John Corvino opens Bible, reads what it says — why would ‘conservatives’ disagree?

“The Sodom and Gomorrah story may be the biblical passage most frequently cited against homosexuality,” John Corvino says in the video below. “It may also be the least relevant, because it’s not clear it has much to do with homosexuality at all.”

“Don’t take my word for it,” Corvino says. “Let’s look at the relevant text.”

“The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” by John Martin (1852)

And that’s what he does. He opens the Bible and reads the relevant text, sticking to what it actually says.

I appreciate that conservative defenders of the authority of the literal reading of an inerrant Bible won’t like John Corvino’s playful tone in this lecture. He’s needling them lightheartedly — aiming perhaps to goad more than to persuade.

But set aside Corvino’s tone and just consider the substance of his exegesis here. I don’t see anything “liberal” in what he’s doing with this passage. He reads the text and accurately, without spin or interpretation, conveys what it says. It’s a straightforward, face-value reading of the text without any radical criticism or deconstruction or appeals to any esoteric scholarly theories. It’s just the kind of “common-sense” Bible study that conservative evangelicals profess to practice.

So I’m curious as to what the “conservative” Christians who cite the story of Sodom as a clobber-text against homosexuality make of this. They’re accustomed to approaching this story through the lens of preconceptions and expectations of what it supposedly teaches. Corvino dismisses those expectations, but he does not dismiss the story itself. He’s not dismissing the Bible, just reading what it actually says.

My guess is that Corvino’s reading will still be rejected as “liberal” — not because he takes any liberties with the text, but because he refuses to do so. His determination not to impose outside ideas onto the story, to stick with the text itself, means that he is unable to come to the officially sanctioned conclusions about what this story supposedly teaches.

That’s interesting. A conservative approach to the text doesn’t produce the expected “conservative” conclusion. Maybe that conclusion isn’t really all that “conservative” after all.

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  • aunursa

    From my Chumash:

    Hearing about the audacious visitors who had the temerity to spend a night in their city, hordes of Sodomites converged on Lots’ home — without even a single voice of protest — demanding that the guests be turned over to them. When the Sodomites said that they wanted to know them, they meant that they wanted to sodomize them (Rashi, Ibn Ezra). Their reason for so mistreating strangers was to keep impoverished fortune-seekers away. The Sodomites were notorious for every kind of wickedness, but their fate was sealed because of their selfishness in not helping the poor and needy. (Ramban).

  • Earlier today, I was arguing with someone about Exodus 21:22-23. I pointed out that for centuries, the translation clearly specified that the death of the unborn was to be punished with a fine, no more.

    That someone continued to argue that the Bible was very clear that abortion was a wicked evil and HOW DARE I suggest that the death of an infant was nothing more than a matter of money.

    I quoted the relevant verse.

    He demanded to know HOW DARE I say such things when the Bible was very clear on this point.

    I linked to how multiple translations of the Bible were all in agreement on this point.

    He demanded to know HOW DARE I be such a wicked person as to think that a fetus was nothing more than a property crime.

    The fact that I was directly quoting from the Bible, which was crystal clear on the subject, was completely irrelevant: The Bible was very clear I was wrong.

  • aunursa

    Alas, it is a waste of time to argue with fools who won’t even listen to their own authorities. I just wish they would tell us at the beginning so that instead we could spend those lost minutes productively.

  • aunursa

    The Sodom and Gomorrah story may be the biblical passage most frequently cited against homosexuality

    My experience is that the most frequently passage cited by Christian conservatives is Leviticus 18:22, followed by some passages from New Testament epistles of which, as a Jew, I am unfamiliar.

  • Carstonio

    For many years I misunderstood the meaning of “know” in the Old Testament, and had been confused by the origins of the word sodomy. The passage about Sodom sounded as if the residents were simply demanding to find out who the strangers were and why they had come uninvited.

  • Lori

    In the current debate probably so, but over time I’m guessing Sodom & Gomorrah beats Leviticus, considering our definition of “sodomy” and all.

