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S is for Salt

Could it be, the poet Natalie Diaz asks, that Lot’s wife looked back because “she wondered had she unplugged/the coffee pot? The iron?/Was the oven off?”[1] Perhaps it was a simple household safety alarm that went off in her head, provoking her to turn around and look back towards home.

Was it nostalgia? Did Lot’s wife look back at the city because, for all its problems, she had lived there for a long time, perhaps her entire life? In the same way we love to look back at old pictures to remember, she longed for one last look at the city in which she married her husband, held her newborn babies, and buried her grandparents?

Was watching Sodom be destroyed destroying her too? Was her heart breaking for everyone she knew and loved who was not being escorted out of the city by angels? Did someone call her name, pleading for help, for relief, as the poet suggests?

Looking back. It’s a part of life. I look back at emails 484 times a day. I look back at my account activity to make sure I actually paid the bill. I look back at the grocery list to be sure I got everything.  In a novel I recently read, the hero is hoping the heroine will look back at him just once, so he knows all hope is not lost as she walks away. At some point or another, most of us have looked back on our choices- would things have been different if I’d married someone else? If I’d taken the job? If we’d moved away.

In A is for Alabaster, Anna Carter Florence offers a litany of reasons for looking back. She writes, “…we all look back as part of daily living- for our keys or gear or where we left the mail, and hundreds of other things so mundane we hardly even notice…So we can lock the door and leave the house. Look out for cars and cross the street. Check for footprints on the clean floor. Give a hug and wave good-bye. There are always reasons, and they have a purpose and impact…”[2]

The reasons “have a purpose and impact.” And if that is true, we should at least consider why Lot’s wife looked back at the city as it was being destroyed. History and commentary have been quick to write her off as disobedient, as one who deserved the consequence she received. And maybe that is true, but maybe, just maybe, she didn’t know to take the directive so literally. Maybe Lot didn’t relay the message. Maybe there is more to the story.

And what a story it is. It’s a messy one, often misinterpreted by the same kinds of assumptions that cause us to believe Lot’s wife is nothing more than disobedient. It begins in chapter 18 where Abraham offers exemplary hospitality to three men, men, we later learn, who are angels and perhaps even God’s own self. In the course of this visit, God talks to Abraham about plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; a cry had risen up against the cities for evil done there. In the Genesis account, we are not told what the sins of the city are, but in Ezekiel 16:49-50, we learn more. The city had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things.” So, it seems that the sins of the city were related to economic injustice and based on violence and attempted sexual assault on Lot’s angelic guests, their sins also include an utter lack of hospitality (a most grievous sin in that culture) and a lack of respect for people in general.

And so, the city is to be destroyed. The angels/men tell Lot to get his family out. When he begs them to come, his sons-in-law laugh, thinking Lot is joking. But as the day dawns, it’s clear there is no joke here. Lot lingers, but the angels take him, his two daughters, and his wife out of the city by the hand. Think about this for a moment- if they are literally taken by the hands, Lot’s family cannot be carrying anything from their home beyond what could perhaps be carried on their backs or in a bag carried by the other hand. Let’s not pretend we wouldn’t want to look back as we walked away from everything we owned.

The angels send them to a small city not so far away, and when they arrive, sulfur and fire begin to rain down on Sodom. And it is then, that Lot’s wife, moving forward but trailing behind Lot, looks back. Did she think it was safe to look back since they’d arrived at their destination? She turns into a pillar of salt, and she too is left behind. I wonder how far her husband and daughters walked before they realized she wasn’t with them anymore. Did they have to stop themselves from looking back to see where she’d gone, or had they crossed the invisible barrier that granted them immunity?

Our reasons have “purpose and impact.” It’s a running joke in my family that when my sisters or me did anything to misbehave, our Mimi would always say “oh, she’s just tired.” We never did anything bad because we were bad, we behaved badly because we were tired. Or at least that’s what our grandma would have you believe. But now, in her defense, I can see that exhaustion or hunger or overwhelm or fear or any of a dozen other circumstances can lead to a person making bad choices. It’s not an excuse, but it is a reason, a contributing factor.

The reason for anyone’s bad choice is almost never simply that “they are a bad person.”  A more honest assessment would prove that they are a frightened person who is grasping for safety and control, or a jealous person who seeks proof that they, too, are lovable, worthy, good. Perhaps it is a sick person whose illness or addiction is in the driver’s seat of their decision making. Or a hurt person who is doing everything they can to hurt you in a futile attempt to not let themselves be hurt any more. Maybe it’s just that they are human, and all humans make mistakes, break things, sin.

Exploring the deeper story about why we do the things we do- the good things and the bad things, isn’t making excuses for bad behavior. It is looking at another with compassion, and in that compassion, the other person has space to change. When we only see people a certain way, when we define them completely by their bad choices, we keep them frozen there, unable to change.

For a long time, I believed that I was bad at math. I didn’t really like studying math, and I had to work to earn a good grade. I told myself that I was bad at math so much that I actively avoided it in college and when it came time to earn my second required math credit, I chose Logic so as to completely avoid numbers. When I interviewed to enter my doctoral program, I told the professor that I would have to do qualitative research because I couldn’t handle the math. And my GRE scores indicated that it was entirely possible that indeed, I did need to stay away from research that involved numbers. But then, when it came time to take the statistics courses (that were required, obviously- I never would have chosen to take them), I actually did fine. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be and I never had to ask Daniel to do my homework at all!

I had a teacher whose methods made sense to me, I could understand the process and why it worked, and how to do it. And when I started receiving evidence that I actually was reasonably good at statistics, I stopped telling myself that I was bad at math. It wasn’t true, at least not anymore. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was good at it, but I was good enough! Good enough to complete a dissertation with quantitative analysis. (But as a sidenote: please don’t ask me to do it again.)

Here's my point: we create stories for ourselves and others that keep us all in boxes. Maybe “bad at math” isn’t a deeply important story, but I got a valuable lesson from that experience. The stories we tell ourselves matter. The reasons have a purpose and impact.

I am reminded of the story from John 8 where the Pharisees and religious teachers approach Jesus with a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. “The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” they challenge Jesus. And after taking some time to write in the dust with his finger, Jesus says “let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.” Each of the accusers leave, one by one. Jesus speaks to the woman, “where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she replies. “Neither do I. Go and sin no more,” he tells her.

There is no condemnation here. There is the opportunity for change, for transformation, for growth. This is not the end of the woman’s story. In fact, it may be just the beginning. And maybe this is just the beginning of your story. Maybe it’s worth asking yourself why you do the things you do- is it because you are living into a story that has caused you to accept the sin in your life as an unchangeable fact? Why do those in your life whom you judge do the things they do? Is it because something in them needs healed?

If we look at people like Lot’s wife and decide she is nothing more than a disobedient woman, we turn our hearts off to the possibility of change. We turn ourselves into pillars of salt. Unmovable, unchangeable as stone. We turn others into statues, monuments of their sins. But this is not the way of the one who invites us into new life. Friends, go and tell yourself the true story, not the old story. You are a child of God, and so is everyone else! Go and live into that story. Go and sin no more. Amen.

[2] Carter Florence, Anna. A is for Alabaster (2023), 79.

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