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B'resheet/Genesis 19:15 Rise! Take your wife and your two daughters who are found, lest you be swept away in the sin of the city.
Although thought to have originated much earlier, the proverbial saying, "He who hesitates is lost," is attributed to the English playwright Joseph Addison, who used the line, "The woman that deliberates is lost," in his 1712 play, Cato, about the life of Cato the Younger, a Roman statesman and philosopher of the first century BCE. Perhaps our text would be a good candidate for the earliest antecedent. Spoken by the angelic messengers sent to inspect - and then to punish - the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, they were directed at Lot, Avraham's nephew, as the angels urged him and his immediate family - his wife and two daughters - to leave the city before its destruction by "sulphurous fire from the L-RD out of heaven" (B'resheet 19:24, NJPS). The verb - the Nif'al 2ms prefix form of the root , "to sweep away, wipe out, destroy" - is only used in this exact form twice in the Tanach (Davidson), here and two verses later when the angels repeat their warning: "Flee to the hills, lest you be swept away" (v. 17, NJPS). David Clines points to the verse "All who are caught shall fall by the sword" (Isaiah 13:15, NJPS) and suggests that the word can have the idea of "one who is carried or swept away, a captive."1 To what might Lot be a captive?
Targum Onkelos changes the Hebrew "destroyed or swept away" to the Aramaic , which has a meaning close to 'affected' and does the same in "lest you be wiped out for all their sins" (B'Midbar 16:26, NJPS) while leaving Avraham's earlier challenge to HaShem, "Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked" (B'rehseet 18:23), as 'destroy'. There is clearly something going on in Onkelos' mind to need two different translations in the same story. Drazin and Wagner suggest that the word choice here "might be to describe the angels as urging the women to rush so that they will not be close to the destruction and be injured." This idea is given more credence by the report a few verses later that "Lot's wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt" (19:26, NJPS). We'll consider below how Lot's wife was 'affected' when she looked back, as if included in the destruction of the city or contaminated by association/proximity.
The two verbs at the start of the angelic urge - , from the root , "to rise, stand, get up," and , from the root , "to take, seize" - are both in imperative form; the messengers are telling or even commanding Lot to stop procrastinating and leave without any further delay: "Come on! Get up! Do it now!" Gordon Wenham comments that "The righteous (see, for example, Noah) are expected to be prompt in obeying divine commands. Delaying shows indecisiveness and an incapacity to leave everything behind."2 The previous verse tells us that "Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who had married his daughters" (v. 14, NJPS), so we know that Lot had other family in the city that he had tried to persuade to leave with them, but RabbiHirsch has the angels say, "Be satisfied with the members of your family whom you have here in your house; if you linger making further attempts, the oncoming catastrophe might overcome you also." Sometimes we just have to go with what we have or can get right now; waiting for more (people, stuff or money) takes too long and brings disaster.
When Jerusalem was about to be taken by the Babylonian armies in 587 BCE, King Zedekiah sought advice from the prophet Jeremiah. "What should I do?" he asked, "What is going to happen?" Jeremiah responded with a word from the L-rd: "Thus said the L-RD, the G-d of Hosts, the G-d of Israel: If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down. You and your household will live. But if you do not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, this city will be delivered into the hands of the Chaldeans, who will burn it down; and you will not escape from them" (Jeremiah 38:17-18, NJPS). But Zedekiah hesitated; he couldn't bring himself to do this, to humble himself and surrender. When the city walls were breached, Zedekiah tried to flee but was caught; all his children were killed in front of him, then he was blinded and taken in chains to Babylon. Jerusalem was then plundered, burned and destroyed, exactly as the L-rd had said. Like Lot, Zedekiah had been given a clear choice and warned about the consequences of not obeying. Unlike Lot, who did eventually follow his orders, Zedekiah delayed and then tried to escape - and was lost.