  • Probably Romans 1, which goes into a spiel about sexual immorality starting on verse 24. There are only a few other lines in the New Testament that address homosexuality.

  • The_L1985

    In re: misinterpreting “to know,” when I heard the story as a kid, I pictured mobs of nasty, thuggish folks, licking knives and saying in a cruel, sarcastic tone, “Hey, Lot. We hear you’ve got some guests over. We’d like to meet ’em.” At which point, of course, Lot basically begs them to do whatever they want to his daughters, but to leave the guests alone. And the people of Sodom refuse.

    I didn’t fully understand the text or what was going on, but I had a much better idea of the Sodomites’ motivations than the people who read that passage and dubbed consensual anal sex “sodomy.”

  • Ben English

    Lines which in context would have been understood as pederasty and other wanton debauchery and not a loving and committed relationship.

  • That would be my interpretation as well. I don’t think Paul (who I’m pretty sure was celibate; certainly he wasn’t big on any kind of relationship, sexuality or marriage) really understood the idea of consensual homosexuality, and if recent years have proven anything, it’s that people are still perfectly willing to generalize any form of sexuality they don’t understand as disgusting and abusive perversion.

  • Homosexuality. *Edits*

  • The bit that always got me is that Lot throws his daughters to this bloodthirsty crowd, and somehow gets off scot-free.

  • Well, yes, they were only daughters. In the worst case scenario, they would have gotten married. &lt/sarcasm>

  • Baby_Raptor

    Not only does he get off scott-free, he’s later hailed as righteous for that very act.

    Yip, it’s easy to believe god loves women.

  • mroge

    The word “know” in the bible is used quite often as a sexual ephemnism. Not only that, but Lot offered his virgin daughter to be ravished instead of giving up his guests. From that standpoint it seems to be clear that it was referring to sex. However I think that aunursa makes some really good points and ties together two different accounts of why Sodom was punished because apparently the main reason was because they did not take care of the poor.

  • GDwarf

    The fact that I was directly quoting from the Bible, which was crystal
    clear on the subject, was completely irrelevant: The Bible was very
    clear I was wrong.

    I think it was The Authoritarians that noted that there exist a, surprisingly large, subset of people who hold that nothing could convince them that the Bible wasn’t inerrant…including the Bible itself. Upon being asked if they’d believe the Bible was inerrant if it said it wasn’t, they said that they still would.

    Which of course just shows that it’s got nothing to do with the Bible. It’s all about what they currently believe. “Citing” the “inerrant” Bible just makes them feel more secure in their position.

  • mroge

    Ooops, I think i misinterpreted what you said. Sorry I am very tired!

  • Just reading The Authoritarians now, and I’m at the appropriate chapter. Such an incredible book.

  • The relevant excerpt is thus:

    Ultimately the true believers were saying, “I believe so strongly that the Bible is perfect that there’s nothing, not even the Bible itself, that can change my mind.” If that seems like an enormous self-contradiction, put it on the list. We are dealing with very compartmentalized minds. They’re not really interested in coming to grips with what’s actually in the Bible so much as mounting a defense of what they want to believe about the Bible–come Hell or Noah’s high water.

    We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of dogmatism to the fundamentalist, even though it sometimes seems to surpass understanding. As noted in the last chapter, it takes no effort to be dogmatic, and you don’t need to know very much to insist you’re right and nothing can possibly change your mind. As well, dogmatism gives the joy and comfort of certainty, which fundamentalists cherish.

  • Hexep

    Once they buy into the notion that the Devil can quote scripture, though, it opens up the possibility that all the Scriptural quotations they’ve ever heard have come from the Devil in the first place.

  • Bethany

    A book I read recently suggest that the fact Paul and his friends would have been comparatively low-status youths growing up in a Greek city means they could well have put up with sexual harassment around town themselves. Wouldn’t have given him warm fuzzy feeling about the whole pederasty thing if so.

