Tag : bible

July 15, 2014 by

Lot’s Wife

"Cleft" by Mary Frank. Reproduced with permission of artist and DC Moore Gallery

“Cleft” by Mary Frank. Reproduced with permission of artist and DC Moore Gallery


She sat in a small patch of shade, churning the goat’s milk to butter. The courtyard was quiet with work, one daughter at the oven baking bread, the other grinding flour for tomorrow’s loaves. It was good to have these girls, she thought, who had learned their way and were of use to those around them.

Slowly, the butter started to come. They’d have it tonight with the bread her daughter was baking.

Good, clean food, but she would admit to counting down to the next feast day, when they’d offer up a ram if the year con- tinued so well. Already preparing the juiciest parts in her mind, crushed figs to bring out the meat’s succulence, cloves for pun- gency, she let her mind wander and didn’t hear the men’s voices until they were inside the house.

Her husband came to the doorway. We have visitors. Traders from Egypt. One of the field hands will bring in a goat. We’ll need a full meal. 

She already had a fire lit when the boy brought the plump animal. While the girls continued to bake and churn, their mother quickly slit its throat and hung it upside down to drain. Once it was skinned, she quartered and pounded it so it would grill quickly and stay tender, then ran her hands and eyes over red lentils she spread across the ground, picked out the tiny stones that would masquerade themselves in the pot and ruin the dish.

The courtyard rustled with activity. It smelled of death and fire, cumin and bread. The scents, she thought, of a good life.

Amid the bustle of work, she looked at her daughters, 13 and 14, older than she’d been when she was married off, taken away from the tents to another land.

At least they lived in the city. She had this courtyard, with its round stove and barrel of flour. Women to sit with in the square at shearing time. It was more than she ever expected. But she would keep her girls closer. She could feel her old age coming in the creases of her knees and shoulders. She needed her daughters.

Too bad we aren’t preparing for a real feast, she thought, something to bring everyone together, especially after the recent infighting. Rich men are not to be trusted, she knew. A poor man might steal a donkey or goat. But a rich man will start a war over an entire herd.

Lot had gotten through these arguments before. This time, Pildash, who already had a bigger flock and more pasture than anyone else, accused him of taking the best grazing land. But they had to live together. Someone would slip some coins to the other. It would be taken care of. 

The shouting began as the men settled down to eat. Muffled at first, but soon closer, and then someone banged on the door.

Let us see these strangers you have taken into your home, one yelled. Another jeered, Bring them out so we can get to know them. A howl of laughter went up from the crowd. She recognized some of the voices. Men with grudges against Lot, or the poor who resented his wealth.

She hurried up to the roof and peeked over the edge. Nearly 20 men, one egging them on. Usually, the other wealthy men in the town could be counted as Lot’s closest friends, and his only peers. But here was Pildash, shouting encouragement. So, this is how he’ll get what he wants, she thought, embarrass my husband in public. Make him look bad enough and he just might give up that pastureland without a fight. Rich men and their pride, she thought. 

No one noticed her up there. But they wouldn’t. Life happened horizontally in Sodom—everyone on an even plane, landowners and the shovelers of shit all living side by side. It meant nothing. Four men still paid everyone else’s wages. But if you can see them sleeping and waking it’s easy to overlook how much more they have than you ever will.

No one would pay attention to a woman anyway. So no one saw her as she watched Lot open their door and step out into the hostility and the evening. 

Friends, what can I do for you? he asked, as if he hadn’t heard their demands or anger.

Give us the strangers! the men called out.

Lot tried to speak, but they cut him off, closing in and poking him in the chest. All this over some grass, she thought, with a small twinge of worry. But she pushed it out of her mind. Her husband would work it out. They’d all go back to their dinners.

She watched Lot grow scared. He raised his voice.

Friends. You know I deal honestly.

What are they paying you? one voice called out.

Why should you get all their bounty? yelled another.

Finally, Pildash spoke. You shouldn’t be the only one with the honor of hosting them. Bring them out. Let’s see how tight their assholes are. 

Again, the crowd surged, but Lot continued, fear audible in every word. I have offered them a meal and a bed for the night. That is all. 

It wasn’t working. The men were getting more worked up. She heard the door slam as Lot rushed back in, and ran down to find him flustered, his cloak ripped at the neck.

I have to do something, he said to her. They’ll break into our house and drag these poor men into the street.

They’re a drunk and worked-up mob, she replied. Throw them some coins and they’ll be happy.

They’ll do unnatural things to those men. I cannot let my guests be raped by a bunch of drunken farmhands.

They don’t want to do any harm, she said, with as much vehemence as she dared in the face of his overweening pride. Go out with a few skins of wine, compliments of the visitors.

You’re not listening! What do you think “let us see how tight their assholes are” means?

