The Tale of Sodom and Gomorrah
The story of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have long been associated with sex between men in the lore of our Western culture. The term "sodomy" and the label "sodomite" comes from the 19th chapter of Genesis. We return to this section first in our exploration of the Bible and homosexuality because of its chronological position in Scripture, the foundations it gives us for further discussion, and also because it's one of the easiest passages to study.
I will start each of our study sections with questions, which will form the structure of each discussion. You may not agree with some of the answers I suggest, but I hope you'll find the process valuable and illuminating anyway.
- What happened in Sodom, and why?
- What can we learn from how this episode is referenced throughout the Bible?
- What can this teach us about how ancient people viewed the genders and sex?
The Sin of Sodom
First, let's look at our primary text, Genesis 19, within the literary and historical context. Then we'll take a look a few other passages that reference the topic.
Background on Sodom and Gomorrah
Our story starts with Abraham. He has settled in the region of Canaan, in Hebron, after his nephew Lot chooses the fertile, wealthy plain near the Jordan filled with cities. Lot pitches his tent near Sodom, filled with people described in chapter 13 as "...wicked, great sinners against the Lord." Archeologists aren't sure exactly where the original city was, but it is described as being near what we now call the Dead Sea.
While our primary narrative is in the 19th chapter, we can look for a few clues about Sodom and Gomorrah before we get there.
In chapter 14, Lot is caught up in the conquest of kings as a number of rulers rebel against others, and war ensues. Sodom is on the losing end, and all the people are captured – presumably to be slaves. Abraham gathers his allies, and brings everyone back. After a special blessing from the priest Melchizedek, the king of Sodom offers to let Abraham keep all the looted goods if he will just give up the people to return. Of course, Abraham wants nothing to do with wealth from this "wicked city". I wonder – was the wealth tainted because it came from slavery? After all, it's the possession of the people that the king of Sodom wants most.
Speculative aside, we do know for sure that Abraham is well aware of Sodom and the sins of its people. We don't know exactly what they were at this point other than being very much opposed to God.
Setting the scene
In chapters 15-17 we see God reiterating his promises to Abraham, while Ishmael is born and hope is feeble.
Immediately before the Sodom narrative, we hear of a special visit. Abraham has travelled to the Terebinths of Mamre from his home base of Hebron. The Amorite king named Mamre was one of Abraham's allies in rescuing Lot a few chapters ago. His seat of residence was known then (and for hundreds of years after, until Constantine) for being the site of one of the big three "festivals" in Israel, likely a big trade fair for the region, and often associated with cult worship of the Canaanite chief god of the sky, El. Maybe Abraham was in town for resupplying, or selling some of his herds, or just visiting friends?
Now, as Abraham seeks the shade of his tent in the heat of the day, he sees three strangers approach. I wonder if this would likely be quite common in Mamre, maybe in contrast to where he would often find himself in his nomadic travels for pasture for his herds. Remember, Abraham is described as very wealthy, and he's a close ally of the local king. He's not a lowly shepherd, that's for sure!
Yet as soon as Abraham sees these men, he runs over to them, bows low, and begs them to give him the honor of serving them. He describes himself as a "servant", and offers to bring them water to wash with, a resting place under the tree, and "a little bread". When they accept, he scurries around, asking Sarah to personally make cakes with the best flour (she likely had servants for most meal prep), choosing a calf to be slaughtered by his servants, and bringing out curds and milk. This is quite a welcome for strangers! Abraham is demonstrating both the kind of Middle Eastern hospitality that was and is still held in high regard, and his servant heart that God values.
Why is this important? As we'll see next, Abraham's actions are soon held up in contrast.
Arriving in Sodom
Skipping quickly through the prophecies, the laugh, and Abraham begging God to reconsider judgement, we arrive with the "messengers" (now known to be angels) at the gates of the city of Sodom. Here they meet Lot who urges them to come to his house for lodging and food instead of staying the night in the city square.
After a meal, they are getting ready to sleep (night is falling) when "the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man" surrounded the house and insisted that the strangers be brought out so that they could "know" them (a common euphemism for sex).
