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Nativity Beads: a poem & an essay exploring alternative interpretations of the Luke 2 story

Nativity Beads

pendant.

we think we know the story
of how you birthed our God into our midst
— but this
is not quite accurate:

the tale of your time in Bethlehem
is overlaid by two millennia
of retellings —
tradition lining up beside tradition and

when my mind becomes
a tangled mess
trying to divine
which ones Really Happened

you come.

you calm.

you guide me from

my need to know one truth
into the sacred splendor
of a whole string of stories —

each one a bead
pregnant with its little piece of Truth,
a little link between me and
your Son and you.

___

first decade.

“it’s not so bad,” Joseph says hopefully
as he helps you settle down onto the straw.

the cave walls cut the chill;
the goat who ambles close to sniff you stinks but
oh, she’s warm.

you think of births you’ve overheard
at home — the neighbor women rushing in
to help. you expected the same for yourself

but, ah well, what has been expected
about this pregnancy?

___

second.

Joseph hovers, fervent but unsure
how to help.

“if i could take your pain upon myself…”

but there is no pain!
conceived as you were
free from Eve’s bane,

as you give birth
to heaven on earth
all you know is
bliss, bliss, bliss.

___

third.

Joseph is gone.
you can picture his desperate dash
from door to bolted door
off in the town

as you lie alone
on old straw — and, God! the baby crowns

with no one to help — so you reach down
into the mess of your own blood and

yours are the first hands to wrap around
the Son of God, red and slick and — oh sacred sound!  — screaming.

___

fourth.

Joseph is gone, but near — you know he waits
pacing and praying just outside the door.

in his place — women’s faces, smiling and soothing,
letting you squeeze their hands as hard as you need

or bustling about to heed Midwife’s decrees.

the guest room was too small to hold this congregation
so you were helped into the central room
to birth the Son of God right in the heart
of this small peasant home.

the poor know how to serve one of their own.

___

fifth.

you close your eyes as agony subsides
between contractions. see yourself as one bead
upon a long strong string stretching centuries —

you are one

with Jochebed biting down to mute her moaning,
Rebekah grateful for an end to her rough pregnancy,
with Hannah, Ruth, Bathsheba, Hagar, Rahab, Leah, Eve,
and millions more unnamed. you share their groaning,
their labor, their relief, their ecstasy.

your baby crowns; the women round burst out in Glory be!


This poem was written by Avery Arden and belongs to them. If you want to use it in a worship service or elsewhere, let Avery know! You can reach them at queerlychristian36@gmail.com.


Essay

My Advent devotions this year include praying a daily rosary. Meanwhile, I’ve been fixating upon a certain reading of Luke 2’s “no room at the inn” passage that suggests Mary gave birth not in a stable, but someone’s home (more on that in a bit). As I meditated on various iterations of the Nativity tale while moving through my rosary, this poem was conceived.

This poem is structured after a rosary. For my non-Catholic friends out there who may not be familiar, a rosary is a long string of prayer beads with a crucifix or other cross hanging down from five decades, or clusters of ten beads each. Here’s a diagram (from this site):

id: diagram of a Catholic rosary with blue beads. A crucifix dangles from the bottom of a string with five beads on it, which is connected to a longer string that connects like a necklace; this longer string has five clusters of ten beads each, and every cluster has one bead between. The diagram labels different beads with their assigned prayers; for instance, each cluster is labeled as one of five decades, with 10 Hail Marys, a Glory Be, and an O my Jesus prayer. The beads between each decade are labeled “Our Father.”

You start at the crucifix and pray along the “pendant,” the strand that hangs down with five beads; then you make your way around the five decades. For me, the rosary offers a way to embody my prayer and to enter into a meditative state as I move from bead to bead and repeat the prayers. As an autistic person, having a tactile point into which to pour all my energy, one point of sensory input to overshadow all the others, is a powerful way to put aside all else and hone in on Divinity.

Pondering one story each decade is a traditional way to pray the rosary — the recommended ones are explained on this site; but for the past week or so, I’ve been imagining the Nativity over and over, a little differently each decade.