Have you ever received an envelope in the post marked, "Contains Time Sensitive Material - Open Without Delay"? While it is true that most of them are just marketing rubbish, trying to use the lever of 'scarcity' to fool you into buying something you don't need or want, some are genuinely important documents that you need to process immediately. These might include court hearings, shareholder information or possibly city or local government notices. Communications from heaven fall in this category: they really are important and need to be attended to on an immediate basis if not sooner. Putting them on one side and thinking, "I'll get back to that one when I've got the time to give it the attention it deserves," is simply trying to avoid G-d and will always result in trouble. It will not only catch up with you but bite you as well!
Now let's go back to consider what happened to Lot's wife and why she was 'affected' by the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Why did she look back? It is possible that it was simply curiosity - she wanted to see what was happening. If so, then perhaps this was the penalty for her disobedience - the angels specifically told Lot, his wife and two daughters, "Do not look behind you" (B'resheet 19:17, NJPS). A more likely reason is that she entered into the judgement of Sodom because she didn't really want to go. It had taken a lot of pressure to get Lot moving; his heart really wasn't in it and although the text says nothing about Mrs. Lot, it is quite likely that she identified with the city more than he did. She looked back because her heart was still there and that is why she was 'affected' by the destruction. Terence Fretheim comments that "the effects of sin flow out of the sin itself; they are not introduced by G-d from outside the situation."3 No new special punishment was brought about for Lot's wife; she participated in the destruction of Sodom because, in her heart, she was still there.
Let's now switch to another piece of time sensitive material: Yeshua's teaching about the day of His return. We should notice that this is not connected with the prophetic comments that some scholars associate with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE; it is Second Coming prophecy. First Yeshua references the days of the flood in Noah's time: "Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all" (Luke 17:27, ESV). Then He references the destruction of Sodom: "Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot -- they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all" (vv. 28-29, ESV). Then He stresses the need to be ready: "On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot's wife" (vv. 31-32, ESV). Looking back, wanting the things left behind, delaying to bring stuff along on the journey, perhaps even hoping to come back - Yeshua makes a deliberate connection to Lot's wife, whose heart wasn't really in going at all. Choices are going to be made, instant heart choices that will reveal where each person stands: "in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left" (vv. 34-35, ESV)).
So what's wrong with city life? Most of us live in cities today - is this significant? James McKeown writes that, "Lot, having once forsaken city life to follow his uncle in obedience to G-d, has been drawn again into city life and finds it almost impossible to leave. City life is not presented as necessarily sinful, but in the context of the ancient world it is certainly presented as a place where rebellion against G-d can easily develop."4 I think we can easily apply that to modern cities too! Is the "city life" impossible to leave? Convenience, accessibility, lifestyle - food, drink, parties, music, arts, theatre - pick your poison. Which of these would we be prepared to give up should the L-rd call us out? If we heard a word today, "Get up and go! Flee now to save your lives!" would we flee or try to engage or negotiate with our current circumstances? It would probably depend on whether we took the threat seriously or not. Rural and country folk actually have exactly the same choices to make, but the names of the issues are slightly different.
Actually, we have all been given that word. In Matthew's version of the teaching, Yeshua ends with the instruction to, "stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (Matthew 24:42, ESV), which puts us all on notice. Rav Sha'ul cites the word given to those about to return to Judea from Babylon, "'Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,' says the L-rd. 'And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,' says the L-rd Almighty." (2 Corinthians 6:17-18, NASB), echoed by John's vision of the spiritual Babylon: Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, "Come out of her, My people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and G-d has remembered her iniquities" (Revelation 18:4-5, ESV). Without pointing the finger at anyone in particular and making no claims about what or when 'her' might be, each and every one of us is called out of the attractions, delusions and snares of the world, the "sin that so easily entangles us" (Hebrews 12:1, NASB), so that we are free at a moment's notice to answer the call and direction of the Holy Spirit.
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 301.
2. - Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994), page 57.
3. - Terence Fretheim, "Genesis" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 139.
4. - James McKeown, Genesis, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), page 108.
Further Study: Proverbs 6:1-6; Luke 13:22-25; Hebrews 10:35-39
Application: What might be holding you back from responding to the call of G-d in your life today? Do you sense that the urgency of the angels' message applies to you? Time to call base and find out what you need to do to get to the heavenly state of readiness!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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