Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Sin of Sodom

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. Ezekiel 16:49
My guess is that when most people think about the sins of Sodom, they do not think about having “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease,” and an unwillingness to “aid the poor and needy.”

But there it is.

We go to the Bible, looking for self-righteous moralisms and end up with social justice. Again. When it comes to the question of how we should be living our lives, it’s always about social justice. Or as Jesus summarized it in the Great Commandment, it’s about loving God and neighbor. (Loving God means loving your neighbor. And loving your neighbor is loving God.)

My plan, before I was distracted by the Prophet Ezekiel, was to write a series of blog posts on the seven biblical passages usually referenced to “prove” that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

It is in many ways a flawed enterprise. The late Walter Muelder, who was Dean of the Boston University School of Theology for many years, and a pioneer in the discipline of Christian Social Ethics, was adamant that when we go to the Bible for ethical direction, we cannot pick and choose. Seven passages are not enough to construct an ethic. They are not irrelevant. But they cannot be determinative. On the other hand, if you believe in biblical inerrancy, and you believe that each verse is equally inspired and authoritative, then you cannot question the authority of even a single verse, let alone seven passages. But I think it is a useful exercise, just to be clear on what those passages actually say and mean, rather than to assume that we know.

The first, and certainly the best known passage, is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The story begins with a happy episode. Three strangers come to visit Abraham and Sarah, who are living in a tent by the oaks of Mamre. The men are messengers from God, angels, who have come to reaffirm the promise that Abraham and Sarah will have a son. They speak with Abraham outside of the tent. Inside the tent, Sarah laughs, because it seems preposterous that at her age she could have a child. And there is a wonderful interchange in which the men chastise her for laughing. She insists that she did not laugh and the episode ends with one of the men saying, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Then the men set out toward Sodom, and Abraham goes with them to show the way. God tells Abraham that the men are going to Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy the cities, because there has been such a great outcry over their sin. Abraham then begins to bargain with God. What about the righteous who live in those cities, will the LORD sweep them away with the guilty? Abraham drives a hard bargain, and God agrees that if they can find ten righteous, then the cities will be spared.

After the bargain is struck, “the LORD went his way,” and Abraham returned home, and “the two angels came to Sodom.”

At this point, things go downhill in a hurry. The strangers (angels) are met at the gate of the city by Lot, who insists that they spend the night with him. He makes them a feast, and they enjoy the meal together, but before they can lie down for the night, a crowd gathers outside. “The men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house.” The crowd demands that Lot send out the strangers, “so that we may know them.” In other words, so that we may have sexual relations with them.

Lot goes out to argue with the crowd and even offers to let them rape his two virgin daughters, rather than give up the men who have come “under the shelter of my roof.” But the crowd is undeterred and threatens to do even worse to Lot if he does not give up the strangers. At that point, the strangers reach out and pull Lot back into the house with them, and strike “with blindness” all those in the crowd, “so that they are unable to find the door.”

In the morning the strangers send Lot and his family away to safety, and fire rains down on the cities, and they are destroyed.

It is a dark tale. There are rays of light, but they are not easy to find. No one would count this among their favorite Bible stories. It is not the Sermon on the Mount, or the Good Samaritan. It isn’t the Twenty-third Psalm, or the Ten Commandments. It isn’t Micah or Amos or Hosea or Ruth. It isn’t even on a par with Esther.

The story is not just Patriarchal; it is deeply misogynistic. It’s good that Lot offers hospitality to strangers, and it’s good that he tries to protect his guests. But in his attempts to dissuade the men of Sodom from attacking the strangers, Lot offers to let them rape his daughters. And the story implies that the gang rape and humiliation of women is not as bad as the gang rape and humiliation of men.

It is difficult to claim ethical guidance from a story which is fundamentally immoral. One of the challenges in reading and interpreting the Bible is separating the timeless truths from the stories that simply reflect the prejudices and limited perspectives of a primitive people. The story of Sodom clearly falls into the latter category. We need to recognize it as such, and let it go.

Alternatively, we can focus, as Ezekiel did, on the guilt of Sodom that (apparently) first led to God’s judgment: “she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” That is a biblical truth which stands the test of time.


  1. Incorrect assumption that the bible need imply that the rape of women is ok to recieve any ethical guidance. Lot was clearly frightened and therefor misguided so his actions do not need to set any precedent. It's like suggesting that to get any guidance from the stories of Abraham we need accept that it's ok to sleep with your wife's slave to beget a child.

  2. I have no idea how to select a profile. My user ID is tbrennan34.
    Just want to add that in middle eastern culture it has always been the case that one defends a visitor to one's house down to the last ounce of one's ability, even if it costs the host's own life. The visitor is indeed more important than the family member. I don't know that gender is relevant to the story but it is doubtless the "virgin daughters" would have been more likely to assuage the lust of the crowd than anyone else in the household. In that time and culture this was probably seen as a legitimate way to uphold his duty to the strangers.