Versions whose events contradict each other — a painless Mary versus a groaning Mary; Mary alone or Mary with midwives; Mary dismissed to the outskirts or settled in the heart of a Bethlehemite home — all found their place, side-by-side, along that line of beads. As I took time with each story, the sense of contradiction as conflict faded away.

Little truths rose to the surface of each version, something to savor, a fresh facet of the story of God entering into human life. I can’t know which one was “most historically accurate,” but I could contemplate what each version says about God’s movement in Mary’s life and ours — what good news each version proclaims into our world.

So what is some of that good news? I’ll touch upon the various visions visited by each “decade” of the poem.

The first decade is self-explanatory, I think — it sets up the version we encounter in Christmas pageants, nativity sets, the Charlie Brown Christmas special… In this version, “no room in the inn” means that whatever lodgings a visitor to Bethlehem could usually expect were all full up. Though no Gospel mentions an innkeeper at all, we can all picture that figure well enough; he’s been woven into being by the dramatizations of generations. Whether heartless or apologetic, he can’t provide a bed for a pregnant girl and her husband; but look, there’s the stable, with plenty of straw and a little space among the livestock.

I have long cherished this narrative through a liberationist lens — that God chose to enter the world at the margins of the margins emphasizes Their intimate identification with the most oppressed and erased of our world! Humanity did not make room for the God who so loved the world They squeezed Their infinity into finite, vulnerable flesh; just as our human systems fail to make room for the survival and thriving of so many persons.

The second decade incorporates a bit of Roman Catholic doctrine that states that Mary felt no labor pain — since Catholicism holds that she was born miraculously free from original sin, she was likewise free from the consequences of that sin (see Genesis 3:16, where God informs Eve that her labor will be painful). Though raised Catholic, I didn’t learn about this tidbit of Mariology till late high school. I remember feeling…oddly betrayed? A facet of Mary’s relatability, her humanness, felt stripped away; her pedestal of larger-than-life perfection seemed to stretch a little higher. But this past week, I’ve taken the time to imagine a painless labor for her, and even if it’s not the story that speaks to me loudest, I have found some richness in it.

The third decade imagines Mary alone, following after Eastern Orthodox tradition. I pondered the significance of this version of events — why place Mary by herself as she births God on earth? Does her isolation foreshadow the sense of desolation her Son would feel decades later, on the cross?

What arose most strongly in me as I envisioned this version was a sense of joy and rightness — that Mary’s would be the first hands to touch the Divine she’d carried within her for nine months; that hers would be the first eyes to take in Word made flesh.

The fourth and fifth decades move away from the Nativity versions that have enjoyed the most traction and expansion over the centuries. We do away with barns and innkeepers, and bring some new characters to the stage: midwives!

Bringing midwives into the nativities I imagined as I prayed brought me deep joy. Midwives show up in various places throughout scripture — God Herself is depicted in the role of midwife in places like Psalm 22:11 (see this article for more on midwives in the Jewish Bible). Meanwhile, the most famous human midwives are probably the named, heroic women Shiphrah and Puah of Exodus 1, who protect the newborns of enslaved Hebrew women from Pharaoh. The role such women played was a life-bringing one, and imagining the relief and comfort a skilled midwife would bring teenage Mary filled me with gratitude for whoever this unmentioned woman may have been.

In “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem,” Stephen C. Carlson explains, “Childbirth was the riskiest moment in the entire pregnancy during antiquity, potentially lethal for both the mother and child. Whenever possible, women about to give birth relied on the help of relatives, friends, and midwives in and around town” (pp. 340-341). I love imagining Mary encircled by so much support as she labored to birth the God of the universe.

Carlson and other scholars suggest that it was the presence of all these Bethlehemite women at Jesus’ birth that necessitated a lot of space for the event. This brings us at last to that famous line from Luke that notes a lack of room…in the inn? or somewhere else?

I promised I’d return to readings of Luke 2:7 that argue Jesus was born not in a stable, but a house — so here we go!

At first glance, Luke 2:7 seems fairly straightforward. Since we’re talking about tradition here, I’ll offer the KJV’s version:

"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." 