  • ngotts

    Suppose the Bible did say clearly that homosexual sex and abortion are abominable crimes punishable by death? Would that make the conservatives’ misogyny and homophobia right? After all, it pretty clearly approves of genocide, child murder and rape under some circumstances, tells slaves to obey their masters in everything, and as ShifterCat notes, approves of Lot handing his daughters over to gang rape.

  • IIRC the only place where anyone calls Lot himself ‘righteous’ is the very late pseudepigraph 2 Peter. Reading the Genesis story itself and the later story about how Lot drunkenly fathered the ancestors of two enemy tribes with his own daughters, I always thought it looked pretty clear that Lot was by no means a righteous man himself – Abraham just wanted to save his sorry ass because he was family.

  • The Guest Who Posts

    Well, if the Bible is inerrant and says it’s not inerrant…

    I’d better stop before I cause my computer to explode.

  • Nick

    What people seem to be forgetting is that is that it isn’t just a story of a gay sex, but of gay *rape.* Reading the story as condemnation of homosexuality in general is like saying that a story about an ax murderer is really about the ax.

    Even if all the clobber verses comport to their traditional interpretations, the fact remains that the Bible says absolutely nothing about love or relationships between two people of the same sex, only sex acts. Doesn’t that indicate that appealing to Scripture here is about as useless as looking to Scripture for a working theory of cold fusion? The ancients simply did not have the relevant thought categories to talk about homosexuality in any context other than degrading lust.

  • Possibly the wrong thread to bring it up, but I believe we have a few gamers in this community and so I wanted to put in a plug for a podcast I have just started co-hosting. It’s called Zerolife and in my first episode, we discusss Alex Kidd In Miracel World, Eternal Darkness and Resident Evil 4.

  • Carstonio

    No, you got my meaning correctly. I was saying that I wasn’t aware of “know” as a sexual euphemism in the book until perhaps my late 20s.

  • Carstonio

    Do you mean the context of the original audience? Without knowing that context, my impression of the text is that it lends itself to either interpretation, homosexuality or debauchery. I doubt that most modern readers know much about the context and culture of the OT, and I suspect this is true to a lesser degree with the NT. The sexual practices of Roman culture appear to have been caricatured and exaggerated over the centuries, usually by people with a sectarian agenda.

  • Jake

    I can’t get the video to play, so I don’t know if this is just a rehash of what it says, but…

    I was raised without any religion, and I was in my 20s the first time I read the original Sodom and Gomorrah (KJV, obvs). I was astounded by how little it seemed to have to do with homosexuality. To me, the two main messages of that story are
    1) don’t rape people
    2) women aren’t people.

  • And Bob Guccione.

  • aunursa

    Upon being asked if they’d believe the Bible was inerrant if it said it wasn’t, they said that they still would.

    But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away.
    1 Corinthians 7:12

    Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.
    1 Corinthians 7:25

    That which I am speaking, I am not speaking as the Lord would, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting.
    2 Corinthians 11:17

  • Mark Z.


  • Cathy W

    I read this and I’m reminded of those places that have made it a criminal offense to set up tables with food for the homeless in public places.

  • The_L1985

    And remember, kids, Lot was the one good person in the city!

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Yep – I was just about to post a reply myself citing these passages. As it is, I’ll just comment that I’ve heard fundamentalists insist that even though Paul clearly thinks he’s writing these letters himself, really God was using Paul as a sock puppet and dictating through him. Just like God did with the entire Bible, and that’s how the very beginning of Genesis can obviously be literally true even though there weren’t any people around to observe the first few days of creation. So there. [/sarcasm, except that the people who take this position are perfectly serious about it. Earnest, even.]

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Um. I’ve read the ancient Roman poet Martial, and he’s perfectly comfortable talking about his sexual preferences. Which I think I’ll rot13 for those who might find them triggering.

    Jung Znegvny pynvzf ur cersreerq jnf encvat lbhat fynir oblf (gbb lbhat gb funir; bapr n obl terj juvfxref, vg jnf fbpvnyyl vanccebcevngr gb pbagvahr hfvat uvz.) N pbhcyr bs irel qvfgheovat cbrzf wbxr nobhg ubj zhpu gur oblf qvfyvxrq gur fvghngvba. Naq gurfr cbrzf jrer bcrayl choyvfurq naq qba’g frrz gb unir pnhfrq nal yrtny be fbpvny ceboyrzf sbe Znegvny. Fuhqqre.

