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Looking Back

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Reading about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah recently, it struck me how odd it is that Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Commentators tend to see this incident as a direct result of disobedience to the divine directive, “don’t look back (v. 17).” They see it as a cautionary tale with the theme of immediate, painstaking obedience to God’s word. If you disobey, disaster will overtake you, and you will die. One backward glance and bam! instant punishment.

None of this sounds anything like the patient, compassionate Father Jesus revealed God to be. In fact, it sounds like the sort of interpretation the Pharisees would have come up with, turning as it does on a strict, literal understanding of the angels’ words while ignoring the sins of Lot himself, who offered his virgin daughters to a mob of horny men and left Sodom with such reluctance that he and his wife and daughters had to be dragged out of the city by the angels.

How then should we understand this story? If the fate of Lot’s wife was not punishment for her disobedience, what was it?

This is one of those stories that sounds like a myth: a capricious god, an equivocal warning, a minor infraction, an incredible metamorphosis, and a disastrous outcome. It’s not even the focus of the narrative. It’s an aside, a way to account for why Lot’s wife is suddenly out of the picture, why just a few verses later, he would get drunk and have sex with his two daughters—and why the daughters thought this was a good idea.

Let’s start with the assumption that God in this story is the same God Jesus talked about—loving, compassionate, merciful, and kind. Why would such a God destroy an entire city? There are clues in the preceding chapter.

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous  that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Genesis 18:20-21

The two men—angels—sent to destroy the city were not the first to be waylaid by a mob for their own gratification. Other victims had cried out to God—even perhaps to other gods—and their cries for redress had reached the ears of the Lord. Ezekiel, writing many years later, tells us that the people of Sodom were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49). It was not merely for sexual sins that God destroyed the city but because they made no provision for the poor and neglected the needy. It was God’s compassion for the poor and needy, for the victims of Sodom’s self-absorption, that moved God to judge the city and send agents of destruction to destroy it.

He told Abraham his plan, and Abraham, concerned for his nephew Lot, extracted a promise from the Lord to spare the city if he can find just ten righteous men within it. Unable to find even ten, the Lord nevertheless went beyond his promise by sparing Lot and his family. That is why the two angels urged Lot to flee and even grabbed him and his family by the arms and forced them out of city telling them not to linger “for the Lord was merciful to them” (Genesis 19:16).

We know very little of Lot’s wife. There is no mention of her in connection with Lot prior to his escape from Sodom. It’s likely, therefore, that he met and married her after he settled in Sodom and that she was a native of the region. She would have had friends and family in Sodom, and there is little wonder then that in her concern for them, she should turn back to see what disaster would befall the place where she grew up and where all her memories were. Did God punish this natural concern? I don’t think so.

When the angels led Lot and his family out of the city, they told him to flee to the mountains, but Lot protested. “It’s too far,” he said. “We’ll never make it. The destruction will overtake us. Look, there’s a very small town nearby. We could make it there.” The angels agree to spare the town of Zoar (which means “small”) so Lot and his family can escape. This whole conversation, however, indicates either that Lot had knowledge of what was about to happen and how swift the judgment would be, or that the destruction was already beginning and threatening to overtake them where they stood. That’s why the angel was so vehement in urging them to run for their lives and not look back.

Jesus urged the same alacrity on his disciples when he told them about the coming of the Son of Man in Luke 17:

[N]o one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife!

Luke 17:31-32

So it was not a mere backward glance that doomed Lot’s wife. It was lingering; it was delaying; it was a failure to appreciate the dire emergency of the moment. She stopped. She turned. She looked back. Perhaps the horror of what she saw petrified her. Perhaps the fire was already beginning to fall around her. Perhaps God, in one last desperate act of mercy, turned her to salt like the nearby hills before she could suffer the torment of being burned alive.

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First Murder

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The story of the first murder found in Genesis 4:1-16 has got to be one of the oddest murder stories in history. Here’s a quick recap in case you’ve forgotten it.

Cain and Abel were the two oldest boys born to Eve after she and Adam were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Cain grew up to become a farmer, and Abel grew up to become a herdsman. Cain brought produce from his farm and presented it to the Lord. Likewise, Abel also brought animals from his herds and presented them to the Lord. The Lord looked with favor upon the offerings Abel brought but not on the offerings Cain brought. Because of this, Cain grew angry and frowned. God said to Cain, “Why are you angry and frowning? If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if not, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Then Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out into the field.” Once they were in the field, Cain attacked Abel and killed him.

The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

Cain replied, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Wandering, east of Eden.

Let’s start with Cain’s motive for murder. It appears to be jealousy or envy of his brother. Yet it is not envy of his brother’s success or of a woman they both love. No, it is envy of God’s favor. Cain resents the fact that God accepted Abel, but didn’t accept him. Of course, the story is sparse. We know nothing of their possible sibling rivalry, nothing of the resentment Cain may have felt at seeing a younger brother preferred over the first born. We don’t know how God showed his favor, whether he appeared as a man as he sometimes does in Genesis, or whether his favor took the form of blessings on Abel’s endeavors. The events related could refer to a single instance or to an ongoing pattern of preferential treatment for Abel. What we do know is that God places responsibility for this state of affairs squarely on Cain himself: “If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted?” Both brought offerings to the Lord, but Cain’s was rejected because he was not doing right.

God also warns Cain that if he continues going his own way, then his life is in danger from a croucher at the entryway to sin. God tells Cain he must subdue or master the croucher. The language recalls God’s words to Eve when he pronounced punishment for eating the forbidden fruit. “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Like Adam and Eve, Cain goes on to sin despite God’s warnings. When God pronounces judgment on him, though he bemoans his fate, he does not repent.

