I was a little surprised to discover just how forcefully conservatives cling to the erroneous interpretation that the narrative of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is proof-positive of God’s condemnation of gay people. Such a profound misreading of the text is illustrative, unfortunately, of how ideology trumps exegesis.
What do we know about Sodom? We know that Lot moved his tent as far as the city of Sodom within the territory Abram allowed him to take (Gen. 13:12). All we are told here is that the “men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against Yahweh,” (Gen. 13:13).
The next introduction to the evils of Sodom is interesting. It comes in the context of Abraham’s election as the father of many nations. “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of Yahweh by doing righteousness and justice, so that Yahweh may bring to Abraham what He has promised him,” (Gen. 18:19). In both Hebrew and Greek, righteousness and justice mean virtually the same thing (sdq, sedeq, sedeqa in Hebrew; diakaiosyne and variants in Greek, which is used for social justice, alms-giving, and deliverance of the oppressed and poor). The justice of God is His commitment to protect the weak and fatherless and oppressed and to destroy the oppressors, setting the world to rights. Abraham’s election as father of many nations is based upon his imitation of God in this concern for social justice.
Abraham is to keep the “way of Yahweh” by “doing righteousness and justice,” (Gen. 18:19). The very next verse, Yahweh seems to change the subject, but actually does not. “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me,” (Gen. 18:20-21). Abraham’s famous appeal is the first example of his obedience to the “way of Yahweh” in righteousness and justice. His concern is for the “righteous” people in Sodom, but not in the sense of the morally-upright internally, but for those who live faithful lives of justice in the city (Gen. 18:23-33).
Chapter 19, the confrontation of God’s messengers with the people of Sodom, leaves us full of questions, and likely this is intentional. As we work through this material, our central question will be, “What is the sin of Sodom?” Traditionally, the answer has been the implied homosexual behavior of the Sodomites, but as we shall see, this is a questionable reading.
When the two angels arrive in Sodom, it is evening, and “Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom,” (v. 1). As is familiar to most Christians by now, we know that the gate of the city was the place for the elders of the city to sit, the public square where business and judgment were carried out. It is odd, therefore, that Lot is sitting in the place of the elders of Sodom, particularly given the sneering comments of the Sodomites about Lot later (v. 9). But it’s not only odd that Lot is sitting in the place of the elders of the city, but that he and he alone greets the strangers. It was the common practice of the ANE for the people to offer shelter for travelers and sojourners, offering hospitality to them during their stay because they were viewed as the most vulnerable people in a city, without home or friends or food. Where are Sodom’s judges? It is only Lot who greets the angels and offers them shelter (v. 1-2).
It is also strange that the angels refuse to accept Lot’s offer. Just as it was the obligation of the men in the gate to offer shelter and hospitality to strangers, it was the obligation of the traveler to accept. Yet the angels decline, declaring their intention to spend the night in the town square (v. 2). Why do they refuse? Probably because Lot was a sojourner in Sodom and it was their intention to learn about the behavior of the citizens of Sodom.
But Lot insists – in fact, the language is so strong that it almost implies physically getting in their way and demanding they come with him. This is the second hint that something is not right in Sodom. They agree and turn aside from their intended sleeping spot to Lot’s house (v. 3).
Before the two visitors lay down for the night, “the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house,” demanding Lot send the men out to them, “that we may know them,” (v. 4-5). This would seem to answer the question of where the other men in the gate of the city were. They were right there with Lot; they had ignored the arriving men and had refused to offer them hospitality. No one would have known of the angels’ arrival had Lot been alone in the gate. Thus, the Sodomites had no excuse of it being late; they had intentionally been unjust and inhospitable, then rounded up the rest of the city. The phrase “know them” almost certainly refers to sexual knowledge, and this usage is confirmed by Lot’s use of the same phrase for his daughters later (v. 8).
This is the main point of contention. Most commentators have focused upon this aspect of the narrative to the exclusion of what has come before and will come after, and have erroneously seen it as a condemnation of homosexual behavior. But the passage works in an entirely different direction. It does not concern gay people, but rape and assault of the most vulnerable in the city, the sojourner and the stranger. The angels being unwilling participants, what is in view here is the threat of gang rape.
Lot goes out to the men and closes the door behind him (v. 6). This proves not just his hospitality, but Lot’s bravery and courage, to face down a crowd threatening gang rape, closing off his means of retreat in order to protect the vulnerable. His answer is designed to defuse the situation, referring to them as “my brothers,” and offering his own daughters in the place of the strangers (v. 7-8). He asserts that the angels are under the protection of his household, and thus the sacrifice of his daughters would be the means by which his whole household defended them. As Wenham writes, the “cardinal virtue” and “sacred duty” of “oriental hospitality” was “protecting your guests,” (Genesis 16-50, 55).
The Sodomites do not accept his offer, and say, “This fellow came to sojourn among us, and he has become the judge!” (v. 9). This plays back into the beginning of the passage when we see that Lot is sitting in the gate, and is exercising some authority to judge in Sodom. By referring to him as a sojourner, however, the men of Sodom double their own crimes, for not only do they now intend to gang rape the angels, but Lot also, ignoring Lot’s position as a judge and his special protection as a sojourner: “Now we will deal worse with you than with them.”
The men then attack Lot and nearly break the door down (v. 9). At this moment the angels spring into action, dragging Lot back into the house and striking the Sodomites blind so that they cannot find the entrance (v. 10-11).
The story goes on, but we need go no further. The case has been made and the answer seems to be clear. The chief sin of Sodom was not homosexual behavior, but inhospitality, of which included gang rape and assault of the most vulnerable people in their city. This is without question the central focus of the passage – would Sodom display the righteousness and justice that represented the “way of Yahweh” or would they ignore it and practice injustice?
This reading is confirmed by the rest of Scripture. In Yahweh’s denunciation of Israel’s sin in Ezekiel 16, He declares, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before Me. So I removed them,” (Ezek. 16:49-50). Notice that this oppression of the poor and needy is “the guilt” and the “abomination” that Sodom committed, and the cause for which Yahweh “removed them.” Praying upon the sojourner and needy and poor is the abomination of Sodom (culminating, of course, in the threat of rape and assault). But nothing about anyone being gay. The fate of Sodom would have been no different had the non-consensual rape been upon women instead of men. The distinguishing act was not the rape of men, but the rape full-stop. It was the injustice and inhospitality of an entire city that preyed upon the vulnerable.
And that Yahweh will not abide. Two chapters later, still discussing justice, Yahweh speaks of the man of justice and the man of injustice. The man of injustice is one who “eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, lends at interest, and takes a profit” – this man “shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon hismelf,” (Ezek. 18:11-13).
Jude 7 also mentions Sodom briefly, and it is worth noting. Jude writes, “just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example.” Our immediate thoughts turn specifically to homosexuality because of how thoroughly that reading is ingrained in our brains. But if we pause and recall that the sin of Sodom was first of all a lack of hospitality, and included within that the sin of gang rape and assault, we realize that the references to “sexual immorality” here actually refer to rape, not to homosexuality. This is also the meaning of “unnatural desire” here, once again not homosexuality as an orientation (a “desire” for what is “unnatural”) but the desire to abuse and oppress and claim sexual power over others by violent and aggressive means.
The fact is that this passage simple has no bearing on the question of gay marriage or the appropriateness of LBGTQ orientation within a consensual relationship, and neither Genesis 19 nor later Biblical commentary on this passage suggests or implies that homosexual behavior or orientation is in view as a theme of the passage. There isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest this.