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.
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.
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
if any god will make room for my wrath
i’ll worship them till my last crumbling breath!
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?
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
though i worry
who will protect my daughters now
from all men.
if any deity swears to defend
my little girls, i swear i’ll worship them…
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
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.
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 email@example.com for that permission, or just to chat!
About this poem:
I intend for this poem to make two points:
- 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.
- 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,
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:
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,
(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:
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 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.