Lot’s Wife as a case of Universal Justice

“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” —Proverbs 24:17

The book of Genesis describes the wickedness of five cities, Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboim, and Zoar. Despite Abraham’s pleading and God’s willingness to spare the cities if at least two righteous people are found in each one, even such a tiny number cannot be met. The cities are doomed to utter destruction from a rain of fire and brimstone.

As it happens, Abraham’s nephew Lot, his wife, and two daughters are living in Sodom at the time. They are rescued by angels who warn them of the impending disaster and set them outside the city walls so that they can escape the impending destruction of the wicked city. The angels warn them as they flee, that under no circumstances are they to turn back to look at the cities as they are experiencing their doom. (Gen. 19:17)

Overcome by her curiosity, Lot’s wife turns around to gain a glimpse of the destruction taking place. According to the narrative in the TaNaCH she is turned into a pillar of salt on the spot. (Gen.19:26)

Of course it stretches our credulity to conceive of a human being experiencing such a moment. One thing for sure, though, it’s dramatic!

Regardless, what’s the point? After all, what was so terrible about her turning back to take a look? (Don’t we all react in the same way when we see an accident or some other minor – perhaps even major – disaster)?

I believe a clue to the answer can be found in the Sabbath Psalm (92:11,12)),

(יא) ותרם כראים קרני בלתי בשמן רענן:

(יב) ותבט עיני בשורי בקמים עלי מרעים

תשמענה אזני.

11. You have given me extraordinary power; (lit. “You lifted my horn like a wild ox.”)

I am like one who is anointed. (lit. “I am saturated with fresh oil.”)

12. I see the defeat of my foes, (lit. “My eyes behold those who rise against me.”)

I hear the doom of my enemies. (lit. “My ears have heard when those who devise evil rise up against me.”)

In connecting verse 11 to verse 12 we can deduce that the author of this Psalm feels extremely privileged to observe or to hear about the fate of his enemies. The implied message is that it is one thing for Divine Justice to be executed, it is quite another for us to be worthy of witnessing such acts.

Another example of this point involves a similar puzzling passage. Exodus 4:24, “The Night Encampment…” Even before the first Nine of the Ten Plagues, Moses is commanded by God to go to Pharaoh and demand, in the Divine Name, the release of the Israelite slaves.

In the verse that precedes this episode, Moses is to warn Pharaoh with the following words, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may worship Me,’ yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.” (22, 23)

Yet in the following verse, on Moses’ way back to Egypt from Midian to perform this mission, the Torah states, “the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him.” (24) (Italics, mine). From the verse that follows, it appears that the reason that Moses’ life was put in jeopardy was that he had failed to circumcise his own (first-born?) son!

It’s so tempting to seek, if not desire, to see the “bad guys get it,” that we easily lose sight of our own imperfections. Yet if the Creator is “Sovereign of the Universe,” and not just a part of it, then Divine justice demands impartiality. Anything short of this isn’t justice at all. As humans our perspective is extremely limited. How much of any given situation are we really capable of knowing, understanding, or controlling?

In our eagerness to see the “wicked” destroyed we can’t afford to ignore any “wickedness” within ourselves. From a Divine perspective there may be far more shading than we are capable of discerning among the world’s inhabitants. Only our Creator is capable of true Justice. At the very least that demands that our own houses are in order before we might find ourselves worthy to observe Divine Justice executed on others.

The tale of Lot’s wife is a powerful reminder of this basic truth. She was warned not to turn around to view the destruction of the city; to derive some kind of pleasure at the sight of Divine Justice in full force. The description of her “being turned into a pillar of salt” may symbolize the fundamental truth of this principle: never to forget our own imperfections even as we seek the “defeat of our foes,” or the “downfall of our enemies.”

And if we are granted the ability to see the downfall of the wicked, we should realize what a privilege it is: that we have been granted “extraordinary power,” or are “as one anointed!”

—Rabbi Mordecai Miller