The Sins of Sodom

1 Jun

I suspect that were I to ask you what the sin of Sodom was, most of you would reply homosexuality.  However, that answer would be biblically incorrect.  Let me try to explain why.

Like most of you, I have heard sermons about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) – but oddly, I cannot recall ever hearing one about the parallel story of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19) – in which the preacher gives homosexuality as the reason for the cities’ destruction.  Yet such an interpretation ignores the context of the narrative and multiple other references in scripture, which we will examine later.  

But let us start with context.  There is a reason why the destruction of Sodom is in chapter 19, other than Abraham’s pleading for the city (so as to save his nephew Lot?), and that reason is to contrast the behaviour expected from the righteous with the evil of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is a technique commonly used in the Bible.

In Genesis 18 we read about how Abraham welcomed three strangers:

2Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favour in your eyes, my lord,[a] do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs[b] of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.”  (Genesis 18:2-8).

But when we look at how the two angels, who had been entertained by Abraham, were received in Sodom, it was left to a foreigner (Lot) to show them the hospitality that was expected.  The men of Sodom were clearly less than happy that this outsider had given shelter to strangers and, thus, we read:

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.’ Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”  (Genesis 19:4-8)

Even though the offer by Lot of his virgin daughters suggests a sexual motive, the earliest Jewish commentators make no mention of homosexuality. According to the Talmud, the sin of the Sodomites was inhospitality.  But, as we shall see later, that was not their only sin.

The Talmud teaches that where there are two similar verses or parallel stories each should be used to interpret the other.  And in the case of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we have a remarkably similar story, that of the Levite’s Concubine, in Judges Chapter 19.  For those of you unfamiliar with the story, let me give a brief summary. 

A stranger – a Levite – who has deliberately avoided staying in a Gentile town for fear of abuse, is given lodging by an elderly man who, though not a Benjaminite, is living in the town of Gibeah of Benjamin.  The men of the town come and demand that the visitor is turned over to them for sexual abuse and are offered the host’s virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine, the latter whom they abuse all night causing her death.  

Despite the similarities, I have been unable to find any commentary suggesting that the reason for the outrage perpetuated at Gibeah was due to homosexuality.  According to the Talmud, their sins were twofold: the first, as in Sodom, was inhospitality; the second was defiling the marriage bed, which made them adulterers. 

Of course, there are some fundamental differences between the stories. 

First, in the case of Sodom (which was not of the Covenant people anyway), the Law had not yet been given, so appealing to passages such as Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13 would be anachronistic, whereas, they most certainly applied to the men of Gibeah of Benjamin, as did Leviticus 20:10 which sets out the penalty for adultery.  However, Gibeah was not destroyed as Sodom was, although surely they, as part of God’s chosen people under the Law, were more culpable.

Second, God had already decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, long before the men of Sodom had their encounter with the visiting angels (Genesis 18:17), whereas it was an outraged Israel which demanded that the men from Gibeah be “put to death, and purge the evil from Israel” (Judges 20:13) in fulfilment of the Law of Moses.  The Benjaminites refusal to comply with the request that the malfeasants be handed over led to their near annihilation by the other tribes who had only decided to seek God’s will just before going into battle (Judges 20:18).  

But did these two crimes really arise from homosexual desire and practice? 

In the first case, it is usually assumed that the answer is ‘yes’, even though the intended gang rape did not actually take place and it is unknown whether the men of Sodom would have been satisfied with Lot’s daughters, in the way the men of Gibeah were with the Levite’s concubine, as the angels made them blind.  Furthermore, it does seem implausible that true homosexuals would be satisfied by the offer of a woman (in Gibeah) or women (in Sodom).
What is clear is that interpreting the sin of Sodom to be homosexual lust relies on reading more into the text than is actually there.

So what was going on? 

For many modern readers, sexual sins are deemed much more important in our culture than a lack of hospitality, something which, to the modern mind doesn’t warrant total destruction, not the way that homosexuality does.  But such a stance ignores the historical-cultural context of the passages.  While inhospitality is pretty unimportant in 21st century Western culture, it was immensely important in the time of Abraham and the Judges, and well beyond.  God specifically commands the Israelites not to “wrong or oppress a resident alien” (Exodus 22:21) and to “love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

Let me, if I may, draw a parallel to these two Bible stories from recent history. 

During the Bosnian Conflict of the 1990s, many imprisoned Bosnian Muslim men (and women) were raped by their Serbian captors.  Was this erotic behaviour because the Serbian army was full of homosexuals?  Or maybe because the soldiers had been deprived of sex for many months?  Or was it quite simply gang rape?  If it was the last, rape, whether of men or women, is less about sexual gratification than about dominating and humiliating the victim.  And that, I suggest, was intention of the evil men in both Sodom and Gibeah.  The more usual interpretation requires that the percentage of homosexuals in the population of Sodom (and Gibeah) was far greater than it is in our own day, which is, to say the least, improbable.

So, now let us turn to the rest of Scripture to see how the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is portrayed. 

Though Sodom and Gomorrah are frequently mentioned by the prophets, nowhere do they associate the cities with homosexuality. 

Isaiah uses Sodom as a metaphor for Israel and their shameless sinning (Isaiah 1:9-10; 3:9) and as a warning of destruction for Babylon (Isaiah 13: 19-22).  Amos, echoing Isaiah, tells Israel that, despite overthrowing some of them like Sodom, they had not repented (Amos 4:11).

Jeremiah associates Sodom with adultery and lies (Jeremiah 23:14) and the destruction of Edom and Babylon (Jeremiah 49:17-18; 50:39-40).  Zephaniah uses similar comparisons for the destruction of Moab and the Ammonites (Zephaniah 2:9).

