SODOM AND GOMMORAH:
WHAT IS THIS STORY ABOUT?
Robert J. Schneider
Distinguished Professor of General Studies
and Professor of Classical Languages (Emeritus)
Berea College, Berea, KY 40404
© January 7, 200l; revised February 28, 2002
The debate over the acceptance of homosexuality and homosexuals in American society has arisen again at Berea College in the context of discussion and debate on whether the College should add the phrase “sexual orientation” to its non-discrimination statement. Once again, people of faith who sincerely believe that homosexual behavior is sinful have referred to verses and stories in the Bible to support their beliefs. As is usually the case, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the 19th chapter of Genesis has been cited, and it has been argued that this story means that homosexuality is contrary to God’s laws and that retribution lies in store for those who practice a homosexual lifestyle. In the spirit of dialogue, I would like to share my further reflections on this topic. The argument which follows is a revised version of one I offered in April, 1996.
Before looking at the story, let me set out a distinction that is often not made but more often ignored in the current debate and polemic about this topic. By "homosexuality" I mean "a sexual orientation or attraction between persons of the same gender." By "homosexual acts or behavior" I mean "sexual acts of any kind between persons of the same gender."
Just how is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to be interpreted? Why does God bring fire down upon Sodom? Is the reason the one popularly given, that the people were guilty of homosexuality? To answer these questions, I should like to begin by noting how other biblical writers besides the author of this tale have used the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as a metaphor for what may happen to other peoples (Israel, Judah, Edom, Moab, etc.) or cities (Jerusalem, Babylon, Chorazin, Bethsaida, etc.) because of their wickedness. An examination of these other references turns up some significant facts. Of the eighteen passages outside of the story itself found in Old Testament writings, none refer to sexual immorality. To cite a few examples of those found among the words of the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah (1:1-17; 13:1-22) refers generally to evil and injustice; Jeremiah (23:9-15), to general moral and ethical laxity. Ezechiel (16:46-56) and Amos (chapter 4) condemn the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, more specifically, for neglecting the poor and needy.
And what of the New Testament? Of the nine explicit references or allusions to Sodom and Gomorrah found there, only two, Jude, v. 7, and 2 Peter 2: 4-10, refer to "sexual immorality" or "depraved lusts." 2 Peter alludes to or cites the Letter of Jude so often that many Bible scholars are convinced that the writer of 2 Peter had the Letter of Jude in front of him and used it for his own letter; and if you read the passage in 2 Peter carefully, the author seems to be drawing a comparison between, on the one hand, “the sons of God” (usually interpreted as angels) who came down to earth and mated with “the daughters of men” (Gen. 6:1-4), and on the other the men of Sodom who attempted to do sexual violence to the angel (divine) visitors whom Lot invited into his home. The comparison is that there was an unnatural mating, or attempt at a violent sexual act, between a divine being and a human being. The first acts lead ultimately to destruction by a flood, the second attempted act to destruction by fire. Possibly, the author of 2 Peter believed that Jude had the same meaning and interpretation of the Sodom story in mind.
Of the other seven New Testament references, four appear in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, two of them duplicates of the others. In one Jesus decries the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida (Matthew 11:20-24) and Capernaum (Luke 10:13-14) for failing to repent following his deeds of power; in his version Luke specifically compares Capernaum to Sodom. The other appears in the commissioning accounts, when Jesus sends out the twelve disciples (Matt. 10:14-15) and the seventy (Luke 10:10-12) to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. He tells them that if any town refuses to receive them in hospitality, they are to shake the dust off their feet and leave. It will be better for Sodom on the day of judgment than for these towns. In this apostolic tradition preserved in these two gospels Jesus seems to be comparing his disciples, as messengers of God’s good news, to God’s angel visitors to Sodom. It is clear that for Jesus the comparison here is with inhospitality, not homosexual behavior; and in fact, in the gospels, Jesus never refers to homosexuality or homosexual behavior. (The author of Hebrews also suggests that he understands the story of Sodom in this way; cf. Heb. 13:2: ”Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” [RSV])
I wonder if this use by Jesus of the metaphor of Sodom to refer to inhospitality toward his messengers may have confirmed the views of early Christian biblical scholars like Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-c. 254), who interpreted the "sin of Sodom" to be a sin against the law of hospitality, since it involved inhospitality toward God's messengers. Other early Christian scholars, like St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397), considered the sexual element secondary to the issue of hospitality in their commentary on the story, or, like John Cassian (360-435), omitted any reference to sexual matters altogether. (For an extended analysis of the early commentators, see John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, p. 96-98.) It appears that both biblical writers and early Christian commentators give little warrant for identifying the "sin of Sodom" as one of homosexual behavior.