However, digging into the Greek of the text and into the socio-cultural context of the story uncovers some complications.

It turns out that the Greek word that most traditionally gets translated as “inn” here has a broader meaning than that. The word is kataluma (κατάλυμα), and it’s only used two other times in the Gospels (or the NT as a whole): in Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts of how Jesus’s disciples found a room for the meal that we now call the Last Supper. Here’s Luke’s account (22:10-12; NRSV translation this time; with the translation of kataluma bolded):

“Listen,” he [Jesus] said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.”

(Side note: if you want to read about that person with a jar of water through a trans lens, check out the section of my webpage over here titled “A Simple Jar of Water.” It’s fun stuff! but not related to the discussion of kataluma.)

How can one Greek word mean both “inn” and “guest room”? The noun kataluma is tied to the verb kataluó (καταλύω) — kata + luó = “to loosen thoroughly.” When journeying with pack animals, you’d only “thoroughly loosen” their straps and packs when stopping for a long rest. Thus the verb came to mean “to take up lodging;” and the related noun, the kataluma of both Luke 2:7 and 22:10, came to stand for those lodgings — whether that was some natural shelter like a cave; a tent; an inn; or a guest room in someone’s house.

Meanwhile, there is another Greek word that means “inn” specifically — and the author of Luke uses that word in his version of the Good Samaritan story, when the Samaritan brings the man mugged and left for dead to a pandocheion (πανδοχεῖον).

So if Luke’s one other use of kataluma (22:11) refers to a guest room in a private home; and the one time he wants to specifcally refer to an inn (10:34) he uses a different Greek word…why do the vast majority of English translations of Luke 2:7 state that there is no room for Mary’s labor “in the inn” rather than “in the guest room”? (Or, to avoid making a claim in either direction, why don’t more translations apply a broader phrase like “there was no room in the lodging place”?)

To reiterate, it’s certainly possible that kataluma refers to an inn when used in Luke 2:7 — but it’s not the only possibility, or even necessarily the most likely one.

If Luke 2:7 is saying that there is no room in Bethlehem’s inn, then the classic stable setting (or a cave, as in the second century Protoevangelium of James) makes sense. However, some scholars contest

  1. whether Bethlehem, being so small, would even have had an inn, with the duty of taking in strangers passing through instead falling upon individual families; and
  2. whether Joseph and his wife would have stayed in such an inn, even if it did exist.

The reason Joseph and Mary are journeying to Bethlehem is for a Roman census, for which “all go to their own towns to be registered” (Luke 2:3). In “An Improbable Inn,” Andy Mickelson explains that Roman censuses typically required people to register not in their ancestral town, but wherever they owned property; thus one might conjecture that Joseph “had traveled to Nazareth previously to seek work or (more likely) to retrieve his fiancée Mary and bring her back to his native Bethlehem” (p. 14).

Mickelson cautions that there are some complications in the Luke text that curtail certainty in what exactly happened (visit page 15 of his article to read more about that); but

"regardless of whether Joseph’s family home was in Bethlehem or whether it was just his ancestral home, Joseph’s ties to the village are key in determining how the κατάλυμα of 2:7 should be understood. If Joseph truly was a native son of Bethlehem, then he almost certainly would have stayed with close family members. Bruce Malina remarks that Joseph 'would have been obligated to stay with family, not in a commercial inn.' He also points out that 'if close family was not available, mention of Joseph’s lineage would have resulted in immediate village recognition that he belonged and space would have been made available.' Thus, even if Joseph was only linked to Bethlehem through lineage, that lineage would have been enough to earn him the hospitality of a distant relative. Arguments that the homes of Bethlehem would have been filled to capacity due to the census disregard the simple fact that Roman registrations took place over a period, not a single day. Regardless, an added measure of hospitality could certainly have been expected due to Mary’s pregnancy."

In placing the Nativity in a barn, stable, or cave, we run the risk of disregarding how central hospitality was to the people of Jesus’s time and place.

