What does the Bible say about Homosexuality?: Sodom and Gomorrah

I’m doing something a little different today. Instead of doing blogging on current news involving gay rights; I’ve decided to take a little detour to dive deeper into a topic that often gets brought up in debates about homosexuality and gay rights: The Bible.

In literally every debate over gay rights I’ve had there’s something I always expect: That those opposed to gay rights will use the Bible in some way or another to argue that being gay (or doing any sort of “gay” activity) is wrong. As sure as the sun rises and sets every day; someone will quote or bring up the Bible to tell you being gay is an abomination. It’s just a given. On a personal level, I could care less what the Bible says. Even though I used to be an ardent Christian as a child, I’m not a Christian now and therefore don’t really see much of a point in getting too bent out of shape over what an over 2000 year old book says about who I am. But a part of me realizes something else: That I have to care what it says to some extent. Hundreds of millions of people believe that this book is the word of an infallible God and thus every word is literal truth. And these hundreds of millions of people also happen to be very active politically and culturally; shaping the laws we have to follow on a daily basis, shaping the way we view the world and even how we speak when we talk about these issues. The Bible has been such a dominant source of inspiration in Western society that it would be almost impossible to ignore it.

But the one thing you’ll notice is that one story gets used more often than others when it comes to anti-gay forces doing some serious cherry picking: Sodom and Gomorrah. Sure, people quote Leviticus and Romans like there’s no tomorrow if they want to leave some pithy comment, but it almost always falls back to Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s played such a gigantic role in how people view homosexuality that for centuries (and even now in many places) gays were referred to as Sodomites. As such, I think it’s appropriate that we look at just what the Bible says about Sodom and Gomorrah (and what it doesn’t), and see whether or not the popular interpretation of the story which says that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God for homosexuality actually holds up under close scrutiny.

It all starts with Genesis 13:13* after Lot moves to the Jordan Valley. We are told:

Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD.

It doesn’t get any clearer from there. God speaks again in Genesis 18 again and instead of lying out precisely what is going on in these cities, God simply says that their sin is “very grave.”:

Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomor’rah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know.” (Genesis 18:20-21).

God never says what the outcry against these two cities is in any verses that God speaks of the two cities. But Abraham comically heckles with God; getting a promise that God won’t kill any righteous people in the town if they can be found. God agrees in the end and says, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” (Genesis 18:32).

In the next chapter (Genesis 19) God sends two angels to Sodom to survey the immorality taking place. Lot invites the angels to stay with him, which they initially decline (saying they will sleep in the streets); but he insists and the two angels come with him. Before they can even begin to sleep however, the men of Sodom come to Lots home with a little request:

Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them. (Genesis 19:5)

The word “know” here is a pretty straightforward euphemism; as Michael Coogan in the fantastic book “God and Sex” demonstrates. It means the men of Sodom wanted to rape the two angels. But wait, there’s more! Rather than allow the men of Sodom to rape the guests he invited to stay in his home, Lot offers them his two daughters to be raped (WTF right?!):

“I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly.
Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (Genesis 19:7-8)

Thankfully (for the daughters especially), the angels end up blinding the men at the door as they try to push their way past Lot to get their hands on the two divine messengers. Lot and his family are saved before God lays waste to the city (although his poor nameless wife doesn’t make it). The implication is that Lot was saved because he was hospitable and welcoming to strangers; in contrast to the men of Sodom at his door requesting to “know” the angels. So what were the sins of Sodom? It doesn’t explicitly say what any of their sins are, but many take the above passage in which the men ask to know the angels to mean that their sin was homosexuality. Is this the correct interpretation? Let’s first look at early interpretations of this story in Biblical and Biblically related sources to see if there’s any precedent for this interpretation.

