what was the sin of sodom

be that guyDisclaimer: This is not an article defending or condemning homosexuality or an article defending Sodom as an historical event. Instead, this is a scholarly attempt to understand what the author of Genesis 17-18 believed were the major categories of sin causing the destruction of Sodom. This article also explores the early Jewish and Christian mentality towards homosexuality. It is important not to let modern biases influence a recreation of early Judaeo-Christian theology.

There are claims which have to be taken seriously that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were not punished for being homosexual. An alternative understanding is that the cities used rape as a way to keep out foreigners. There is evidence for this in later Jewish sources as well as possible evidence in the original text. But this evidence is not compelling in light of the source material.

This claim (which diverts the attention of the reader to xenophobia rather than homosexuality, which seems to be the political goal of modern critics) is not warranted by the text and masks the fact that homosexuality was probably still a major cause of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the eyes of the writer. The primary account of this event is found in Genesis 19. We have to assume all later accounts are predicated on this particular retelling, and thus their understandings of the text are as valid as a modern reader’s. Yale professor Christine Hayes writes about Sodom:

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah has often been cited as a condemnation of homosexuality, the assumption being that the Sodomites were destroyed for homosexual intercourse with the divine visitors. The very terms sodomy and sodomize represent such an interpretation. But the idea that the fundamental sin of Sodom was its homosexual nature is not at all clear in the Hebrew Bible (it is suggested in later interpretations found in the Christian New Testament such as [Jude] 7 and 2 Peter 2: 6– 10 and subsequent texts). The Sodomites are guilty of gang rape, and the gender of the victims is hardly relevant. The Sodomites, like the generation of the flood, stand condemned by the “outcry” against them, a Hebrew term generally associated with the appeal of victims of violence, bloodshed, and oppressive injustice (Sarna, Genesis, 144– 146). The Sodomites’ violation of the unwritten desert law of hospitality to strangers, their violent desire to abuse the strangers they should have been sheltering, is evidently merely one instance of their violent brutality.

As Hayes points out: the text is unspecific about the primary outcry against Sodom. It could be violence, or rape, or general injustice. Hayes also points out that by the time of 1st century Judiasm that there is definite evidence that the popular understanding of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah revolved around punishment for homosexuality:

Jud 1:7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

2Pe 2:6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;
2Pe 2:7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked

The phrase “unnatural desire” might be the clearest wording indicating punishment for homosexuality. The idea is a sexual compulsion. Paul uses this wording to describe homosexuality:

Rom 1:26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature.
Rom 1:27 Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.

But within the source text, again, the specific charges are not listed. There is a general outcry. In Genesis 18, the story begins with God hearing an outcry from/about Sodom and Gomorrah.

Gen 18:20 Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave,
Gen 18:21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”

This is the reason that God is going to Sodom and Gomorrah. This is the reason God is planning to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. God has heard a litany of accusations against the city. The reader is to understand that the city is just entrenched in sin. There is not going to be “one category of sin” for which God will destroy the cities.

God sends delegates to see if the reports are true. They are tasked with surveying the city and verifying the rumors. It is interesting to note that the angels don’t ever seem to accomplish their survey. In the narrative of Genesis 19, they are quickly accosted once they enter the city and are violently extracted. We do not know if any or all of the rumors were verified. We also do not know if the violent confrontation served as general verification of unrelated rumors. In short, both Genesis 18 and 19 give the reader no solid “sins” for which Sodom and Gomorrah are being destroyed.

Back in Genesis 18, Abraham convinces God to spare the cities if even 10 righteous people can be found. God agrees and sends His messengers to survey the city. The angels enter Sodom:

Gen 19:1 Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground.
Gen 19:2 And he said, “Here now, my lords, please turn in to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise early and go on your way.” And they said, “No, but we will spend the night in the open square.”
Gen 19:3 But he insisted strongly; so they turned in to him and entered his house. Then he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.

The first thing that happens is that the angels meet Lot. Lot is a righteous man and will eventually be spared by God. This is probably who Abraham was trying to save in his negotiations with God (Lot was Abraham’s nephew). Lot senses danger for the angels, who Lot considers as foreigners. In Lot’s estimations, it would be dangerous for two men to spend the night in the town square. Lot invites them to his house to protect them:

Gen 19:4 Now before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, surrounded the house.
Gen 19:5 And they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them carnally.”

Word spreads that Lot has these strangers, and “both old and young” men surround the house demanding to rape the guests. The idea is that the entire town is complicit. They all want their turn with the strangers. Could this be because of xenophobia or because they all want fresh bodies to feed their sexual appetite?

Gen 19:6 So Lot went out to them through the doorway, shut the door behind him,
Gen 19:7 and said, “Please, my brethren, do not do so wickedly!
Gen 19:8 See now, I have two daughters who have not known a man; please, let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you wish; only do nothing to these men, since this is the reason they have come under the shadow of my roof.”

Lot confronts the mob. He offers them a substitute: his own daughters. Apparently Lot was under the impression that the mob wanted to satisfy their sexual appetites. Lot does not seem to be under the impression this is some sort of xenophobic action. His solution is to appease the mob with a diversion. But the mob is not satisfied. They become enraged at Lot because Lot continually judges them. They say that they will rape Lot as well (further adding evidence that their sexual desires were the major motivation for the confrontation) and then attempt to break through his door:

Gen 19:9 And they said, “Stand back!” Then they said, “This one came in to stay here, and he keeps acting as a judge; now we will deal worse with you than with them.” So they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near to break down the door.

