The Biblical account of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is often cited as proof that God vehemently disapproves of homosexuality. One theory is that the cities were destroyed to punish a population of practicing homosexuals. Other theories state that the cities’ destruction had little if anything to do with sexuality. Let’s lay the groundwork and then examine the evidence.
There are four pertinent facts we must keep in mind when examining this passage. Sexual behavior is not the same as, nor does it determine sexual orientation. (1) Sexual orientation is not a choice. (2) Sexual intercourse without consent is rape. The word homosexual did not appear in any English Bible until 1946.
The term homosexual was coined in 1869 by German-Hungarian Karoly Benkert and was the first move toward homosexuality being perceived as a sexual identity. The term originally only referred to males. (3) The term was adopted by American doctors in the 1880’s, but did not enter the public vernacular until the 1920’s. (4)
Lot was the nephew of Abraham (called Abram at the time). In Genesis Chapter 13, we find Abraham and Lot traveling together, each endowed with livestock and wealth. They needed to separate because one shared area of land could not support them both, and parting ways would also prevent quarrels that were arising between their herdsmen. Lot chose to move eastward and settle near Sodom. It is not known whether Lot knew of Sodom’s reputation: “the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked in the sins they committed against the Lord.” (Gen 13:13) Some years passed, in which Lot was taken prisoner of war, subsequently rescued by Abraham, and then returned to reside in Sodom and gain a judicial position of some authority. “Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom”. (Gen 19:1) “It was at the city gates that important business transactions were made, court was convened, and public announcements were heralded.” (5)
Two angels were sent to the city of Sodom to see if there were any righteous people there. If there were, the city may be saved from impending doom. The Lord had visited Abraham and told him this “because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous.” (Gen 18:20)
The Lord found the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to be filled with sin and planned on destroying them. He told this plan to Abraham and agreed that if ten righteous people could be found there, he would spare the cities. Abraham pleaded this deal to protect his nephew Lot, who lived in Sodom.
Two angels disguised as human men went to Sodom, met Lot, and were invited into his home. During the evening, the townspeople surrounded Lot’s house and demanded to ‘know’ the visitors Lot was sheltering. Lot refused to turn his guests over to the mob. The mob grew angry. Lot offered his virgin daughters to the crowd to appease them, but they refused. The mob then tried to push their way into Lot’s house. The guests then blinded the mob, revealing their true identity as angels. The angels then urged Lot to take his family out of the city as quickly as possible because God was now going to move forward with His plan of destruction. Lot and his two daughters escaped. Lot’s wife also escaped, but was turned into a pillar of salt because she did not heed the warning not to look back. (Genesis Chapter 19)
What Were the Sins of Sodom?
The exact sin or sins are not described in the actual passage in Genesis. The sins of Sodom are however, mentioned in other passages in the Scripture. The descriptions vary according to the version of the Bible you are reading. In 2 Peter Chapter 2 the sins are categorized as lawless deeds, wickedness, depraved conduct, shameful immorality, filthy conversation, or sensual conduct of the wicked, depending on the translation you are reading.
In Jude 7 the sins of the city are written as fornication, going after strange flesh, sexual perversion, the pursuit of unnatural desire, or the pursuit of homosexual activities. Fornication, in Biblical terms, means intercourse between people who are not married. ‘Strange flesh’ has been interpreted as same-sex flesh by those unaccepting of homosexuals (because ‘knowing’ the flesh of someone of the same gender would be strange). It has also been interpreted to mean non-human flesh, or even the flesh of foreigners. Some interpret this to be a reference to the angels visiting Sodom. However, the text does not support the idea that the townspeople knew that the visitors were angels disguised as humans until after the angels blinded the crowd. The term ‘unnatural’ [desire] has also been interpreted to mean homosexuality, based on the use of the same word in Romans 1:26. I do not see this as valid, and will discuss it in a later post. Only two English versions use the word ‘homosexual’ in this verse. This is most likely a mistranslation. (See previous blog post ‘Lost in Translation’.)
Ezekiel 16:49 lists the sins of Sodom as (depending on translation): arrogance, pride, gluttony, and laziness, in conjunction with failing to help the poor/needy/suffering. In this allegory, the sins of Jerusalem as a whole are considered by God to be far greater than those of Sodom.
The first century scholar Josephus wrote “the Sodomites, overweeningly proud of their numbers and the extent of their wealth, showed themselves insolent to men and impious to the Divinity, insomuch that they no more remembered the benefits that they had received from him, hated foreigners and declined all intercourse with others. Indignant at this conduct, God accordingly resolved to chastise them for their arrogance…” (6)
Was Homosexuality the Reason for Destruction?
