Be careful what you wish for…

14 01 2014

My daughter came to me with a verse of Scripture that she had been reading and wanted some clarification. Of course, like any Dad, I was flattered, but the passage was intriguing and, when I understood that the version of the Bible was the King James Version, I could appreciate her difficulty in understanding it:

16 And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the Lord being merciful unto him: and they brought him forth, and set him without the city.

17 And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed. 18 And Lot said unto them, Oh, not so, my Lord.  Genesis 19:16-18 KJV

The context was the escape of Lot and his family from the location known historically as the “Cities of the plain” of Canaan. We tend to know them by two dominant cities: Sodom and Gomorrah. How Lot came to be there and how these cities came to be destroyed has intrigued many since the event presumably occurred.

Genesis 13 tells us that Abram and his nephew Lot were blessed with many herds and possessions but the extent of their livestock was causing disputes amongst their workers in the area they were settled, so Abram does quite a noble thing for a Middle Eastern patriarch of the era: he gives the younger man the choice of where to settle:

10 Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt. (This was before the Lorddestroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) 11 So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company.  Genesis 13:10-11 NIV

The character of Lot is immediate throughout a reading of Genesis: he is an opportunist. The easiest way to raise livestock is on flat plains with abundant grains and grasses and good access to irrigation, a no-brainer. In contrast, the rocky mountains and hills surrounding makes raising, herding and protecting livestock much more difficult, so Abram certainly got the rougher end of this ‘deal’. Notably, Genesis makes significant reference to the proximity of the ‘cities’ to the plains possessed by Lot. Subsequently, we see Lot camped ‘near’ the city of Sodom (Gen 13:12) and close enough to be carried off (along with his possessions, Gen 14:12) when a rebellion broke out in Sodom, Kedolaomer, who had defeated the kings of the plains and kept them subdued for 12 years, quashed it. When Abram is alerted, he takes on this army to rescue Lot, is successful and the king of Sodom meets him on the plains:

21 The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.”

22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you,not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ 24 I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.”

 Again, this is extraordinary. Entitled to (all) the spoils of victory, when Abram is confronted by a vanquished king asking for his people back (servants, workers, concubines and relatives) and is offered their ‘goods’, he not only relinquishes his right to take everything, but accepts nothing. Abram clearly is wealthy but not motivated by it. Instead, he sees the snare that such greed could be, leading to resentment by the impoverished people of Sodom which could come back to bite his (predominantly) agricultural bottom. Note here a connection with Jesus in an often misunderstood passage in Luke 16:8:
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.   Luke 16:8
Furthermore, Jesus commends us with our ‘possessions’:
I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.   Luke 16:9
So Abram refused to live with, deal with or be indebted to the ‘Cities of the plain’. Not so, Lot. Indeed, far from seeing the clear and present danger of living so close to populations of people that had frequently attracted war and invasions by nations greedy for the filthy lucre of this fertile area, Lot actually moves into the city of Sodom itself (Genesis 19:1) and has his house inside the city walls. The people of Sodom are referred to as ‘his friends’ (Genesis 19:7).
Now much is made about the kinds of activities that seemed to be common in these cities of the plain at the time. We even use the word ‘Sodomise’ to refer to homosexual male rape still in the 21st century. Here is where a greater understanding of the depth of depravity needs to be understood about this region at this time. There are a great many sins mentioned throughout the Bible that relate to the people of Canaan and, more specifically, ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’.
Goddesses ‘Asherah’ (also ‘Ashtoreth’) and ‘Ishtar’ were commonly worshipped throughout Canaan and archaeology in the 19th and 20th centuries has revealed an abundance of artifacts that attest to this. Asherah was often referred to as the “Queen of Heaven”, a consort of Baal but was also adulterated widely by Israelites later as a consort of Yahweh, the most high God. She is often depicted holding ‘the sea’ or being able to walk over the sea.
Ishtar represents the rather bizarre combination of goddess of both fertility and of war. Such Goddesses were largely borrowed from both broader (and older) Mesopotamian and Egyptian traditions and were, amongst other things, worshipped through ceremonial, ‘sacred’ or paid, religious sex. Men, it seems, are always pretty good at inventing religions that satisfy one or more of their primal lusts: ‘gold’, ‘girls’, or ‘glory’ (see Scientology, Raelians, Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints). The result in an era long before effective contraception was, unsurprisingly, children, some of whom were not really wanted by church-sponsored prostitutes.
Here is where some of the practices of the ancient Canaanites appear a lot less than ‘quaint pagan cultural practices’. Enter ‘Molech’ (also called ‘Chemosh’) was quite a frightful addition to the pantheon. With a name vaguely referring to simply ‘king’ (Molek) but often intentionally mispronounced in Hebrew as ‘Melek’ (or ‘shame’), parents would sacrifice their children to Molech, often represented as a large Bull-like creature which outstretched arms, into which were carved steep ‘slides’ which terminated in a furnace where the god’s ‘belly’ might be. Other depictions show the bull-headed god’s outstretched arms over a fire:
molech altar
In either case, the parents were to deliver their child to the attending priest and, according to some accounts, were not to make a sound or cry when their (usually) infant child was ‘passed through the flames’ lest the sacrifice not be accepted by this horrific deity. Afterwards, it was common for the parents to bury the bones of the child under the threshold of their home as a reminder of the promise of coming prosperity. Indeed, the sacrifices seemed to be motivated by convenience (an unwanted child) or a deep sacrifice in return for ongoing prosperity from the god.
I need to mention at the point that to my daughter I completely glossed over the practices in the last few paragraphs. It is clear that if the Bible were given a censorship rating, Genesis would almost certainly be given an M15+ rating!! Suffice it to say that I told her that if you were to devoutly worship this god in Australia (or most countries on the planet) today, you would be rightly thrown into jail for a considerable time. Yet this was de rigueur for the peoples depicted here in Genesis.
When I share this from time to time with older students and friends, there is often a combination of revulsion and anger, particularly from parents as they consider that anyone might kill their own children for convenience or to secure ongoing prosperity. Yet, in some chilling irony, the two most substantial reasons for abortions reported in a 2004 study of 1209 women who underwent abortion were:
“..having a baby would interfere with a woman’s education, work or ability to care for dependents (74%); that she could not afford a baby now (73%) or was having relationship problems (48%).”
(note that mothers in this study were obviously able to cite more than one motivator in the interview/survey).
Interestingly, the proportion of women seeking an abortion due to incest and/or rape is consistently shown to be between 0.5% and 1%. The incidence of such vile acts seems to me to be still appalling high for supposedly ‘civilised’ societies like ours. Whilst there arguably a few differences in the two practices, nevertheless parents are making decisions about the comfort and convenience of their own lifestyle over their children’s lives. In Australia, more than 25% of pregnancies each year end up this way. However, this is not an inflammatory debate about abortion, so let’s consider again our context: Sodom and Gomorrah and the family of Lot.
One can only shudder about the possible prevalence of events involving the sacrifice of children and depraved violent sexual activity, including rapes that occurred in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Genesis gives us some insight to this, since Lot, was opposed to the agitated, insistent and violent intent for the men of Sodom to desire to rape the male guests that Lot welcomed into his home:

