Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Salt and Salvation

Owen (The Ochlophobist) has posted, deleted, re-posted and deleted an amazing post about Lot's Wife, Marah, who you may recall was turned into a pillar of salt when she turned and looked back to Sodom when she, her husband and children fled the wrath of God poured out upon it.  This excerpt from Orthodox poet Scott Cairns is part of the original post: 

Unlike her husband - coward and sycophant - the woman remained faithful unto death. For even as the man fled the horrors of a city's conflagration, outrunning Marah and both girls as they all rushed into the desert, the woman stopped. She looked ahead briefly to the flat expanse, seeing her tall daughters, whose strong legs and churning arms were taking them safely to the hills; she saw, farther ahead, the old man whom she had served and comforted for twenty years. In the impossible interval where she stood, Marah saw that she could not turn her back on even one doomed child of the city, but must turn her back instead upon the saved.

I loved Scott's words. Ever since I can remember, I have always believed that, it I were running from Sodom, I too would be a pillar of salt by virtue of my disobedience. I am too easily compassionate, too soft hearted to turn away from even well deserved suffering, too willing to question God's judgment in light of what I know of human frailty and the sheer injustices of merely existing. I would have looked back, perhaps not longingly, perhaps to see if anyone else was following, but at least for sorrow's sake. Perhaps God forbade them to look back because His wrath should not be told by firsthand witnesses.  Perhaps His wrath is much like His third heaven that the Apostle Paul could not speak of after his taking up and return to earth.  But even if he could not speak of it, the Apostle became salt.

The simple and plain version of Marah is "she disobeyed God, she was killed by God in a strange way for it; therefore, do not disobey."  The more difficult version is, "You are the salt of the earth..."

Who is the "salt of the earth"?  Is it not sinners who have been incomprehensibly loved by a God who could not look away from the utter ungodliness of His own city?  The unsalted blandness of the bread of religious righteousness does not fill the hunger for God.  Self preserving flight does not quench the thirst for Love that risks all for the sake of the beloved.

How does one become salt? We are believers and followers of a God who could only run so far from the sins of Sodom. He ran no farther than the Cross upon which He was lifted up so He could see all clearly, and so all could see Him.  We are followers of a God who looked back. We follow a God who runs not away from, but to the Prodigals. We follow a God who came to us, and became our flesh assaulted by passions and desires and futility because He looked back on us and we were not following. Our God is not foreshadowed by the Righteous Lot.

Perhaps Marah stands between the Sinners and the Righteous Lot as an evangelist to both. She is salt to both Sodom and Lot.  She is the foreshadowing of The Evangelist, who is both God and Man, who looked, and then died for the both the righteous and the unrighteous. This is the Gospel. Do we dare to look?


Chrys said...

I don't know how to read this. Maybe I am missing the point (it wouldn't be the first time). My take is that the notion of seeing Marah as the embodiment of compassion at least indirectly slanders God as insufficiently compassionate.

In fact, in the story, it was Abraham who was given the opportunity to press for compassion in the discussion leading up to the event. It is important to remember, as well, that the family had also just witnessed appalling behavior by their putative neighbors - behavior that was symbolic of the city's corruption.

If anything, the story seems to a warning to those who put their hand to the plow and then look back, to those who are so tied to their passions, to their ego (MY home, MY life, MY . ..) that they can't let go, even when their survival depends on it. Knowing more than a few recovered addicts, Marah is a vivid illustration of those who can not let go of their attachments and addictions, even at the cost of their lives.

I know this is right in line with the traditional reading, but the structure of the story makes Marah an emblem of the passions not compassion.

David Dickens said...

I think this is the cult of unique interpretations to excite our religious brains. I'm reminded why Scott Cairns has done little for me since I've come across his work.

Trying to pull too much from too little to spin a tale to amuse ourselves.

Nope. Sorry s-p. Not this one.