There may have been same-sex acts taking place in Sodom and Gomorrah. However, Scripture tell us that there were also many other sins being committed, including some that were not sexual in nature. An assumption has been made by some that because the angry mob of men wanted to rape male visitors, the townspeople must have been gay. “The only reasonable answer is that the city was guilty of regularly participating in homosexual behavior, and the attempt to rape Lot’s guests was just the latest occurrence.” (7)
This is completely illogical. The townspeople wanted to rape the visitors as a show of power, having nothing to do with their sexuality. Modern day prison rape is a parallel to this ancient tactic. “In Biblical times, there were some inhospitable lands (usually Pagan) that practiced gang rape. Their targets were often times travelers or foreigners who came into their city to lodge. This was not about sex, but power. Rape was used as a tool for power, punishment and/or payment, similar to modern-day prison rape. When the travelers or foreigners came into their city, the men were the first targets of gang rape. On occasion they would accept female counterparts as an alternate payment or punishment, but the value was not as high seeing that women were of lower status.” (8)
It is also worth noting that the incident with the angels merely cemented Sodom’s fate. God had planned to destroy the city prior to this event taking place.
Jeremiah 23:14 compares the prophets of Jerusalem (with whom God is displeased) to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, without mention of homosexuality or same-sex acts.
Inhospitality is considered by some to be Sodom’s greatest sin. Modern readers do not have the same sense of hospitality that ancient people did. “Indeed, hospitality to the stranger is equated with welcoming God. In the book of Matthew, Christ separates the nations into the cursed, who refused him food and drink, and the blessed, who received him.” (9) “Biblical customs concerning how a person should treat travelers and temporary residents were much different. They were more than simply ways to be polite or friendly, and went beyond entertaining guests. Hospitality customs were a vital part of the culture of the ancient world. The people followed these customs as formal, even sacred, codes of conduct. (10)
In Matthew 10 and again in Luke 10 Jesus’ disciples are told that any house or town that does not welcome them will suffer a fate worse than that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Inhospitality is directly linked to Sodom and Gomorrah in these verses.
Heterosexuals Destroyed as Well:
In Judges Chapter 19, there is an eerily similar (yet more gruesome) story that takes place in Gibeah. Corrupt men surround a house with a visiting guest and his concubine inside and demand the visitor be released to them. Much like Lot, the homeowner refuses, but offers the female concubine to the mob instead. In Gibeah, the men accept the woman and violently rape her. She dies from the assault. The visitor then takes her body home, cuts it into twelve pieces and sends a piece to each of the tribes of Israel as proof of the crime. The outraged Israelites create an army, attack the Benjamites at Gibeah, and utterly destroy them leaving only six hundred Benjamite men alive.
No one claims that the men of Gibeah were homosexual, although just as in Sodom, they first called for the male guest to be turned over to them.
“If the lesson of Sodom is about the threatened rape of the guests, then surely the real rape and murder in Gibeah is far more scandalous. If the assault in Sodom was the excuse for its destruction, and the condemnation of homosexual intercourse, then surely the sin of Gibeah should lead to equally strong condemnation of heterosexual intercourse? Yet it does not. Whereas Sodom is frequently condemned elsewhere in Scripture for its “sinfulness”, Gibeah disappears, after its appearance in Judges 19, without [a] trace.” (11)
“The word sodomy was invented to name a shared evil of Sodom and Gibeah… [Sodomy] does not signify same-sex desire but cruel delight in victimizing others, including sexual violence directed at men and women alike.” (12) Over time, it has come to mean male homosexuality, linking it to the ancient city of Sodom thus sustaining the idea that Sodom was destroyed because its inhabitants were homosexuals.
Sadly, many believers do not take the time to analyze the Scripture for themselves. Many of us have been told that the Bible condemns homosexuality, period. Furthermore, fear is instilled in us by stories like the one of Sodom and Gomorrah. Changes, omissions, and differing interpretations allow the truth to get lost.
The fact that the men of Sodom wanted to rape male visitors is not conclusive proof of homosexuality. Neither is the fact that the men refused Lot’s daughters as substitutes. The Bible tells of many sins other than same-sex acts being committed there. Additionally, we know that there were men living in Sodom who were not exclusively same-sex oriented. Both of Lot’s daughters were engaged to be married to men. (Gen 19:14)
The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were not destroyed because of homosexuality. There is no Scriptural evidence I can find to support this notion. There is no Scriptural evidence I can find that there were any homosexual citizens living in these cities to begin with. Let us remember that non-consensual acts are not equivalent to loving, committed, consensual LGBT relationships. There were sins of all kinds being committed in Sodom and Gomorrah, and we cannot responsibly draw the conclusion that sexual orientation was the reason for their destruction.
Gray, Peter B. Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print.
(3) Duggay, Marian. Queering Conflict: Examining Lesbian and Gay Experiences of Homophobia in Northern Ireland. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012. Print.
(4) Stambu, Andrew. The Man who is and is Not There: The Poetry and Prose of Robert Francis.
Thomson-Shore, Inc., 2011. Print.
(6) Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jews: Complete and Unabridged. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. Print.
(12) Carden, Michael. Sodomy: a History of a Christian Biblical Myth. Routledge, 2014. Print.
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