I’ve had this written for several days, kept making changes, and frankly, I’m still not quite happy with it. But it needs to go up, and I hope it’s still in time to be useful.
I expect many people will come to this lesson from one of three perspectives.
Either (perspective A) Sodom and Gomorrah is a paradigmatic story about gay people and everything that is wrong with society today or (perspective B) Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do with sex at all, and anyone who thinks so is an old-fashioned fundamentalist. A third likely perspective? “This is just another weird Old Testament story, and who knows what’s going on. But since there’s destruction, let’s apply it to ourselves and talk about food storage.”
These perspectives are inaccurate, for a variety of reasons. So, let’s have an uncomfortable discussion about several generalities and details, and we’ll cap it off with some fruitful questions and comparisons that you can make in class without doing any of this other stuff.
First of all, let’s review the general plot. God hears about the great sin in Sodom, and goes to investigate. Abraham is encamped (as he is a nomadic shepherd), and encounters three men. He showers them with excessive food, friendliness, and hospitality, inquires as to their purpose, and bargains with them/God to save the city they are on their way to, in all likelihood, destroy. Two of the three continue on their way to Sodom.
No one meets them in Sodom but Abraham’s nephew, Lot who is waiting in the city gate. (City gates were not white picket fences, nor medieval portcullis-doors, but a multi-chambered area with a square, where business, legal judgments and other such things were conducted. It was the center of town, in a way.) They refuse his offers of hospitality to spend the night in the square (the implication being that none else would offer them shelter), but under extreme pressure, eventually give in, going to Lot’s home. Like his uncle Abraham, Lot makes them a feast. Shortly thereafter, the entire male population of the city surrounds the house, and in slightly-veiled language, demand that Lot send the visitors out to be gang-raped. Lot refuses and offers his two daughters who are legally married, but the marriages have not yet been consummated. The townsmen refuse, the angels step in, and miraculously blind them all, temporarily. Lot is warned to leave, along with his family and his sons-in-law. When he warns them about the oncoming destruction, in a perfect alignment of semantic range between languages, they think he’s “screwing around” with them. (The verb tsachaq can mean “laugh” (positive) or “mock” (negative) but also carries sexual connotations; whatever action is intended by the verb, when the king of Gerar sees Isaac tsachaqing with Rebekah, it’s a dead giveaway that she is NOT his sister. Thus, “screwing around” seems to capture all of that nicely in Genesis 19.) Then Lot and family leave the town, and for me the story more-or-less ends there.
Several details need to be unpacked, but the first thing is to reconcile the clear meaning of what happens in Genesis 19 with later summaries of Sodom. Put bluntly, the main sin in Genesis 19 seems to be sexual (homosexual gang rape), but later prophetic interpretations of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel do not mention sexual sin. They do mention “abominations” or “abominable things” which covers a variety of sexual but also non-sexual sins.
Without specifying what it was, Isaiah says Sodom did not hide their sin. (3:9)
Addressing Jerusalem, Ezekiel 16:49-50 says “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…” (There’s a little bit more before and after, but this is the main bit.)
3 Maccabees 2:5 refers to “the people of Sodom who acted arrogantly, who were notorious for their vices.”
Later Jewish and Christian interpretation largely return to a focus on the sexual sins of Sodom.
I think there is a way to reconcile all of these, and it has to do with one principle. Whoever gave us Genesis 18-19 assumed a native audience that shared understanding of this principle, now largely lost to us: hospitality. The ancient Near East was a harsh environment. Consequently, extremely strong taboos and duties arose (I’d say “laws” but that implies nation-states, codification, enforcement, etc.) requiring you to provide for the traveler, the outsider passing through, etc. Various degrees of hospitality are on explicit display in Genesis 18-19, and the audience is expected to take note of these and be appropriately humbled (Abraham) and horrified (Sodom). I’ll return to Abraham later, but what are some of these details in Sodom?
