Tell Me Her Name

 

“I am the utterance of my name…”

Louis Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God

Lot’s wife stands alone, a woman in a town in a desert. She belongs to this moment, but she also belongs to us, her children. By the time we meet her, the writer has stolen the name her neighbors called her, the sound her parents made to mean, “You, daughter, child, part of me.” She, herself, has given birth to daughters, more than two, maybe four: two married, two still in her home. We have no record of their names, either, the two destroyed in hellfire and brimstone. Only the two who procreated with their drunk but God-loved father, who bore him children so that his name, his seed, would survive are named for us. But we lose her name, this wife of Lot, this woman who turned back to Sodom and became a trope.

In a religion that names and renames, that blesses with names at birth and in all our sacred spaces, that repeats those names in whispers, this religion is built on a tradition that tore the names from women, buried them in the desert along with their whispered stories, their prayers and visions. Silent and silenced, our nameless matriarchs have become a pillar of salt.

Tell me her name.

Did she sit with the angels to hear their prophetic direction to Lot? Did she mix meal into water and fry it in a bit of oil, perhaps straining to hear, or perhaps humming to shut out the voices, as the angels warned of destruction? I imagine, if she knew of the coming disaster, she ran to her daughters, knocked on their doors and, breathless, begged them to leave with her, to grab their sandals, bundle up their children (did they have children?) and flee. And I imagine their husbands, steeped in pride and vanity, thought her a crazy old woman and forced her from their homes, or smiled in that Patriarchal way and said, ‘There, there old woman’ while ignoring her prophecy. Or they told their wives to finish cooking because night was setting in and they were hungry. I imagine she tried one last time, before leaving the city, making Lot wait by the gates, so she could kiss their cheeks and remember their smell, their eyes, the way their lips curled to the left when they smiled. Maybe they wanted to join her but were afraid of their husbands or afraid of change. Maybe they trusted their husbands. Maybe they didn’t have a choice. 

Tell me her name.

When she fled, did she stay in the back, straining to hear footsteps in the sand, those beloved footsteps of a daughter or both daughters (please, God, save them both)? She heard a voice, perhaps, the sound of a child calling out to her, yelling ‘I’m coming, I’m coming.’ Or she heard a scream, deep and tormented, as fire fell on a skirt hem, a husband, a baby (did her daughters have babies? Did they stop nursing to watch the roof, the walls, shudder in flames around them?) Maybe she thought God would answer her righteous, desperate prayer and soften hearts at the last second.

Matriarch to generations, a cipher in the desert, she is stripped naked of her essence and turned into a warning for us: Obey God (or Lot? Was this a cautionary tale about obedience to men?) or He (or a writer) will change your very being and erase your story.

But maybe transforming into a pillar of salt was a God-kindness, like Daphne becoming a tree. Maybe he meant to temper the pain of living with the knowledge that her daughters burned to death, died watching their own children die. He took from her the smell of flesh-smoke, the screams for help, the vision of people running from the city as it collapsed around them. Maybe sanctification and ascension look like a pillar of salt, human form, reaching for the past and refusing a future without all of our loved ones. Maybe she wasn’t erased in a moment of violence, but rather made holy in her grief, cloaked in a veil of forgetfulness so trauma could heal. Maybe, too, she reaches back for us, holds out a hand to help as we claim our names, our voices, our stories. And maybe this time, this burning, we can stop the flames that engulf our sisters as we, too, refuse a future without all of us.

Orazio Borgianni (Italian, Rome 1578–1616 Rome) Head of an Old Woman, after 1610 Oil on canvas; 20 7/8 x 15 3/8 in. (53 x 39 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Gwynne Andrews Fund and Marco Voena and Luigi Koelliker Gift, 2010 (2010.289) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/441024

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9 Responses

  1. Fairy says:

    Beautiful! Like you, I’ve wondered about “Lot’s wife” many times over the years.

  2. Heather says:

    Bryn this is gorgeous. Wow. All the feels. Thank you for transforming a cautionary tale into such a complicated, multi faceted narrative. You’ve taken a woman who was reduced to a pile of salt and made her human again.

  3. Becca says:

    I am humbled by this reframing of the story.
    When I was a missionary my Mission President cautioned us sisters: “You women are prone to look back. Too often like Lot’s wife—wanting what you left behind.”
    A bit harsh, I thought, in judgement of her.
    But here you’ve brought her back to life: what woman with a heart would not have looked back?

  4. liz johnson says:

    This is so gorgeous, Bryn. I really long for some sort of scripture that tells us the stories of women, written by women. Every time I see a woman without a name in these books-that-are-supposed-to-be-holy I think about what her name could have been, what her side of the story would be, and what is missing. We’re just missing so much. I love these questions about Lot’s wife.

  5. Anne says:

    This might be the most beautiful thing I’ve read in a long, long time. It also reminded me that salt was a necessary addition to some of the sacred offerings in ancient temples. Thank you for reclaiming this story.

  6. Em says:

    This is lovely and makes so much sense. If my children were going to be destroyed I would look back- not out of Love of sin but out of grief and hope.

  7. Jessica says:

    Thank you for this, with all my heart.

  8. di says:

    I love this – thank you! It really made me think of this story in a different way. I’d always hated it but couldn’t articulate all the whys. Damn patriarchy!

  9. marilynmcphie says:

    Beautiful, beautiful. This should be read and told aloud — and often.

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