The Destruction of Sodom and Homosexuality

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.

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3 thoughts on “The Destruction of Sodom and Homosexuality

  1. Granted, the sin of Sodom was inhospitality. But what exactly is/was that?

    “Hospitality” and ushpizin both derive from the Latin word hospes (feminine, hospita), which rather curiously meant both “host” and “guest.” Words sometimes undergo such flipflops: Think of the English verb “to loan,” which in colloquial speech means to borrow as well as to lend.
    In fact, hospes flipflopped more than once. If on the one hand, it gave us our English “hospitality,” “hospice,” “hostel,” “hotel” and “host” in the sense of an extender of hospitality, it is also gave us “hostile” and “host” meaning army; the latter two words derive from Latin hostis, a corruption of hospes that originally signified “stranger” — i.e., a traveling guest who lodges with an innkeeper. From “stranger,” hostis proceeded to take on the meaning of enemy; then of enemy army, and ultimately, in the early Christian church, of the archfiend or devil himself. And yet at the same time, in the expression “Lord of Hosts,” the King James translation of the biblical Hebrew epithet for God adonai tsva’ot, “Lord of [heavenly] armies,” hostis ended up as a term for the Divinity. That’s quite a checkered career for a single word! (source: http://forward.com/articles/4607/hospitable-origins/)

    The Greek, philoxenos, is the composition of love (philo) and alien (xenos). Our relationship with strangers (aliens) is complicated. On the one hand the Bible tells us to be hospitable to strangers, but on the other hand strangers (aliens) can be quite dangerous. Until we get to know them, strangers can be friends or foes. However, strangers should not be assumed to be enemies. We cannot conflate strangers and enemies, for Esau was not a stranger, and Jesus opened salvation to Gentiles (aliens). All strangers are not our to harm us, though some are (sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally).

    One of the reasons that the elders at the gate in ancient Israel were charged with hospitality to strangers was for the purpose of the determination of them as friend or foe. The elders’ hospitality was a protection for the community because they were best able to make such determinations based on their wisdom and experience, and personal knowledge of the strangers gained through hospitality.

    While your article does not say so, we must be careful not to suggest that the lack of evidence for the sin of Sodom being homosexuality per se does not therefore constitute evidence for it not including homosexuality. As you said, “this passage simply has no bearing on the question of gay marriage or the appropriateness of LBGTQ orientation within a consensual relationship.” Why not? Because the Bible does not mention gay marriage or LBGTQ orientation. Such terms are thoroughly postmodern. Nor does the Bible use “consensual relationship” to justify what it defines as sexual sins. Consensual fornication and adultery are no less sinful.

    However, to say that the Bible does not speak to gay marriage or LBGTQ orientation specifically does not mean that it does not speak to such things generically. So, determination of whether the teaching and application of the Bible regarding sin generally pertains to homosexuality per se is necessary. Paul’s list of sins in Galatians 5:19-21 will provide sufficient fodder: “Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like.” Jesus’ list includes: “evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). Do any of these things play a role in homosexual behavior? Absolutely! And if people work on eliminating these sins, homosexuality will not be an issue–not because it is not a sin but because it is farther down the sin stream.

    Some people will disagree with me, and want to argue that the Bible has nothing at all to say about gay marriage and LBGTQ orientation because it doesn’t mention them in particular. If we grant them that and take the Bible out of the discussion entirely we must then study what history, tradition, psychology, sociology, and medicine have to say about it–and not just contemporary Western ideas, but the wealth of historic, worldwide opinion in these areas over the past 500 or years.

    What do these areas of study have to say? History and tradition in nearly every culture have an almost unified, worldwide voice against the practice of homosexuality, until the most recent era. Of course, homosexuals have always existed in every culture, but homosexual behavior has also been vilified in almost every culture for almost all of history as well. Nonetheless, let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the contemporary era and discount all of that history and tradition, because WE know better than those who preceded us in history.

    As we examine psychology and sociology, we find much evidence for serious psychological and social problems associated with homosexuality. (The current argument is that if it were not socially vilified, most of these problems would not exist. But there is no evidence of this. Rather, the counter argument that it is vilified because of related problems is more likely true.) Of course, the most current trend is to portray homosexuality as being within standard social deviation. So, let’s allow this, and discount the anti-homosexual psychological and sociological information, as well.

    So, we turn to medical studies. Finding an “objective” medical report is difficult because both sides of this argument are actively spinning out their information. There is much information linking health concerns with homosexual practice. But there don’t seem to be any reports suggesting that there are no health related issues.

    “Sexual relationships between members of the same sex expose gays, lesbians and bisexuals to extreme risks of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), physical injuries, mental disorders and even a shortened life span.”

    Source: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/homosexuality/ho0075.html

    “Men who have sex with men are at increased risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as well as other sexually transmitted infections, including gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis.”

    “Gay men and men who have sex with men might be at higher risk of depression and anxiety.”

