During Sunday worship at my Anglican church, a lector reads aloud from the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the Epistles. The climactic moment occurs when a priest carries the Bible above his head from the altar to the nave, where he reads the Gospel. This liturgical gesture communicates two things: first, that the enfleshed Word of God came into the world and dwelt among us (John 1:14); second, that the inscribed Word of God places the church under its authority (John 12:47–50). Before the Gospel is read, parishioners make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, lips, and hearts, signifying that we should live “on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). The bread of the Word precedes the bread of the Table; together, they form the meal to nourish faith.
As I watch the procession for the Gospel reading, I am gently chastened. For a lifelong creature of the church, there is always a danger of rising above the Bible through familiarity and study instead of responding under the Bible through awe and obedience. Nodding to a line of verse from the poet George Herbert, let me ask: With “Bibles laid open,” how can God’s people encounter its “millions of surprises?” Devotional poetry is a vital way to become surprised by the Word again because it awakens the mind’s attention from what Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls “the lethargy of custom,” directing it “to the loveliness and the wonders” of God’s self-revelation. All poetry has the potential to freshen the eyes, alert the ears, and prick the heart, but devotional poetry is set apart for its ability to inspire reverence toward the miracle of divine speech that confronts us in the biblical text.
For anthologies of classical devotional poetry, take up The Soul in Paraphrase, edited by Leland Ryken, and Before the Door of God, edited by Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson. Although it is difficult to improve upon the likes of George Herbert, John Milton, Christina Rossetti, and T. S. Eliot, I am grateful that the Canadian poet D. S. Martin has put together a fine anthology of contemporary poetry in Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse, which focuses on characters of the Bible, who Martin describes as “saints and stumblers.”
Just as the “the word of God is alive and active” (Heb. 4:12), so too are its readers. Therefore, we need to hear from those poets who speak in the idiom of our time. I will only treat three of the 122 poems in this collection, which can be viewed as a triptych (a picture in three panels) on the characters featured in Genesis 19, surely one of the most bizarre chapters in the Bible.
Matt Malyon is the founding director of Underground Writing and a prison chaplain in Washington State. In his poem “Lot,” told from a first-person point of view, you might guess that Abraham’s nephew comes off more sympathetically, but even this literary technique does not wrest Lot from ethical ambiguity. His legacy is dubious, at best, despite Peter calling him a “righteous man” who was “greatly distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless” in Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet. 2:7–8).
My gaze so fixed on the holy,
I had all but forgotten
the feel and look of her face.
My daughters, too, beautiful
and innocent, were strangers—
the easier to offer them.
Who can judge? The two angels,
heralds of the rumored doom,
were under my protection.
The first half of the poem implies that Lot was so heavenly minded that he was no earthly good to his daughters, who he volunteers to the rapacious crowd of men outside the house, or to his wife, who trails behind him as he escapes the burning cities of the plain. Does the pursuit of holiness exonerate Lot from familial neglect? Anticipating the reader’s judgment on his failure of solicitude, he asks, like any good relativist today: “Who can judge?” He justifies the inexcusable offer of his daughters by highlighting his practice of hospitality to the angelic visitors.
In the second half of the poem, the urbanite has become a troglodyte. Evacuation from Sodom returns Lot to primal reality, where anguished thoughts about his salinized wife come to him inside a cave: “Even the feel / of my arms around her brave turn / a memory now, the taste of her / hardened lips less salt than fire.” Those lips taste “less salt than fire” because, despite the merciful rescue operation, God’s fiery judgment rests upon Lot as much as those who were reduced to ashes.
James E. Cherry, a poet and novelist from Tennessee, authors the second panel in our triptych, “Lot’s Wife.” Here, the third-person point of view editorializes on the story in Genesis 19, taking its cue from Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples, “Remember Lot’s wife!” (Luke 17:32). Addressing the woman directly, the speaker exercises a sympathetic imagination by trying to delineate some of the humanity that was absorbed into a pillar of salt:
History has deemed you unworthy of a name,
the mere property of Abraham’s nephew,
a case study on the perils of possessing the past.
But maybe, in your haste for the hills, the photos
of you and Lot at the beach flashed
across your mind or maybe a pot of coffee
on the fire came to your remembrance or the dog barking
to be walked or fed woke you from the daydream.