First is Lot (a lesser extension of Abraham), waiting in the gate. There’s no hint he’s the only one at the gate; indeed, he was highly unlikely to be alone. The gate was the bustling center of town, in some ways. (See the Tidbits below.) But Lot is the only one there to extend hospitality to the visitors. Having to spend the night in the town square, as they intend to do (apparently to test the city) would indicate that no one in the city had invited them home. That is, no one in the city followed the hospitality duties, which would be exceedingly shameful and worthy of condemnation. But the two men have no need to seek out a test, as the entire male population of the city surrounds Lot’s house. (We know it’s the entire population because of the phrases “the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old” (a merism), “to the last man” (19:4.) They demand that Lot bring them outside so they can “know” them. “Know” (Heb. yada’) without any context can mean a variety of things, but “know” with a human direct object is usually sexual, as is the case here and in surrounding chapters. What is clearly in view is homosexual rape, and this is recognized by a variety of commentaries. Does this mean the men of Sodom were gay? Not necessarily, for two reasons.
First, sexual *identity* or orientation is largely a modern invention. For that reason, applying the term “Gay” to all the men of the city is seriously anachronistic. Second, we know from other ancient Near Eastern records that homosexual rape was sometimes a tool used to dehumanize and demasculinize other men by essentially putting them in what was thought of as the female sexual role. There are records of the soldiers of a losing army being so treated, for example. Such things were something one did, acts one committed, not an identity per se. It’s also clear that the Israelites, as an ancient Near Eastern society, did not conceive of sexuality quite the same way we do today. For example, several passages in the Old Testament make clear that homosexual acts were forbidden. “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” (Lev 20:13, there’s that “abomination” again.) But no similar legislation can be found for a woman lying with a woman! This absence is much less likely to be because “Israelites approved of lesbianism” (again, anachronistic a bit) and more likely because a) it wasn’t considered sex the same way male-female sex was, and b) it probably wasn’t really happening.
Returning to the actual story, then, sexually assaulting the men would be an unthinkably heinous violation of the hospitality protocols. Lot calls the men “brothers” and emphatically tells them that they must “do nothing to these men, because they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (Gen 19:8) He thus explicitly reminds the men of the city of the laws of both kinship and hospitality- that the two men are in his care, and thus to do *anything* to them (sexual or not) violates those “laws” and duties of hospitality.
What is the Sodomites motive? It is probably not lust, given the above. Rather, their motive may be to deliberately accomplish the violation of the hospitality laws! But why? “A rabbinic interpretation [found several places] suggests that the affluent people of Sodom selfishly adopted a deliberate policy of maltreating strangers in order to discourage visitors to the city and thus not to have to share their prosperity with others.” Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary. If you want people to avoid your town, flagrantly violating the hospitality laws but leaving visitors alive to spread the tale is a sure-fire way to do it. If this is the case (and it seems likely to me), then the one subsumes the other; since we today usually aren’t even aware of the hospitality “laws” or their importance, we elevate the sexual aspect of the story of Sodom to the prime reason for their destruction. In other words, I don’t think a hospitality-based motive for destruction is incompatible with a sexual-based motive for destruction.
What of Lot’s actions with his daughters? It’s possible that the surface reading is correct, based on the parallel in Judges 19:24ff, where a similar thing happens, except it’s actually carried out. But the differences between Lot and the Judges parallel are not insignificant (and I’m not going to spell them out here.) His two daughters are legally married, but the marriages have not been consummated. (Engagement was equivalent to being legally married, but you didn’t live together and weren’t alone together, if later traditions and customs hold for Genesis 18-19.) If the Sodomites motive is not lust but infliction of harm on non-residents (contrary to the hospitality laws), then there is little at stake in him making this suggestion. In other words, it’s possible that this was not meant sincerely, but as a rhetorical move. Note again that in 19:8 where the daughters are offered to the men, Lot emphatically points out that the messengers are under Lot’s protection and hospitality. I read Lot as potentially saying with some sarcasm “Look, I won’t let you violate the hospitality laws, but if you want to rape my virgin married daughters, go ahead.” Perhaps the modern equivalent would be saying something like “I won’t let you burn down my house, but if you want to kill me, go ahead” He’s trying to call their attention to the moral significance of their actions by substituting something that he knows they won’t do. (While heinous, rape of his married daughters wouldn’t violate the hospitality/protection laws to the extent that it would with the angels.) While I had that idea (i.e. Lot making a rhetorical move) independently, I’ve since found at least one commentary that supports it.
