I, for one, believe that there needs to be room for us to thoughtfully, prayerfully, and conscientiously disagree with the Bible at times. If not, we would be obligated by our loyalty to the text to condone slavery, genocide, child sacrifice, the subjugation of women, and a host of other demonstrably immoral things. Let me say up front that I know that a couple parts of the Bible condemn homosexuality. But as someone who has tried to be a thoughtful, prayerful, conscientious Christian, I do not condemn homosexuality. I hope to promote greater love and respect for homosexuals, and I support the right of same-sex couples to marry, as much as I would defend all the civil rights of anyone else in this country.
Although I disagree with parts of the text, I do not feel any need to conceal or distort the meaning of any Bible passage. I can be honest about the Bible precisely because I have grown cautiously comfortable in my disagreements with it. It is only those who view the Bible as complete and inerrant who wish to conceal certain passages. They do not want to be confronted with its contradictions, or be put in a compromising situation where they might have to disagree with part of the Bible. I've accepted the contradictions. I can love the Bible for what it is, imperfections and all. By following Jesus' example, I can interpret the text in a way that is more consistent with my own personal experience of God's love.
And so, I give you the story of Sodom and Gomorrah without lipstick, blush, or concealer.
PART 1: The Sin of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis
First, we have to review the story of Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction as told in Genesis, chapters 18-19. Throughout this essay I will refer to this story as “the Genesis narrative,” to distinguish it from the interpretive comments made by the authors of subsequent books of the Bible. As we are dealing with a story of Jewish or Hebrew origins, I have decided to use The Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh (Bible) Translation, except when referring to the New Testament, or when I specify otherwise.
The first biblical reference to the Sin of Sodom is located in Genesis 18:20:
Then the Lord said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted according to the outcry that has reached me."
Significantly, there is no clear mention in this verse of what the specific sin (or sins) of Sodom and Gomorrah might be. However, Christina Hayes, a Yale professor of religion says the word translated "outcry" generally refers to the complaints of victims of some kind of oppression, cruelty, or neglect.
Now, I should point out, the fact that Sodom and Gomorrah’s impending destruction was announced before the incident I am about to mention suggests that the following incident was not necessarily the reason for Sodom and Gomorrah’s eventual doom. However, we will explore whether or not the following incident gives us clues about the nature of Sodom and Gomorrah’s sins in general.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah picks up again in chapter 19 where Lot (Abraham’s nephew and a resident of Sodom) entertains two angels in his home, at which point the men of Sodom try to sexually assault them. In verse one, "The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom." In verses two and three, Lot invites them over for dinner and convinces them to stay in his home rather than spending the night in the street. In v. 9 the Sodomites grumbled that Lot "came here as an alien, and already he acts as our ruler! Now we will deal worse with (Lot) than with (his visitors)." What are we to make of this entirely unprovoked, hostile reaction to Lot’s visitors? Did the men of Sodom think that Lot, a foreigner, was now plotting with other foreigners to overthrow them? One blogger noted:
That Lot meets them at the gate is significant. Though a resident alien, Lot is taking a turn guarding the walls. Sodom has been at war, and not surprisingly the inhabitants of the city are wary of visitors. The very night a non-native of the city is trusted to watch the gate (thus controlling traffic in and out), he lets two people that nobody knows into the city and what’s more behind closed doors for the night in his house! Certainly this raised some eyebrows and caused some suspicion. Soon the residents of Sodom — all the people, both young and old — have gathered outside of Lot’s house and are demanding that Lot bring the visitors out “that we may know them.”
We’ll get to the issue of attempted sexual abuse in a moment. First, what do these details reveal about the nature of the sin of Sodom? Were the men of Sodom in the habit of abusing foreign visitors and resident aliens? Are xenophobia and anti-immigrant/anti-foreigner prejudice the sin of Sodom? I think this is one valid meaning that can be gleaned from the story. I also think it is significant that without Lot's hospitality the men expected to spend the night on the street. The Jewish Study Bible notes that the Sodomites behavior was "a gross violation of the conventions of hospitality." Hospitality was an extremely important cultural value in the time and place in which this story is set. Of course, as we will see, their actions go way beyond just being inhospitable.
Did the Sodomites’ sins have a sexual component? From whence comes the gay-bashing interpretation of this story? Verses 4-8 tell us that before Lot and his guests could lie down for the night,
The men of Sodom, young and old - all the people to the last man - gathered about the house. And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may be intimate with them."
