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The Sin(s) of Sodom

Genesis 18-19 recounts the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which God determined to destroy “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave” (Genesis 18.20). This verse makes it clear that these two cities were places of wickedness. The Bible doesn’t say much about Gomorrah specifically, but instead tends to focus on Sodom (cf. Genesis 13.12-13), probably because that was where Abraham’s nephew Lot decided to live with his family.

It may surprise you to learn that in recent years, the destruction of Sodom has become somewhat controversial because of its relation (or not) to the issue of homosexuality. In light of this, it is a worthwhile question to ask, “For what sin was the city of Sodom destroyed?”

The Traditional View

Under the traditional interpretation of the passage, the wickedness of Sodom is exemplified in the story of the two angels (who appeared as men) who came to visit Lot in Genesis 19. The men of the city of Sodom, both young and old, become aware of these visitors, surround Lot’s house, and demand that he send the visitors out to them so that they may have sex with them.

Lot tries to dissuade the men of Sodom from this course of action, instead offering his own virgin daughters to satisfy their carnal lusts, and ultimately the angels intercede, striking the men with blindness and then telling Lot and his family to evacuate the city before its imminent destruction.

In this understanding, the sin of Sodom was homosexual activity. This is the origin of the word sodomy, a word which isn’t used much anymore but is still used in legal codes in some countries.

The Revisionist View

In more recent times, as homosexual practice has become more widespread and there has been a push for the normalization of homosexuality as a lifestyle, there has been a corresponding effort in some circles to reinterpret portions of Scripture which apparently condemn it. Genesis 18-19 and the sin of Sodom is a prime example of this sort of revisionist interpretation.

Through this lens, it has been suggested that the sin for which Sodom was destroyed was a lack of hospitality. The angels visited the city intending to stay in the town square (Genesis 19.2). Instead, Lot invited them to stay in his house, but the men of the city prevented Lot’s efforts at hospitality and tried to rape the angelic visitors instead. Essentially, the men of Sodom violated sacred cultural values by being terrible hosts, and thus, deserved destruction.

Examining the Views

To interpret Scripture carefully and correctly, it is important to pay attention to context, and using this text as a test case, there are multiple types of context which need to be considered: the canonical context provided by the rest of Scripture, the material in surrounding chapters,  and the historical and cultural context of the incident in question:

  • The canonical context reveals that in several places in Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments, the practice of homosexuality is condemned as sin. The story clearly reveals that the men of Sodom intend to commit this sin, and Lot’s insistence that the angelic visitors not stay in the public square perhaps suggests that this was habitual behavior on the part of his neighbors. It really does take an impressive display of interpretative gymnastics to argue that homosexuality was not at least part of the wickedness of Sodom for which it was condemned.
  • The context of the surrounding chapters as well as the historical and cultural context should cause us to pause before dismissing the lack-of-hospitality view as nonsense. We live in a society where people eat at restaurants and stay in hotels when they travel, and the concept of hospitality has been significantly minimized. In the Ancient Near East, however, the practice of hospitality was a major moral value. It was a significant part of the Law of Moses as well, as the Israelites were commanded to care for sojourners/travelers since they themselves had been sojourners in the Land of Egypt. In the immediate context, the hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18.1-8) and of Lot (Genesis 19.1-3) to the angels is placed in sharp contrast to the inhospitality of the men of Sodom. That the travelers were not safe to stay in the city square, or even in the home of Lot, is an indictment against the entire city, and this sinful violation of a major cultural value was also part of the wickedness which led to Sodom’s destruction.

Removing the Safety of the Story

I think this case provides a good example of the problem that arises when we force either/or conclusions on a text that does not require them. Certainly there are texts with multiple possible but mutually exclusive interpretations where only one can be correct, but this is not one of them.

Rather than speaking of the sin of Sodom, it would be more precise to speak of the sins of Sodom, because based on the limited biblical information we have, there were many:

  • Homosexuality (the Traditional View)
  • Inhospitality (the Revisionist View)
  • Violence (trying to break into Lot’s house by force)
  • Rape (or at least attempted rape, but again, based on Lot’s behavior, this seems like repeated behavior)
  • Pride, Gluttony, and Neglect of the Poor and Needy (Ezekiel 16.49-50)

In other words, if you were taking a multiple choice quiz about the sins of Sodom, the answer would be “E. All of the Above”. It was a wicked place. No wonder God said that the outcry against it was very great.

To conclude, I think it is appropriate to look at the story of the destruction of Sodom and in it see the condemnation of the practice of homosexuality, but it is inappropriate to use it as proof that homosexuality brings out a particular or special form of judgment from God. Instead, the message of the story of Sodom is straightforward: Eventually, God will bring judgment on sin.