Lot begs for protection for his guests, insisting that they are under his roof and his responsibility. He offers his daughters to the crowd in exchange for the men. Not only is this rejected, but the crowd says "This fellow came here as an alien [temporary resident, not a citizen], and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them." (19:9)
The story continues with rescue, blindness, escape, and destruction. We are left with this episode as the demonstration of the wickedness of the city of Sodom.
So, what exactly is the sin of Sodom?
A PARALLEL STORY IN JUDGES 19
Before we move on to some responses to that question taken from other Scripture references, I think it's useful to look at another story that seems to have a lot of parallels with this one. We can find it in Judges 19.
You may be familiar with this quite disturbing story from before the kingdom of Israel is established. A Levite takes a concubine (a second wife – "pilegesh"), they quarrel ("[she] became angry with him"), she runs back home to Bethlehem, and then he goes to fetch her four months later. After a warm welcome and three-day-long feast (note the excessive hospitality once again), the Levite sets off for his home with the woman late in the day, ignoring his father-in-law's plea to wait until the following morning.
As night fell they found themselves near Jerusalem, but since this was a city of foreigners at the time (not an Israelite town until the time of David) the Levite dismisses his servant's advice to stop here in favor of finding a town of his own people (this reminds me of the parable of the good Samaritan – our assumptions about "our neighbors" are often wrong). They eventually stop in the town square of an Israelite town called Gibeah, but find no hospitality until one old man (a temporary resident from another tribe, not an official citizen of the tribe of Benjamin – sound familiar?) offers to house them.
Once again, the men of the town surround the house demanding sex with the Levite. Once again, the host offers two women to the mob – his virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine. The crowd "would not listen to him". However, in this story the Levite grabs his concubine and takes her outside to the men, and she is raped and abused all night. At dawn she returns and falls on the threshold of the host's house, and is found there, apparently unconscious or dead, by her husband (who reacts with the statement: "Get up, we are going.").
In a gruesome ending, the Levite takes the woman's body home, cuts it into pieces, and sends it around the tribes to ask for vengeance against the Benjaminites. This is so enthusiastically accepted that they nearly wipe the tribe out (which leads to another crisis – another fascinating story that may have something to say about the failure of reacting to violence with more violence, but which is getting beyond the parallels).
Finally, when the Levite gives his testimony of what happened before the battle, he describes the events and motives very differently than we might have thought:
To highlight the parallels between the two stories, I've compiled details of the events in a comparison table below:
|Event||Sodom (Gn 19)||Gibeah (Jd 19)|
|Protagonist:||Angels||Levite and concubine|
|Starts with a generous host:||Abraham||Father-in-Law|
|City of event:||Sodom (Canaanite)||Gibeah (Israelite)|
|Seeking hospitality in:||Town square||Town square|
|Who offers hospitality?||Lot – resident alien||Old man – resident alien|
|Request of residents:||"we may 'know' them"||"we may have intercourse with him"|
|Counter-offer by host:||Virgin daughters||Virgin daughter and concubine|
|Reaction of town:||Host threatened as outsider||Only interested in outsider concubine|
|End of the encounter:||Men struck blind by angels||Concubine raped and killed|
|Final judgement:||Cities destroyed||Tribe destroyed|
Now that we can see how strong so many of the parallels are, I think it's valid to assume we can apply some observations back and forth between the stories. We might learn more about the culture and practices of the time that give insight to our main questions. Here's a few notes to conclude this little tangent section:
- The Benjaminite mob reject a resident women from the host, but are satisfied with raping (and killing!) a visiting woman instead of a man. Can this be about homosexual desire, or is it something else?
- The Levite testifies that "they intended to kill me." Is it possible this is about extreme inhospitality – violence against strangers in the town – instead of simple sexual desire?
Before we look at other verses, let's look back at the texts one more time. I'd like to briefly point out a few things:
- Don't forget: The judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah is declared well before the angels are threatened in Genesis 19, and it goes back to descriptions of the cities' behaviors in previous chapters (it's not likely that this is a predictive-judgement when the angels talk to Abraham). We can likely only see the events recorded here as symptoms or examples of at least part of why the judgement is given. I hope we can learn more about this from other verses in the Bible that reference this event and the sins, which is coming up next.
