Run To The Hills! Sodom and Gomorrah, Part 3

Run To The Hills! Sodom and Gomorrah, Part 3

Part 2 of this series dealt with Lot inviting two strangers, who turned out to be angels, into his home, and the inhospitable response of the men of Sodom. The two angels who visited Lot told him he must leave Sodom immediately, along with sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city. God is about to destroy not only this city but every city in the Plain of the Jordan. He told his sons-in-law, but they did not believe him. Only his wife and two daughters would go with him (Genesis 19:1-14). We pick up the story from there.

When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city.”

But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the LORD being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city. When they had brought them outside, they said, “Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed.”

(Gen 19:15-17 NRS)

Lot seemed to recognize the urgency of the situation before. So why did he linger?

And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords; your servant has found favor with you, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills, for fear the disaster will overtake me and I die. Look, that city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there–is it not a little one?–and my life will be saved!”

 (Gen 19:18-20 NRS)

If he runs to the hills, Lot is afraid the disaster will overtake me and I die. How far outside the city do they have to go to be safe? It doesn’t say. But for some reason, he thinks he will be safe in a city (just a little one) nearby (and it’s just a little one). What does he really fear, the disaster that could overtake him, or surviving after the disaster? And why is it so important that the city is a little one? Maybe he thinks the rampant wickedness he saw in Sodom only happens in big cities.

It sounds like Lot has become all “city-fied.” He knew what it was to live as a nomad when he was with uncle Abraham. But he has left the nomadic and herding lifestyle for the glamour, stability, and security of a city. He has gotten so used to city life, he does not think he can survive alone in the hills. I can relate to that. My greatest fear is the loss of civilization. I would not do well living off the land. If God told me to leave my home right now and flee to the hills, because God had sent angels to destroy my city (which really is just a little one), I think I would ask if I could go to a nearby city instead.

He said to him, “Very well, I grant you this favor too, and will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Hurry, escape there, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” Therefore the city was called Zoar.

(Gen 19:21-22 NRS)

Zoar means “little.” Remember, Lot said it’s a little city. Every city back then had a story about how it got its name. It was called Bela before (Gen 14:2), but Lot gets credit for giving it the name Zoar.

I grant you this favor too, and will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Originally, the plan was to destroy the whole plain and everything in it (v. 17). Lot appears to have saved the city of Bela. If he wants to rename it Zoar, let him.

I can do nothing until you arrive there. Does this mean Sodom would have been spared if Lot had just squatted there? I don’t think so. The city was going to be destroyed no matter what Lot did. The angel is impressing on him he needs to hurry if he wants to escape with his wife and daughters.

The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar.

Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.

(Gen 19:23-26 NRS)

The cities in all the Plain were Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela, a.k.a. Zoar (Gen 14:2; Deu 29:23). All but Bela/Zoar were destroyed.

But Lot’s wife…looked back and became a pillar of salt. Today, there is a pillar salt formation on the coast of the Dead Sea called (you guessed it) “Lot’s Wife.”

Salt formation called "Lot's Wife"
Daddy, what is that?

That pillar jutting up at the top is twenty meters high, so very unlikely this is her.

I got to swim in the Dead Sea on my Israel trip back in 1993. If you love floating on your back, this is the place. The salt content is so high you can’t sink, even if you try. That can create some fascinating salt formations. It’s not hard to imagine how people could have seen semi-human looking formations at some point.

Salt pillar by the Dead Sea
Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it. (Luk 17:32-33 NRS)

People remember Lot’s wife, even today. Sounds like Lot’s wife would not count among the “ten righteous” either. The angels warned them not to look back (v. 17). What is that about? Did God punish her for her disobedience? That’s a harsh punishment for a small offense. I mean, people stop to look at a car crash or a train wreck. Why not fire raining down from heaven?