It means they want to see if they have gold hidden under their clothes.

Lot didn’t hear her. He paced, head bent in concentration. Finally he said, Go get the girls.

The girls?

My daughters. We’ll give them instead.

You’re going to throw our children to that mob? Are you crazy?

Finally, he looked at her. I have no choice. Our family’s honor is on the line.

Fully hysterical now, she cried, Those men will kill our girls. They will rip them apart from the inside and leave them for dead. How much honor can you have if you are willing to let that happen to your own children?

They will do that to my guests! To men! You’re the one who said they won’t rape anyone.

I said they wouldn’t rape the travelers. But our girls have only their bodies. If, by some miracle, they survive what twenty grown men do to them, we’ll never be able to marry them off. You’ll ruin them forever.

In tears, she clawed at her husband’s clothing. But Lot had heard enough.

Get them now. He turned and stepped out again. She only heard the first few words —friends! I’ve come with an offer —before the door closed behind him. 

She only had a few minutes. She ran back to the courtyard, grabbed whatever she could—tufts of goatskin, batches of raw wool, and a pot of oil cooling by the fire. All the while, she shouted to the girls, Run up to the roof. Grab whatever valuables you see on your way. Gold coins, jewelry, anything. 

She stuffed the wool into a piece of still-bloody goatskin, grabbed an unlit torch and thrust it into the oven. After its end caught, she ran upstairs. When her daughters followed, each carrying a bulging saddlebag, she was already putting the torch to the hay pile in the corner.

Mama! they cried. What are you doing? We’ll burn up!

We’ll be long gone by the time this is big enough to harm us. Slowly, a wisp of smoke rose from the hay pile. Once it did, she started grabbing tufts of wool and shoving them at her children. Start lighting them, she directed. 

Confused and scared, the girls did as they were told. She hopped from their roof to the neighbor’s, grabbing a flaming ball of wool, hurling it down into the narrow street in front of her house. The girls followed, handing her their fiery missiles as they moved. They went from rooftop to rooftop, setting each hay pile alight, throwing more projectiles down to the city below.

Mama, panted the younger girl, what are we doing? They’ll kill us when they realize what we’ve done.

They can’t see us, she said. If anyone thinks to look up, we’ll already be gone.

But what are we trying to do? cried the older girl. I don’t understand.

I’m saving you, was the only answer she gave.

From below, they heard screaming as people noticed the cramped city was on fire. A few men near Lot’s house had been hit. They rolled on the ground, screaming in fear and pain as they were consumed.

What vengeance is this? came the people’s desperate cry. Why does God rain down fire on us?

Panic spread as people trampled others to save their own homes. By then, she and her daughters had reached a narrow patch of city wall. She was sure her daughters could jump down to the ground, but her body was already feeling the effects of the run across the city’s rooftops. Just see them to safety, she thought. They are all that matters.

Throw away the wool, she told her daughters. She flung the still-burning torch as far as she could. Now, jump.

Once down, she shouted, Head for the lake. Don’t stop and don’t turn around. There’s nothing here for us anymore. 

The girls took off across the flat land. She followed as fast as she could, but her breasts pounded painfully against her chest. She struggled to find breath.

Eventually, she felt the ground change beneath her feet. She was closer to the lake. Up ahead, she saw the surface of the water wink behind her daughters. But she couldn’t take another step. She was too tired. Her breath caught with every inhalation.

Bending over, her chest heaved painfully. Her arms and legs shook from the effort of getting this far.

Standing back up, the blood rushed away from her head, sent her reeling, turning her to face the way she’d come. In the distance, Sodom still burned, higher than she ever thought possible.

Only then did what she had done hit her with its full force. Images of the life she had led passed through her mind. It was all gone. Her husband, who would have whored his own daughters out to serve his pride, was in there too, and she felt, in that moment, what it was to lose an entire life’s work, a history of love and loss.

For the first time, she saw what her hands had wrought. I have killed and I have destroyed to save my own, she thought.

It was then, her body struggling to reassert itself, her mind fighting to align her pride at saving her children with grief at losing her whole valued life and horror at what she had done, that she started to cry. Huge, dehydrated tears poured down her face, sobs wracked her body. She sank down, crying harder even than the morning her own mother had sent her away into her new marriage, into the long life ahead.

She didn’t want her daughters to see her cry, but she couldn’t stop. Something had opened within her. She could not close it.

Stand up, Mama, they said. You have to keep moving or your muscles will cramp. 

She would get up. She would let her daughters half-carry her along the lake’s shoreline and into the hills. She would find a cave for them, sleep with her girls curled around her like lambs. She would wake the next morning to explain they could never return to their home, would have to forget all they had ever known and look only to the future. She would calm them when their fear of God’s wrath shook within them. She would explain that they had done God’s work, or the work God should have done when a man would ask a mother to sacrifice her virgin daughters for his own stupid honor. She would tell them they were instruments of God’s wrath, that God had guided their hands when they set their home alight.

