Sodom’s Sin: What Does the Bible Actually Say?

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Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 13

By Reta Halteman Finger

Lot's Wife - photo by Robert Hoetinkf
Lot’s Wife – photo by Robert Hoetinkf

Besides the Leviticus texts from our last lesson, Genesis 19:1-16 is the only other Old Testament text commonly associated with a condemnation of homosexuality. The city of Sodom is destroyed the day after local men try to rape the angels who are visiting Abram’s nephew, Lot. There is also a parallel in Judges 19:1-30. Again, a male mob, this time from the Israelite town of Gibeah, want to rape a stranger. Instead they settle for his wife, whom they abuse all night long until she dies. In what follows, I will explain the real reason for the rape (in Judges 19) and the attempted rape (in Genesis 19).  And I’ll demonstrate how any reader with a Bible and a good concordance can find out why Sodom was destroyed and why the biblical authors use Sodom and Gomorrah as a symbol of God’s power to destroy wicked people.

But first, the myth that this passage is intended to show God’s condemnation of homosexuality:

An example of misinterpretation

A friend recently gave me a printout from the EndTime Ministries website called “Amazing Prophetic Fulfillments of 2015.” Second on the list was the Supreme Court decision that “laws against sodomy and same-sex marriage are now unconstitutional.” How was this fulfilled prophecy?  Because “the scriptures state that societal conditions in the end time will be as they were in the days of Sodom.”

Of the many misguided aspects of this interpretation, one thing is clear:  despite what the scriptures say, a long-held tradition assumes that the city of Sodom was destroyed because its citizens practiced male-on-male sex. The scriptures, however, never say this.

What the stories actually say

In Genesis 18:1-15, God appears to Abraham in the form of three men to promise him that he and Sarah will have a child of their own. Then the other two men (angels in disguise) set out for Sodom, while God stays behind to tell Abe what “he” (this is a patriarchal culture) plans to do to Sodom because they are not practicing “righteousness and justice” (18:19) as Abe is. In fact, the “outcry” against Sodom (18:20-21) is very great. (We learn specifics from Ezekiel 16:49: pride, the people’s self-centeredness and refusal to share their prosperity, and a failure to aid the poor and needy in spite of the excess of food that the wealthy enjoyed.) But Abe barters with God to save Sodom, if there are 50, then 40, 30, 20, or even just 10 righteous people there. God, not liking collateral damage, agrees.

The two angels arrive at Sodom’s gate, and Lot invites them in for supper and the night. But news travels fast, and all the men of Sodom surround the house and beg Lot to bring them out “so that we may know them,” which must mean rape (Genesis 19:4-5). The two men are unknown to the inhabitants of Sodom; thus they pose a threat, according to the customs of this ancient society. Every night the city gates are closed (19:1), and no stranger without adequate clan protection may stay inside the city. Lot himself is a marginal “alien” (19:9).

Men valued over women

Lot parries, instead offering his two virgin daughters to the mob. In this culture, the rape of a virgin daughter dishonors her father, but Lot’s action shows that direct dishonor to males is worse. Fortunately, these angelic men strike the men of Sodom with blindness, so “they were unable to find the door” (19:11).

In the morning, the angels persuade Lot and his family to leave to escape God’s destruction of Sodom.  Then God rains sulfur and fire from heaven (19:24)—probably a volcanic eruption—and Sodom is destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

Judges 19 follows the same pattern. An Israelite priest and his wife/concubine travel from Bethlehem to their home in Ephraim and stop to spend the night in Gibeah, home of the tribe of Benjamin. An old man and his virgin daughter take them in, whereupon the mob from the city pound on the door and beg to rape the priest (19:22)—a non-Benjaminite, again without clan or tribe protection. As in Sodom, the women are proposed as substitutes. The old man says, “Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.” So the priest thrusts his concubine outside, where she is raped and abused all night (19:24-25).

These parallel stories highlight the ancient custom of viewing any stranger not known by one’s clan as a threat needing to be subdued (See Jerry Sumney, The Bible: An Introduction, pp 69-71). Sadly, we see similar instincts in America today regarding Muslims, Latinos, and other groups who are considered to stand apart from the traditionally dominant culture. Threatening a stranger with rape to assert power has nothing in common with loving, committed gay or lesbian relationships.

Comments from later scriptures

Sodom and her sister city Gomorrah are mentioned 22 times in the Bible after their destruction, 13 in the Hebrew Bible and 9 in the New Testament. I looked up all of them in my NRSV Exhaustive Concordance. Most references, especially in the prophets, warn Israel or Judah that the same punishment will happen to them if they keep sinning. “Sin” is a general term, usually referring to or assuming idolatry or lacking pity on widows and orphans (e.g., Ezekiel 16:49). Jude 7 says Sodom and Gomorrah “pursued unnatural lust” (NRSV), but the Greek literally says, “went after other flesh,” meaning the angelic, non-human visitors. Over and over, these cities are named as symbols of utter destruction because they became salt and sulfur wastelands which were never rebuilt. A final reason is Sodom’s inhospitality. In Matthew 10:15 and Luke 10:12, Jesus sends his disciples into every town and village of Palestine to preach the gospel. The towns that do not receive them as guests will be worse off in the judgment than Sodom and Gomorrah. Not a single text refers to or condemns male-on-male sex.

And so, dear reader, that concludes our analysis of all Old Testament references used against LGBTQ people today. Slim pickings, indeed. Not a word about women’s sexuality. And three references (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; and Genesis 19:1-11) emphasizing how horrible it would be for any free male to lose honor by being raped or forced to take the woman’s passive role in this highly patriarchal ancient culture.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Why do you think the story of Sodom has been so easily misinterpreted?
  2. The Internet lists countless articles, blogposts, and videos in which the United States is called a “modern day Sodom and Gomorrah” by conservative Christians. Why? What is the reasoning behind such claims, and what would you say to someone who makes them?
  3. Think about the 22 further references to Sodom throughout the scriptures, and then ask yourself if there is any way in which our country may be guilty of the sins for which God judged the city of Sodom?
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Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I really appreciate your repeated citation of Ezekiel 16:49 to explain the sin of Sodom. I’ve felt for some time that that text has been too frequently ignored.

  2. Thank you so much, JoMae! It makes it worth the hours I put into writing and researching this stuff–as well as the time Letha Scanzoni takes to edit it!

    May the Spirit and rational thinking guide your church as you all deal with the issue of same-sex marriage,
    Reta Finger

  3. Thanks, Reta. Your insights are so valuable to me. I love your Reflections and learn from each one. It’s past time to let you know! My church is in the midst of grappling with same sex marriage.

    I’m also in a study on John and your series is a wonderful companion there too. The gift goes on! Thanks!

    Blessings,
    -JoMae

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