Recent scholarship on the Sodom and Gomorrah story increasingly explores the long-ignored connections with Greek mythology — and in particular, the theoxeny motif that typically involves one or more gods visiting human civilization in disguise. This motif forms the framework for chapters 18 and 19 of Genesis, and it occurs in the Greek New Testament as well, but it is absent from other Near Eastern literature.
I first wrote about Sodom and Gomorrah several years ago. I’ve created a new video on the topic that covers much of the same material, but with some new insights and approaches. You can find it on YouTube here.
One aspect of the story I do not address in the video is that of Lot’s wife. The instantaneous transformation of the unnamed Mrs. Lot into an upright mineral formation is unique in all the Bible, and apparently unique among Near Eastern literature as well. What should we make of it?
The Text and Its Usual Interpretation
The text relevant to Lot’s wife is very brief:
When [the angels] had brought [Lot and his family] outside, he said, “Flee for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain. Flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed.” (Gen 19:17)
But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked, and she became a pillar of salt. (Gen 19:26)
This remarkable event doesn’t always get much attention from scholars. Speiser doesn’t even mention it in his well-known commentary for the Anchor Bible series.
Those who do remark on it generally regard it as an etiology for the salt-rock formations of the Dead Sea region. Nahum M. Sarna, in his Genesis commentary (2001), says:
This idea must have been suggested by some grotesque salt-rock formation in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. The pre-Christian book, The Wisdom of Solomon (10:4), says, “A pillar of salt stands as a memorial to an unbelieving soul”; and Josephus (Ant. 1.203) claims to have seen it in his day. (p. 138)
That explanation sounds plausible as far as it goes. But is that all there is to it?
Parallels with Orpheus and Eurydice
There is one Greek tale with parallels to the story of Lot’s wife that is sometimes brought up as a potential literary influence: the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (see, for example, Römer 2015, p. 195).
The myth as related by Apollodorus (Library 1.3.2) and Ovid (Metamorphoses 10.1–85) concerns the love of Orpheus of Thrace (son of Apollo and the muse Calliope) for his wife Eurydice. Eurydice dies one day to a snake bite. Unwilling to accept her death, Orpheus journeys into the underworld and asks Pluto to release her to the land of the living. Pluto agrees on the condition that Orpheus not look behind him until he is safe aboveground. But the silence of the journey back grows too much for Orpheus, and as they approach the threshold surrounded by dense fog, he looks behind himself to ensure that Eurydice is still following him. The moment he does so, she fades back into the underworld, dead a second time.
It’s easy to see why some scholars consider this story to be a meaningful parallel to that of Lot’s wife. Both concern a prohibition against looking back and the death of the protagonist’s wife when that rule is broken. Furthermore, the story was clearly well known, being found in the writings of several ancient mythographers and poets.
However, Jan Bremmer published a study in 2008 that examined this connection in detail. His conclusion is that the similarities are a coincidence, since the earliest surviving version of the tale — found in Lament for Bion, which can be dated to the early first century BCE — lacks the tragic ending and the prohibition on looking back. That twist appears to have been added by Virgil in his Georgics Book IV, which was published around 29 BCE.
Besides all that, the story isn’t an especially good match for Lot’s wife. For example, unlike Mrs. Lot who pays for her own mistake, it is Eurydice who pays the penalty for Orpheus’s error; and the context of the prohibition — a capricious challenge by the god of the underworld — is quite unlike the situation faced by Lot and his family, who are fleeing the impending destruction of Sodom.
Look Not Behind Thee
In the same study, Bremmer looks for other prohibitions against looking back in ancient literature. While he finds some instances of people being told to look away during magical rituals, fearful events, and so on, they have no obvious application to the story of Lot’s wife.
Indeed, as Bremmer notes, the reason for the prohibition is given in the text of Genesis itself. God (or an angel; the text is a bit unclear) commands Lot to flee without stopping or looking back lest he be consumed (19:17). And in verse 22, he emphasizes that Lot must hurry, for he cannot proceed with the destruction of the cities of the plain until Lot and his family have arrived at Zoar. In other words, simple urgency is the issue (Bremmer, p. 130).
Lot’s wife, however, disobeys the divine command, and here again we find ourselves in Greek territory.
My Big Fat Greek Salt Pillar
Metamorphosis — the transformation of people into animals, vegetables, and minerals — doesn’t really happen in Near Eastern literature, but it’s everywhere in Greek literature. The evolution of this motif and its function in mythical stories can be traced from the works of Homer through to the later Greek poets, mythographers, and tragedians (see Irving, p. 7). The instances found in Homer, such as Circe transforming Odysseus’s men into pigs, tend to be amoral acts, but metamorphoses as moral punishment by the gods appear later on (Ibid, p. 8).
Quite a few transformations involve turning people into stone. One example that stands out to me is that of Battus, a man who is transformed into stone as punishment for breaking his promise to Hermes. This is a story that seems to have circulated widely among early poets (Ibid, p. 286). Many more examples of punitive transformations to stone, animals, and so on are provided by Irving in his book on the subject.
It’s also hard not to think of Medusa, the Gorgon of Greek mythology with snakes for hair whose face turned anyone who looked at it into stone.
At any rate, Lot’s wife being transformed into rock salt for disobeying God’s command clearly lives in the world of Greek mythology, even if the choice of salt was inspired by the local geography of the Dead Sea.
- Jan Bremmer, Greek Religion and Culture, the Bible and the Ancient Near East, 2008
- Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 2001
- P.M.C. Forbes Irving, Metamorphosis in Greek Myths, 1990
- Thomas Römer, “The Hebrew Bible and Greek Philosophy and Mythology: Some Case Studies”, Semitica 57, 2015