What does the Bible mean when it says Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt?

Do we even know her name?

WHEN GOD DESTROYED THE CITIES OF SODOM AND GOMORRAH, and the other cities of the plain around the Dead Sea, the only people to escape were Lot, his wife, and two of their daughters.

They were told to get out quickly and not to look back. Lot's wife looked back, and “became a pillar of salt.” This is not presented as a miracle, and there is no need to look for other meanings for the phrase beyond what it says. Lot's wife's name may have been Idis.

Neve Zohar on the shore of the Dead Sea

Above: Neve Zohar, on the shore of the Dead Sea (photo: Ester Inbar)

The biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were situated near the Dead Sea in Israel, probably on the southern end.

In Sodom lived a man named Lot, with his family. The Lord had told Lot's uncle, Abraham, that He was going to destroy the city because of the wicked immmorality of its inhabitants. But Abraham begged the Lord to show mercy toward those living there for the sake of the good people in it, which included his nephew Lot.

Abraham asked the Lord whether He would spare Sodom if there were 50 righteous people in it (Genesis 18). The Lord said He would. So Abraham gradually lowered the number to 10. The Lord said He would not destroy Sodom if He could find even 10 righteous people there.

Lot the only one

As it turned out, two angels visited Sodom and found that Lot was the only one there who had any decency. The city was full of adulterers, fornicators, and homosexuals who even tried to rape the angels while they were staying with Lot.

The angels told Lot to hurry and get out of the city quickly with his family, because God was about to destroy the city. Lot's sons-in-law didn't believe the city was about to be destroyed, and stayed. As for his sons, we are not even told that Lot warned them, so it is possible they were so steeped in the immoral culture of the city that Lot thought it was pointless to warn them.

Regarding Lot's sons-in-law, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus says they were betrothed to the daughters and not yet married to them, which may explain why the girls were still virgins. But this assumes that Lot had only two daughters. It is possible that he had married daughters as well as the two virgin daughters who fled the city with him and his wife.

In any case, among the parents and sons and daughters, the angels led only Lot out of the city along with his wife and two daughters.

One of the angels told the family to escape to the mountain, not to stay in any of the nearby cities of the plain, and not to even look behind them. But Lot, reluctant to go to the mountain, said he would rather stay at the small village of Zoar. (He eventually feared for his life in Zoar and went to the mountain anyway, showing it is better to follow the Lord's guidance directly.)

Lot's wife becomes a pillar of salt

A pillar of salt at the Dead SeaIn the morning, as they entered Zoar, the Lord rained massive fire and brimstone upon the Sodomites and the city of Sodom, and upon Gomorrah and the other cities of the plain and their inhabitants.

Then, in what seems to readers today to be an amazing statement, we are told Lot's wife “looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” The photo at right shows an actual salt pillar at the Dead Sea.

The Bible does not tell us the name of Lot's wife, although the Midrash (an ancient Jewish commentary) says her name was Idis, pronounced EE-dis.

What happened to Lot's wife?

The statement in the Bible does not imply that her turning into a pillar of salt was a miracle. It is merely an account of something that happened.

Looking at the Hebrew wording of the passage does not indicate that we can substitute any other meaning to the statement. It seems she did indeed become a pillar of salt.

But the clue to how this happened seems to lie in the words “his wife looked back from behind him”.

The phrase indicates that Lot's wife was behind him, and has the meaning of “lagging behind with longing.” She was not only some distance behind the others, but as she looked at the cities being destroyed, she longed for her old life there. Her body had moved out of Sodom, but her heart was still back there.

The angel had told them “look not behind thee … lest thou be consumed” (Genesis 19:17). Lot's wife simply ignored the warning and received the penalty the angel had warned her about. She was then “consumed”.

Was the effect immediate?

Bitumen collected at the Dead Sea shoreIt is clear that Lot's wife was consumed (destroyed, overpowered) immediately. The ashes and fiery debris raining down on anyone close enough to the perishing cities would have destroyed them. (At left is a photo of bitumen gathered from the shore of the Dead Sea.) But whether loads of salt from the area covered her immediately, or it accumulated over time, is not so clear.

There are massive deposits of rock salt in that area, and these could have buried her in a downpour of salt deposits. Or she could have been killed by being covered in volcanic ash only to have the salt cover her body over time.

That Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt is a historical truth is confirmed by Jesus' words in Luke 17:32 — “Remember Lot's wife.” This gives the account unquestionable authenticity.

Lot not a great role model

Lot himself was not a great role model in many ways. Despite his decency and righteousness (2 Peter:2 7-8), and the amazing fact that he managed to keep two daughters as virgins in a city saturated with sexual deviants, he continued to live among the decadence, complied only reluctantly with the command to go to the mountain, and offered his daughters to the men of the city if they would leave the angels alone, among other failings.

It is likely that God preserved him and his daughters not because of their exceptional morality, but because of God's love for Abraham, who was Lot's uncle and who had earlier pleaded with the Lord not to destroy the wicked city lest good people be killed along with the bad.

As for Lot's wife, she has left us several great lessons. As salt is a preservative, it preserved her as well as preserving for us the memory of her disobedience (“Remember Lot's wife.” — Luke 17:32). That type of salt was tainted with impurities, rendering the outer layer somewhat lacking in flavor (the reference in Matthew 5:13 to salt having lost its taste is to this type of salt). So too are fallen humans tainted with impurities, therefore we must not be superficial in our dealings with the Lord, or in doing what the Lord tells us to do.

Let our hearts be given over to readily following God's commands, and doing what is right in God's sight.

[Photo of Dead Sea pillar of salt by M. Disdero is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license versions 2.5.]

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