Maybe it was the natural consequence of looking on that fire and brimstone raining from heaven. If you stick your finger in an electric socket, God doesn’t punish you with a great shock. That is the natural consequence of it. But how can looking at fire turn you into salt? People have seen fire and brimstone rain down when an active volcano spews it into the air. They don’t turn into a pillar of salt. However, the bodies recovered from Pompei sort of look like they are covered in salt. Could it be that when she stopped to look back, she got covered in volcanic ash? I don’t know how feasible that is. It’s just a thought.

I can see an origin story in this, but I’m having a hard time coming up with any moral lesson from a woman turning into a pillar of salt. When it comes to theological and moral lessons, I’ll take Jesus’ help any day. Does he have anything to say about this?

Jesus’ Commentary

In one episode from Luke, he tells the Pharisees what the coming of the Kingdom of God will not be (Luk 17:20-24). And he says the Son of Man will have to suffer and die first (17:25). Then he talks about what it will be like.

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them.

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 that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them — it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.

(Luk 17:26-30 NRS)

He compares the coming of the Kingdom of God to the days of Noah, when God sent a flood because all of humanity had become too wicked. And the day Lot left Sodom was the same kind of situation. They were eating and drinking, buying and selling, marrying and being given in marriage, as if they did not have a care in the world. Then in a moment, they were destroyed by flood and fire respectively. This, he said, is what it would be like when the Son of Man is revealed. That actually makes me nervous about praying, Thy kingdom come. But there is a reason I’m referring to this.

 On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.

(Luk 17:31-33 NRS)

Here we are. He refers not only to Sodom but Lot’s wife. He uses them as a cautionary tale to say, when the Son of Man is revealed, there will first be disaster and total destruction, like Sodom. Do not go back into your house for your belongings. If you are in the field, do not turn back to the city. Do not look back, like Lot’s wife did. Just run away. Get the [&#&^%] away from there as fast as you can! NOW!

Run to the hills, Lot! Run to the hills, people of Jerusalem!

When disaster comes, your only thought should be to run away. Rescue any family members you can, but don’t worry about the possessions you left behind. Don’t worry about the life you built. That life is over. Remember Lot’s wife. She has become an object lesson in what not to do in that situation. Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.

Remember Lot’s Wife

What does this say about Lot’s wife? Verse 33 indicates she was so attached to the life she built in Sodom. Jesus loved to use verbal irony, and this is one of his most famous examples. She looked back because she could not let go of her life and lost it as a result. Normally, I would say this is speculation. The text of Genesis does not say why she looked back. But this is coming from Jesus. When a man predicts his own death and resurrection, and pulls it off, I tend to believe what he says.

Most traditions agree the lesson of Lot’s wife is about not becoming too attached to your life in a particular setting. That place and the life you love—the city, the nation, your neighbors, your home, your job—could be gone in an instant. When disaster comes, run from it and leave everything behind. Don’t cling to your old way of life. Yes, you will have to start over. That is difficult for anyone. But save your life first. Then worry about rebuilding.

70 A.D.

I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.”

[Other ancient authorities add verse 36, “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.”]  

Then they asked him, “Where, Lord?”

He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”

(Luk 17:34-37 NRS)

Okay, I looked for help from Jesus to explain Lot’s wife. He did well up to this point. But I have to admit, he lost me on that last bit. Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather? What is that supposed to mean? I’m not even going to guess, so I’ll only comment on what he said before that.

Some people read this passage as a description of the Rapture. I don’t. He is saying it will be dangerous for anyone who stays in the city. I think sayings like this need to be read in light of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., less than a generation after Jesus’ crucifixion. In the days leading up to that, they should have been preparing to flee the city. Luke points to this elsewhere more explicitly, again quoting Jesus:

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written.

“Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”

(Luk 21:20-24 NRS)

And again,

As he came near and saw [Jerusalem], he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.

“Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

(Luk 19:41-44 NRS)

It might be hard to understand why Jesus would describe the destruction of the Holy City in such graphic language, but this is what it was like when an enemy broke through the city walls. Jesus keeps warning the people of Jerusalem destruction is coming, because they did not recognize the things that make for peace. They did not recognize the time of their visitation from God. Neither did the people of Sodom.