And while I admit I have a great joy at the richness of Orthodoxy in the face of all my previous Protestant poverty, I sense there is a dangerous desire by many to continually be "surprised" by theological "insights"; in particular those epiphanies which would fan our sense of gnostic exclusiveness and superior piety, even vanity.

Sorry to be harsh about it. Just a trend I'm noticing, especially in myself.

Chrys said...

David: "spin" was exactly the word that kept coming to mind.

The Ochlophobist said...

Ceolfrith left a comment on the post in question in which he quotes:

...a passage in "Against Heresies" Book 4, Chapter 31, where St. Irenaeus writes that Lot's wife "remained in (the territory) of Sodore, no longer corruptible flesh, but a pillar of salt which endures forever, and by those natural processes which appertain to the human race, indicating that the Church also, which is the salt of the earth, has been left behind within the confines of the earth, and subject to human sufferings; while entire members are often taken away from it, the pillar of salt still endures."

...Irenaeus makes the same point just a little later (Book IV, Chapter 33): "For the Church alone sustains with purity the reproach of those who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake, and endure all sorts of punishments, and are put to death because of the love which they bear to God, and their confession of His Son; often weakened indeed, yet immediately increasing her members, and becoming whole again, after the same manner as her type, Lot’s wife, who became a pillar of salt. Thus, too, (she passes through an experience) similar to that of the ancient prophets, as the Lord declares, “For so persecuted they the prophets who were before you;” inasmuch as she does indeed, in a new fashion, suffer persecution from those who do not receive the word of God, while the self-same spirit rests upon her (as upon these ancient prophets)."

It seems that for St. Irenaeus the image of Marah as pillar of salt is an icon of our salvation. This would seem to open the door to the poetic reflections with which the post began. Obviously, St. Irenaeus and the poets may well be wrong. But the fact remains that these types of readings are found within Orthodoxy across times and cultures.

The point I attempted to make in the post is that Cairns' and Akhmatova's reading of the Marah narrative is decidedly not a surprise, because it is very much in keeping with Orthodox biblical interpretation which one can encounter elsewhere.

If the rhetoric I used in the post regading notable differences between Orthodox hermeneutics and other hermeneutics gets accused of "gnostic exclusiveness and superior piety" then I think it safe to say that any articulation of differences between Orthodoxy and other faiths could be labeled as expressions of gnostic exclusiveness and superior piety. For crying out load, in the post and thread I compare Orthodox hermeneutics to both Talmudic hermeneutics and to certain aspects of late modern hermeneutics, even admitting that there are points of occasional (if accidental) agreement between Orthodoxy and feminist hermeneutical schools. Exclusiveness?

The Ochlophobist said...

Orr provided this in a comment in the thread:

According to Defender of the most holy matriarchs by Mickey Leland Mattox, Calvin seemed to have counted, "like Luther", that Lot's wife was "among the departed saints" though "he cannot quite bring himself to unequivocally assert the woman's final salvation".'s%20wife%22&pg=PA187#v=onepage&q=patristic%20%22lot's%20wife%22&f=false

There are positive references to Luther regarding Lot's wife, as well:

"Thus, in spite of Jesus' negative use of Mrs. Lot [sic!] example, Luther asserts that the woman was saintly and may safely by numbered among the saved: 'One must by all means entertain the hope that Lot's wife was not condemned for this reason (i.e., because her example was used negatively for instruction)'.... 'Lot's wife was chastened; but she was not condemned.'"'s%20wife%22&pg=PA181#v=onepage&q=%22lot's%20wife%22&f=false

Note 21 on that page has an interesting quote from Augustine using the seasoning metaphor in a way different than Och, et al.

Mention is made later in the same work (p. 173) that Luther cited Augustine, Gregory the Great, Ambrose and Chrysostom in his effort to provide patristic context to his interpretation (cf. WA 43.89, "On Gen. 19:26")

It seems that the notion of Marah being "saintly" (which might be interpreted by some poets as including the virtue of compassion) is not peculiar to contemporary Orthodox spinning neophilic "insights" to appease their vanity.