- Abraham and Lot's hospitality and provision for strangers is contrasted with the rest of the city-dwellers of Sodom. (Same for the Levite's experience with his father-in-law in a city of Judea and with a fellow Ephraimite, compared to his treatment in a city of Israel).
- Every male person in Sodom is described as coming to Lot's door. Not a subset of the population (current modern estimates say that roughly 90-95% of people are naturally heterosexual). (In Judges, it's not all the men, but they are equally satisfied with raping a woman).
- Lot offers his daughters up to be raped! That's how seriously he takes his responsibility to care for absolute strangers under his roof. Unfortunately, this also gives us a hint about how well women were valued in his culture as well. (We see this attitude toward women even more strongly in how the Levite treats his concubine in Judges 19).
- The men of the city seem to have something against Lot as a temporary resident, instead of a citizen. (In Judges, again only the "outsider" takes in the outsiders).
The last comment I have in this section is to point out that in both cases the visitors in town are safe until sundown, but not welcome afterward. This reminds me of some parallels of inhospitality in places closer to home in both time and location. My hometown of Siloam Springs, Arkansas is also the home of my alma-mater, the evangelical Christian college John Brown University. It was founded in 1919 by an evangelist as a place to instill conservative Christian values in the head, heart and hands of its students. Another thing that Siloam Springs prided itself on in that year, as shown in the flyer above, is the lack of "Malaria, Mosquitos, and Negroes". It was one of Arkansas' Sundown Towns where all African Americans were told to leave before sunset.
Ok, now let's see where else the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is referenced in Scripture.
Finding Sodom throughout the Bible
The events in Sodom are a popular reference point throughout the Bible as an example of the judgement that comes from sin. I found 18 verses in the Tanakh, and 10 in the New Testament, that contain the city name of "Sodom". You can find them all listed and briefly described in this spreadsheet I created. I'll add my own commentary here:
- The completion of the giving of the law (Deuteronomy)
- The prophecies of Isaiah (chapters 1, 3 and 13)
- The prophecies of Jeremiah (chapters 23, 49, 50)
- The prophecies of Ezekiel (chapter 16)
- The fourth Lamentation (chapter 4)
- Indictment of the proud women in the book of Amos (chapter 4)
- Moab and the Ammonites condemned (Zephaniah)
- Jesus sends out the disciples, with warnings (Matthew, Mark and Luke)
- Paul references Isaiah (Romans)
- Peter reassures the tempted faithful (2 Peter)
- A warning of sins and judgement (Jude)
- Rejection of God's messengers (Revelation)
A Warning to Israel At the end of the Giving of the Law
In the first brief reference, we see Moses warning the people to follow God unless they end up like Sodom and Gomorrah. In context, he's closing all the instructions in the book of Deuteronomy with this vivid lesson. He does seem to be emphasizing the temptation of idol worship specifically in this warning.
In the second reference in Deuteronomy a few chapters later (32:32), the abandonment of Yahweh worship for idolatry and demon worship is more clearly compared to the "grapes" (produce) of Sodom.
THE NATION OF ISRAEL COMPARED TO SODOM AND GOMORRAH
Throughout the first chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, we see that the nation of Judah (Israel is already conquered) is compared to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (the direct reference is named in verses 9 and 10 – the center of the argument). Along with this comparison we find two sets of specifics from God – things he condemns that they are doing, and things he wants from them.
- Abandon: Your sacrifices to God of blood and burning flesh, all incense and offerings ("who asked this from your hand?"), celebrations of Sabbath and appointed festivals ("they have become a burden to me"), and all prayers ("I will not listen").
- Begin: "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (Isaiah 1:16-17)
The passage continues in a further comparison of Jerusalem to a female prostitute, accusing the inhabitants of greed, bribery, and injustice toward orphans and widows (the powerless and marginalized of society).
