Punished for looking back, Lot's wife may fall forward

December 18, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

MOUNT SODOM, ISRAEL — An article in The Sun yesterday incorrectly identified Lot as the son of Abraham. He was Abraham's nephew.

The Sun regrets the errors.

MOUNT SODOM, Israel -- Pity the most famous woman of Sodom, for whom the end may be near.

She is known by the name of her husband, the man called Lot. She is said to have been disobedient and was severely punished. The punishment never ends since she was turned into a pillar of salt.

That is the Old Testament version, a part of the book of Genesis with lessons about obedience and trust. The religious have been able to bolster their faith by visiting the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea. If they gaze upward, they see an altogether real pillar of salt. From certain angles, it resembles a woman. Everyone calls it -- or her -- Lot's wife.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The modern version has less to do with faith than with fault lines, earth tremors and the effects of wind and water. In the scientific version, Lot's wife is a geologic freak of salt and limestone, and she is coming unglued. After roughly 20,000 years, the pillar is in danger of falling off the equally freakish Mount Sodom, of which it is a part, and tumbling onto the ground.

It is a problem not only because of the potential loss of a tourist attraction. If Lot's wife falls, she probably will land on a highway. She is the size of a three- or four-story townhouse. As if in warning, a half-dozen chunks of mountain, each the size of a car, have fallen to the ground in the last several weeks.

"The whole area is unstable," said Yossi Harash, chief geologist at an industrial complex that refines potash from the Dead Sea and mines minerals from Mount Sodom.

"Things are cracked and tilted because the whole of the mountain is moving," he said.

It is moving up and slightly to the north. "It's not like in the textbooks," said David Meneger, district ranger for the Nature Reserves, Israel's national park service. "It's all happening awfully fast."

The changes to the salt pillar were first noticed by the rangers. The structure appeared to be leaning out a little farther from the rest of Mount Sodom, as if Lot's wife wanted a better view of the shore. Measurements determined the pillar had shifted 15 degrees.

Her movements do no real damage to the Old Testament explanations, or to explanations based on the mostly invisible workings of geology. Lot's wife is one item in a large inventory of oddities in the southern half of the Judean Desert.

Most of them are byproducts of the African rift system, an immense series of fissures in the structure of the Earth. The rift runs north from Mozambique in southern Africa to Turkey. It is cited as evidence for the theory that the Earth's crust is broken into gigantic plates that, in places, overlap or rub against each other.

Think of the rift as one of the Earth's seams. Then think of the stitching as having been noticeably loose in the area of the Dead Sea. Land on each side of the seam has been moving north, but at different rates. Over a period of several million years, the land on the eastern side has gotten ahead of the land on the west by at least 30 miles -- although the exact distance is in dispute.

There also is a slight kink in the movement of the land. It veers slightly to the west. Combined with the different rates of movement, the turn has bent and tilted the valley floor to create the lowest point on the surface of the Earth -- the feature better known as the Dead Sea. Its surface is 1,302 feet lower than that of the world's oceans.

It is at least the third body of water to fill the same valley, the explanation for its also being the planet's saltiest natural body of water. Ocean water filled the basin 3 million years ago, partially retreated a million years later and left large deposits of salt.

A large lake took its place. And some land rose. Or some fell. The result was the same, because the water was cut off from any outlet, increasing the concentration of salt. Changes in climate also had an effect, shrinking the lake until, about 12,000 years ago, the body of water took the approximate dimensions of the current Dead Sea.

Mount Sodom appeared early in the process. Movements of the rift, and the pressures generated by the slow accumulation of earth and rock, pressed down on the layers of salt. Mount Sodom is salt that was squeezed out to the side, as if from a toothpaste tube with a leak.

It is about 80 percent salt, a genuine mountain of it, seven miles long, a quarter-mile wide, 720 feet high, capped by a layer of limestone, clays and conglomerate that the salt dragged along when it was squeezed up from the valley floor. Drilling crews have penetrated more than 3,000 feet -- salt all the way through.

The Old Testament explains it differently. Lot, the son of Abraham, lived in Sodom, where men were said to be sinful and wicked. God decided that if two angels could find 10 righteous people there, the city would be spared from destruction.

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