Later on when God provides civic laws for the Israelites to follow, he institutes the death penalty for murder (cf. Numbers 35: 16-21). Clearly, if God were determined to be just and teach the new human race a lesson in justice, he would have put Cain to death. Instead he sentences him to banishment. Cain complains that once his crime is known, anyone who finds him may kill him. Instead of saying, “Too bad. That’s what you deserve,” God does something extraordinary. He puts a mark on Cain to prevent anyone from killing him. The mark of Cain, far from being a sign of sin’s shame and God’s displeasure, is a sign of God’s grace and protection. God goes even further, threatening a sevenfold vengeance on anyone who dares kill Cain. Consider, therefore, the amazing mercy God shows toward the first murderer before insisting that God favors the death penalty for murder.

In both Genesis 3 and 4, though God threatens those who sin with death, the actual punishment is banishment from his presence. Life is in the presence of God, and death is exclusion from his presence.

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What Is Sin?

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Sin is a religious concept, and it is impossible to understand it it without invoking a religious context. Atheists tend not to believe in it because they recognize that sin is an offense against God, but they don’t believe there is a god (See, for example, this speech by Dan Barker). For those who do believe in God, sin can still be a troubling concept. It seems to denote both individual deeds and a rebellious attitude, acts that nearly anyone would regard as wrong (murder, rape, theft, fraud, perjury) and acts that seem wrong only if you subscribe to a particular set of beliefs (working on Saturday or Sunday, playing card games, cussing, drinking, smoking, and dancing). In the popular—and secular—mind, sin seems to be nearly synonymous with illicit sex or even with ordinary pleasures. So what is sin? And why do Christians make such a big deal out of it?

When I was a child, I thought sin was breaking a commandment. God had a list of rules everyone was supposed to keep. If you broke one of the rules that was a sin. This list of rules, I learned, included the Ten Commandments. To a child, these rules seemed both arbitrary and unnecessary. It made sense that the first rule was to have no other gods. Imagine the confusion that would result from having more than one Rule-maker! But the rest just seemed like nonsense or else so obvious that no one would need to have it written down. Who wants to make graven images? Or take another man’s wife? Or commit murder? The two that made the most sense to me were the requirement to honor my parents and the prohibition against desiring what someone else had. I’ve written elsewhere about this last commandment, but what is especially odd about it is how unenforceable it is. How do you make a charge of coveting stick? The other commandments all enjoin or forbid specific deeds, but this one forbids something that no one around you may even detect. It is one of the earliest indications that God cares as much about why we do what we do as about what we do.

Another thing I thought as a child was that God’s rules are absolutes. In fact, I was very much a rule follower. I was seldom tempted to break rules, and when I did, I was racked with guilt about it until it was discovered and I received punishment or absolution. The existence of a rule was therefore often sufficient to keep me in line. I was surprised, then, when my own children showed no propensity to regard rules in this same way. Most of them would do a quick cost/benefit analysis in their heads before breaking a rule. If the benefit seemed to outweigh the cost, they had no compunction about breaking the rule and no apparent sense of guilt about it. My own natural bent made me a compliant child, but it also set me on a path to becoming a Pharisaical Christian. When you’re good at keeping rules, it’s tempting to think that rule-keeping is sufficient for life. It isn’t.

What I referred to above as “cost/benefit analysis” is a capacity we all have. It is the capacity to decide for ourselves whether a course of action is good or bad. In the myth of the Fall found in Genesis 3, Eve exercises that capacity when she decides “that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.” Set against her own judgment is the mere prohibition of God, which has nothing to recommend it except God’s power and authority. The serpent even undermines that by accusing God of self-serving motives: “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God doesn’t want any competition. He only forbade it keep you down. He lied about the whole “you will die” thing. Eve desires good things for herself, and the serpent persuades her that the only thing standing in her way is God’s absurd rule.

This is the normal course of sin. It begins with desire for something God has forbidden. Desire magnifies all the good things that will come and diminishes or eliminates all the potential harms. Then we set our own judgment against God’s and do what we want instead of what we should. Sin begins with disagreement with God.

In orthodox Christian belief God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere at once. So his commands are grounded in love and wisdom and strength. But he doesn’t need to have infinite capacities in order to make wise rules. He only needs to be stronger and wiser than you are. Just as good parents who are stronger and wiser than their children make good rules for them to keep them safe and teach them, so God, who is our Parent, makes good rules for us—his children—to protect us and teach us. If we disagree with him, we are always in the wrong. There is something breathtakingly audacious about disagreeing with God, about trying to explain something to him as if he didn’t know, or about thinking we have a perspective he hasn’t considered. It’s like explaining relativity to Einstein. When Abraham dared to do it, he at least showed some trepidation and humility.

Of course, disagreeing with God is not sin; it is only the beginning of sin. For one thing, it is impossible to always agree with God, for to do so, we would have to always believe only what is true and right. Now, each of us thinks that what we believe is true and right. Who would hold on to a belief knowing it to be false or wrong? But we know, since we are human beings with limited perspective, that some of what we believe is not true, even though we don’t know exactly what it is. It is only when we insist on our own way in defiance of God’s command that our disagreement rises to the level of sin. And what is God’s command? He commands us to love him first and foremost and to love our neighbors as ourselves. If our lives are not characterized by loving our neighbors—by sincere respect and affection, wanting what is best for them—then we deceive ourselves when we say we love God.

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