Episode 13: What Lot’s Wife Tells Us About the Bible

Episode 13: What Lot’s Wife Tells Us About the Bible August 23, 2019
Kinder in der Kirche
“Wait…what?”

Years ago Robert Fulghum wrote a best-selling book entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It was a clever title, even if a bit hyperbolic. I certainly hope he learned at least a few more things since those first few years of his life, but I still like his title. In fact, I like it so much I’m going to follow his lead and offer a perspective of my own:

All I really need to know about the Bible I learned from the story of Lot and his wife.

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Of course, some will fault me for picking on the Old Testament, as if that isn’t an ideal place to start. How quickly they forget that the New Testament is deeply rooted the Old, using its categories to frame everything about its central message. They never acknowledge that all those things from the Old Testament which they now condemn were never so clearly denounced by the New as they would like to imagine, like the entire Canaanite conquest for example—a bloody, terrible mark on the reputation of the people of Israel. The only redeeming thing I can say about that story is that it never actually happened.

Even that crazy story where Abraham thought God wanted him to kill his own child is never corrected by anyone in the New Testament. On the contrary, his willingness to do so was held up by James as the prototypical example of faith in action (see James 2) in direct contradiction to Paul’s insistence that faith refers to something else entirely. Ironically, both those writers use the same character’s life to prove opposite points about what “saves” a person. But I digress.

The story of Lot and his family doesn’t come from some obscure side note in between a list of genealogies, nor did I pull it from one of the many ambiguous sections of songs or poetry, which some could argue were never meant to be taken literally. This story is supposed to have really happened, according to the Bible. It’s supposed to be an historical account, and it involves direct acts of God as opposed to the actions of people. That eliminates the question of whether or not people just misunderstood what God was telling them to do (because primitive people, yada yada).

If a story like this really happened, we should be able to learn from it any number of things about humanity, about God, and about which things make him really, really mad.

If you haven’t read the story before, you can read it here. I’ll hit the highlights and then use this story to illustrate just how many things are wrong with either God, the Bible, or both.

A Family Fit for Reality TV

Two men who we are told are angels enter the city of Sodom to be greeted by Lot, who is himself a transplant from somewhere else but has apparently risen to the ranks of an elder of the city. They ask to be lodged in the middle of the town, but Lot insists that they stay with him at his house since the town in which he lives is evidently overrun by violently predatory homosexuals. You know how gay people are, prone to violence and what not.

Sure enough, the whole town turned up at Lot’s door asking to molest these complete strangers. But Lot wouldn’t have it. “Don’t do this wicked thing!” he said. “Here, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you and you can do what you like with them.” I kid you not, that is a direct quote.

The angels engineered an escape and eventually removed Lot’s family from the town by force, telling them to flee the coming destruction and never look back. The town was destroyed by fire and brimstone raining down on them from the sky. As the story famously goes, at one point Lot’s wife did look back, and as punishment for doing that she was instantly turned into a pillar of salt.

Huh, that’s random.

At first, Lot tried relocating to a neighboring city but for some reason he decided to leave there as well, taking his two daughters with him to live in a cave. While there, the Bible says, his oldest daughter concocted a plan to inseminate herself by liquoring up her old man so that he would have sex with her. Evidently it worked on the first try. The next day the younger daughter decided to do the same, and she successfully conceived on her first try as well. What are the odds? I guess they do say women’s cycles start to synchronize after a while, right?*

Not only did each of the two daughters conceive on their first try, but both of them gave birth to sons (always the goal in the ancient world) who became fathers of whole nations—the Moabites and the Ammonites. How very neat and tidy.

Somehow this feels like the kind of “reality show” you’d find on television today, or perhaps acted out in a fantasy series on HBO.

Growing up with these stories, it was easy to compartmentalize what was going on despite how bizarre and unrealistic everyone’s behavior seemed to be. But in retrospect, it occurs to me that this story really tells you everything you need to know about the Bible. Allow me to point out what we learn.

How the Bible Sees the World

1. According to the Bible, whole cities can be predominantly gay, and homosexuals are naturally predatory. And violent. Of course that’s ridiculous, but that’s the way these particular biblical writers seem to have viewed an entire sexual orientation. No wonder evangelicals today associate allowing same-sex relationships with ushering in the destruction of America. They learned this from the caricature of homosexuality found in the Bible.

Later prophets tried to argue that it was a lack of hospitality and charity that provoked God’s wrathful judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, but that interpretation seems to have been relegated to a kind of minority report. Of course, this two-dimensional presentation of a town and of a sexual orientation should strike anyone with modern ears as ridiculously uncharitable and unrealistic.

But that’s one thing we learn about the Bible: It badly misrepresents an entire category of people. And if the story’s real point was to condemn inhospitality, it could have done a better job of making that clear.

2. Women are property and their virginity is a commodity. And yes, I know these are ancient times we’re talking about here, so you may feel we should cut them some slack.

But have you noticed how divine inspiration never seems to enable God’s people to see past the cultural norms of their own time and context? Theologians love to argue that early Judaism and early Christianity each represented quantum leaps forward for human dignity and equality. But owning people as property was never denounced in the Bible, be they slaves, daughters, or wives.

Sexual consent and personal agency are clearly not concerns within the pages of this book. That’s something else we learn from the story of Lot’s family.