In the second mention of Sodom in chapter 3 (verse 9), we see that Judah is being accused of bragging about their sins just like Sodom did. As we read the context of this verse to see what those sins are, we find that they are listed judged for: "It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?" Then the pride issue is repeated – the "daughters of Zion are haughty" – with a description that sounds like these "representative daughters" (the powerful?) are flaunting their wealth and position in the face of those of their own people whom they are oppressing for greed.
Finally, we see the third reference to Sodom in Isaiah 13:9 being used to predict the destruction of Babylon. There are no clear hints directly in the text about a specific kind of sin being to blame. We can likely infer that the readers of this book would immediately be thinking about the forced exile (foreigners in a foreign land, likely in some form of enslavement) they were under at the time.
Jeremiah condemns Jerusalem, Edom and Babylon
For our first passage in Jeremiah, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah are compared to the prophets of Jerusalem committing adultery and walking in lies. Since "adultery" is a common image for Israel turning away from God to worship idols, we could speculate that this sin is primarily about turning away from following God. However, a literal reading that refers to sex has nothing to do with homosexuality, but with general adultery. In addition, we see deceit and aiding the wicked in their schemes as further reasons for judgement.
The second mention in Jeremiah of Sodom, in 49:18, is in reference to the nation of Edom (descendants of Esau). They are being judged for "The terror you inspire and the pride of your heart".
The final mention of Sodom in Jeremiah, 50:40, is in reference to Babylon. They are condemned for their idols (50:2, 38, 51:47, 52), their destruction of others (50:15, 29, 51:49), arrogance (50:29, 31-32), and oppression (50:33).
The Fourth Lamentation: Of Jerusalem
In Lamentations we see the children of Zion suffering, and dying of starvation (likely a picture of a siege of Jerusalem), for "the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed the blood of the righteous in the midst of her." (4:6, 13). I used a different translation above because the NRSV was harder to read for this verse.
Ezekiel accuses Israel of exceeding the sins of Sodom!
The prophet Ezekiel, in a series of verses (16:46-56), has the clearest reference to the sins of Sodom that were being judged. According to this writing, Sodom was judged, not for sexual offenses, but for pride. For having wealth and ease, but refusing to help the poor and needy. Ezekiel goes on to emphasize that Israel had built upon these sins and become even worse!
Note: We also see a reference to "abominable things", which we'll be looking at in more depth in the next section on Leviticus 19.
Since we're looking at this passage in Ezekiel already, I find it interesting that verse 16:53 adds a promise for Sodom and for Samaria – that their fortunes would be restored just as Israel's would be. God's judgement appears to be for a time, for correction and discipline, and even the people of Sodom who are held up as the classic examples of sinful behavior will be restored and blessed!
Justice: Repaying the wealthy for their oppression of the poor
Amos doesn't make as strong a connection to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, the overthrow of the cities is used as a parallel for the punishment the Lord gave out for the elite wives of the wealthy in Israel who dine lavishly on the backs of the poor.
Zephaniah condemns Moab and the Ammonites
The final reference in the Tanakh is found in Zephaniah, where the destruction of Moab and the Ammonites (descendants of the daughters of Lot – the ones offered to the mob in Sodom!) is compared to Sodom. Their sins are listed as pride, and taunting the nation of Israel (maybe mocking them in their exile, denigrating God's protection?).
We now move to the New Testament, starting with the words of Jesus.
Jesus makes Several comparisons
In our first reference (Matthew 10, Luke 10, and in some translations of Mark 6:11) Jesus is sending out the Twelve to proclaim the good news ("gospel") that "the reign of the Heavens has come to you", to heal the sick, and cast out demons. He gives detailed instructions about taking nothing for the journey, finding a worthy host in each village, and staying with this person the whole visit.
However, he tells them also to expect some lack of welcome as they travel. He compares this lack of hospitality to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, even stating that the final state of these cities will be better than the state of these inhospitable towns. It seems quite clear to my reading that Jesus saw the primary sin being inhospitality to strangers.
In the next comparison Jesus makes (in Matthew 11, similar in Luke 10), we see the towns that refused to repent after seeing his miracles being promised worse judgement than Sodom.
