This article by guest contributor, Seff R. Davis, originally appeared in a different version in Impact Magazine, September 27, 2017.
Summary: How is the smiting of Lot’s wife compatible with a God of love? One possibility is that the story works as an allegory for all people trapped between the life they know and the fuller life God intends for them. Through an interpretation of Hawksley Workman’s song “Safe and Sound” and the personal experience of her mother’s death from early-onset dementia, Seff R. Davis considers that perhaps Lot’s wife was mercifully protected from her suffering until such a time that she’s ready to move on to the better place God has promised.
The character of Lot’s Wife has always been a difficult one to reconcile with a God of love. Why does God smite this woman for looking back on the burning city that was her home? Can such a story reveal anything loving about God?
According to Jewish tradition, Lot’s Wife, who is given the name Edith, was watching for her daughters, who were married to Sodomite men. If God smote her for disobeying God’s command, God seems like a monster, killing a mother for worrying about her daughters’ lives or mourning their deaths. Could God really smite her merely for being sad to see her city die? Don’t we all love people who aren’t righteous, and doesn’t Jesus?
One way to avoid that interpretation is the possibility that she’s punished for being like Jonah, hoping to catch a glimpse of vengeance, thinking, “I want to watch those rapists burn!” This seems in keeping with the Jewish commentary remembered in the Passover service that says that when the angels cheered the Red Sea falling in on the pursuing Egyptians, God said, “How can you cheer when my children are drowning?” But unlike Jonah and the angels, who are merely reprimanded for their blood-thirsty thoughts, smiting her for wanting vengeance while raining fire and sulfur on others makes God not only monstrous but hypocritical.
Another possibility is that maybe this is just God in a weak moment. God is doing dirty work and is embarrassed to have it witnessed and acts out of that shame. How much murder is done because we can’t stand there to be a witness to our sins, in a paradoxical attempt to murder the murderer in ourselves reflected in our victim’s eyes? But that reading doesn’t make the story any better, does it?
In the essay “The Outskirts of Sodom” in Rainbow in the Word: LGBTQ Christians’ Biblical Memoirs, Tyler Heston offers a much more appealing alternative, with Lot’s Wife being an allegory that applies to queer Christians, “frozen at the intersection of two supposed conflicting realities– sexual orientation and faith.” I’d like to see the church that did not accept him for his sexuality respond to seeing themselves recast in the role of Sodom! Quoting Jeanette Winterston’s novel Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit, he says, “Pillars hold things up and salt keeps things clean, but it’s a poor exchange for losing yourself.” Lot’s wife then need not be seen as a horrible person, and neither is God. She is merely not ready to accept the blessing of a new life in a new, less violent place, and God is unable or unwilling to force her into that choice.
There’s a song that Hawksley Workman sings, written by Matthew Ryan Corrigan, that offers a related alternative. In “Safe and Sound”, a couple drives into the night, the voice of the song the driver, “you” the passenger, who sometimes trusts the driver to get to the destination but sometimes consults a map. “You slept through the last small town… your eyes are closed like you truly believe you’re safe and sound with me.” Later, ‘you’ wake and cry and we’re given the first hint that though the song works if it’s about two lovers or a parent and an older child, an allusion to the story of Lot’s wife hints that it could also be God speaking to a human: “No turning back, no turning into salt. Behind us the city was crumbling but baby, we’re not to fault” and we are reminded yet again, “you’re safe and sound with me, just like you always will be.” And yet, despite these assurances, “You read the map like you’re reading poetry. And it might just take you forever to believe you’re safe and sound with me.”
God tells her not to look back because it’s not her fault: maybe Lot’s wife was looking back out of guilt and was trapped by it, unable to move on. What if Lot had done a little better in the bargaining with God? What if she had been able to convince her daughters and sons-in-law? Even in cases when it’s very clear a person isn’t at fault, like a natural disaster, survivor’s guilt can be agonizing and keep a person from enjoying the blessing of a new life after the event that killed others.
Instead of smiting as they escape Sodom, God is incredibly gentle with your traumatized state: “my shirt sleeve dries your eyes”. The escape is the fulfilment of a promise of care, as God says, “When things got too rough, I promised you we’d leave.”
That line was on my mind when my mother was dying. Her brain was bleeding uncontrollably and that caused a terrible seizure as parts of her brain rapidly died. She was in terrible pain but unable to speak and I asked for more pain-killers. I knew that the amount of pain-killers needed to take away that much pain would mean she’d probably never wake again, never look at me and say, “Sweetheart” again, or even squeeze my hand and know I was with her, but I wanted her to be comfortable even more than I wanted her to be able to comfort me. “When things got too rough, I promised you we’d leave.” This is a mercy God gives all of us, a knowledge that when life becomes truly intolerable, we leave it, and my dearest hope is that it’s for a better place.
Out of love, I asked for my mom to be taken out of the agony she was in. Maybe instead of being punished, being turned into a pillar of salt was an act of mercy— “pillars hold things up and salt keeps things clean”, and a pillar can feel no pain. Maybe Lot’s wife was sort of cryogenically preserved— flash frozen to await a brighter future.
There’s no judgement in this song for not trusting that you’re safe and sound, no annoyance at your need to consult a map, just a gentle acceptance that “it might just take you forever to believe you’re safe and sound with me.” And Christian hope is we do have forever to finally believe. Christian hope is having faith that the Bible has it right when God says that in the fullness of time, everyone will “Turn to me and be saved, Every knee will bow to me, every tongue will swear allegiance” (Isaiah 45: 22,23) and every soul will be ready to be welcomed by God at the better place. I hope that even if it takes forever, Lot’s wife, that all of us, will move on to the better place God has promised, and that the daughters she has waited so long for will finally run into her arms and together, they will walk on to the better place God has promised.
Seff R. Davis is genderqueer. She teaches high school students with developmental disabilities. Her article, “The God Who Said: ‘My Bad'” was included in Rainbow in the Word: LGBTQ Christians’ Biblical Memoirs (Wipf and Stock, 2017). She has a Bachelor of Arts in English and Philosophy and a Master of Arts in English from McMaster University, a Bachelor of Education from York University, and studied theology at Emmanuel College of the University of Toronto. She is passionate about disability rights, opera, and the novels of Marilynne Robinson. She lives with her partner, one-year-old daughter, and a retired racing greyhound named Lady Gaga in Toronto, Canada. Please contact her @SRLimDavis.