When I imagine the people of Bethlehem failing to find proper accommodations for the pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph, I can’t help but think of another city destroyed nearly two thousand years before Jesus’s birth — Sodom, which invoked God’s wrath by replacing hospitality to strangers like Lot with attempted violence against them (see Genesis 19). The people of Bethlehem may have been poor and oppressed, but hospitality was their way of sharing what they had and practicing their devotion to the God who instructed them to care for the stranger (e.g. Exodus 23:9; Deuteronomy 10:19; Leviticus 19:34).

Hospitality was a vital virtue not only for the Jewish people, but for various other groups in this time and place. In scripture, we find a gentile widow sharing what she believes is the last of her resources with a stranger, the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17). Under the epithet Xenios, the Greek God Zeus embodied the moral obligation to provide strangers with hospitality. Likewise, the Romans viewed hospitality as the divine right of any guest, and the divine duty of any host. I imagine that members of any of these cultures would have expected divine wrath to follow the failure of a whole village consigning a pregnant traveler to a lonely stable!

No matter how poor, crowded, or busy Bethlehem was, I have come to doubt the presumption that not one of its residents took pity on Mary and Joseph and welcomed them in.

So let’s say we accept that Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, but someone’s house — likely the home of Joseph’s relatives. In that case, there’s still one more bit of cultural context we need to make sense of this “new” version of the story:

No matter how we translate kataluma, Luke 2:7 says that Mary laid Jesus in a manger — why the heck would there be a manger, a feeding trough for livestock, inside a house?

It turns out that mangers were totally something you’d find inside first-century Judean village houses: rather than having a separate building for their livestock, families would keep their animals outside in the courtyard during the day, and bring them inside their own homes at night. The same room in which the majority of human work and life took place during the daytime became the sleeping quarters for livestock, complete with feeding troughs:

"Typically, the main room was divided into two sections at different elevations separated by about a meter. The animals were housed in the lower section, the people slept in the upper section, and mangers were located between them." (Carlson, p. 341)

Levant homes had followed this practical arrangement since the Iron Age: one space for livestock and humans kept the animals safe from theft; plus all that body heat kept everyone warm in colder months (Mickelson, p. 17).

id: Here’s a diagram from Kenneth Bailey’s book The Bible through Middle Eastern Eyes depicting a “typical village home in Palestine with attached guest room. The diagram is a rectangular shape; the largest room is labeled the family living room and has two ovals labeled “mangers” to the side, next to a smaller segment labeled “stable.” To the right of the family living room is a “guest room,” or kataluma.

To wrap up our exegetical exploration, let’s tie all this — the manger, the midwifes, the word kataluma — together…

starting with a return to Luke 2:7:

"And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the kataluma."

In this “new” reading, Mary is surrounded by village women headed by a midwife as she gives birth. And she is not alone in a stable on the outskirts of town, but in a peasant home — and not in a guest room or little side room of that home (because that kataluma is either full of other guests or simply too small for all the women), but right in the house’s central space.

As Mickelson summarizes,

"Luke records Mary as placing Jesus in a manger because there was no space for them in the κατάλυμα. There are two plausible reasons for this. First, the guest room might have been taken by other guests, requiring Joseph and Mary to stay somewhere else in the house. While the traditional image of Bethlehem teeming with visitors for the registration is an exaggeration, it is likely that if Joseph had come for the event, others (even members of his family) may have returned as well, and the guest room may have been occupied by someone else.

The other possibility is that there was not sufficient space in the κατάλυμα to accommodate Jesus’s delivery. Childbirth in antiquity was a dangerous procedure for both mother and child, and it is likely that Mary would have been assisted by a midwife as well as the women of the house. The κατάλυμα of the Last Supper was noted for being large, but these guest rooms likely varied in size. If the room in which Mary and Joseph were staying was small, Mary would have relocated to the main room of the house, where there would have been plenty of space for the other women to help with her delivery." (p. 17)

Mickelson moves on to explain why all this matters — which I bet you’ve been wondering if you’ve read this far (or even just skimmed to this point).

If the traditional placement of the Nativity in a stable on Bethlehem’s outskirts emphasizes God’s entrance into the most marginal space possible, what does placing Jesus’s birth in the heart of a peasant home emphasize?