Finally, we see one more reference from Christ to Sodom in Luke 17:
This description was given to the disciples, when he gave further explanation to them after answering the Pharisees' question about "when is the kingdom coming?" (his response, paraphrased: "you can't see it the way you're looking for it: it's already among you!"). We could infer that this judgement that is promised here for the Day of the Son of Man has something to do with the people not understanding the gospel, rejecting Christ, similar to the references above in Matthew 11 and Luke 10. The description and comparison of Sodom seems to have some parallels with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, which could be seen to follow from the nation of Israel rejecting the non-violent "Way of Jesus" (as the first believers called it) and seeking for a military messiah to fight Rome.
Paul Speaks of Sodom
In Romans 9:29, Paul references Isaiah 1:9 to support his claim that not all of the Jews have been left out of the selection of the "children of promise", for God's special purposes. He compares the situation negatively to the utter destruction of Sodom, declaring that some remain.
Peter reassures the tempted faithful
Peter is addressing those who are under trial from false teachers and bad influences. He insists that God's justice will rescue them in the same way God condemned Sodom.
The sins that he is accusing these false teachers of are: depraved lust, despising authority (of the church?), slandering angels, reveling in daylight, adultery, greed, and tempting others to join them in their sins and enslavement to corruption.
Don't forget Jude
Penultimately, we have a brief statement in the book of Jude which is often tied back to the arguments against homosexuality. Unlike every other description of the sins of Sodom, this passage brings up sexual immorality and "pursuing unnatural lust" as translated by the NRSV. This line is more literally translated "went after strange flesh", which the NRSV states in a footnote. Here's how Young's Literal puts it:
What is "strange" or "other" flesh? The Greek word translated here is heteros (ἕτερος 2087), and means "other/another (of a pair), or different" according to Wiktionary. It may look somewhat familiar, as it is one of the two root words we find in the modern term "heterosexual". Obviously, whatever this passage is about, it doesn't seem like it could be describing homosexual lust.
Most commentators I've read (this article has a variety of them) connect this description, in context of the surrounding verses, with the fact that the men of Sodom were trying to rape angels!
There's an interesting parallel in Genesis 6. The "sons of God" reference there is traditionally understood, especially in Jewish tradition, to be describing angels who are mating with human women. This is followed immediately by the condemnation from God that leads to the flood. And here we have the reverse – men attempting to rape angels, which results in divine judgement as well.
I'm not sure what lesson we should be receiving today from Jude. Certainly he seems troubled about bad teaching and behavior in the church. I wonder if there is some form of cultic angel worship, including sexual practices, that could have been introduced by some members? After all, the author of Hebrews also spends a good deal of time on the subject of angels as well, making it clear that Christ is over all, is not an angel, and we are not to consider angels as higher than ourselves either. I doubt we'll ever know that one for certain, but it is interesting to consider.
Revelation has the last word
In Revelation, John refers to Jerusalem as "symbolically" Sodom and Egypt – places that seem to stand for those who reject God's messengers just as it happens in this passage. The two witnesses are killed with the support of many people, before being raised by God.
Summary of references back to the city of Sodom
Well, those are all the direct references to the city of Sodom in the Bible that I could find. We definitely see Sodom clearly painted as a striking example of sin and the judgment that results. However, the specific offenses that are often listed do not seem to have anything directly to do with homosexual actions. Inhospitality is key, as well as pride, greed and oppression, and rejection of God's truth.
We have just one more reflection before wrapping up this first verse study and moving on to Leviticus.
Gender and Domination in Ancient Cultures, and Today
Let's set the homosexual practice question aside for one moment and see what else we can learn from our study in this section, about the culture and world-views of those who lived thousands of years ago.
How we treat foreigners and strangers matters to God
The identification with the stranger and the oppressed is important to God, and important for us as God-followers. Israel had a very special reason to pay close attention to the marginalized, the poor, and the alien: because God came for them and cared for them when they were in the same place in Egypt. We can also see from the prophets that the nation of Israel often forgot this part of the heart of God. At times they paid careful attention to purity laws and religious rituals, but were condemned for missing the important part (Micah chapter 6).