    “Gay men are more likely to experience body image problems and eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa, than are their straight counterparts.”

    Source: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/mens-health/in-depth/health-issues-for-gay-men/art-20047107

    http://factsaboutyouth.com/ “is a resource designed to give educators, parents and students important science-based information about healthful approaches to youth who may be conflicted about gender identity and sexual orientation. This site is a project of the American College of Pediatricians, in coalition with other organizations who share a concern for the well-being of all youth.” It is worth perusing.

    Thus, the encouragement of homosexual behavior advances many personal and social problems, including disease, psychological problems, and social unrest, and is contraindicated on several levels.

    1. You start by looking at the Latin, which I find irrelevant, since the Scriptures were not written in Latin nor was their culture related to the later Greco-Roman civilization that spoke Latin. You also begin with the etymology of “hospitality,” but as John Walton, an expert in Biblical languages, writes,

      “we forget how the world of words generally works and try to use etymology rather than usage, even though we know that in the language we speak, etympology is an unreliable guide to meaning. We know that ‘awful’ means ‘full of awe’ and that ‘understand’ does not mean ‘to stand under.’ We must resist the temptation to use etymology in word analysis. The only reliable guide is usage,” (Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 175, nt. 2).

      Genesis 19 has no bearing on homosexuality at all, for the very simple reason that the text is not dealing with homosexuality. True that neither the word nor concept was present in the ANE, but this is precisely my point. The text had no conception of monogomous same-sex relationships, and so cannot address them. What the text is dealing with is non-consensual forced sexuality, and thus deals with rape. About the only conclusion for gay people to be drawn from the text is, “don’t rape.” Which most of them don’t do anyway; just like heteros.

      The central point with regards to this issue that Christians can agree upon is that holiness comes before all other things. Thus, all sexual activity is to be limited to marriage. The only place where they disagree is whether gay people can participate in that or not. I no longer see any reason to exclude them. So Gal. 5 and Mark 7 are perfectly applicable to gay couples – though I must strongly disagree that “if people work on eliminating these sins, homosexuality will not be an issue–not because it is not a sin but because it is farther down the sin stream.” Such a statement seems based upon the typical belief that homosexuality is a curse resulting from sin – typically based upon a misreading of Romans 1.

      You wrote, “History and tradition in nearly every culture have an almost unified, worldwide voice against the practice of homosexuality, until the most recent era. Of course, homosexuals have always existed in every culture, but homosexual behavior has also been vilified in almost every culture for almost all of history as well.” This is simply not true. From the cultures surrounding Israel in the ANE to Greece and Rome, to the native Americans of North America, and even to Renaissance Europe, the practice was widespread. In Greece it was an accepted educational relationship, used in the accepted manhood rites of the Native Americans, and frequently a part of ANE worship of the pagan gods. It is important to dismiss the mythology about this issue that has been constructed in the last half-century.

      This is not a matter of dismissing the past because it is the past. It is a matter of rejecting the past in those places where it is ignorant and wrong. I reject the teachings of the Church Fathers on women and slavery too, because humanity is being grown up into the maturity of Christ, and humanity as a race reached a place where these things were no longer acceptable. We have information and knowledge on LGBTQ issues that they simply didn’t have in the ANE or even in 1869. Most of the medical information you quoted is the result of risky behavior within the LGBTQ community pushed by sexual liberation in the 1960s, or due to outside pressures which would not be an issue for monogamous sexual practices for them any more than for heterosexual couples.

  2. Looking at the Latin development of the word “host” provides history of usage that has implications for the historical development of the ideas behind the words. I’m confused by Walton’s quote because etymology is “the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.” He employs only half of the meaning to justify his conclusion.

    Genesis 19 is dealing with sin which erupts into the desire for homosexual rape. So, while it has more general implications, homosexuality is part of the context. What text are you talking about that has “no conception of monogamous same-sex relationships”? My understanding is that biblical monogamy began in Genesis 2. The help meet of marriage is necessarily the balancing interaction of both sexes. “Don’t rape” is a good conclusion, but there is more to it than rape, in the same sense that murder as an outward expression of sin that begins in the heart.

    “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17). Freedom in Christ is not the freedom to do whatever we want, but is the freedom to do what Christ wants us to do.

    “And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person'” (Mark 7:20-23).

    “The typical belief that homosexuality is a curse resulting from sin” is related to the typical belief that murder is a curse that results from sin. These are typical because they are typological in that the expression of sin flows from the typology, root develops into branch. So, even though root and branch are different, they are related.

    The homosexuality that existed in ANE, Greece, and among the Native Americans contributed heavily to the biblical opposition to such cultures. Biblical culture opposed such cultural practices consistently throughout history.

    While it is true that risky sexual behavior is more prone to disease than monogamy, it is also true that anal and oral sex are among the risky behaviors, regardless of whether they are homo or hetero.

    Ideas have consequences.

    The mind justifies what the heart chooses.

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