They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, 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. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” Genesis 19: 5-8

It would be hard for most of us in our middle class, suburban homes to even imagine an event as confronting as this occurring to us. Note the depravity here. Lot is opposed to the proposition for the ‘men of the city’ to rape the male guests but offers to these same people as an appeasement his two virgin daughters to them to do with what they wished. I think that any father reading this would be hard pressed to see any situation where he would be prepared to negotiate like this. Let me be very clear here, the homosexual desire of the men depicted in this passage is far worse than consensual male intercourse but brutal, violent rape. It is hard to see how Lot is any more noble than the men of the city, yet this was the culmination of his desire to acquire. Nothing was more important to Lot than ‘stuff’, even the safety and security of his own family. Sobering stuff, yeah?

Now, when I teach about this from time to time, it is very hard for any of us in the 21st century to read Genesis and feel comfortable at all with what appears to be the decree of God to ‘wipe out’ some populations of people from this ancient world and it is usually criticised as “God sponsored Genocide”. Credit where credit is due, sometimes a cool title for an argument can seem a nice substitute for logical reasoning. However, the judgement of God is declared in Genesis 19: 12-13:

12 The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, 13 because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.”

If we can divorce from our thinking the ‘noble indigenous’ archetype prevalent in our post-imperialist and (deservedly) guilt-ridden minds, then we can perhaps see some sense of justice here. Note firstly that this judgement clearly indicates a volume, magnitude or consistency of outcry which would justify such extreme action. Secondly, note that ‘genocide’ as defined in our era refers to a race, creed or culture systematically exterminated purely on that basis. Finally, I think it took me until I was a parent to fully understand the depth of love that one can have for children, their relative innocence and the surprising capacity to sense ‘righteous anger’ or deep sorrow when our children are threatened or in pain. Now, I think I understand how much more it might be possible for a Holy God to have more extreme feelings and motivation to act than even my own.

