About Lot's Wife

This is a poem that you probably won't know; it's by Kristine Batey, a contemporary poet living in Chicago, and it's called "Lot's Wife." It is a retelling of the famous Old Testament story of the woman who disobeyed God by looking back as she and Lot were fleeing from the wicked city of Sodom, which God was destroying, and she was therefore killed by God, was turned into a pillar of salt. Of course, the story was used for centuries to sermonize about the importance of obedience to God, but notice how this poet enlarges our sensitivity to the human dimension of the story by imaginatively reconstructing the consciousness of Lot's wife, who is never even named in the biblical account.

While Lot, the conscience of a nation,
struggles with the Lord,
she struggles with the housework.
The City of Sin is where
she raises the children.
Ba'al or Adonai--
Whoever is God--
the bread must still be made
and the doorsill swept.
The Lord may kill the children tomorrow,
but today they must be bathed and fed.
Well and good to condemn your neighbors' religion,
but weren't they there
when the baby was born,
and when the well collapsed?
While her husband communes with God,
she tucks the children into bed.
In the morning, when he tells her of the judgment,
[that is, God's decision to destroy the city]
she puts down the lamp she is cleaning
and calmly begins to pack.
In between bundling up the children
and deciding what will go,
she runs for a moment
to say goodbye to the herd,
gently patting each soft head
with tears in her eyes for the animals that will not understand.
She smiles blindly to the woman
who held her hand at childbed.
It is easy for eyes that have always turned to heaven
not to look back;
those who have been--by necessity--drawn to earth
cannot forget that life is lived from day to day.
Good, to a God, and good in human terms
are two different things.
On the breast of the hill, she chooses to be human,
and turns, in farewell--
and never regrets
the sacrifice.

Of course, this poem, with its evocation of the female struggle in a male-dominated Hebrew culture, and its implicit condemnation of the Old Testament God's brutality, could not have been written before the 20th century. It prompts reflection on several issues--not the least of which is the constraint that our own religion--which is always the right one, the best one--often places on our appreciation for people of other faiths. At any rate, Lot's wife is viewed here not as an example of a person justly punished for disobedience--which is the Old Testament author's use of her--but as a positive model of heroic empathy, of imaginative participation in the lives of others. She looks back for a very good, very human reason. Unlike her husband Lot, she reached beyond the confines of the self, to identify with the non-Hebrew people of the condemned city. And that kind of empathy, which is also fostered by the great literature of the world, is the experience from which social trust is built. It leads to cooperation and civility and mutual concern. In other words, stories create and maintain social bonds. They also show us the consequences of our actions, and they help us to deal with suffering and loss. And, as my own writing about our corner of America repeatedly tries to show, stories help us to live responsibly, and meaningfully, in a particular place. In any case, people who have little or no exposure to literature that requires empathetic identification with different, often troubled people, literature that demands interpretive sensivity and critical judgment, are simply not prepared for civic responsibility in the 21st century.