As Christians, we claim that God is most clearly seen through Jesus of Nazareth. As John records in the 14th chapter of his gospel, Jesus tells his disciples "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father...Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves." He was always on the side of the victims, the marginalized, and the oppressed. He even became one of them in the end. We'll cover this further after completing the initial verse study.
How are women valued?
A modern Western culture that grew up with foundational myths of medieval chivalry can't quite grasp the mindset that would have a father putting the protection of male guests (total strangers) over his own daughters. Lot uses his daughters to try to protect his guests, suggesting that they be raped instead of the men. The same thing happens with the Levite's host, and then the Levite himself personally forces his own wife to take his place during the gang rape in Gibeah.
I have not researched these eras enough to know how to represent the overall perspective toward women accurately. However, it is clear that the men in many cultures did (and do) place women on a different level even if they treated them well on average. In this case, some say that part of the reason the hosts were willing to give up daughters (and the Levite his concubine) was because they believed the women were naturally to be used passively by men, but that a man who is used passively by other men is "reduced" to the level of a women.
SexUal Practices used for shaming and domination
Rape has a long history of being used to demonstrate power and dominate the other, in addition to motives from sexual immorality and lust. The rapist often is asserting their control over the victim, and the victim recognizes the implicit message of inequality and violent subordination.
Forced sex can happen in prison, war, criminal acts, dating environments, and even in marriage, when the dominant participant overrides the will of the subordinate, of any sex. In ancient times, males raping males could also be seen as a sign of treating the victim as female, which would be considered a great loss of status in these generally misogynistic and patriarchal societies. This could partially explain why Lot and the host in Gibeah were so willing to give up their daughters (who were "intended for this use") to save the male guests from the ultimate humiliation of being treated as women sexually.
Even more disturbing is to realize that this is not over today. There are many sources that paint a picture of male rape used in war and political domination to shame and humiliate others.
- "Powerful myths silence male victims of rape in war" – by Katie Nguyen at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Trust.org (2014)
- "From the DRC to Bosnia, the raping of men is being used as a weapon to destroy ‘enemies’ and weaken opposition, with devastating results" – by Graeme Green at CuriousAnimal.com (2014)
- "The rape of men: the darkest secret of war" – by Will Storr at TheGuardian.com (2011)
- "Inside Story: When man rapes man: Victims daren't report it, the law won't recognize it, the public can't understand it: but gradually the taboos around male rape are breaking down, reports Simon Garfield" – by Simon Garfield at the Independent.co.uk (1992)
Sodomy as a specific sexual act
Finally, it has been generally recognized that the word "sodomy", sourced from this Biblical story accurately or not, is most often popularly understood to refer to a specific sexual act otherwise known as anal intercourse. I won't say much here about that other than to say this is not exclusively a homosexual practice. Research seems to show that approximately 30% of heterosexual partners engage in this behavior, and that it is generally not the most popular form of sex within a homosexual male relationship (some say the percentage is similar to heterosexuals).
This is simply to point out that this assumption that we're exclusively talking about one specific kind of sexual act is not accurate.
Conclusion and Summary
To sum this up briefly, it's hard for me to see a direct link between homosexual practice in general and the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. We can certainly learn a lot about behaviors that are not acceptable to God though – rape, violence to strangers, inhospitality, pride, refusal to listen, and oppression of the poor because of greed.
Of course, there are more passages to come that are more strongly linked today to condemnation of homosexuality. The reasons I believed this one was worth discussing in detail are as follows:
- The terms "sodomy" and "sodomite" are directly related to the story of Sodom. The NRSV (among other Bible versions) translates a Greek word in 1 Corinthians using this English term because of a general understanding that male-with-male sex is the main thing condemned in this story. Even before we look at that passage, what if "sodomy" in a sexual sense could be understood more generally as "dominating rape" regardless of the genders involved? I think we'd all be happy to continue condemning that kind of behavior!
- These stories also give us a glimpse of how men and women were viewed in ancient cultures. The devaluing of women in favor of men is quite disturbing, and may help us understand some later passages as well.
If you're still with me, let's move on to a passage in the Law that is much more clearly describing and condemning a form of homosexual behavior.