Mickelson argues this setting also fits the theme of Jesus’s intimate identification with the marginalized and oppressed, as it solidifies the everydayness of his arrival:

"This reading of Luke’s infancy narrative makes the story of Jesus’s birth even less unusual than the traditional reading of the story. Being rejected from an inn and being forced to give birth amid animals gives Jesus a humble yet noteworthy beginning: Jesus is born in desperate and memorable circumstances.

But placing Jesus’s delivery in the main room of a Bethlehemite home gives him a birth narrative similar to probably thousands of Jewish babies. Nothing about the circumstances is extraordinary: being swaddled was a common experience for infants, and the most that can be inferred by being placed in a manger is that the home may have been crowded and there was nothing else approximating a crib available. 

In short, Luke portrays Jesus entering the world in a rather unremarkable way." (p. 18)

Thus this “new” reading of the Nativity story is packed with richness for the liberationist reader! As a TL;DR to close this essay, I’ll summarize some of that richness now.

  • In any reading of the Nativity — whether it takes place on Bethlehem’s outskirts or in its heart — Jesus is born to nobodies in a nowhere town. His parents are brown Palestinian Jews living in subjugation to an Empire; they are impoverished; and they are dependent on the hospitality of others who share their poverty and oppression.
  • Though the narratives surrounding the actual birth scene in Luke’s Gospel — replete with angelic messages and praise-songs from priests and shepherds, a teen girl and an old widow — make the importance of Jesus’s arrival clear, for the actual moment of birth, Jesus is just one infant of thousands born in a typical peasant house. He really is just one of the poor, one of the common folk. He makes the margins the center.
  • Do we do a disservice to the poor whom liberationist theologies are supposed to center when we claim that the people of Bethlehem — from the innkeeper of our pageants to whatever relatives Joseph may have had there — fail to provide a pregnant teenager and her husband with better accommodations than a barn or cave?

    A reading that imagines village women supporting Mary through her labor; that imagines the main room of a house given over for her use, is a reading that celebrates the generosity and hospitality often demonstrated by poor and oppressed persons.

    From birth and beyond, Jesus relied upon the solidarity and generosity of his fellow poor.
  • Any possibility of an antisemitic reading of the Nativity story (that “the Jews” rejected Jesus from his very birth by refusing his parents space in their inns or homes — I’m not saying most people do interpret traditional Nativity stories in this way, but the possibility is there) are also avoided with this reading, where Jewish Bethlehemites assist in his birth.
  • This reading also speaks to how Jesus makes room for himself amid our mundane mess!

    Jesus does not wait for us in some remote corner, so that we can go to him when we decide we’re ready, on our terms; he bursts into our bustling, the everyday chaos of an average peasant home. God compels us to make space for the Divine in the center of our lives, ready or not!

Whether or not you are on board with this “new” version of the Nativity story, I hope that, if nothing else, my poem and this essay open you up to the possibilities of scripture — the richness that can come from daring to reimagine stories we think we know by heart. The more familiar a story, the less likely we are to consider new ways of reading it; but just look what is born when we step away from the familiar to explore what lies beyond, even if only for a moment!

What else? Which Nativity stories speak to you?


Resources / Places to Learn More:

  • This Guardian article, which sums the information up pretty succinctly
  • Stephen C. Carlson’s scholarly article that goes more in depth, and argues that kataluma has a generic sense of “place to stay” that fits a variety of readings
  • Andy Mickelson’s scholarly article that likewise goes in depth, including a look at extra-biblical Greek sources that also use kataluma; and that makes some arguments about the significance of one’s interpretation of kataluma to the broader Lukan narrative.
  • My friend Laura discusses the idea of the Nativity taking place in a peasant home’s central room in the context of disability theology in their podcast episode here. They parallel Jesus’s birth story with the story of Zaccheus, where Jesus invites himself over to the tax collector’s home (“I must dine with you!”) — in both stories, Jesus announces his reliance on others for shelter and sustenance, unabashed.
Categories
My poetry

the pillar of salt contemplates the stars

           i.

