected to the place that I live, it makes me wonder about the request in the first place. This had been her home. She most likely had spent her entire life building friendships, had built her home with her hands. It was her home socially and materially, not to mention the possibility of having other family members, and her son-in-laws there in Sodom. And she’s not supposed to look back??? This request feels so cruel to me. And perhaps it was a cruel request, but maybe they knew looking back would hurt her more. You know, “You’ll never be able to get the picture of your friends and family burning to death out of your mind. It will torture you the rest of your life, so don’t do it” – that type of thing. Or maybe, with a woman’s intuition, she already knew. She had raised these girls, she had lived with this man. She knew who and what they were, and maybe it wasn’t judgment or an accident at all. Maybe she chose to look back.
But more than both of these I’m beginning to wonder if Lots wife being turned into a pile of salt wasn’t a punishment for her, but a blessing of sorts. Salt is a blessing in Mediterranean culture. I see an irony in her being cursed to become what will later be seen as a blessing to many and a vital part of all covenants. It’s imperative that we consider the choice of God in making her become salt. God could have chosen any mineral, or even just made her disappear. And if God turned her into something that was meant to mean blessing instead of curse what did she do that deserved a blessing? In Lot’s wife looking back there had to have been something of genuine compassion for those who’s lives were being taken and sadness for her loss, in a word grief. Surely she had family members, dear friends and lifetime of memories that were being destroyed. Perhaps God saw the goodness in her grief and wanted to bless it; especially knowing what was ahead for her immediate family. I for one will no longer see her as one of the villains of the story. And when I feel sadness, compassion and grief I will think of her and I will know there is a blessing somewhere in it all.
In the coming weeks I’ll be posting part 2 where I discuss the sin of homosexuality pointed at in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.