Throughout its history, Jerusalem killed the prophets and stoned those who were sent to the city to warn it (Luk 13:34). They thought no one could touch them because the temple of the LORD was in their city. They knew God had destroyed cities, like Sodom and Gomorrah, for violence and oppression. The irony is they never believed it could happen to them. So it looks like we have the reason why Lot’s wife looked back, and how Jesus used it to warn the people of Jerusalem what to do when the Romans come to destroy the city.

Sodom and Lot’s wife became cautionary tales for the Jews, lasting to Jesus’ day and beyond.

Origin Myths/Origin Stories/Creation Myths

Everywhere around the world people tell stories about how the universe began and how humans came into being. Scholars, namely anthropologists and ethnologists, call these tales “creation myths”, “origin myths,” or “origin stories.”

Some origin stories are based on real people and events, while others are based on more imaginative accounts. Origin stories can contain powerful, emotional symbols that convey profound truths, but not necessarily in a literal sense.

Khan Academy. “Activity: Intro to Origin Stories

I like to think of them as “imaginative stories to teach a theological and/or moral lesson.” Lot’s wife is not a story about the creation of the universe or of humanity, like Genesis 1-3 or the Babylonian Enuma Elish. But all cultures also have stories of the origins of things like cities, nations, ethnic groups, and natural creatures and wonders.

Why do spiders spin webs?

Greek mythology included a story about the origin of the spider. A woman named Arachne was so skilled at weaving, she challenged the goddess to a contest. Her hubris became so great, Athena could not tolerate it anymore, so she turned her into a spider. To the ancient Greeks, it explained the origins of the spider and why the spider is so skilled at weaving its web. To this day, biologists call spiders Arachnids.

Creation myths like these usually contain a theological and/or moral lesson as well. Like many Greek myths, Arachne is a cautionary tale against hubris. No matter how great you think you are, your power and skill are nothing compared to the gods and goddesses. They are immortal, and we are mortal. To compare your greatness to theirs is not only stupid, it’s deadly. That was the theological and moral point of most Greek myths.

Where did that salt pillar come from?

Hebrews were no different in this regard than Greeks or Babylonians. Their children would have asked questions about that big pillar on Mount Sodom, for example. Stories like these did double duty. They answered questions like, where did that salt pillar come from? They also contained important life lessons for their culture.

“Mount Sodom, a salt rock plug, is located in the South-East corner of the Dead Sea. Its slopes are covered with formations of salt that appear to look like pillars. The pillars are often referred to and pointed out as “Lot’s wife” in reference to the biblical tale.”

The Dead Sea in the Bible: Biblical History of the Lowest Point on Earth

So the question to ask is not whether it really happened. The question is, what is the theological and/or moral point of it? That is true not only for the Bible but many stories from the ancient world. Here are the theological and moral points of the story that I think the original audience would have picked up from the story of Sodom and Lot’s wife.

  1. An origin story for those almost human looking salt pillars.
  2. An origin story of how the once fertile plain of the Jordan became desolate and lifeless.
  3. God will judge a people favorably for hospitality and justice, and unfavorably for injustice and inhospitality.
  4. When the iniquity of a people is complete, God’s wrath is severe (Gen 15:16). But before then, God will take any opportunity to save them.
  5. When it’s time to leave a bad situation, just leave and don’t look back.
  6. Your life can be turned upside down at any moment. Don’t get too attached to the life you have now.
  7. For early Christians, Lot’s wife became a metaphor for one who leaves the faith because of persecution or the cares of this world (cf. Mar 4:16-19; Mat 13:20-22; 19:23-24; Luk 8:13-14; Eph 4:22-24; Heb 10:38-39; Rev 2:10).

More for Writers: A little more irony

When Abraham and Lot split from each other (Genesis 13), Abraham gave Lot his choice.

“If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.”

(Gen 13:9 NRS)

Abraham does not care which land he gets. He only wants peace with his nephew. Lot is more practically minded.

Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward; thus they separated from each other.

(Gen 13:10-11 NRS)

The garden of the LORD, no doubt, refers to the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:8-15). They had just seen how well watered the land of Egypt was along the Nile (Gen 12:14-20). Considering his servants just quarreled with Abraham’s servants over whose waters were whose, a land that is well watered everywhere would naturally be enticing. This seems to imply that Abraham trusted God for his needs, while Lot focused on what looked more naturally favorable.

I may be in the minority, but I don’t fault Lot for that. Any shepherd or farmer would prefer a land that is well watered to one where you can find water, but you have to search diligently for it. I don’t believe trusting God means you don’t choose the land that is better for your flocks and herds.

However, since we have seen this story play out, the irony of that choice is now obvious. His decision turned into a disaster for him and his family. He chose the plain of the Jordan because it was fertile. But that was before the LORD rained fire and brimstone on the whole area (Gen 13:10). After that, the entire land and every living thing, all the people and everything that grew on the ground, was reduced to smoke and ash. Again, this sounds like an origin story. How did a land that was once fertile and well watered become so desolate? God overthrew the cities, because the cry of its victims became too great.

That understanding of God’s justice and righteousness remained important to Abraham’s descendants throughout the Bible. It led God to rescue them from bondage in Egypt. It also led to judgment against them. When the outcry of the poor, the slave, the stranger, the alien, the widow and orphan in their own nations became too great, God passed judgment on Israel and Judah. This became another irony as the oppressed became the oppressors, and God eventually punished them just as God punished Sodom, Gomorrah, and Egypt, the difference being by enemy armies rather than natural disaster.

What’s Next for Lot and His Daughters?

It looks like things have gotten as bad as they can for Lot. His household is not as righteous as his Uncle Abraham had hoped. Six possibly righteous are down to three—Lot and his two daughters.

Next week, I will continue this series on Sodom and Gomorrah. This next scene is one of those moments that has made me say many times, Game of Thrones has got nothing on the Bible. It involves incest. You can decide if that makes you want to read it or not.

Further Study

Origin Stories

Why Was Lot’s Wife Turned Into A Pillar of Salt?

Enuma Elish: full text

Origin/creation stories

The Rapture Is Not biblical

The Rapture Theory Debunked

Debunking the Rapture: Barbara Rossing

Translation Notes

וַתַּבֵּ֥ט אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ מֵאַחֲרָ֑יו  (Gen 19:26 WTT)

But Lot’s wife looked back…

Hol5329  נבט  verb hiphil waw consec imperfect 3rd person feminine singular apocopated … 2. w. prep.: a) w. °aµ­r¹yw look behind onesf. Gn 1917, m¢°aµ­r¹yw 1926;

Natab means to look at. But when paired with the preposition ‘acharayv, it means “to look back” or “look behind oneself.” Some commentators try to make it mean more than that, but I’m not convinced.

Pillar, on the other hand, might have a deeper meaning.

Hol5658  נְצִיב  noun common masculine singular construct homonym 1

I נְצִיב: pl. בִים(י)נְצִ: — 1. pillar (of salt) Gn 1926; — 2. (military) post, garrison 1K 419. (pg 244)

Netzib means pillar, as in pillar of salt (or marble or whatever). It can also refer to a military post or garrison (1 Sa 10:5; 2 Sa 8:6). It can refer to a person, as in a deputy or officer (1 Kg 4:19; 2 Ch 8:10). The website Got Questions says,

The image of Lot’s wife standing watch over the Dead Sea area—where to this day no life can exist—is a poignant reminder to us not to look back or turn back from the profession of faith we have made, but to follow Christ without hesitation and abide in His love. Cf. Eph 4:22-24.

– “Why was Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt?

This story of Lot’s wife turned a natural salt formation into a “sentinel” reminding us not to turn back from Christ, but to “abide in His love,” as the above quote said. I have my doubts about whether it “really happened” but not about the object lesson.

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