In any case, if you want, you can take the easy way out, and just read the JST, which changes the story and motives regarding Lot’s daughters. Most classes will be satisfied with that, although it’s probably a change for modern comfort, not a restoration of text or historical setting (if indeed, as per last week, this is historical).
Now back to the big picture. What does this story do? Among other things, it really elevates Abraham. Think back to his hospitality. He’s sitting in the opening of his tent during the hot part of the day, sees some men in the distance, and *runs* to the them, bows to them, treats them excessively kindly, makes them a feast. He is enthusiastic, quick, and generous in his hospitality. Jewish tradition picked up on this, of course, and recounts how Abraham, in spite of his age, would go out in the middle of the day, looking for anyone who might be lost in the desert. By contrast, Lot is less hospitable, but still respectable. And the Sodomites, are as anti-hospitable as you can get, which merits destruction. Abraham’s model of amazing hospitality is placed next to the Sodomites’ model of hospitality that merits direct destruction from God himself.
Another comparison is implicit. Abraham bargains with God/the angels/men/messengers to save the righteous in the city. He perhaps allows that God is justified in destroying the wicked, but what of the righteous? Is it fair to treat them the same way? Abraham is concerned for others. What other major destruction have we discussed recently? The Flood! In Genesis, when God says “I’m going to destroy everything” Noah virtually shrugs. He never speaks, in Genesis. Is he not concerned? Does he not care about anyone or anything? God, we are told later, cares even about such flagrantly wicked people as the Ninevites as well as their animals, and takes notice of the fall of every sparrow (Matt 10:29). But Noah makes no arguments, no bargains, just sets about silently making his boat. Abraham, at least, cares about the righteous. Though he speaks of justice, he seems fine with God being unjust towards the wicked, or at least sparing them because of the few righteous. To bring in yet another scriptural figure, Enos even goes beyond Abraham to embody Matthew 5:44 and praying for one’s enemies. Enos prays first for his own people, and when God tells him, in essence, “I’m sorry, your people are not going to make it” he turns instead to praying for his enemies (Enos 1:10, 13.) A comparison between Abraham, Noah, and Enos may prove fruitful in asking about our own attitudes towards “our enemies.”
- Note Lot’s transition. “Lot had, by stages, integrated himself into Sodom’s society. First he merely “pitched his tents near Sodom” (13:12). Then “he had settled in Sodom” (14:12). It was solely on his account that the city had earlier been saved by Abraham (14:14). Now he lives in a house there and “sits in the gate” where the city elders gather. His daughters are about to intermarry [or already have] with local men.” The JPS Torah Commentary
- The Gate of the city-
The gate is the place where men met to discuss personal or city affairs and held court. For examples see Deut 21:19; 25:7; Ruth 4:1–12; Amos 5:10, 12, 15. Lot’s presence in the gate need not be taken to mean that he was one of the city officials. As a foreigner he most likely was not an official. (See verse 9.) In translation the literal word gate may only suggest a hinged door-like passage through a fence. To be more accurate it is often necessary to use an expression such as “town meeting place,” “town square,” “market place.” In some languages the focus must be primarily on the function of this place: for example, “where people meet to talk,” “place where men meet to decide matters.” A good expression of this from one translation is “at the meeting and market place by the big gate in the city wall.” SPCL says “at the entrance of the city” and goes on to describe it as “that is the place where people meet.” If it is thought best to focus on the physical feature, we may say, for example, “at the entrance to the city.” – William David Reyburn and Euan McG. Fry, A Handbook on Genesis, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1998), 413.
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