In the Bible, salt plays many different (and often contradictory) roles.
Lot’s wife is one of the women characters in the Bible who doesn’t have a name. Some non-biblical Jewish traditions (oral sources, rabbinical commentaries, even folk tales) refer to her every now and then as “Ado” or “Adit,” that is, “Edith.” Islamic references to Lot’s wife (“the wife of prophet Lu”) are also relatively common but, as in the Bible, she doesn’t have a name. In the Quran, she is present as a member of “the People of Prophet Lu” in the context of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but her turning into a pillar of salt is not at all mentioned: one only reads Lot and his family were all saved, “except an old woman among those who remained behind.”
Lot’s wife is first mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 19. Some other mentions of her are found in the book of Wisdom (10:7) and the Gospel of Luke (17:32). But it is here, in Genesis 19, verse 26, where we find her famous transformation: “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”
Interestingly, the verse doesn’t say “she was turned into” or “God turned her into.” The verse simply states that “she became a pillar of salt”.
Let’s go back briefly to the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But in order to get there, we will have to go a bit further back, to Genesis 18.
The story of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah is told in two chapters in Genesis: chapters 18 and 19.
But Genesis 18 begins by telling the story of Abraham and Sarah’s generous hospitality to three visitors who came to them by the oaks of Mamre. Seminomadic life would often bring people from different families and regions into contact with one another, Canaan being part of a natural land bridge between Asia and Africa and, consequently, a popular trade route. In the absence of a formal industry of hospitality, which would only develop later, people living in cities, villages, small towns, and even encampments had a social obligation to welcome strangers.
Three men, thought by most commentators to have been angels appearing as men, came to Abraham in the plains of Mamre. Christian tradition has read this passage as being a revelation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, each one of these three angels being a Person of the Trinity. After the angels received the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, the Lord told Abraham that “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.” (Cf. Gen 18:20).
But Abraham immediately inquired of the Lord if he would spare the city if 50 righteous people were found in it, and the Lord agreed he would not destroy it for the sake of the righteous living there. Here, Abraham begins to bargain, asking God for mercy at lower numbers: first 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, and finally at 10. The Lord agreed each time. Finally, two angels (not the three angels we saw staying in Abraham’s tent) were sent to Sodom to investigate.
Like uncle, like nephew: Lot’s hospitality
Enter Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Like his uncle, Lot received the angels in his house, and they ate with him.
Here we find a first interesting arch: Abraham and Lot receive people in their tents. But the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of leaving.
Whereas Lot invited these strangers to spend the night in his house, served them, fed them, and gave them shelter, other Sodomites wanted Lot to hand them over. Some Jewish commentaries would go as far as to claim that inhospitality was included in the Sodomite code of law, but Lot, even when living in Sodom, would never forget the importance of the lessons he learned from his uncle Abraham. In fact, rather than handing over his guests, Lot offered the Sodomites his two daughters instead, but was refused.
By the morning, the two angels urged him to get his family and flee the city, which was about to be destroyed: “Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away!” The rest of the story, we already know. Lot’s wife disobeys, looks behind, to the city, and immediately turns into a pillar of salt.
Why a pillar of salt and not, let’s say, pepper, or cumin?
Salt plays an interesting, often contradictory role in the Bible. Salt is a fundamental necessity of life, and has been used since ancient times in many cultures as a seasoning, a preservative, a disinfectant, a component of ceremonial offerings, and as a unit of exchange. The Hebrews, both during the Old Testament and the New Testament periods, were certainly not an exception.
Leviticus (2:13) and Ezekiel (43:24) make it evident that salt was an important part of ancient Hebrew religious sacrifice. “And every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offerings you shall offer salt.” (Leviticus 2:13) Also, salt was always cast on the burnt offering (Ezekiel 43:24), and was part of the incense offered in the Temple (Exodus 30:35). Moreover, even newborn babies were rubbed with salt, as we read in Ezekiel: “As for your nativity, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to cleanse you; you were not rubbed with salt nor wrapped in swaddling cloths.” (Ezekiel 16:4)
But salt was also widely and variably used symbolically in ancient Israel. The books of Numbers and 2 Chronicles present salt as the symbol that confirms friendship between parties. Eating salt together, in fact, was (and still is) a sign of friendship in some regions in the Mediterranean.
Some Jewish commentators claim this is the key to understand why was Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt.
According to tradition, Lot’s wife was a Sodomite herself. That would mean hospitality was not part of her customs, and Jewish sources claim that when Lot asked her to bring salt to his guests, she complained: “Also this evil custom you wish to introduce into this place?” (Cf. Midrash Agadah, Bereishit 19, 32). As they had no salt in the house, she went door to door asking neighbors for salt, letting them know her husband had ignored the laws of the city, inviting strangers in. The Midrash then explains that having she sinned with salt, “she was punished with salt.”
However, there is more to that: a land covered with salt, in the Bible, is also a metaphor for no man’s land, a desolated land, a land in which nothing grows (Cf. Psalms 107:34; Job 39:6; Jeremiah 17:6). Since it was hospitality what allowed Abraham and Sarah to have a son, grow, and prosper, it is only logical that those who deny hospitality (not only Lot’s wife, but the entire city of Sodom) would turn into a wasteland.