i will not worship
my husband’s god – not now
i’ve witnessed how he acts in wrath:

how he burns children and cornered women with the men
who long tormented them

and scorches tortured earth and bodies
that maybe could have bloomed again
if given time and proper nourishment.

            ii.

anyone who dares to preach to me
on necessary evil, or collateral damage,
or how everything happens for a greater purpose

while stepping deftly over charred corpses
to avoid soiling their shoes

should thank their bloodthirsty gods
they are out of range of my frozen fists.  

           iii.

i will not worship
the god of my husband, no! – he never belonged
to me or mine anyway, nor made us his.

in his search for just ten righteous people in
this sand-and-soldier-blasted city
he overlooked us women and our little ones.

of course he found no innocents among
the men perverted by the war they’d lost
who would not let themselves give in to grief
but let their self-contempt and wounded pride
corrode into distrust of all outside
their little sphere…of course!

O god of men like mine! of course you failed
to round up righteous men in such a place
where strangers are condemned as enemies
and difference is dragged out and disciplined!

but had you thought to look
where men never look
you would have found
us.

iv.

if any god will make room for my wrath
i’ll worship them till my last crumbling breath!

           v.

the sex slave of my husband’s uncle claimed
she found a god who saw her as she languished –
a goddess not too proud to meet her gaze
nor too ashamed when faced with Hagar’s anguish
to hear out her complaints.

o desert deity of the attentive eye
and ears that hear the tortured woman’s cry,
are you the one who turned my frantic flesh
into this silent sentinel of salt?

           vi.

let me worship whatever Being it was
who took my broken heart and salted it
so that never again will it have to bear fruit
only to watch it trampled and consumed
by men not worthy of it.

yes! let me worship whatever Being it was
who came in mercy, not in wrath
to wrap my limbs in unbreachable brine
so he can never, ever
touch me, take me, again –

not after what i heard he’d let men do
to the fruit of our union, the girls of my womb;

not after he proved willing to turn his back
on women and children going up in flames.

that is the Being i’ll worship now: the One
who stood with me transfixed upon despair,

who empowers my bearing witness for all time
to the screams of burning women, left behind.

with my face to them
my back is turned on him
forevermore…

though i worry
who will protect my daughters now
from him
from all men.

           vii.

if any deity swears to defend
my little girls, i swear i’ll worship them…

           viii.

from my fixed point in the sand
i watch the stars
flow across the overturned bowl of the sky.

i alone watch long enough to learn
by heart the patterns stretching over years
traced by these winking fish
wheeling in their pool of perfect black.

but i who chart the arc of time
unblinking
discern no promised bend towards justice.

evil breeds and grows as strong as good.
knowledge is slaughtered, lies fallow for centuries
before it raises a slender shoot again
that is seized and hailed as something New…
only to be mangled, murdered, dis-membered again.

nothing new, nothing new
under the stars.

            ix.

with sleepless eyes i mark the cyclical slaughter
the rich slip underneath their laden tables
while sipping from their cups that bubble over
red as the blood they’ve trampled from the neighbors
they choose not to re-member.

and, far away and high,
as eons wheel by
i watch the stars wink out
one by one.


This poem was written by Avery Smith and belongs to them. Please do not publish it anywhere, or use it in a service, without permission from the author. Reach out to Avery at queerlychristian36@gmail.com for that permission, or just to chat!

About this poem:

I intend for this poem to make two points:

  1. That to bear witness is holy and necessary, particularly when moving quickly on from history’s atrocities serves the Powers That Be. This is why in my poem, Lot’s Wife interprets her transformation not as a punishment for looking back but as a gift or act of mercy — affirmation of her need to bear witness, her refusal to turn her back on her neighbors.
  2. That we must actively reject the God of Patriarchy, the God of Genocide, the God of Xenophobia, in order to embrace the God Who Sees those whom the world discards. See Shirley Guthrie’s commentary on God the Heavenly Tyrant being dead, along with all other “gods that were really nothing but a projection of our own fears, wishes, insecurity, greed, or speculation.”

Meanwhile, I acknowledge this poem’s shortcomings, particularly the over-simplification of implying all the women of Sodom were “innocent” or that all the men were guilty; gender dynamics are much more complex than that, especially in our own time and space. To say nothing of nonbinary people like me who do not fit within that man/woman dualism anyhow.