3. Even non-consensual heterosexual activity is less abhorrent than homosexual activity. Lot called what the men of the town wanted to do “wicked” and implored them to have their way with his daughters instead. Just let that sink in for a second.

Note that Yahweh never punished Lot for throwing his daughters at the feet of these predators. Come to think of it, he didn’t even punish Lot’s daughters for hooking up with their own father. Or if he ever did, we aren’t told about it. Evidently, as far as the Bible is concerned, the only two things worthy of immediate divine punishment are same-sex relations and turning your head at the wrong time.

4. Realism isn’t a major concern for the biblical writers. At this point, the majority of my regular readers won’t need much persuading on this matter, but allow me to flesh out a number of red flags which scream volumes about how seriously we should really take such “historical” sections of the Bible.

It’s really interesting how unceremoniously Lot’s wife, who is never named in this story, just disappears from the saga without a single tear shed by anyone in the story. And of all the ways to die, why turning into salt? Have you ever tried to imagine this story playing out in live action? I mean photorealistically instead of in cartoon fashion, like it usually is in children’s Bibles? It’s a truly bizarre spectacle when you think about it.

Were either of the daughters or any other children holding her hand when it happened? Would their hands have suddenly passed through hers like fingers through sand, or did she turn solid like a statue, preserving her facial features and all for decades to come? What does a “pillar of salt” even look like, anyway? Like a free standing column, or a big pointy, granular pile? These are the things an adult thinks about when he returns to these stories as a grown up.

And do you really buy this story that Lot had no awareness that he was hooking up with his own children?  I’m sorry, but I have two teenage daughters and no amount of liquor would make me capable of doing that with my own children.  Come to think of it, men of a certain age know good and well that you can have too much liquor, and alcohol is a depressant. It relaxes the muscles, if you get where I’m going with this. There comes a point at which a man old enough to have pubescent offspring wouldn’t even be able to…uh…perform…after he’s had so much alcohol that he can’t even recognize his own daughters.

Archaeologists have concluded that this whole story is made up anyway. But if I were a person who took this story seriously, I would have to go back and reconstruct a number of details within the narrative that don’t make any sense the way they are currently laid out.

What Really Happened to Lot’s Wife?

It’s awfully convenient how Lot’s wife drops away from this story line. It’s also awfully convenient how the father remains above reproach throughout this entire story: He tried to be the hero but the town was just too completely evil. He had nothing to do with his wife’s disappearance from the story—she just turned to salt, you know? What could he do? And when his daughters became his own concubines, that was totally against his will. Both times. He swears. Because young women whose fathers try to give them away to sexual predators would naturally want to turn around and sleep with him afterwards.

If there is any kernel of truth underneath this story—and I’m pretty sure there’s not—it sounds to me like our man Lot is actually a terrible person. Somehow everyone else around him is awful and he comes out smelling like a rose every time. I know some people like that, and we have labels for them. I’ll resist the urge to psychoanalyze fictional characters, but I have to admit that I suspect in real life Lot would be far from the righteous man this story tries to portray. And it shouldn’t escape our notice that the people who wrote this story down didn’t seem to pick up on any of that.

Maybe Lot found a way to get rid of his wife and then made up that crazy story about her turning to salt. And he’s clearly not Father of the Year, so I’m not ready to buy into this story that he was tricked into fathering his own grandchildren against his own will. But none of that really matters to me at this point, especially since I’m pretty sure this is a legend.

What matters most to me is what we learn about the Bible from this story, and what we learn about those who read it and  never pick up on the awful scent it’s putting off.

What We Learn About the Bible from This Story

The Bible is extremely confused where human sexuality is concerned, and it badly inverts moral issues, prioritizing all the wrong things.

Despite the later prophets’ earnest attempts to make it about inhospitality, this story leaves the impression that the God of the Old Testament detests homosexuality so much that he would destroy an entire city because of it. He never destroys Lot or his daughters for the sick and twisted things that they did, but he was certainly willing to immediately kill their mother for the sin of turning her head.

What a terrifying deity this is! It appears from this story that sometimes you will be given apparently arbitrary instructions followed by dire warnings of impending doom even if you just look at the wrong things. ♫ So be careful little eyes what you see… ♫”

At this point in human history, disgust is the only appropriate response to a story like this:

  • Caricaturing an entire group of people, making them out to be violent predators.
  • Offering virgin daughters as usable property (because that’s better than letting men hook up with each other).
  • Swallowing this bogus story about a woman suddenly turning to salt (come on now, is that the best you can do?).
  • Adding another implausible story about Lot fathering children by his own daughters without his consent—twice.
  • And somehow in all of this, Lot remains above reproach.

This story is an indictment of the entire book. It is a microcosm of all the things wrong with the Bible: The lack of concern for historical accuracy, the inverted moral structure whereby horrific things are better than other things which are really just a culturally conditioned prejudice, and a fabricated tale of judgment and destruction meant to make us afraid for our own lives lest we disobey the dictates of an invisible deity whose mind can only be known through the communications of ancient people long since dead.

Honestly you shouldn’t have to read any further. This tells you everything you need to know about the Bible.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

__________

* Studies have tried to verify that women’s menstrual cycles synchronize after living together for a sufficient amount of time, but their findings have all been inconclusive. I hardly think it matters, though, for the purposes of analyzing this story. Their remarkable efficiency at conceiving male heirs is far from the most difficult part of this story.

__________

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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.
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