Ezekiel compares Jerusalem to Sodom saying,

48 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done.

49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16:48-50). 

If verse 49 details the true sin of Sodom, it should surely strike fear in the hearts of many of our politicians and wealth creators, who, all too often, are arrogantly indifferent to the poor and needy.  How much more comfortable it is to reduce the sin of Sodom to the minority of the population who are homosexual rather than confront our own failings!

Now, some have argued that the “detestable things” in verse 50 must refer to homosexuality because the Hebrew word used, ‘עשׂה (toebah), is the same as is used to describe homosexual sex in Leviticus 18:22 and, therefore, that must be the sin of Sodom.  However, their case would be much more convincing if the word ‘toebah’ (which usually has a ritual connotation) had been used in Genesis 18-19 or Judges 19-20, which, of course, it is not.   This begs the question, “How common is the word ‘toebah’ in the Bible?” 

If one looks at where and when the word ‘toebah’ is used in the Old Testament (it isn’t used in the New Testament), one finds that it occurs 112 times, of which 42 are in the book of Ezekiel, who used it 8 times alone in chapter 16 (verses 2, 22 , 36, 43, 47, 50, 51 and 58). Thus, by lifting verse 50 from the wider context of the rest of the chapter, so as to link it to homosexual sin on the basis of a single word (toebah), they ignore that which does not suit their agenda, namely that all the other references to ‘toebah’ in the chapter are to do with Jerusalem’s ritual idolatry and spiritual adultery.  In verse 50, it is clear that it refers back to “they did not help the poor and needy” in the previous verse, which was contrary to God’s clear command (eg Exodus 22:21-23; Exodus 23:6; Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 15:11) and a recurrent theme in the psalms and the prophets (eg Psalm 72:12-13; Psalm 82:3-4; Isaiah 58:6-7; Jeremiah 22:16; Ezekiel 22:29; Amos 8:4).

Turning to the New Testament, we see that, with the possible exception of one verse, it is not homosexuality that Sodom is condemned for.

Jesus is only recorded as referring to Sodom three times.  First, for those who are inhospitable to the twelve disciples (Matthew 10:14-15) or the 72 (Luke 10:10-12) whom Jesus has sent out ahead of him; second for Jewish cities that are impenitent (Matthew 11:20-24); and, third, in describing the end times (Luke 17:28-30).

When Peter describes the fate of false prophets, rather than focusing on the sin of Sodom, he emphasises the rescue of Lot – whom he calls a righteous man (2Peter 2:7-8) – which he sees as evidence of God’s protection and justice for the godly (2 Peter 2:9).

That leaves just one verse, Jude 7, which could possibly be interpreted as referring to homosexual lust.  However, such an interpretation, which relies on a superficial reading, becomes far from obvious when subjected to serious scrutiny.

First, interpreting the verse as a reference to homosexual lust relies on a circular argument.  The reason given for interpreting it this way is that homosexuality was the sin of Sodom and the sin of Sodom was homosexuality because that is what Jude says in verse 7 (often with the supposed support of Ezekiel 16:50, which, as we have seen, says nothing of the sort).  Such circularity in the argument obviously renders it deeply flawed.

Second, when we turn to the original Greek, we find that Jude did not use the common word for homosexual, ἀρσενοκοῖται  (arsenokoitai) which was used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:10 and 1 Timothy 1:10.  Surely, had Jude meant homosexual, he would have clearly said so.  Instead the phrase used in verse 7 is ἀπελθοῦσαι ὀπίσω σαρκὸς ἑτέρας (apelthousai opisō sarkos heteras) – literally “having gone beyond the different flesh” – which is not nearly as clear as the translation “pursued unnatural lust” suggests.  In fact, the Greek word heteras, which comes from the same root as the “hetero” in heterosexual, only appears twice in the New Testament; here in Jude 7 and in Hebrews 7:13 and has the meaning of different or strange – the exact opposite of  the Greek word “homo” (same).

Third, interpreting the verse as referring to homosexual lust requires isolating it from the rest of the letter.  The fact that the verse begins with the words ὅμοιον  τρόπον (homoion tropon) “in like manner”, indicates a link to the preceding verse, which refers to the fate of fallen angels.  Similarly, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is linked to the following verse which begins with Ὁμοίως  (Homoiōs ) “Likewise” and returns us to the theme of the errors of false teachers and God’s judgement on them which began in verse 5.

Given Jude’s use of the Jewish apocrypha (verse 9), the juxtaposition of fallen angels with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a logical progression (and is similar to the verses in 2 Peter 2).  According to Genesis 6:1-4, “the sons of God”, a phrase which is only used in the Old Testament to describe angels, married human women and it was the evil committed by their offspring which led to the Flood (Genesis 7-8).   It is easy to see how Jude might understand Sodom as a reverse of Genesis 6, in which evil men lusted after good angels, even though their intentions were ultimately thwarted.

Thus, the most logical interpretation of Jude 7, when read in context and in parallel with 2 Peter 2, is his stress on the destruction of Sodom for its sexual immorality rather than homosexuality. 

Of course, none of what I have said rules out the possibility that homosexual lust was one, among many, of the sins committed by the Sodomites.   However, once the whole of the Bible is taken into account, it does discount homosexual lust being the principal sin for which the cities of the plain were destroyed.

So, to conclude, what are we to learn from these two passages of scripture?

Irrespective of what their sins were, the price paid by Sodom and Gomorrah was complete destruction, while the tribe of Benjamin suffered near annihilation rendering them the “smallest of the tribes of Israel” (1 Samuel 9:21).  For me, the most important lesson of both these stories is that God takes sin very seriously and so should we.

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