We are studying Genesis 19:1, 15-26, 29 for Sunday, September 1. This is the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which involves God’s rescue of Abraham’s nephew Lot, and a couple of his daughters, from that destruction, by means of a helpful angel. [Notes on the text are here.]
Normally, this is where I would say “Here are a few questions we might want to consider before class, or discuss in class:” This time is different, however; maybe because the text is a little different, but honestly I’m not sure that’s it; maybe because the way I’ve been thinking about the text is different. In any case, I’ve had a harder time thinking of the usual questions.
It doesn’t mean I don’t have questions in mind. I do.
I wonder whether, in Genesis 18, when God lets Abraham know that there has been an “outcry” against Sodom and Gomorrah, we are supposed to think of the other times God has responded to cries. (E.g., when the Israelites cry, in Egypt, in Exodus 3; or when there is a cry against Israel in Isaiah 5:7.) In a situation like that, we might think of injustices, abuses of power, exploitation. I suspect we are supposed to think of that in this case, as well, and are meant to read the proposition of “all the men of Sodom” when it comes to the guests lodging in Lot’s house as a heinous attempt to victimize seemingly vulnerable people who, in a good world, would be protected. The joke-on-them being that these particular guests are not vulnerable at all. The Sodomites have met more than their match.
So then I wonder what we are to think of the situation of Lot living in Sodom. Are we supposed to think Lot is righteous, and was just putting up with all the evil around him? Or, maybe he wasn’t just putting up with it, maybe he was trying to do something about it? But hadn’t had any success? Or maybe he had started to go along with it? Or had gone along with it all along? It’s hard to tell. His daughters were betrothed to Sodomite guys, which could make us think he might have been accepted; but he’s also pegged as an outsider, which could make us think he hadn’t been.
But the real question for us might not be what Lot did. The real question for us – for me – might be: what’s my situation? Where am I living? Why am I living there in the first place? Do I have a good reason? A good enough reason? What’s a good enough reason? And what am I doing while I’m living there? Am I helping? What would helping look like in a situation like that?
Was Jesus anything like Lot? A righteous individual, who came to live in a place legendary for its wickedness, with the idea of saving it from annihilation?
Or was Jesus more like that angel, who urged Lot – poor schmo that he was, inclined to go along to get along, possibly – to get out while the getting was good, before it was too late, and dragged him out.
Or is Sodom more like a symbol of the end of the line, and is that early morning scene more like Christus Victor dragging the souls out of hell and “upon those in the tombs bestowing life”?
And what about Lot’s wife? What happened there? How should we read that?
A LOT OF POETS[*], all women, have written poems about Lot’s wife.
All of them are sympathetic. Surely this means something. I probably don’t want to hear what some people think it means.
I confess, I have always been on the side of the poets in the past. This time through the story, however, I found myself less inclined to sympathize with Mrs. Lot’s nostalgia for her toxic culture …
But then I also thought that perhaps she was not doing good-enough self care, and that her transformation into a pillar of salt was less a punishment than … a natural consequence of seeing something truly unbearable, something no human can bear to see. The difference between a natural consequence like that and a punishment may not strike everyone as significant. I’m not entirely sure it strikes me as significant.
In the end, it seems to me, the questions we really need to be asking ourselves about this story are terribly existential: what should we do in a situation like that?
Especially since, I wonder very much: would there have been a few more righteous ones, just enough to tally up to 10, just enough to make a real difference, if Lot had been a different kind of neighbor?
Or is that kind of “we could make a difference” thinking a problem in itself? Should Lot really have been more energetic about finding a better place to raise those girls, a place with more of a future?
Maybe it depends on what kind of choices people are actually facing.
Which means we need to ask ourselves … what are our choices? Are we making … the right ones?
So: only one question this week. But it’s a big one.
[*] A non-exhaustive collection: Anna Akhmatova, Lot’s Wife; Kristine Batey, “Lot’s Wife”; Karen Finneyfrock, “What Lot’s Wife Would Have Said [If She Wasn’t a Pillar of Salt]”; Ruth Gilbert, “Lot’s Wife”; Vassar Miller, “Mrs. Lot”; Nancy Lee Perry, “Lot’s wife”; Katha Pollitt, “Lot’s Wife”; Muriel Rukeyser, “Ms. Lot”; Anne Simpson, “Lot’s Wife”; Wislawa Szymborska, “Lot’s Wife”.