And so here is my point: a lot of times I think we look at the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as a story of judgment against “them”—wicked people who commit sins that, perhaps, are far removed from our own experiences. That makes it a “safe” story. But if we are honest with the full context, I think it requires that we look at our own lives a little more carefully.

In the context of our churches and our families, we may not be engaged in homosexuality or rape or violence, but what about the sins of inhospitality, pride, gluttony, and neglect of the poor? Are we equally innocent of these? Suddenly, the story cuts a little closer to home. It’s not as “safe” anymore. Because as the story of the Sin(s) of Sodom shows us, they all bring judgment from God.

2 Comments

  1. Alicia C Simpson

    July 20, 2018 at 11:07 AM

    The one text most often used (incorrectly) to ‘prove’ God condemns homosexuality is Genesis 19:1-11, The Story of Lot and the Two Angels.

    The problem is, when interpreted/translated properly, taking the sociocultural context of the day into account. Genesis 19 NEVER actually mentions sex, never mind homosexuality.

    =============================================
    It is truly sad. People have been so indoctrinated that the verb “to know” in the Bible refers to having sexual relations with that they are unable to correctly interpret Genesis 19:1-11.

    Sex is not actually EVER mentioned in the text, it is only our indoctrination (yes brainwashing) that causes us to see it.

    Proper interpretation/translation of Genesis 19:1-11

    =============================================
    The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.”

    They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.

    But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may make their acquaintance.”

    Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who are quite valuable because they have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do with them what seems right to you; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.”

    Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.
    —Genesis 19:1-11

    =============================================
    The verb ‘to know’ in this instance does NOT refer to sex. No human being wanting to get someone to come out of a protected area is going to say they want to hurt the person. This is contrary to normal human behavior.

    Secondly, the text says ALL adult males of Sodom came out, well based on what we know of the city’s size, that would be between 250 and 550 men. Clearly the majority of them did not come out thinking they were going to get to have sex with someone.

    Third, Lot’s offering his daughters was a financial bribe to get the men to leave his guests alone, he was NOT offering them for sex. Actually, sex is the very last thing he would expect the men of Sodom to do with his daughters.

    The false teaching here is so deeply ingrained that people keep trying to justify and explain the false teaching while ignoring the truth.

    =============================================
    Then, of course, there is what God told Ezekiel.

    “As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.”
    —Ezekiel 16:48–50

    =============================================

    Alternate:
    =============================================
    It becomes much more clear the sin of Sodom when Genesis is translated correctly:

    Proper interpretation/translation of Genesis 19:1-11

    =============================================
    The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.”

    They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.

    But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may make their acquaintance.”

    Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who are quite valuable because they have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do with them what seems right to you; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.”

    Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.
    —Genesis 19:1-11
    =============================================

    Please note that the word typically translated as “know” is more correctly translated as “make their acquaintance”. Further, Lot did not say “o to them as you please” but “do with them what seems right to you”.

    I cannot fathom why Genesis has been so corrupted in this way, but we do need to set the record straight.

  2. Luke

    July 20, 2018 at 12:01 PM

    Alicia,

    Thanks for the comment!

    You seem to have two main arguments in your comment: (1) Genesis 19 is not primarily a story about the sin of homosexuality, and (2) Sexual activity, let alone homosexual activity, is not a part of the Genesis 19 story at all.

    I agree with the first point. It was actually the point of this post (did you read the post? From your comment I honestly cannot tell.). Sodom is condemned for sinfulness, and is guilty of many. The practice of homosexuality is one of those, but not the only one. I do not believe that Genesis 19 should be the primary destination for establishing a case against the practice of homosexuality. There are many other places in Scripture to do that.

    I disagree with the second point. Your main argument is that the Hebrew word used here is improperly translated/interpreted. I do not mean this to sound condescending in any way, as I do not know you, but do you actually know Hebrew? Many words have a wide semantic range, and the Hebrew word yada (יָדַע) is one of these. It means different things in different context. “To have sexual intercourse” is not the primary meaning of the word, but it may be the most appropriate (or even obvious) meaning of the word depending on the context. In the context of Genesis 19, translating yada as a reference to sexual intercourse seems most appropriate:

    (1) This reflects the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation.
    (2) Your suggested translation of “make their acquaintance” makes no sense from the literary, socio-historical, or theological context. Why would the people of the city wanting to “make the acquaintance” of visitors (and, thus, further show hospitality) be regarded as a great evil?

    Having said that, if you would like to share with me a scholarly, peer-reviewed article from a Hebrew linguist (whether you or someone else) that dives into the Hebrew text and argues for “make the acquaintance” as the preferred translation here, I will be happy to consider it.

    Again, thanks for the comment; blessings to you.

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