The earliest interpretation of the events at Sodom and Gomorrah comes to us in the first century Jewish “Apocrypha” work known as The Wisdom of Solomon. In Chapter 19, the anonymous author goes on to say this about the people God killed there:

The punishments did not come upon the sinners without prior signs in the violence of thunder, for they justly suffered because of their wicked acts; for they practiced a more bitter hatred of strangers.
Others had refused to receive strangers when they came to them. (Wisdom 19:13-14)

The interpretation here is clear: The men of Sodom were killed because they were hostile to strangers. Given that, it would be safe to say that many in the Christian/Jewish communities of the time interpreted it vastly different than we do now. But are there other places in the Bible that perhaps reference homosexuality (in some way or another) as a sin of Sodom?

We move from the Wisdom of Solomon to Jesus himself. The Gospel According to Luke is said to have been written around the first century, so this puts it around the same time period as Wisdom of Solomon. In Chapter 10 Jesus is giving instructions to his disciples on how they should act as they go on their mission to spread the word:

Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you;
heal the sick in it and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say,
`Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’
I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town. (Luke 10:8-12).

This verse may not be as clear cut as the Wisdom of Solomon, but the implications of what Jesus is saying are: He links the sin of in-hospitality to and hostility of strangers directly to the destruction of Sodom. But is this Sodom’s only sin? Surely there has to be something in the Bible that makes people think the sin of Sodom was homosexuality. According to the sixth century Prophet Ezekiel as he addressed Jerusalem, the sin of Sodom was as such:

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 16:49-50)

 

This theme of God punishing those who do not help the poor and marginalized is quite possibly one of the most consistent themes in the Bible. Ezekiel sees their key sin as having not sufficiently provided help to those most in need. We find this same interpretation at play in the Gospel of Isaiah. Isaiah lived during the eighth century in the Kingdom of Judah. In the Gospel of Isaiah, he addresses his audience in Jerusalem and compares their sins directly with those of Sodom (similar sentiment is found in Jeremiah 23):

Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!….

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1: 10, 16-17)

There is no reference to “sexual immorality” in this verse. Instead we see Isaiah stress the sins of not standing up for the oppressed, poor and marginalized in society. This was their sin he says. But there is one other key text that we have yet to look at which perhaps answers the question of why the interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah seems to have evolved so much over time from what we find in other texts. We find this in the Epistle of Jude. The short letter is often attributed to the brother of James the Just, who was the first Bishop of Jerusalem. In the letter, Jude addresses the Churches of early Christendom and says this to them about Sodom:

 Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord, who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 5-7)

This could very well be a reference to homosexuality, but there is a far more plausible explanation that rarely gets explored in Conservative or Evangelical circles. Follow me for a moment. In Genesis 6:1-4, we are told the story of angels who come down from the heavens and have sex with women (also recounted in more detailed form in 1 Enoch 6-10). This was said to “change the order of nature” (Testament of Naphtali 3-4). So could it be that the sin was trying to “know” divine flesh as a human being? It’s certainly a plausible interpretation (and as we’ve seen, one that at least a few Jewish/Christian authors seemed to have adhered to), although it would require that the men of Sodom knew the visitors were angels. Either way, it’s a safe bet to say that all of the interpretations of Sodom and Gomorrah that we find in the Bible take a very different view of the story than what we hear today,

We find no explicit mention about homosexuality in any of these texts. Not to mention, the fact that the men of Sodom were being offered up Lots daughters to be raped would at the very least imply that Lot certainly didn’t think of these men as having primarily engaged in homosexual behavior. Which brings us to another point in the crossroad; is this story appropriate as a morality tale in any way, shape or form? Even from a literal sense the answer should be no. So, according to Evangelical/Conservative thought; God saw gay rape as wicked but not hetero rape? I doubt many of us in this universe of ours would claim someone as “holy” who offers his own children up for rape. Thus, not only do we find the Evangelical interpretation scripturally lacking, but we find it lacking in clear moral values.

*(Here I use the New Revised Standard Version of The Bible. I use it for three reasons. First off, it is one of the more accessible translations. The scholars who worked on it did away with the archaism (thee, thou, etc.) we find in the King James Version. Secondly, it was written after things like the Dead Sea Scrolls became available to scholars and Biblical scholarship had advanced well beyond what it was in earlier years. And lastly, while it is not a perfect translation; it is by far one of the most accurate in how it translates the original text.)

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