Fine Print (Gen. 18-19)

After a few of the details of the covenant are carried out, God and two other travelers pay Abraham a visit, remind him that God will make him a nation, and warn him that Sodom is about to be smitten. Abraham questions God’s authority to destroy the righteous along with the wicked. He asks God if he’ll spare the city if he finds “fifty righteous people” there. Abraham continues to bargain with God until it’s determined that God will leave the city alone if there are just ten righteous people (Gen. 18:23-33).

After all of the destruction brought to man by God, it’s refreshing to see one of the Bible’s heroes question the moral authority of the creator. It’s a pity he didn’t ask God to spare the city if one (or even no) righteous life is present.

While God and Abraham discuss the value of the righteous versus the wicked, God’s travelling companions continue on to Sodom and quickly find Abraham’s nephew, Lot. Lot takes the travelers into his home and proves himself to be a righteous man worthy of missing Sodom’s fate. He justifies his special standing with the Lord by trying to rescue the travelers from all of the city’s men, who apparently just want to have sex with them. How does Lot do this? By offerring the mob his virgin daughters as sex substitutes (Gen. 19:4-8).

Traditional family values, indeed.

Lot and his family escape shortly before the burning sulfur falls from the sky above Sodom. While they flee, Lot’s wife looks back upon the destruction and is turned into a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:26). Now, it’s true that the travelers warned Lot and his family about looking back. But if we look at what is recorded in Genesis, it’s hardly clear that Lot and his family should take the warning so literally.

As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away! (Gen. 19:17)

The warning that they’ll be “swept away” is clearly attached to the order “flee to the mountains” and not “don’t look back.” Furthermore, if Lot and his family were truly righteous in the eyes of God or if God is saving Lot to honor Abraham, I would expect God (and his traveling companions) to give them better information to avoid this punishment. It’s easy to see how the warning might be interpreted figuratively. Don’t look back, there’s nothing left for you in Sodom. Don’t dwell on your life there, it was a wicked place. Move forward with your life in the Lord.

If we’re to accept that these instructions were intended to be taken literally, we can expect that the trip out of Sodom was nothing short of a physical trial. “Don’t stop anywhere in the plain” lest you be turned to salt.

Even stranger, Lot returns to look back at the destruction the following morning and somehow manages to avoid upsetting God. Was Lot’s wife turned to salt because she saw the terrible glory of God? That would explain why looking back on the destruction after the fact doesn’t harm Lot. Considering Abraham had a face to face conversation with God shortly before, though, greatly discredits this argument.

Of course, maybe Lot’s wife doesn’t look back literally. Maybe she was harboring a regret and longing for her old life in the city and that’s why God acted. The idea of God harshly punishing people for thought-crimes doesn’t seem any better, though. Regardless, just from reading the scripture, it appears that Lot’s wife was unfairly punished. If there’s anything to take away from this story it’s that as Abraham demonstrated, it’s okay to question God. Lot’s wife missed her opportunity to do so and paid dearly.

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