The angels flashbang the mob:

Gen 19:11 And they struck the men who were at the doorway of the house with blindness, both small and great, so that they became weary trying to find the door.

Again, there is a sense that this event encouraged the entire city to show up. Both small and great are blinded. The mob is dazed and confused.

After this, the angels take Lot’s family to safety as the city is promptly destroyed:

Gen 19:24 Then the LORD rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the LORD out of the heavens.

So, the xenophobia account of this event does not seem to hold water. The only hint of xenophobia is the implicit understanding the angels were strangers. Lot does not argue in a fashion that counters xenophobia, but counters sexual proclivities. God seems to destroy Sodom after viewing this event and this event alone. In all probability, God ultimately destroys Sodom for the sin of militant homosexuality (perhaps if the crowd backed down or accepted Lot’s offer then the angels would have stayed to investigate the city longer). This sin proves the other host of complaints against Sodom.

Elsewhere, the Bible comments on Sodom’s sins:

Eze 16:49 Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.
Eze 16:50 And they were haughty and committed abomination before Me; therefore I took them away as I saw fit.

This passage has also been used to claim that Sodom was not destroyed for homosexuality. A couple notes about this passage in Ezekiel. First, Ezekiel is speaking to Israel. Ezekiel is insulting Israel by comparing Israel to Sodom. So even if Sodom was primarily destroyed for homosexuality, it would not behoove Ezekiel to make this point. Ezekiel wants to draw points of similarity between Israel and Sodom. Homosexuality would not be conducive to this comparison.

Ezekiel seems to leave an “out”. If anyone claims homosexuality was the primary reason for Sodom’s destruction, Ezekiel could claim it was part of his broad category of “abominations”. Homosexuality is called an abomination elsewhere in the Bible:

Lev 20:13 If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.

Unlike laws against mixed fabrics (Deu 22:11, Lev 19:19), the law against homosexuality actually held a criminal penalty (death). Interestingly enough, death was the punishment given to those in Sodom. Every other sin listed by Ezekiel (pride, gluttony, sloth, neglect of the poor) all do not accompany any penalties, only a general condemnation. Ezekiel claims Israel is worse than Sodom, which can be easily explained by Israel’s sacrificing their own children to false gods (Eze 16:36). Child sacrifice could easily outweigh homosexual acts in the mind of Ezekiel.

Second, the writers of the Bible often take care to use euphemisms when dealing with vulgar topics. Even within the Genesis 19 narrative, the people want to “know” the strangers. This is not a meet and greet, but a rape. Adam “knows” his wife and they conceive a child. In Leviticus 18, having sexual relations with someone is “uncovering” their nakedness and the nakedness of their spouse. Sleep is often used instead of death. The Bible is keen on euphemisms when talking about vulgar topics. There is no reason to think that “abomination” is not a stand-in for homosexual behavior or other sexual acts.

On a side note: It would be interesting if Sodom was both rich and lazy while harboring hatred of foreigners. Trade is the key to wealth. Societies that do not trade or who erect barriers to trade often stagnate and fail. If Sodom is rich, it maintains foreign relations.

There are some interpretations of the Genesis 19 which focus on the attempted rape. Rape also was a crime worthy of death (Deu 22:25), but it is a mistake to think that if the rape was not present then the city would have survived. Homosexuality, whenever it is addressed in the Bible, is condemned. In the New Testament, Paul writes a very clear description of homosexuality:

Rom 1:26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature.
Rom 1:27 Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.

And Paul caps this with a claim that these individuals are all worthy of death:

Rom 1:32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

This idea is carried forward into the apocryphal book, the Apocalypse of Peter:

31. And other men and women were being hurled down from a great cliff and reached the bottom, and again were driven by those who were set over them to climb up upon the cliff, and thence were hurled down again, and had no rest from this punishment: and these were they who defiled their bodies acting as women; and the women who were with them were those who lay with one another as a man with a woman.

Homosexuality was universally condemned in Judaism at the time of Jesus and before. This is apparent in many of the church fathers. Every time the subject is broached, it is condemned in the sharpest of terms.

Athenagoras writes:

For those who have set up a market for fornication and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure,–who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations, outraging all the noblest and comeliest bodies in all sorts of ways, so dishonouring the fair workmanship of God (for beauty on earth is not self-made, but sent hither by the hand and will of God),–these men, I say, revile us for the very things which they are conscious of themselves, and ascribe to their own gods, boasting of them as noble deeds, and worthy of the gods.

Tertullian writes:

I should suppose the coupling of two males to be a very shameful thing, or else the one must be a female, and so the male is discredited by the female.

Embedded in a long rant against homosexuality (which cannot be misinterpreted by apologists), Clement of Alexandria writes:

Such was predicted of old, and the result is notorious: the whole earth has now become full of fornication and wickedness. I admire the ancient legislators of the Romans: these detested effeminacy of conduct; and the giving of the body to feminine purposes, contrary to the law of nature, they judged worthy of the extremest penalty, according to the righteousness of the law.

With a long history of anti-homosexual positions taken throughout Judaism and ancient Christianity, one would be hard pressed to make a claim that the Bible supports homosexuality, embraces it, and that homosexuality was not a major factor in the destruction of Sodom. The mass of evidence flows counter to this.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
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