What is the story of Lot’s wife, and why was she turned into a pillar of salt? The short version of the story is this: while escaping from the city of Sodom shortly before God destroyed it with fire and brimstone, Lot and his family were told not to look back on the destruction of the city. Lot’s wife disobeyed this order, and became a pillar of salt.
But why a pillar of salt? This curious story appears to have its origins in the distinctive topography of the Dead Sea. Let’s take a closer look.
Lot was the son of Haran and the nephew of Abraham. His name is thought to mean ‘to wrap closely’. He was a companion of Abraham’s in Canaan, and travelled around with him, until they decided to part ways. Lot chose to go to Sodom.
Despite the fact that they went their separate ways, Abraham continued to look out for his nephew. Genesis chapter 18 tells us that when God told Abraham that he planned to destroy the city of Sodom for the ‘grievous’ sin of its people, Abraham pointed out that some righteous people lived in the city.
There follows a curious passage where Abraham convinces God to spare all of the inhabitants of the city if as few as ten righteous people can be found within it (he started with fifty people but managed to talk God down to just ten).
Then we move, in chapter 19, to Lot in Sodom itself, with its impending doom hanging over it. God sends two angels to the city, and Lot meets them at the city gates. He invites them into his house, calling him their servant, so they have somewhere to eat and sleep that night.
But when the men of Sodom hear that Lot has got some men staying with him (or what the folk of Sodom think are men), they come knocking on his door, demanding that Lot ‘bring them out unto us, that we may know them’ (19:5). That’s ‘know’ in the famous ‘biblical sense’ of the word ‘know’, as a man knows his wife: carnal knowledge, in other words. Because this is what the men of Sodom did, the practice of sexual relations between men became known as sodomy, after the city.
Lot doesn’t come out of the story looking well by modern standards. In order to shield the angels from this mob of men at his door, he offers the men his two daughters, telling the crowd outside that neither of his daughters has ‘known man’ (there’s that word again), i.e., they’re virgins. Thankfully (from our perspective), the men of Sodom aren’t interested in such a bargain.
The angels then take care of the men at the door, striking them blind before urging Lot to gather his loved ones together as the city is going to be destroyed and he and his daughters and other kin need to get out, as fast as possible.
Curiously, having said that his daughters hadn’t ‘known man’, Lot then goes and fetches his sons-in-law (presumably he was lying to the men at his door in order to make the prospect of his daughters more appealing to them). However, they think he’s having them on and refuse to leave with him.
When morning comes, the angels hasten Lot, his wife, and his daughters out of Sodom, and they leave, being told not to look back on the destruction that is going to be visited upon the city. God tells Lot to go and take refuge in the mountains, but Lot requests to be able to travel to a nearby city, Zoar. God agrees to spare that city, and so Lot and his wife and daughters set off for Zoar.
As soon as they’ve left, God rains down fire and brimstone upon the city of Sodom, as well as Gomorrah. In fact, there were two more cities destroyed in the catastrophe: everyone knows ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ and the two are often paired like this, implying there were just two cities destroyed. In fact, the cities of Admah and Zeboiim were also consumed by God’s wrath. The fifth city of the plain, Zoar (also known as Bela), was spared at Lot’s request.
Despite God’s injunction to Lot that they should not look back at the destruction of the cities, Lot’s wife did look back, and for her trouble she was turned into a pillar of salt (19:26). The next morning, Abraham beholds the smouldering ruins of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In a curious postscript – whose purpose appears to be to show that Lot was the progenitor of the people of Moab and Ammon – he leaves Zoar and goes to live in a cave with his daughters, who get their father drunk on wine and lay with him so they both conceive his children. Their descendants are, respectively, the Moabites and the children of Ammon.
What does this story mean? Is it pure fantasy (unless, of course, we choose to interpret the story literally and as a piece of history)?
We have dealt with the possible origins of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in some real-life catastrophic event – perhaps an earthquake and electrical storms – in a separate post. But what of the transformation of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, one of the strangest stories in all of the Book of Genesis (and this is a book which contains a talking snake, remember).
From a religious perspective, the meaning of Lot’s wife’s transformation may be more easy to explain. There’s a parallel in Greek myth: the lyrist Orpheus fell in love with the beautiful Eurydice, only for her to die shortly after; Orpheus made the journey into Hades, the Underworld, to try to bring his beloved back. His wish was granted – but on the condition that he mustn’t look back at Eurydice as she followed him out of Hades, until they were both safely back in the land of the living. Orpheus couldn’t resist one quick glance … and Eurydice was lost to him forever.
Both the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (which we’ve analysed here) and the story of Lot’s wife and the pillar of salt involve a spousal couple, where one of them flouts the command of a god (Hades; Yahweh) and looks back at something, with catastrophic results. Orpheus loses his wife (again), and Lot’s wife loses her life, and becomes a condiment. In both cases, this is the (severe) punishment for looking back when one has been expressly told, by a god, not to look back. As with the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man, where Adam is told not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the point is to obey these rules without question. But with this story there may be an added dimension, if we surmise that Lot’s wife is looking back longingly and wistfully on the life of sin that she and her husband have (reluctantly, in her case?) left behind.
It’s been suggested that, as so often with Old Testament stories describing the strange and the seemingly impossible, the transformation of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt arose from the peculiar shape of the cliffs in the area surrounding the Dead Sea. At the southwest extremity of that lake (the Dead Sea is, after all, a ‘sea’ only in name) there is indeed a great mass of salt which stretches in a north-south direction, as the authors of the Dictionary of the Bible note. This salt mass is some five miles long and three miles wide, and 600 feet high. In other words, it’s vast. You can see a smaller example of this structure in the photograph above.
This mass of salt now has a name: Jebel Usdūm, literally ‘mountain of Sodom’. This vast structure is crystallised rock salt covered with chalky limestone and gypsum. It’s said to resemble a human figure. So this is probably the origin of the story of Lot’s wife and her transformation into a (huge) pillar of salt: a ‘Just So’ story for biblical times, if you will.