Notice that in my comments below about the story of Sodom I do not use the word "homosexuality." That is because I think that the story of Sodom has nothing to do with homosexuality as defined above (a sexual orientation), though the story does relate partly to the desire for a sexual act with someone of the same gender. With respect to the latter, I should like to call attention to the fact that one can have a homosexual orientation and not be sexually active with persons of the same gender; and one can be heterosexual, yet engage in homosexual acts, as heterosexual men sometimes do. The distinction is important, I think, for this story, at least for the argument I am making below. There are three sexual elements in this story: (1) the demand of the men of Sodom that Lot turn the strangers over to them in order to use them sexually (19:4-6), (2) Lot's offer to turn his daughters over to the men for the same purpose (19:7-9), and (3) Lot's daughters committing incest with their father, whom they made drunk, out of a mistaken belief that this was necessary to perpetuate the human race (19:30-38). There is a lot about sex in this story, and all of it raises disturbing moral questions. Setting aside points 2 and 3, I would argue that point 1, the desire of the men of Sodom to sexually use the strangers, should be judged by anyone as evil not because it would have constituted a homosexual act per se, but because it would have constituted an act of rape, a heinous form of inhospitality. It would not have been an act between consenting males who have a sexual attraction to one another. It would have been an act of violence upon persons against their will: the kind of violent anal intercourse that men commit against men in prisons and concentration camps, an act committed by men who are usually heterosexual and often perpetrated against other men who are handsome and/or perceived as effeminate or gay, whether they happen to be homosexual or heterosexual. Think of the example in the film "The Shawshank Redemption," or of the horrible acts of rape committed against men by their male captors in concentration camps in Bosnia. When Lot says to the men of Sodom, "Do not do this wicked thing," some have assumed that the "wicked thing" Lot refers to is the sexual act per se. But why? Why not assume that the "wicked thing" Lot has in mind is the violation of the law of hospitality? especially since right after Lot says this, he offers the men of Sodom his own daughters for sexual purposes in place of his guests in order to protect them. Would he have done that if he thought the men were "homosexuals"? (The logic of the argument that the men of Sodom are homosexuals is this: "The men wanted to have sex with the male strangers. Therefore, they are homosexuals." The unstated but assumed major premise is "Only homosexuals have sex with persons of the same sex." But the premise is wrong, and so is the logic of the argument.) Why did the biblical storyteller say that all of the men of Sodom, young and old alike, were involved? It would be ridiculous to think that all were homosexual. Was it not to indict them all for inhospitality? and does not that detail hark one back to the dialogue between God and Abraham in the preceding chapter, over whether God would punish the whole community for the sins of a few? (Gen. 18:16-33)
Why was the law of hospitality so important in the ancient world and its violation a sin against the divine? Because in ancient societies, once you traveled beyond the borders of your city or tribal territory you were no longer under the protection of your tribe or people and were a stranger or outsider, subject to the arbitrary power and potential harm of another tribe or people. One could only be safe if the people understood that their own god put the stranger under his protection, and so honored this as a sacred obligation, the violation of which would incur divine punishment. In ancient Greece and Rome, for example, Zeus (Jupiter), the chief divinity, was the guarantor of the right of hospitality strangers should enjoy, and Hermes (Mercury) was the patron of travelers. There is a story much like the story of Sodom in this tradition, told in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book XX, from the territory of Phrygia in Asia Minor (in what is now Turkey). Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as humans, visit Phrygia. They are denied hospitality by all of the households in the territory except that of Baucis and Philemon. This pious couple are rewarded by the gods, who destroy the rest of the people in a flood (instead of by fire). (There is a charming aftermath to this tale recorded in Acts 14:8-18. When Paul and Barnabas enter the city of Lystra in Lycaonia, near Phrygia, to preach the gospel, the citizens mistake them for Hermes and Zeus -- and, boy, are they hospitable!) In ancient Hebrew society Yahweh the God of Israel is the guarantor of the "stranger within the gate," for in the Law of Moses the Israelites are told to treat the alien as one of themselves (Lev. 19:33; cf. Exod. 22:20). One needs to realize the importance of this sacred injunction in the Torah in order to appreciate the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
While I think that the main message of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is the consequences of violating the law of hospitality, I do not consider the sexual element as inconsequential -- far from it, for this story is a complex one that raises a number of issues of interpretation, and it seems to me a mistake to insist that it means only this or that, or to overlook its complexity and subtlety. Hospitality and sexuality are those issues that have provoked most comment and debate over the interpretation of this passage, but the second raises a point ignored in our contemporary polemic over male homosexuality. As my wife Dr. Maria Lichtmann, herself a teacher of Old Testament literature, pointed out to me, most biblical commentators have nothing to say about Lot's behavior towards his daughters, if they call attention to it at all. If the inhospitality of the men of Sodom involved the desire to sexually use (i.e., abuse) the strangers under Lot's protection, what do we say about Lot, who was willing to turn his daughters over to these same men for the same purpose? If there was silence regarding Lot's attitude toward his daughters among early Jewish and Christian commentators, what does that say about their attitudes toward women and women's place in the family and society? What do we moderns think of Lot's attitude, and what are we prepared to say about it? The story also needs to be considered, along with others in those early chapters of Genesis, as elements in the Israelite polemic against Canaanite society and custom. There is much more in this story that invites comment, reflection, and meditation, and we shall do it greater justice when we begin to set polemic aside and look more deeply into it.