1. Looking Back on Lot’s Wife
As Lot’s wife glanced back, she turned into a pillar of salt.—Genesis 19.26
This punishment is resonant, and strangely opaque. Oddly, it forms part of a narrative that treats the possibility of bargaining with the Lord or with angels to escape punishment: Abraham dickers for the survival of the Cities of the Plain, and Lot himself arranges the protection of the village of Zoar from general destruction by negotiating with angels. Lot’s bargain, indeed, shows that the commandment that condemns Lot’s wife is not absolute. “Flee for your life!” the angels order Lot and his family. “Do not look behind you or stop anywhere in the Plain” (Gen. 19:17). 1 Lot wins the angels’ consent to stop in the small town of Zoar, which lies on that forbidden Plain. Should Lot’s wife, too, have bargained, have asked for permission for the backwards glance?
The discrepancy between Lot’s successful bargain and the fate of Lot’s wife emphasizes the severity of her punishment. When the doomed men of Sodom crowd around Lot’s house, demanding that he hand over his guests—those angels, in disguise—so that the men can have sex with them, the angels provisionally punish the men with blindness. Why would this punishment not be appropriate to the transgressive look back of Lot’s wife? Sexual transgressions—the desires of the men of Sodom, the incestuous intercourse of Lot and his daughters—surround the transgression of Lot’s wife. The daughters’ trick repeats Lot’s hospitality. First, he does not know who his guests are and, later, he does not know what company he keeps. His daughters’ transgressive sex with their father also oddly inverts his offering his daughters to the men of Sodom as a substitute for the strangers they desire. One wonders whether the men of Sodom, had they accepted this bargain, would have survived. It is also unclear whether Lot’s offering his daughters is a sex crime in itself, or, as commentary sometimes suggests, an inevitable extension of his hospitality. 2
There are intimations of the story of Isaac in the punishment of Lot’s wife: the faithful do not question the reason for sacrifice. But this hasty moral moves too quickly over “sacrifice,” a term that may be inappropriate here. There is room, even, to wonder whether one should call this punishment a death at all. The letter of the Biblical account never specifies: “she turned into a pillar of salt.” The Bible might include a notion of metamorphosis. 3 If one were to call this a “sacrifice,” one would encounter in the narrative an ironic variant on the common ancient story where [End Page 221] the sacrifice of the woman is the price for the maintenance or establishment of a people. The sacrifice of Lot’s wife is the condition for the incestuous sex of Lot and his daughters that founds Moabites and Ammonites. Following this reading, the spectacular punishment of Lot’s wife possesses not a meaning, but a function. Just as, after another disaster, the curse on Ham—the result of another crime of sight, seeing the patriarch naked—explains the establishment of the cursed Canaanites, so the punishment of Lot’s wife leads to the establishment of Israel’s enemies.
This structural parallel with the story of Noah suggests, however, that the form of the punishment of Lot’s wife is not the arbitrary explanation for a landmark: its place in a structure of narrative repetition resonates. Ham sees Noah naked; Ham’s brothers cover Noah without seeing him; Noah curses Ham when he discovers Ham has seen him. The crime of Lot’s wife may, like Ham’s, violate the taboo against seeing the nakedness of the patriarch. 4 The angels forbid Lot and his family to see the destruction of the cities on the Plain. One does not know why the taboo is at work here. It may be that the look back convicts Lot’s wife of complicity with those who are destroyed, and that it is evidence of a...