She Chose to Turn: Lot’s Wife

Lot’s wife is mentioned in one verse in Parashat Vayera: “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”

The Sages see Lot’s wife as the complete opposite of her righteous husband. Rashi suggests that Lot’s wife sinned by salt, and therefore was punished by salt: “By salt had she sinned and by salt was she punished.”

Her first sin was when she asked her neighbors for salt, and told them she needs the salt to cook for her newly arrived guests, thus setting the whole city against the guests Lot endeavored to host and protect. Her second sin was when she defied the decree not to look back:

But he lingered; and the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the LORD being merciful unto him. And they brought him forth, and set him without the city. And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said: ‘Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the Plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be swept away.’

Since her first sin, the sin of giving away her guests, was with salt, she is therefore punished with salt for her second sin, the sin of looking backwards at the burning city of Sodom.

The Sages call Lot’s wife Edith, and define her as evil or evil-related:

The pity of Edith, the wife of Lot, was stirred for her daughers, who were married in Sodom, and she looked back behind her to see if they were coming after her or not… and she became a pillar of salt

   ~ Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer

“It shall go ill with him that is left in his tent” (Job 20:26)… what is the meaning of “shall consume the survivor in his tent?” That even if a single survivor is left… the evil… shall consume the survivor… Which survivor? This is Lot’s wife, Edith, of whom it is stated: “But his wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26)

   ~ Midrash Tanchuma

A more modern interpretation can see Edith as witness to the destruction of Sodom. The name Edith (Idit in Hebrew) shares a common root with Ed (Witness in Hebrew. The root is Ain Daled), therefore suggesting that Lot’s wife is bearing witness to the brimstone and fire that fall upon Sodom, destroying her world and killing her married daughters who remained in the city.

In line with the interpretation of Lot’s wife, Edith, as witness, we can consider Anna Akhmatova’s poem “Lot’s Wife”. In the poem Anna Akhmatova describes Lot’s wife as a witness to a great loss, a witness who refuses to part with “[her] native Sodom:” her home, the place in which she loved, became a mother and raised her children. The place her married elder daughters were left behind to die.  Akhmatova describes Lot’s wife, Edith-the-witness, as a woman who knowingly sacrifices her life for a last glance, a last moment of love, and in doing so becomes a monument to her loss.

Lot’s Wife
Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)

And the just man trailed God’s shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
“It’s not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed.”

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

Translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward.

Feature Photo: Quang Nguyen Vinh

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