Was Lot’s wife “unworthy of a name” because she disobeyed the angel’s command, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain!” (Gen. 19:17)? On this reading, all sin erases our identity as God’s beloved, whether gradually or suddenly. Or, was she “unworthy of a name” because, in the patriarchal society of the ancient Hebrews, a woman could not occupy a role higher than “the mere property” of her husband? Either way, history—personified as an impersonal force—seems cruel to this wife whose “glance over the shoulder” was fatal. But why? In the rush to leave Sodom, can she be faulted for sentimental ties to hearth and home?
Before we take her side entirely, the speaker concedes, “These are the things of speculation. What we know / for sure is that your life has become a moral to an Old Testament story”—a moral revived by Jesus in his lesson about the coming kingdom. The rabbi unveils the secret about why she is “a footnote upon the history / of fire and brimstone”: “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33). Instead of living forward into God’s promises, Lot’s wife looked backward to her security and thereby lost her life. We recoil at the harsh sentence, but this story jolts us into an undeniable truth: Where your home is, there your heart will be also.
Beginning to Hear Again
The final panel of the triptych, “Lot’s Daughters,” is by Marjorie Maddox, a professor of English at Lock Haven University and author of poetry, short stories, essays, and children’s books. As if a spectator to the events of Genesis 19, this speaker’s voice is more intimate than distant. Divided into four parts, the first concerns Lot’s “almost-sacrifice” of his daughters to the “leering mob circling / the house, jeering, dancing naked, / taunting the guests with their sex.” What kind of father would barter his daughters’ sexual integrity? It seems impossible to regard Lot as Peter did, which accounts for why his appellation of “righteous man” appears in scare quotes. The reader feels the terror of his daughters in the stanzas below:
Then their eyes were like Isaac’s
below the knife,
the ram not yet in the bush,
the blade gleaming.
What dread dug in the daughters’
betrayed hearts before the rioters—
struck blind—stumbled and fell,
unable to find the door,
Lot tugged back safely to the house?
By comparing the near-rape of Lot’s daughters to the near-sacrifice of Isaac at Moriah, the speaker emphasizes the traumatic experience of the would-be victims. How could they trust their fathers again, even if their fathers are rightly lauded for acting with firm trust in God’s inscrutable plan? Enter Søren Kierkegaard, who argued that Abraham suspended his ethical qualms when he chose to kill Isaac because he believed that God ordained a righteous end (or telos). Similarly, Lot performed with a “teleological suspension of the ethical” when he chose to hand over his daughters to lascivious men. While this brings some philosophical coherence to otherwise inexplicable situations, it gives little psychological relief to the children of these patriarchs.
The second and third parts of the poem concern a silence in the biblical text about how, if at all, the daughters responded to the transmogrification of their mother. What follows in the fourth part of the poem raises the question: Would it have been better for Lot’s daughters to have perished in the “ashen cities” than to violate the holiness code against incest (Lev. 18:7)?
This time, they sacrificed themselves,
holding out wine, lifting their dresses
to lure their father.
He twirled a drunken dance,
love or revenge spinning,
“Rewarded” with sons,
they named them From Father
and Son of My People,
sang lullabies of fear and fire,
of what it means to wander,
to exile yourself,
to dream of salt and sand.
The speaker does not piously edit the heinous deeds of Lot’s daughters, but conjectures about why, as fugitives in a cave with “no hope for heirs,” they engaged in drunken sex with their father: “love or revenge spinning, / blurring vision.” If love, then the desire was disordered. If revenge, the anger was uncontrolled. Whatever the motive, Lot’s daughters share their “mother’s unbelief.” Their self-sacrifice was ignoble—a far cry from our Savior’s work on the Cross.
Too easily we forget, as the Bible-besotted theologian Karl Barth said, “The Word of God is the Word that God spoke, speaks, and will speak in the midst of all men. Regardless of whether it is heard or not, it is, in itself, directed to all men. It is the Word of God’s work upon men, for men, and with men. His work is not mute; rather, it speaks with a loud voice.”Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse helps to amplify that voice for Christians who are no longer riveted by the recorded breaths of God. With the decibels of a rock concert, we may begin to hear again. These poetic glosses on Scripture break open its millions of surprises.
Christopher Benson teaches literature and theology at The Cambridge School of Dallas, worships at St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in Dallas, and blogs at Bensonian.