Sodom and Gomorrah: How the "classical" interpretation gets it wrong

Recently, Franklin Graham reacted to a comment made by former President Jimmy Carter to the Huffington Post several years ago.  Carter said, “Jesus would promote any love affair if it was honest or sincere and was not damaging to anyone else. And I don't see that gay marriage damages anyone else."

Breitbart dug up the comment recently, and Graham responded, “I have to respectfully disagree with former President Jimmy Carter on this one.  He is absolutely wrong when he said Jesus would approve of gay marriage. Jesus didn’t come to promote sin, He came to save us from sin. The Bible is very clear. God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexuality.”  Graham concluded his post by quoting Romans 1:24-27.

The Genesis text

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the favorite passages of persons who oppose same-sex behavior.  It occurs in Genesis 19:1-29.  However, two earlier passages are prelude to this.  In Genesis 13:12-13, the text says that the people of Sodom were “wicked, great sinners against the Lord.”  Also, in 18:16-21 God informs Abraham: “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!” (v. 20).  However, neither text explains what makes these cities sinful.  So readers must infer the nature of their sinfulness from the story told in Genesis 19.Here’s the story: Abraham’s nephew, Lot, lives in Sodom.  Two angels in the guise of men come to Lot’s home in Sodom.  Lot invites them to spend the night in his home.  At first, the two angels say they prefer to spend the night in the town square (v. 2), but Lot is able to persuade them to come inside his home (presumably where it is safer).  Before they all go to bed “the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house” (19:4) and demand that Lot send out his two guests so that “we may know them.”  Lot tries to dissuade the mob from its course, even offering his two daughters to them (v. 8); but the crowd dismisses Lot as an “alien” and tries to seize him.  The two angels pull him back inside the house to safety, and then they strike the men outside with blindness (v. 11).  The next morning, the angels lead Lot’s family out of the city.  Then God pours down sulfur and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, destroying its inhabitants (v. 25).

Using Ezekiel and Judges to interpret

While several other biblical texts refer to Sodom (and sometimes Gomorrah), the only one that comments on Sodom’s sinfulness is the sixth century BCE prophet Ezekiel: “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” (16:49-50).  The Hebrew word translated “abominable things” is to’evah.  Sometimes this term is used with reference to sexual offenses (as in Leviticus 18:22), but this term has a broad range of meanings.  According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, “Common to all these usages is the notion of irregularity, that which offends the accepted order, ritual, or moral.”  Ezekiel 16 says nothing about same sex behavior.  Context determines what Ezekiel meant by “abomination”:  Sodom’s “abomination” was that she did not aid the poor and needy.

Judges 19 provides a chillingly similar story to the Sodom story in Genesis.  An unnamed man from the tribe of Levi is traveling with his servant and his concubine.  They arrive in the town of Gibeah and plan to spend the night in the town square.  A little later, a man living in Gibeah, but described as from the country of Ephraim, comes upon them.  He warns them that they are not safe in the open and takes the three to his home.  Soon “the men of the city, a perverse lot” surround the house and demand that the owner send out the Levite “so that we may know him.”  Like Lot, the owner tries to dissuade the mob.  He offers to send out his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine.  When the mob refuses to accept this offer, the Levite throws his poor concubine out the door anyway.  The men of Gibeah rape her and abuse her all night long.  It is a horrific story.  The women dies as a result.

The Sodom story and the Gibeah story mutually interpret one another.  First, the angels and the Levite are strangers, aliens.  Lot and the Ephraimite man who lives in Gibeah are “resident aliens”.  They are not native to Sodom or Gibeah.  Such people were vulnerable to citizens suspicious of outsiders.  Second, the men of Sodom and Gibeah use sexual violence—rape—to maltreat the outsiders.  The Gibeah episode makes clear that the interest of the mob is not sexual gratification or homosexual behavior; their objective is to inflict violence on the aliens in their midst.

Homosexual: a word that's biblically non-existent

The Sodom story never tells us that the men of Sodom were homosexuals.  That word does not exist in the Bible.  Genesis says that all of the city of Sodom “to the last man” came out to surround Lot and his visitors (19:4).  Are we are to imagine a city comprised exclusively of homosexual men?  Surely, there were women and children in the city!  It is a fair inference that some of the mob gathered about Lot’s door were married men.  The same holds for the Gibeah story.  If one insists that the actions of the men of Sodom are an indictment of homosexual behavior, would one also not have to interpret the Gibeah story as an indictment of heterosexual behavior?

The stories of Sodom and Gibeah are examples of mob violence committed against outsiders.  That’s the sin of Sodom—not homosexual behavior.

This post is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.

Perry V. Kea is Associate Professor of biblical studies at the University of Indianapolis, Indiana. He has been a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar since 1987, in the course of which he has contributed several papers. He has also written for The Fourth R. In addition to his academic interests and responsibilities, Kea is an active United Methodist layperson and has made numerous presentations about the Bible for clergy and lay groups.

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