I have long held a deep compassion for Lot’s (unfortunately and tellingly unnamed) wife of Genesis 19, ever since first reading Slaughterhouse Five in middle school, in which Kurt Vonnegut writes,

“And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”

Vonnegut’s was the first voice I found that pushed back against the predominant interpretation that Lot’s wife was wrong to look back. Since then, I have found others who also treat this woman with love instead of scorn — including the primary inspirations for this poem: Miguel A. De La Torre’s Embracing Hopelessness (2017); and Peterson Toscano’s and Liam Hooper’s Bible Bash Podcast episode 26, “Sodomy, Terrorism, and Looking Back.”

In a different work of his, a short essay from 2010, De La Torre explains that Lot’s wife has been vilified across the ages in order to “justify her demise”: “If she is not portrayed as a foolish woman with a self-indulging heart, then her punishment would appear capricious.” If we are to believe in a fair God who doles out punishment only on people who deserve it, we must conclude that Lot’s wife was wicked somehow. To suggest that she was right to look back, and unjustly punished, is to call God’s goodness into question — or at least to question the biblical text.

De La Torre argues that we will never know the motives of Lot’s wife (and of course I agree, even while using this poem to imagine what those motives may have been). Chances are, he says, this woman was neither perfectly innocent nor horribly wicked:

“Rather than depicting Lot’s wife as either the totality of worldliness or the other extreme of virtuousness, maybe we should see her like we see the rest of us: a human who falls short of the glory of God. As an invisible member within a patriarchal society, she probably did the wash with her neighbors – also nameless women. They might have been present when she twice gave birth, as she might have been when they gave birth to their own children.”

It is this woman who carved out a life — as so many of us must — in “the entrails of empire,” who befriended her fellow unnamed women in patriarchy’s shadow, that I with Vonnegut love dearly.

As we come to accept that we cannot know much but only conjecture about Lot’s wife, the biblical text does provide us more background on Sodom than is often explored in discussions of this story.

In the Bible Bash episode from which I drew for this poem, Peterson Toscano brings in Sodom’s painful military loss in Genesis 14 to contextualize the xenophobia and brutality of Sodom’s men in Genesis 19. In the biblical world, defeat in battle sometimes resulted in the rape of defeated soldiers by the victors — sexual violence that is much more about humiliation and domination and toxic masculinity, of course, than sexual orientation. Moreover, Sodom’s enemies proceeded to loot the city of everything. After such a painful loss, it seems in Genesis 19 that the men have been twisted into hateful, fearful beings — in a way that Peterson skillfully connects to the United States’ response to 9/11. These defeated men of Sodom would enact sexual violence on any foreigner who dares enter their domain, as if to regain some of their (toxic) masculinity by acting as the victors, not the defeated.

It is this war-wounded city that Lot, his wife, and his daughters flee — but only his wife looks back. And therefore, according to Peterson,

“In the end the only righteous person I can think of is Lot’s wife, who can’t turn her back on this destruction. Who can’t turn her back on the women and children who weren’t even considered when they were counting who was righteous and who was not.”

(The counting of the righteous being a reference to Genesis 18, wherein Abraham persuades God to refrain from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah if just 10 “righteous ones” (masculine plural) can be found within them.)

Later in the episode, Liam responds to Peterson’s declaration that Lot’s Wife is the only righteous person the Sodom story shows us by relating her choice to look back to the present day:

“What I see around me is many, many people who also cannot turn their back on the suffering around them, and the destruction, and the ways that we are complicit in that. There are still those of us who can’t turn away. And she’s been vilified, right, as being disobedient – ‘you were told not to look back; you looked back.’ Well. Maybe that’s an interesting place to enter the story, right? What does it mean to look back, and when do we disobey?”

Whenever God is constructed in the image of fearful, vengeful, violence-hungry men, we must like Lot’s wife disobey. We must face the atrocities we would much rather turn away from.

