Do you remember the story in Genesis 19 of the family of the righteous man Lot who lives in the wicked city of Sodom? Angels visit, as the evening draws down, coming to Lot in the gate of the city and finding hospitality in his home. In the night the men of the city gather to rape the strangers—the utmost denial of hospitality—not merely do they refuse to host and provide for the needs of the divine Another, but they seek to penetrate and violate the most intimate home of this stranger—his body. There is no room for Yahweh here. Even later, when he pitches his tent in flesh, they evict him on the point of a spear.
The divine messengers pronounce doom over the city, they tell Lot and his family to leave to avoid being caught in the destruction. Throughout the night the family prepares to run. Lot tries to warn his extended family but they can’t see the danger and interpret Lot’s midnight urgency as prankery, mischief at their expense: they are too wise to run.
Day breaks. Lot hesitates.
Because of the Yahweh’s compassion for him, the men grabbed his hand, his wife’s hand, and the hands of his two daughters. Then they brought him out and left him outside the city. (Genesis 19:16 HCSB)
On this evidence it is hard to claim that the Just Man fled from the destruction of the wicked. He was extracted, dragged, torn from its bosom. (Doesn’t this raise a question mark against the fate of his wife?) The messengers leave them at the outskirts, urging them “run for your lives” “Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere on the plain!”
Do you see the family flying, fleeing, running from the city in grey pre-dawn? And as the sun rises, the giant shadow of Lot, the Just Man, flying away before him? And who can see what lights him from behind? The shadow dances to shafts of sulphur, the burning rain waters the city, the fertile plain, consuming everything: people, city, vegetation.
But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. (Genesis 19:26)
Travellers to the region still encounter her: the woman, neck arched, fixed immobile, her stare forever turned toward the home she lost.
And the just man trailed God’s shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
“It’s not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed.”
A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.
Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.
translated by Max Hayward and Stanley Kunitz
I would sit here a while in that sulphurous desert beside the weathered pillar. And think of all those who have run for their lives—for their lives. And lean my head against her flank and try to gather the fragments of my salty heart that bursts against the choice: to look back or to live?
Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to make his life secure will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luke 17:32–33 HCSB)
As Jesus approached Jerusalem, he makes the command to remember Lot’s wife the central injunction to his followers as he prepares them for the events that must occur in that City at the Centre of the World (Luke 17:20-37).
Run from your life without even a backward glance, lose your life so thoroughly that you cannot even possess it one last time with your eyes, lose everything to save your life—everything—even the backward glance. Just the memory, just one last look, gathered in mid-stride, to carry with me?
I saw in my Dream that the Man began to run.
Now he had not run far from his own door, but his Wife and Children,
perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man put his fingers
in his ears, and ran on, crying Life! Life! Eternal Life!
—John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Scene 1.
What a world is this?
Jesus offers no easy affirmations.