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Genesis 19:15-17 NKJV

15 When the morning dawned, the angels urged Lot to hurry, saying, “Arise, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be consumed in the punishment of the city.” 16 And while he lingered, the men took hold of his hand, his wife’s hand, and the hands of his two daughters, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city. 17 So it came to pass, when they had brought them outside, that he said, “Escape for your life! Do not look behind you nor stay anywhere in the plain. Escape to the mountains, lest you be destroyed.”

Genesis 19:17 NIV

17 As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!”

For what reason did God tell Lot not to look back?

3 Answers 3

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There are probably several reasons for this instruction in Gen 19:17 to "not look back" which includes:

  1. True abandonment

Ellicott says this:

This was not merely to prevent delay, but also showed that God demanded of them a total abandonment in heart and will of the condemned cities, and hence the severity with which the violation of the command was visited.

  1. To prevent delay

  2. A test of obedience

The Cambridge commentary offers this:

It is, probably, also, a test of obedience, combined with the thought that man could not look upon Jehovah and live.

  1. As a metaphor of sin

Note the sage, almost pastoral comments of Benson:

Such are the commands given to those who, through grace, are delivered out of a sinful state.

  • 1st, Return not to sin and Satan, for that is looking back to Sodom.
  • 2d, Rest not in the world, for that is staying in the plain.
  • 3d, Reach toward Christ and heaven, for that is escaping to the mountain, short of which we must not take up.

In brief, the escapees had to demonstrate greater obedience to the LORD's commands than a love for worldly things found in Sodom.

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  • Also Sodom and Gomorrah are meant as references to how God treats sin or those who reject him (2 Pet 2:6-9, Luke 10). So a command for Lot not to look back is also a command for us not to look back on our sin
    – Cullub
    Commented Mar 6 at 17:48
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The passage in question:

וַיְהִי֩ כְהוֹצִיאָ֨ם אֹתָ֜ם הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הִמָּלֵ֣ט עַל־נַפְשֶׁ֔ךָ אַל־תַּבִּ֣יט אַחֲרֶ֔יךָ וְאַֽל־תַּעֲמֹ֖ד בְּכׇל־הַכִּכָּ֑ר הָהָ֥רָה הִמָּלֵ֖ט פֶּן־תִּסָּפֶֽה׃

When they had brought them outside, one said, “Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away.” - JPS

The injunction is אל תבט אחריך, "look not behind thee". Rashi says

אַתָּה הִרְשַׁעְתָּ עִמָּהֶם וּבִזְכוּת אַבְרָהָם אַתָּה נִצָּל; אֵינְךָ כְּדַאי לִרְאוֹת בְּפֻרְעָנוּתָם וְאַתָּה נִצָּל:

You sinned with them but art saved through the merit of Abraham. It is not fitting that you should witness their doom whilst you yourself are escaping (Genesis Rabbah 50:11)

So one interpretation is that it's unbecoming that one who is saved should see the doom of those not saved. Rambam explores a different idea and posits that the atmosphere of the plague was harmful, and draws a comparison with Lot looking backwards with being close to a leper. In this way, Lot's wife was "infected" when she disobeyed the injunction and turned into salt.

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It is never explained

God gives no explanation for why looking behind would be a bad idea. Many theologians have speculated on the reason, but the only Individual who could say for sure, didn't.

The Bible is not even clear why Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt. From the KJV:-

But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.

The same chapter explicitly lists all the actions carried out by God in the course of this, but in that list of actions, it does not explicitly say that Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt was one of those actions. It merely says that this happened, without giving a cause or reason.

The natural inference of course is that it was carried out by God; and since God gave instructions not to look back, the natural subsequent inference is that this was punishment for disobeying. In the rest of the Old Testament though, if God punishes people then He does tell them (or the survivors) why He's doing it. In this case though, He is not described as explaining why, which makes it a curious exception. Whilst theologians may speculate, and may even agree amongst themselves, the Bible does not actually say.

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  • It is possible that Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt was not due to her disobeyment, but was a natural consequence of looking back which God had simply warned them about. And how did they know she turned to salt if nobody was looking behind them? Commented Mar 6 at 20:58
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    @MarkRansom Sure, but it doesn't need an omniscient God to know that intelligent beings do better if they're given reasons, so saying "don't do this or else you'll die" would be more reasonable. But for all of this, again we'd be speculating beyond what the text says.
    – Graham
    Commented Mar 6 at 23:14
  • Graham One way would be if she was in front of Lot, which would make sense—if I was fleeing from deadly peril I would want my family in front of me not behind me. Total speculation of course. But there’s no requirement that his wife have been behind him.
    – bob
    Commented Mar 7 at 15:45
  • @bob Genesis says that God nuked Sodom after Lot reached Zoar; and that "his wife looked back from behind him". So it's not clear whether she died due to looking back, or due to being behind him (and not in safety in Zoar). FWIW I think it's not the greatest Bible story anyway, because I'm not actually convinced Lot was worth saving - "please don't rape my visitors, rape my young virgin daughters instead" is not exactly the actions of a good man! And then those virgin (yeah right) daughters get him drunk and rape him. But hey, I wasn't at the Council of Rome. :)
    – Graham
    Commented Mar 7 at 16:22
  • You’re right about her being behind him—that’s what I get for going by memory and not checking the passage before commenting.
    – bob
    Commented Mar 8 at 0:16

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