Dodgy theology (5): the sin of Sodom

John_Martin_-_Sodom_and_Gomorrah

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, 1852

Genesis 19 has a well-known story about the destruction of two Canaanite cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. The story goes that Lot, a nephew of Abraham who was living in Sodom, was visited by two angels who came to warn him about the impending disasters and to encourage him to leave. Soon after their arrival …

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 know them.” 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”.

It is apparent from Lot’s reaction – “do not act so wickedly” – that their intentions were less than friendly. It is argued that the phrase “that we may know them” uses a well-known biblical euphemism meaning “that we can have sex with them” as in one of the first uses of the verb “to know” in the Bible: “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch” (Gen.  4:17). The story in Judges 19 is similar in some ways. That story is about a Levite who was on a journey with his wife/concubine from Bethlehem to his home in Ephraim and made a decision to spend a night in the town of Gibeah. They were taken in for the night by an old man who was also from Ephraim but living in Gibeah.

While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may know him.” (Judges 19:22).

The NRSV translates the phrase here rendered “that we may know him” as “that we may have intercourse with him” although it is identical in Hebrew to the phrase in Genesis 19 which they translate differently. The translators have understood it as a euphemism for having sex and removed any doubt with this translation. They are almost certainly right that this was the intention, although in rendering it this way the translation becomes less literal. The story continues using almost identical language to the story about Sodom:

And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing.

It is often claimed that these two stories demonstrate that the biblical writers regarded homosexuality as perverse, wicked and vile. In fact, neither account says any such thing. In both stories the men of Sodom and Gibeah are condemned for their attempted rape of strangers. In the Gibeah story the host offered his daughter and his guest’s wife to the men pounding on the door. This is similar to the story about Sodom where Lot offered his daughters. In both stories the offer was initially rejected, but in the Gibeah story the traveller “seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go” (v. 25). The story has a horrific ending.

The Gibeah story makes it clear that the motivation in calling for the stranger to be sent out to them was not one of homosexual desire, but rather an intention to rape him. I’m sure I don’t need to explain the difference. The fact that these men had their way with the traveller’s concubine for the whole night demonstrates that the story ultimately condemns them for heterosexual rape. The issue is rape, not sexuality. In fact, the rape of men by men is most often committed by heterosexual men and is a violent, terrorising and abusive exertion of power by one person over another. It has nothing to do with desire or sexual attraction.

The predominant common element in both stories is that there was an attempt to exert power over strangers, or foreigners. The stranger was hated, perhaps feared, by a group within the community who asserted their ‘superiority’ over the unwelcome foreigner(s) by attempting to abuse him/them in an horrific way. Their motivation was hatred, or fear, not lust.

Significantly, when Ezekiel later referred to the “sin of Sodom” he said nothing about their sexual behaviour. He recognised that the real problem was their disregard for the poor and needy: “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” (16:49). It was this “haughty” attitude and their lack of concern for the needy which turned into violence against strangers.

“The sin of Sodom” was not homosexuality, it was a lack of concern for those in need. One scholar (Michael Carden) put it well in his conclusion to an article titled Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah, where he argued that “Sodom represents … cruelty and meanness. Therefore xenophobia, racism, disregard for/exploitation of the poor and grasping miserliness should be considered forms of sodomy.” Rape and sexual violence – against both men and women –  should come within the definition of sodomy and Carden rightly notes that “rapists should be regarded as sodomites, as should misogynists”. He further argues that homophobia and its violent expression should also be seen as forms of sodomy. Including homophobia as sodomy, Carden says, “might be surprising, however, for those of us from Christian traditions where homosexuality and Sodom and Gomorrah are so deliberately confused.” [1] Several scholars are in agreement with Carden’s conclusions about the sins of Sodom and Gibeah and have demonstrated that the ultimate evil of these cities, the evil which led to their divine destruction, had nothing to do with anal sex or homosexuality. It did, however, have everything to do with how one treats the poor and needy, and the stranger.

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[1] Michael Carden, “Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah”Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (1999) 83-96.

3 comments on “Dodgy theology (5): the sin of Sodom

  1. Stephen, I agree with you that the sin of Sodom as explicated in Genesis 19 and the other texts you cited is clearly not consensual sex between members of the same sex. In that sense, the (now archaic and offensive) English term “sodomy” is a misnomer.

    One of the most troubling things about the accounts in both Genesis 19 and Judges 19 is the reaction of the householder to the intentions of the would-be rapists. They seek to appease them by sending out women from their own households to be abused instead of the male visitor(s). (Bishop Robert Barron has used this as an analogy to the misguided response by many Church leaders to the clerical sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church). Their calculus is morally outrageous here, but it does seem to suggest that within the narrative, to rape females was regarded as less evil than to rape males (though there are other factors besides the male/female binary in the substitution, e.g. stranger/local). Hence, the actors in the narrative do seem to presuppose that sexual sin is less bad when they are heterosexual than when homosexual, or conversely, that the homosexual nature of the intended rape was a contributing factor to its wickedness. However, given that the same actors’ judgment is obviously misguided in this substitution decision as a whole, it is not at all clear that the authors/editors of these texts, or God, endorse this negative valuation of homosexual acts relative to heterosexual. The point, once again, is that we cannot rely on “proof-texting” to arrive at a position on the rightness or wrongness of same-sex sexual relationships. We need a thoroughgoing, coherent moral theology.

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Thomas, the Genesis 19 and Judges 19 are not necessarily implying that heterosexual rape is “less bad” than homosexual rape. The fact that the thugs in Gibeah initially rejected the offer of the old man’s daughter and the concubine, but then accepted the offer of the concubine alone, suggests that the story has more to do with the treatment of strangers than with sexuality. The daughter would have been considered to have ‘belonged’ to the old man, and therefore to rape her was to rape the man. As he was a resident of Gibeah it would have meant raping one of their own. The Ephraimite and his wife/concubine however were “strangers” and to rape either of them would have been a demonstration that they were not welcome. Hence, the offer of the Ephraimite woman was accepted while that of the woman of Gibeah was rejected.
      I agree with you that neither text should be used as a proof-text for determining the biblical position on same-sex relationships, and this is precisely the point I was making.

      • Stephen, I agree that responsibility toward strangers is a central message in both narratives. However, it is not an either/or situation; I still think there is an implicit condemnation of sex between males. It cannot be merely incidental that in both cases, the originally intended victims were males, while the “alternative victims” offered by the host were females. (The offer of the concubine in Judges 19 also suggests that treatment of strangers is not the only issue in view, since she too was a visitor.)

        Offering oneself to avoid the shame of failing to protect a person under one’s responsibility has a precedent in Gen 44:18-34 (Judah pleading with Joseph to enslave him instead of Benjamin). It thus seems reasonable to ask why in these two cases the host does not offer himself but instead females. The most plausible answer IMHO is that the sexual violation of a female is seen as less egregious than the sexual violation of a male, because of an opposition to homosexual acts. However, there is no way of inferring that this valuation attributed to the characters in the narrative corresponds to God’s valuation.

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