And after they all slept again, she would face their anger when they accused her of making sure there would be no man alive who would have them. She would soothe them, say the riches they had stuffed into the saddlebags would buy them a new life. She would promise to find a way.

She would keep that promise, purchase land where they could live. She would buy sheep and goats, hire field hands and shepherds. When they had enough new wealth, she would find husbands for her daughters. She would see them grow large with child. She would hold her grandchildren on her lap and know she had done something good. But for all that she would go on to do, Lot’s wife would never rise from that spot by the side of the moonlit lake. She would never stop crying fat, salty tears for the life she left behind in flames.


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March 10, 2001 by

The Queen of Sheba’s Fuzzy Legs

Now when King Solomon heard that she was coming to him, King Solomon arose and went to sit down in a bathhouse.  When the Queen saw that the king was sitting in a bathhouse, she thought to herself the king must be sitting in water.  So she raised her dress in order to wade across.  Whereupon he noticed the hair on her leg, to which King Solomon responded by saying: ‘Your beauty is the beauty of women, but your hair is the hair of men.  Now hair is beautiful for a man but shameful for a woman.’  -The Targum Sheni to Esther, c. 7th Century

I stopped shaving my legs, on and off, when I was in college. It had more to do with laziness than with feminism; shaving just started to seem like a messy, time consuming chore in which I was no longer willing to indulge. After a while, my hairy legs started to grow on me aesthetically as well. My legs seemed bald and pasty when I got around to shaving them. After a while, this abstention became symbolic. In a small and gentle way, the hair on my legs marked my body as a body unafraid to play with gender, to break conventions, to get fuzzy. My father was horrified. It even says in the Midrash that women should shave their legs, he told me, because when the Queen of Sheba came to visit King Solomon, he would not be with her until her legs were smooth. Understandably, my father’s argument did little to convince me that my legs would be better off bald. But his comments did start me thinking about the Queen of Sheba, and I am not sure that I have ever stopped.

The Biblical Queen

Many of us only know the Queen of Sheba as the one-time consort of King Solomon, but commentators from a variety of cultural traditions have provided her with stories and legends all her own. These cast the Queen in a number of different guises — and while some are easier to identify with than others, she is always a complicated character and is always, always alluring. In fact, it’s surprising that her hairy legs first captured my attention, considering the many other interesting issues that have been associated with the Queen of Sheba.

According to the national epic of Ethiopia, the Queen of Sheba is the forebear of Ethiopia’s royal dynasty, and through oral tradition the Ethiopian Jewish community also claims her as an ancestor. Islamic traditions imagine the queen as part djinn, and in Jewish mysticism and folklore she is sometimes interchangeable with Lilith. In many of the most traditional Queen of Sheba legends, issues of gender, power, and identity are treated with unexpected frankness, offering insight into present-day conflicts.

So how did the Queen of Sheba become a hairy-legged djinni? These questions bring us back to the Hebrew Bible, which contains the earliest written accounts of the Queen of Sheba legend [I Kings 10-13 and Chronicles 9:1-12].

Our heroine in far-off Sheba hears of King Solomon’s famed knowledge and travels to Jerusalem to test him with “hard questions.” When the king answers all of the Queen of Sheba’s queries, and she sees the splendor of his kingdom. she is left “breathless.” They exchange gifts, and King Solomon gives her “everything she desired and asked for.” Finally, the Queen and her attendants return to the land of Sheba.

Like many stories in the Hebrew Bible, this brief tale leaves many questions unanswered. Where was this country of Sheba, ruled by a powerful woman? What were the “hard questions” the Queen asked Solomon? And of course, what about the tantalizing sexual subtext that is often read into this encounter? The text does say that the Queen was “breathless,” doesn’t it? What were those desires that King Solomon met so satisfactorily? You can almost picture centuries of exegetes rubbing their hands in delight, eager to fill in the blanks.

The Queen of Questions

In nearly all of their various formats, the Queen of Sheba legends give a gloss on power and otherness, on the relationships between the insider and the outsider. The set-up could not be more intriguing: Solomon, a male Israelite King and King David’s anointed son, is the ultimate insider. He has all the benefits of gender, class, ethnicity and lineage, and his power would seem to be uncontestable. But what would happen if he met up with his opposite — a foreign, heathen woman — who would dare to challenge his authority? This is exactly the situation that the Biblical text sets up for us and for centuries of Biblical scholars. The situation is so unlikely, so unthinkable, but — the Bible seems to ask us — WHAT IF?