The word translated here as "be intimate with" is rendered in other translations as "know." Either translation is technically correct. And this leads to some confusion about the meaning of these verses. The blogger previously mentioned also addresses the issue of the Hebrew word’s ambiguity in a fairly balanced way:
The meaning of the Hebrew word yada’ (to know) has engendered much of the controversy behind this story. The word has a euphemistic meaning (to engage in coitus). Of 943 times yada’ is used in the Old Testament, only ten times is it used with a sexual connotation, and all of these are heterosexual coitus. Thus some have conjectured that the townspeople were merely asking to know the credentials and intentions of strangers in their city. On the other hand, when yada’ is used with a sexual meaning, a large number of those references occur within the book of Genesis. In fact, the word is used in a clearly euphemistic sense in Genesis 19:8, just three verses after the reference in question.
For me, the most plausible explanation is that they meant it in a sexual way, which I think becomes evident in the next verse. At this point, the Genesis narrative goes on to complicate an already confusing story, this time by displaying an incredible degree of moral duplicity:
Lot went out to them to the entrance, shut the door behind him, and said “I beg you my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof."
These words are just dumbfounding. Particularly so, I would think, for anyone with young daughters of their own. Unfortunately, the easiest way to interpret it – or perhaps I should say – the way that requires the least mental gymnastics (despite being emotionally disturbing), is that Lot thought it was preferable for the men of Sodom to engage in intercourse with his own daughters, rather than with his angelic male visitors. Whether he found the abuse of his guests more objectionable because they were male, or because they were angels, or because they were his guests (again, a severe violation of hospitality), it is not entirely clear. Should we take for granted that this morally ambiguous tale is God's way of communicating that Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality? Such an interpretation requires some major leaps.
Such a reading is unfounded for several reasons. First of all, the men of Sodom were not demanding a chance at consensual intercourse with Lot's visitors! They were talking about a humiliating, violent sexual encounter. If Lot’s angelic visitors were female, would we interpret this story as an assault on consensual heterosexual relationships? Of course not! And yet this wouldn’t be any more absurd than the way we have interpreted this story for centuries. Secondly, we don’t know if this is what he meant, but even if Lot was suggesting that it is worse to rape men than women, do we really accept Lot's morality; the man who would consent to his daughters’ gang rape? And the man who later allowed himself to get so drunk that he would impregnate his own daughters (v. 30-35)? Lot's morality in this story is not supposed to be emulated. He was not saved because of his morals, but rather, the narrator of the story tells us in verse 29, "God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval."
As a side, for some reason, 2 Peter 2: 7-8 refers to Lot as “a righteous man.” Perhaps contemporary Christian conversations about this story are thrown off track by this sanitization of Lot’s character. If Christians take for granted the description of Lot in 2 Peter, and they never look closely at the Genesis narrative, then they are likely to justify their own prejudices by pointing to Lot’s perceived homophobia. I have to disagree with this tendency. By describing Lot’s incest and his consent to his daughters’ gang rape, the Genesis narrative makes it abundantly clear that Lot is not providing a good moral example. Sadly, to some extent, many Christians have adopted Lot’s assumed morality. I warn that Lot’s hang-ups shouldn’t become our hang-ups.
What is the exact Sin of Sodom for which it had to be burned? We don’t quite know yet. Yes, we have some big clues, but the narrative in Genesis does not tell us explicitly. For one, despite the fundamentalist viewpoint, it does NOT say that they engaged in consensual homosexuality, or that there was a culture of tolerance for gays that resulted in their destruction.
What do we know? There was an "outcry" against them. We know they were guilty of inhospitality, violence, attempted gang rape, anti-foreigner prejudice, and so on. For more specific answers, we will have to look at later commentary within the Bible. To conclude my discussion of the actual Genesis narrative, and to introduce you to the ideas suggested by later biblical authors, I leave you with the words of Professor Hayes:
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah has often been cited as a biblical condemnation of homosexuality, as if the Sodomites were condemned to destruction because of homosexual behavior. In fact, the very terms "sodomy" and "sodomize" represent this interpretation. But the idea that the fundamental sin of Sodom was homosexual behavior is not present in the Hebrew Bible. It appears only in later documents… The Sodomites, like the generation of the Flood, stand condemned by the "outcry against them," a particular Hebrew word that's used to refer to outcry. It's a term that's generally associated with the appeal of victims of violent oppression, bloodshed, injustice. God hears this outcry of victims against the Sodomites. The Sodomites' violation of the unwritten desert law of hospitality to strangers, their violent desire to abuse and gang rape the strangers that they should have been sheltering. This is merely one instance of a pattern of violent brutality.