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B'resheet/Genesis 19:26 And his wife looked behind him and she became a pillar of salt.
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It is early one morning, just before sunrise, and a small group of people can be seen hurrying south before the sun breaks over the horizon. An older man and his wife, two younger women fleeing - just as people do today - from destruction and devastation behind them. Refugees are not just a modern phenomenon. These fugitives are making for the town of Zoar, almost at the southern tip of what is now called the Dead Sea, but suddenly the older woman turns as if to look back at the destruction behind them. As she does so, perhaps peeping round the larger frame of her husband, she freezes and appears to solidify as if turned to white stone. This is the story of Lot being saved from the destruction of Sodom; the two younger women are his unmarried daughters and it is Lot's wife who becomes a pillar of salt. Josephus claims (Antiquities 1.203) to have seen the pillar for himself in the years before the destruction of Jerusalem and Nahum Sarna points out that the inter-testamental book Wisdom of Solomon notes "A pillar of salt stands as a memorial to an unbelieving soul" (10:4).
The verb - a Hif'il prefix 3fs form of the root - means to look, to behold, or look upon with pleasure or anticipation (Davidson). Why did Lot's wife look back? The angel's instructions to Lot and his family were quite clear: "Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away" (19:17, JPS). Rabbi Eliezer claims that "Lot's wife was concerned for her two married daughters who were left behind in Sodom and looked behind her to see if they were following her" (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 25). Drazin and Wagner suggest that "Lot's wife doubted that the cities would be destroyed and turned to see what happened. She suffered the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom, some of whom became pillars of salt and others pillars of sulphur." Hirsch adds that "as she stood still she was overtaken by the form of death which was following close behind them". Radak notes that Lot's wife would have thus suffered the same fate as the other inhabitants, while the Bechor Schor comments, "She completely disappeared in a blanket of salt; yet popular notion has her body turning into salt and still being recognisable".
What is the connection with salt, which is otherwise not mentioned in the narrative in B'resheet? When the story is referenced by Moshe on the plains of Moab, he uses it as a warning about what will happen to the Land of Israel if the people sin against the L-rd: "its soil devastated by sulphur and salt, beyond sowing and producing, no grass growing in it, just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the L-RD overthrew in His fierce anger" (D'varim 29:22, JPS). The prophets also used it as a picture of punishment to be meted out to the surrounding nations: "Moab shall become like Sodom and the Ammonites like Gomorrah: clumps of weeds and patches of salt, and desolation evermore" (Zephaniah 2:9, JPS). The ancient rabbis suggest that Lot's wife had sinned with salt: "'And he made them a feast' (B'resheet 19:15) - he had been reared in the home of Abraham who showed hospitality to travellers. Rabbi Isaac said: A fierce quarrel broke out over the salt, for he said to his wife, ' Give these guests a little salt,' to which she replied, 'Do you want to introduce here that evil practice too?'" (B'resheet Rabbah 50:4). Lot wanted to give his guests salt to flavour their meal, but she criticised him for treating his guests so well - disturbing shalom beit by arguing with her husband and breaking the rules of hospitality. So she was punished through salt: "Rabbi Isaac said: Because she sinned through salt" (B'resheet Rabbah 51:5). Sarna comments that "In the Ancient Near East, a site was strewn with salt as a mark of eternal desolation in punishment for disloyalty and a breach of treaty (e.g. Judges 9:45)".
Perhaps we need to ask too, why they were forbidden to look back? Was it to prevent their eyes being damaged by the intense light and heat of what was about to happen?Rashi has the angel explain, "You did evil along with them, but you are being saved through the merit of Avraham; it is not permitted that you should see their punishment while you are being saved." Hirsch, looking at how dysfunctional Lot's family has become and is later to be, writes, "They were not to look back; that which he was leaving he should never have had. It was not just now that he was losing his children, he had consigned them to destruction when he married his daughters to men of Sodom and let his sons grow up as citizens of Sodom, and allowed his relation to his children to become of such a nature that in the hour of danger, he dared not even speak to them without being laughed at and ridiculed."
Where do we stand, in terms of our involvement with the world today? Have we left and disengaged; are we looking back, perhaps with a sense of longing or envy; or are we still entangled in the world? The writer to the Hebrews asks, "How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while G-d also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will" (Hebrews 2:3-4, ESV). Yeshua said that, "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of G-d" (Luke 9:62, ESV). There seems to be a definite cost involved in being part of or too closely associated with the world. Generations of parents and grand-parents ask whether we have failed our families and our children by letting them become involved with the world, marry non-believers, fall away from a living relationship with Yeshua.
There are always choices to be taken: do I do this, or do I do that? Can I wear this, can I eat that? Should I listen to this or watch that? Would Yeshua say that or go there? The choices that we take and the way we take them show where we are and whether we are looking back. Decisions to wear clothing that is too revealing, to watch red-certificate movies, to drink too much - these all indicate that we are probably still living to the world's standards so that our witness is compromised. People quickly ignore the "do as I say, not what I do" type! Talking about such decisions in a wistful voice, as if you wished you could still do that, shows that you are still looking back; others will quickly notice that you are not really committed to kingdom standards and will discount your witness accordingly - why should they want it if you clearly have issues?
Of course, no-one is perfect; everyone hesitates or wobbles occasionally - nostalgia doesn't fight fair - but our overall direction must be clearly different from the decisions, standards, choices and behaviour of the world. Make no mistake; this is not without cost. The biblical writers knew that only too well. Rav Sha'ul wrote that, "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify" (1 Corinthians 10:23, NASB. If our lives are to be profitable, built up, growing in strength and relationship with the L-rd, we need to reject some of those things that may be lawful but are not edifying. Our choice to do so will be noticed and questioned by others - "Why don't you ...", "How come you won't ..." - and this will provide an opening for talking about the kingdom. Positively as well, choosing to speak well of people, to wear attractive and modest clothes, to smile and say 'thank you', to bless G-d, will also be noticed - "Why do you ...", "How do you manage to ..." - and provide openings for talking about the kingdom. As we sacrifice the past and sever our addiction to the things of the world, we will grow in stature and character, becoming more like Yeshua and shining as a beacon to draw others to Him.
Further Study: Romans 14:17-19; Philippians 3:12-16
Application: Are you always looking over your shoulder and hankering after something from your past in the world? Now is the time to look firmly forward and set your eye on the horizon, "looking to Yeshua, the founder and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrew 12:1).
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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