I am glad that Orr was inclusive enough to include these significant Western Christian voices.

The Ochlophobist said...

I'm not sure what crying out load means, but I am sticking with it.

s-p said...

Chrys, David et al., I'll admit, yeah, it was a bit of a "spin" from Irenaeus' commentary on "salt". I've always wondered why is she killed as a pillar of salt and not by the hellfire of Sodom? Killed, yes, but "how": Why? Inquiring minds want to know. "Marah" is also the name of the place of bitter waters during the Exodus. Our hymnography speaks of it becoming purified by the "Tree" Moses throws into it, foreshadowing the Cross sweetening the bitterness of our souls. I don't think it is "un-patristic" to connect dots or see something allegorically, I also don't think it is un-Orthodox to "spin" a little as long as we stay within the boundaries of our Creeds and in the vicinity of the Fathers. As someone once said, we can go as high or as deep as we can or want but only within the protective fence of the Creeds. This does not make God uncompassionate, but ultimately compassionate even in His dealing with Marah, who stands in the gap between utter depravity and obedient righteousness as a conflicted human being. There might not be many of those kinds of people in the world, but usually I hear them called something like "the salt of the earth". I don't know if that is an accidental metaphor. Anyway, it is my spin, it's not a cut and paste from the Fathers. Some day I hope to ask Irenaeus if he thinks I'm full of crap on this one. Until then, I'll rely on my brothers to call me out. :)

James the Thickheaded said...

Thanks for these posts. Especially to Och who buried within it my favorite of all his posts.

I don't look at the two understandings as conflicting, but more akin to "layers". Wonder that reconciliation of the two isn't found in crediting Lot's salvation... not to his running / obedience alone, but to his reflection on Marah's "look back in love".

What's interesting is in talking about this with my sister, she told me she'd always always instinctively reached for this understanding of Marah. Maybe it's natural when you help your child survives through brain tumors, suffer through divorce to a husband who wanted to have you shut up in an institution like something out of 19th century novel... but for a fellow who more commonly seen Lot as on his own, I am pleased to see that there is more community in his salvation, that he is not on his own, and that Marah whose being torn between her spiritual ambition for herself and her love for those left behind... like so many of us, was unafraid of the ambiguity of not being able to resolve it... and was consumed. But like so much else, the more you ponder it, the more certain you become that we're not quite sure by what she is consumed.

Chuck said...

"crying out load" Freudian manure for sure

s-p said...

JtTH, The thing I like about the Bible is its ambiguity sometimes, but it is ambiguous because human beings are ambiguous and it does not shy away from exposing that aspect of our fallen nature. God's dealing with human beings doesn't do much to resolve that ambiguity, and the Gospels are the trump card of turning everything upside down. By what is Marah consumed: God, passions, love, sin, remembrances, curiosity, wrath, forgiveness, eventually the earth? That is THE question, isn't it? And perhaps the answer is just "yes".

todd said...

What seems to appear scandalous in this interpretation is that it is precisely Marah's act of disobedience that points to Christ.
This is not an isolated case. Remember also Jonah, that it was on account of his disobedience that he entered the belly of the fish for three days, prefiguring the burial of Christ. (Matt 12:40)
I don't know what to make of this seeming contradiction, that the perfect obedience of the Sinless is typified directly by disobedient acts of sin (?!)
My thoughts turn also to the imagery of Numbers 21:6-9, identified by our Lord as a prefiguring himself in the image of a serpent:

" And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:14,15

The brass snake healed the physical death from the bite of a venomous snake, which apparently indicates the snake upon the cross, Jesus, who heals the venomous sting of sin and death. So Jesus came in the image of sin itself, as Paul tells us:

"For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." 2 Corinthians 5:21

s-p said...

Todd, I agree with you that sinners are the typology of Christ. All the "prophets, priests and kings" of the OT that prefigure Christ's ministry were flawed people, most notably Abraham, Jacob and King David.