And therein comes the influence from Embracing Hopelessness, wherein De La Torre rejects triumphalist histories that sweep suffering past and present under the rug for the sake of the comforting lie that humanity is making constant progress towards God’s reign. In accepting that history is more disjointed and arbitrary than we’d like to think, and that it has no certain happy ending, we join the poor in their state of insecurity and uncertainty (see pages 47-49 of Embracing Hopelessness).

According to De La Torre, we must let go of our salvation histories wherein suffering will be revealed to have meaning in the grander scheme of things, in favor of active solidarity with the world’s most disenfranchised. We reject ideologies that paint them as less human than us, or as coerced “living sacrifices” on the altar of progress (p. 55). With Lot’s wife in my poem, we do not turn our backs to the pain that is accepted as a necessary evil to fuel the luxuries of the elite few. And unlike with Lot’s wife, we cannot compel individuals to shoulder the burden of bearing witness alone; it must be a communal act.

As De La Torre explains, only when a community — its privileged and disempowered alike — dares to acknowledge atrocity can collective healing begin. He shares psychological findings that show how “Refusing to forget the horrors of history can bring healing,” as making space for survivors to be heard “contributes to a collective healing process that publicly condemns the past while attempting to prevent future violations” (p. 103 of Embracing Hopelessness).

Without a communal acknowledgement of atrocity, there can be no healing. Thus there will be no healing for Lot’s wife: she is quite literally frozen in her act of re-membering her destroyed city, because none join her in it. Just as marginalized persons are dehumanized into mere objects in the dominant culture’s epic history, Lot’s wife is denied personhood as well — her very name has been lost to time along with her human form.

Meanwhile, in turning their backs to the destruction, fleeing from acknowledgement of Sodom’s suffering, Lot and his daughters likewise will find no healing. Their story as developed in Genesis 19:30-38 brings more atrocity, more fracturing of personhood and relationships. As De La Torre explains, “Trying to forget past traumas…leads to emotional disorders with consequences for the individual and community” (p. 103). Trauma unaddressed begets trauma across generations.

With the generational trauma that has built up and festered over centuries in our own time, it becomes clear that “present social structures are the end product of a history the dominant culture prefers to forget. These events may have taken place in the past, but the power and privilege squeezed out of them continue to accrue” (p. 105). In the face of this reality, we must admit that the notion that history’s arc naturally bends towards justice is nothing but a comforting lie.

And when we reject that comforting lie for the truth that the future is uncertain, we must also scrutinize the certainty that a wholly good, all-powerful God exists — the question of theodicy. Alongside the righteous Job of scripture, as well as with Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, De La Torre puts God on trial; he insists upon holding God accountable for not preventing the horrific suffering that is the disowned and forsaken offspring of Eurocentric, imperialist “Progress.” And for any who may worry that such a trial would constitute some manner of blasphemy, De La Torre writes,

“I fully understand the trepidation of placing God on trial. I would rather follow the lead of others and say at the conclusion of time, it will all be explained and make sense. I too feel a pull toward fixing my gaze at a happy ending, joyfully proclaiming ‘it is well with my soul.’ Oh, how much more comforting it would be to proclaim, ‘God is good – always!’ With all my heart, soul, mind, and being, I wish to become intoxicated with the simplicity of an unquestionable and uncomplicated faith. But to do so would be an insult to the God in whom I claim to believe.

To challenge God, to yell out in protest, to place God on trial is not the ultimate act of arrogance; rather, it is to take God seriously by crucifying our Christian-based idols for an honest appraisal of the metaphysical – whatever that might or might not be.

And maybe this is the ultimate beauty of faith – to doubt, to wrestle, to curse, to question, to disbelieve, to oppose, to joder, and to hold accountable God in defense of God’s creation.” (p. 78)

I imagine Lot’s wife joining in the outcry of Job, of prophets and psalmists, of Elie Wiesel and numberless others who respect God enough to demand answers from Them. I myself will continue to grapple with the stories of scripture as well as the stories of my own nation, to wrestle until a blessing for the oppressed is shaken out.

May we all band together for the difficult work of dismantling false gods and false histories, in order to make room for truths that empower and restore dignity to the most disenfranchised of our world.