Throughout various times and traditions, we see variant versions of this encounter between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Generally, in the more traditional texts, the fact that Solomon answers all of the queen’s riddles is used to “prove” that the King is more suited for leadership. The Queen of Sheba, the presumptuous outsider, learns her lesson. She cannot withstand the wisdom and power of her “legitimate” opponent, and is dominated politically, intellectually, and sexually. In most of the texts, she is delighted by Solomon’s victory – she is breathless with praise for her adversary, relieved by the assurance that Davidic men really are more fit for political power.

And yet, nothing that has to do with the Queen of Sheba is quite that simple. She is a wily queen, after all, and more than Solomon’s match when it comes to “hard questions.” In the Targum Sheni to Esther, an Aramaic commentary on the Purim story, the Queen of Sheba’s riddles all have to do with paradoxes and complications that are as relevant to her own situation as they are to the abstract puzzle itself. What is “a cause of praise to the free, of shame to the unfortunate, a cause of praise to the dead, of shame to the living, of joy to the birds, of agitation to the fish?” asks the queen. When Solomon answers that flax can be all of these things, he admits that one substance can have many purposes. Flax can be food that sustains a bird; if can also be made into a net with which to catch a fish. Flax can be made into a beautiful linen garment for the rich, or a crude garment for the poor; it can be made into clothes for the living or a shroud for the dead. The only thing that is clear about the use of flax is that it cannot be pinned down.

Pinning down the Queen of Sheba is as complicated as defining only one particular use for flax. She is a woman and a foreigner, and yet she does not behave like the women or the foreigners who typically cowered in the face of King Solomon’s greatness. She is an outsider who acts like an insider. By challenging King Solomon and presuming to be his equal, she forces us to re-evaluate both of those categories.

The Queen of Sheba does not give Solomon any way to win her game of wits. By admitting that flax does not fit in to any one category, Solomon must acknowledge that human beings can also behave in conflicting ways, and that the Queen of Sheba can simultaneously be a woman, and a powerful ruler. Of course, if he does not admit this, he loses to the Queen of Sheba because he cannot answer her riddle.

As we learn from the Queen of Sheba, there are some competitions you can neither win nor lose. The world is just too fuzzy.

The Queen of Complexities

When I first encountered the Queen of Sheba stories, I identified with her completely. There was the Queen of Sheba, a fuzzy-legged woman like me, struggling against the male king who would limit her access to power and influence. I was the Queen of Sheba, engaged in a game of wits with the anti-feminist Rabbis who enforce unfair religious rules. I was the Queen of Sheba, struggling against the politicians and corporate leaders who create inequalities, support sexist laws, leave women on the outside.

But the Queen of Sheba is not easily owned – not by King Solomon, and not by me. Also linked with Africa and with blackness, the Queen of Sheba represents the cultural categories that our society continues to exploit, exploit, and push toward the “outside.” In a particularly Jewish context, the Queen of Sheba has been associated with the African and Middle-Eastern Jews who have been situated on the margins of the community, and are engaged in a struggle with Ashkenazic “insiders” for influence, power, and basic respect. As an Ashkenazic American woman, what is my relationship to the people who are even further on the outside? Am I the Queen of Sheba, as I had always presumed to be, or am I, in fact, King Solomon?

The Queen of Sheba is of the “wrong” gender and the “wrong” origin — the very embodiment of the outsider. And yet, as one might expect from such a slippery and complicated queen, she also reminds us that the relationship between the insider and the outsider can shift. At different points in our lives, in different contexts, every human being gets to play the role of the Queen of Sheba as well as that of King Solomon. In fact, we can well imagine the Queen of Sheba herself playing the “insider” in interactions with her own servants and subjects. Caught in the paradoxes and complexities of a fuzzy world, the Queen of Sheba too can be complicit in injustice.

In a world where our roles are always shifting, the encounter between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon becomes symbolic of the very moment of struggle, the pivotal point at which we learn to secure power in some contexts and to share power in others. Being a Jewish woman — and an “outsider” in certain contexts — does not make me incapable of oppressing others, of supporting a system of hierarchies and inequalities, of pledging tacit allegiance to King Solomon. What is my relationship to the sweatshop workers who create the clothes that I wear? What is my relationship to the people who pick the grapes that I eat? In a fuzzy world, everyday choices are pregnant with significance, as monumental as the royal encounter between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

The Queen of Symbols And for me, the Queen of Sheba always leads back to fuzzy legs. My fuzzy legs are my tribute to a fuzzy world, in which categories of gender, origin and identity become blurred at the edges, fuse into one another, and cannot contain the totality of who I am. They remind me that I am never completely helpless nor am I ever completely powerful — the rules of fuzziness do not allow for absolutes. They remind me that I can be a cause of praise to the free, as well as a cause of shame to the unfortunate, and all at the same time. Through a world full of paradox, riddles, and hard questions, I travel on my own fuzzy legs.

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