I can’t help but wonder how deceived we are to follow wealth, financial security and the insatiable desire to follow (and purchase) the latest trends in fashion, electronics and appliances until our wardrobes break our TV units are full and our kitchens are littered with expensive ‘gadgets’? Simple materialism is not necessarily the villain here, no, it is deeper. We feel incomplete and ‘itch’ for accumulation to grant us relief, comfort and an easier life on Earth. All things which perhaps seem pretty reasonable in a post-modern, secular and economically developed nation. After all, the saviour of the developing world appears to be the steady growth of the ‘middle class’ as a means out of poverty. The economic guiding principle here is substituting ‘work’ for ‘stuff’, a subtle shift from the ‘work’ for ‘food’ subsistence of the poor. Nevertheless, we deceive ourselves if we think this economic model will come without conseqences for ourselves and our relationships, which leads us to the final, puzzling part of this passage which specifically relates to Lot’s wife:

“15 With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.16 When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them. 17 As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!”” Genesis 19:15-17

The intent was clear from the visitors (now revealed to be angels), that Lot should literally get the heck out of there! It is the situation with Lot’s wife that always had me puzzled. You see, my children’s bible, as a kid, had massive  coloured pictures that showed Lot’s wife, having apparently disobeyed the angels’ command not to “turn around” and instantly became a statue!

Pillar of salt


Of course, this situation was always possible but I felt that it seemed a) a little arbitrary and b) a little “Harry Potter” (or maybe “Doctor Who”?). Actually, the angels’ command mentions several times the admonition not to ‘muck around’ but simply “get out of there!!”, it wasn’t the ‘looking’ but the ‘tarrying’ that caused her demise. Neither Lot, nor his family, it seemed, was in any hurry to get out of the place that had caused them to be distracted from holiness, taken captive, had Lot offer his daughters to animals and now the very real possibility of death.

The next part is pure speculation but much is written in these few chapters concerning Lot about possessions. They caused the quarrels in the first place with Abraham’s servants, they caused Lot’s family to move closer and closer to Sodom, eventually living inside. Even when they make their escape, what did they bring? Why was Lot’s wife already lagging behind? How hard was it for her to leave her ‘life’ behind?

Now the ‘pillar of salt’ I had to explain to my daughter carefully. Not a ‘statue’ as often depicted in children’s Bibles, like mine, no translation of the phrase ‘netziv‘  נְצִ֥יב מֶֽלַח׃ ‘ can be rendered as ‘statue’. If it were the case then it is likely that ‘Pesel’ (a graven image) or ‘Tammunah’ (a likeness) would almost certainly have been used.

Actually, this is where I get to have fun as a chemist! Now the text uses the phrase “ rained down burning Sulfur..” (Genesis 19:26). This is unambiguous, in English and in Hebrew. It is a phrase used to describe a volcanic eruption. This is not conjecture either. Below is a picture of archaeological remains uncovered at Bab Edh Drah in modern Israel in 1979:


ash remains SodomWhat was uncovered over fifty years in this region of Israel were exactly five cities, replete with an abundance of “shaft tombs” where many thousand people were buried. Even some grapes in winepresses have been preserved in the desert dryness. What is more telling, however, is the thick layers of spongy ‘fly ash’ that is consistent with volcanic eruption and the multitude of unburied bodies (and parts thereof) at such sites, dated at the same time.

So, it appears that far from being a cautionary tale about obedience and sin, this event was history and volcanic in origin. So what of Lot’s wife? Well, she was a ‘Netziv’ of ‘salt’. When organisms burn that have internal skeletons, high proportions of proteins and meet a demise with very hot reductants like sulfur is the likelihood of an abundant of white ‘salts’ and ash, from oxides of potassium, calcium and an abundance of various nitrates.. all white and similar in appearance to table salt. See here a well preserved human specimen from pompei:

pompei man

So, can we suggest a similar demise for Lot’s wife? It is certainly possible. If she really did drag behind in the valley during an eruption then could she have ended up as a pile of inorganic ash & salts? Very likely.

What message is there for us, then? I find the most sobering part of this record that both parents were more consumed by the need to possess than the very safety of their family and, a very distant third, their pursuit of holiness in deference to a just and Holy God. Far from being genocide, this appears to be God’s patience, over a long period of time with the destruction of innocents finally stretched to breaking point. I think it is macabre irony that many adults met their death after centuries of passing their children through the fires of Moloch and storing their ashes on their thresholds by being burnt alive, many on the threshold of their own homes.

I often write that comfort is not good for us as people, or as Christians. God is merciful (note here that Lot’s family is certainly not worthy of saving but Abraham pleads for them) but if we pray for a ‘good day’, ‘safe passage’ and for ‘things to work out OK’ he will often, though not always, meet our request. However, we do well to toil, to labour, to find ourselves trusting in Him for our food, shelter and personal safety because we grow into resilient spiritual beings. Paul tells us we’d be mad to pray for suffering, though, ironically, it is how we become better in this fallen world. Certainly, though, we should be very careful about decisions made in the guise of some other ‘noble’ purpose that have the ulterior motive of making our families more comfortable, accumulating more ‘stuff’ and taking our eyes of those whom we apparently love on Earth more than anyone or anything else.