A Cameo Appearance
Most readers of Tanakh are familiar with the character of Lot's wife, but not because Tanakh shares many details about her. In contrast to Sarah who appears as Avraham's partner in hosting the three guests, Mrs. Lot does not appear at all in the parallel story of Lot's hospitality. She is mentioned only twice in Torah, in the verses that detail the instructions to Lot to flee and in her violation of the messengers' command not to look back. Afterwards she vanishes completely from the text and is strikingly absent from the story of Lot's daughters incestuous relations with their father. What happened to Lot's wife? What accounts for her fleeting appearance in the story and her subsequent disappearance?1
Crime and Punishment
As Bereshit 19:26 is the only verse that describes an action of Mrs. Lot, it is crucial for understanding her role in the story:
וַתַּבֵּט אִשְׁתּוֹ מֵאַחֲרָיו וַתְּהִי נְצִיב מֶלַח.
And his wife looked from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.
The verse is difficult to translate as it contains several textual ambiguities, including both the referent of the verb "וַתְּהִי" and the subject of the word "מֵאַחֲרָיו". Nonetheless, most commentators understand it to mean that after transgressing the prohibition of the Divine messengers and looking back at Sedom, Lot's wife was transformed into a pillar of salt.
Though this interpretation readily explains Mrs. Lot's fading from the story, it raises several questions. On the moral level, capital punishment seems somewhat excessive for the petty crime of turning around. What was so terrible about viewing the burning city that it should result in death? After all, is it not natural that Mrs. Lot be concerned about the fate of her daughters who remained in the city? Similarly, what was the reason for the original prohibition?
Miracles and Messages
The mode of punishment is surprising as well. Until this verse, salt has not been mentioned in the narrative at all. Why did Hashem decide to kill Lot's wife specifically with salt? Equally perplexing is the philosophical question which emerges from how this transformation took place. Was this a natural phenomenon or a miraculous metamorphosis of a human into a salt figurine? If the latter, why would Hashem go out of His way to make such a miracle just to punish Mrs. Lot? In general, such supernatural deaths are somewhat rare in Tanakh. As Hashem could have opted to have Mrs. Lot die a much simpler death, the reader wonders what message one is supposed to take away from the bizarre punishment and the story as a whole.