Lot's Wife and Her Fate/2

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Lot's Wife and Her Fate

Exegetical Approaches


Commentators present a spectrum of opinions regarding the fate of Mrs. Lot and the message of this section of the narrative. Many view it through the prism of sin and punishment, with the death of Lot's wife (like the destruction of Sedom around it) being a supernatural Divine retribution for one of a number of possible transgressions. A minority group, however, views this part of the story as belonging to the realm of the less overtly miraculous. This group subdivides, with some exegetes agreeing with the first approach that Mrs. Lot did meet her demise here, but only as an incidental result of her tarrying, and others positing that she actually survived the destruction of Sedom. These readings have implications both for our perspectives on Lot and his wife and for our understandings of how Hashem runs His universe.

Supernatural Pillar of Salt

Lot's wife miraculously turned into a pillar of salt.

To whom does "וַתְּהִי" refer? This approach maintains that Lot's wife is the referent of the word "וַתְּהִי", and it was she who turned into salt.
"נְצִיב" – The "נְצִיב" is understood to be a pillar. This would be a unique meaning in Tanakh,1 and it could be related to the root יצב which means to stand.
The prohibition of looking back and its consequences – The commentators suggest a few possible understandings:
  • Divine presence – Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer explains that the command was intended to prevent Lot and his family from seeing God's presence as it descended to destroy Sedom.2 According to this reading, Mrs. Lot's death was not a punishment for a sin, but rather the inevitable outcome of a tragic mistake.
  • No more deserving than compatriots – Rashi suggests that since Lot and his family were not worthy on their own of being saved,3 it was improper for them to watch the destruction of their fellow sinners.
  • Demonstrated a lack of faith – R. D"Z Hoffmann asserts that, by looking back, Lot's wife displayed a lack of faith that the angel's prediction would be fulfilled.4
"וַתַּבֵּט אִשְׁתּוֹ מֵאַחֲרָיו" – Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) understands that Mrs. Lot looked in back of the accompanying angel.5 R. D"Z Hoffmann says that Mrs. Lot was behind her husband as they fled and looked back from this vantage point.6
Why was Mrs. Lot punished by salt? Most of the adherents of this approach propose that this was a measure for measure punishment.7 Bereshit Rabbah and Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) suggest that Mrs. Lot purposely made the town aware of the guests' presence by asking her neighbors to borrow salt,8 while Rashi suggests that she displayed a lack of hospitality by depriving her guests of salt.9 According to both, since her crime related to salt, she was punished by being transformed into a pillar of salt.
The point of the story – According to this approach, the Torah tells of Mrs. Lot's fate either in order to emphasize the dangers of not obeying Divine instructions, or in order to explain her absence in the subsequent episode of Lot and his daughters.10
Miraculous transformation – This position is not bothered by Hashem punishing in a supernatural way and seems to understand that Hashem literally transformed a human into a statue of salt. Josephus, in fact, claims to have seen it with his own eyes,11 and its continued existence is implied also by the Bavli.

Natural Death by Salt

Mrs. Lot was caught in the devastation wrought on Sedom. Like the rest of Sedom's inhabitants, she died in the onslaught of salt and brimstone, and was covered under a mound of salt.

To whom does "וַתְּהִי" refer? This approach also holds that "וַתְּהִי" refers to Lot's wife.
"נְצִיב" – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor suggests that a "נְצִיב" is related to the word "מצבה"‎ (monument).12 The verse is thus describing a person who was covered by a mound of salt, and is not depicting the metamorphosis of a human person into a salt figurine.
"וַתַּבֵּט אִשְׁתּוֹ מֵאַחֲרָיו" – This approach needs to postulate that Mrs. Lot was behind the rest of her family, as she was the only one caught in the general destruction.13 R. Yosef Bekhor Shor therefore explains that due to her lingering and continuously looking back,14 Lot's wife fell behind the others and was "מֵאַחֲרָיו". Thus, "וַתַּבֵּט" describes not a single furtive glance, but a continuous process. Radak adds that, from her position behind her husband, Mrs. Lot looked back at the city.
Why were they instructed not to look back? According to R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and Radak, rather than constituting a prohibition, this was a warning for their own good not to tarry, lest they not escape the devastation.15
Death by salt – Being covered under a layer of salt was not a special punishment for Lot's wife, but merely a natural consequence of tarrying, the fate shared by all those caught in the destruction of Sedom. Though salt is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bereshit narrative, R. Yosef Bekhor Shor notes that Devarim 29:22 is explicit that the mineral was part of the fire and brimstone storm that rained down upon the city.16
The point of the story – The Torah tells of Mrs. Lot's death so that her absence in the subsequent story of Lot and his daughters will be comprehensible.
Miraculous transformation? This position may be motivated, in part, by a desire to mitigate the potentially supernatural aspect of the story.
When did Mrs. Lot die? A simple chronological reading of the narrative suggests that Mrs. Lot looked behind her only after Lot's party had arrived at Zoar but before he left the safe confines of the city. As the angel suggests that the destruction could not begin until after Lot's safe arrival at the city, this position must contend with the question of how Mrs. Lot nonetheless got caught in the devastation.17

Not Punished by Salt

The verse says nothing about the fate of Lot's wife. It simply tells the reader that she turned and saw how the land had been transformed into a wasteland of salt.

To whom does "וַתְּהִי" refer? According to this approach, the referent of the verb is, not Mrs. Lot, but the land itself.19
"נְצִיב" – The land became a mound of salt. Chizkuni notes that according to this interpretation, the description of the devastation in the Bereshit narrative matches the references to the destruction in Devarim 29:22 and Zephaniah 2:9 which highlight the role played by salt.20
"וַתַּבֵּט אִשְׁתּוֹ מֵאַחֲרָיו" – It is not clear how these commentators read this phrase. For their explanation, though, it is irrelevant whether Lot's wife was in front of or behind her husband when looking at the city.
Why were they instructed not to look back? Chizkuni and Ralbag explain that looking back would cause them to tarry.21
What happened to Lot's wife?
  • Died – According to Ralbag, the absence of Lot's wife from the end of the story proves that she did in fact perish with the rest of Sedom. This was a consequence of her lingering,22 rather than a punishment for transgressing the command of the messengers and was not necessarily related to salt at all.23
  • Lived – It is possible, though, that according to Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni, Mrs. Lot did not die at all. When the rest of the family decided to move from Zoar to the mountains, she might have decided to stay behind,24 and is thus missing from the end of the narrative.
The point of the story – For Ralbag, the story comes simply to explain Mrs. Lot's absence in the subsequent episode. However, according to the possibility that she lived, it is unclear why suddenly in the middle of its description of the devastation of Sedom, the Torah shifts to portray it from the perspective of Lot's wife.25 It is also questionable why the Torah mentions the instruction not to look back, if there were no consequences for doing so.26
Miraculous transformation? Ralbag argues against the possibility of a supernatural transformation, claiming that God does not make miracles except to instill fear into the observers.27 In this case, no one would have been present to witness the miracle, and it would thus have served no purpose.