    Returning to clear text, Roman “homosexuality” did not involve consensual relations between adults.

  • Carstonio

    Good point. At least Guccione was honest about his goal of appealing to the prurient interest. Other folks would condemn sexual sins while conveniently providing very graphic detail. Do you think Paul is doing some of this in Romans?

  • To me, the two main messages of that story are
    1) don’t rape people
    2) women aren’t people.

    Well isn’t that conveeeeeenient?

    [/Church Lady]

  • Carstonio

    Martial’s practices were criminal by any reasonable definition. From my reading, Paul appears to be condemning consensual relationships between adult men, or adult women, unless “men” was intended to include boys. Are you suggesting that Paul didn’t understand how the Romans defined homosexuality, or that he broadly objected to same-sex relations no matter what the age of the partners? My point was that Rome has been characterized as having no boundaries when it came to sex, and that appears to have influenced interpretations of Paul’s epistle over the centuries.

  • Eric the Red

    Oh Fred, why must you be such a lying liar? This is no “plain reading” of the text.
    First, he reads Genesis 19:3-5 and makes a hard stop to make a baseless assertion as to the mob’s motives.
    He then jumps to Ezekiel 16:49 while omitting verse 50, as you liberals always do.
    Then he abuses Jude 1:7 and tries to retrofit today’s definition of heterosexuality to “hetero” flesh.
    Romans 1:27? Meh, let’s just skip over that one.
    Back to Genesis 19:6-8. Refusing the daughters is not evidence of homosexuality due to ‘Lot is a terrible dad!’ non sequitur. “They could have raped Lot but they didn’t” (ifyouignoreverse9).
    Let’s conflate this issue with Judges 19. Look! A completely unrelated mob behaved differently and raped a woman! Isn’t rape terrible?
    Finally, we’re xenophobic today so obviously that was the mob’s driving intent CAN”T YOU SEE THAT?
    Fred, you’re a lying liar because you’re fully aware of all these omissions but presented this swiss-chees exagesis as “just reading what it actually says.

  • histrogeek

    I won’t disagree with the interpretation. The Biblical attitude (ancient in general for that matter) toward women is appalling and not at all worth defending.

    One thing though is that Lot is pretty much never held up as an exemplar of anything other than running a really bad household. Not that Abram is going to win husband and dad of the year by a long shot but Lot makes his uncle look good.

    I think one problem we moderns often have with Genesis in particular is that we expect the characters to be models of moral or godly behavior and they just aren’t. Even by the medieval period, that was obvious.

  • histrogeek

    The problem with any attempt to put a “plain meaning” on Genesis in particular is that there just isn’t any plain meaning to it. A lot of stories, some repetitive, some contradictory, most about as morally uplifting as Homer and Sophocles, and less historical as the Greek epics.

    There are plenty of ways of getting meaning out of Genesis, for good or ill, but there just isn’t a plain meaning of the book.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    I’ll agree that Paul appears to condemn relationships between women – and he may not have had much information about women’s private lives. I’m suggesting that if we assume that Paul knew exactly how the Romans defined homosexuality, he was talking about something that we would strongly condemn too.

    As for Martial as a criminal – yes, we would consider him a criminal and a pervert. What shocks me is that other rich and powerful Roman men seem to have found his tastes within the range of acceptable behavior. (Keep in mind that the biographer Suetonius takes the time to mention that the emperor Claudius was only interested in women, as if that was unusual.)

    The Romans had boundaries with regard to sex. But their boundaries were different from ours, and we would find some of their behavior abusive and very unacceptable.

  • tatortotcassie

    For me, that is the point where faith crosses over into deliberate stupidity.

  • Carstonio

    Would that have applied to the ancient Greeks? I haven’t been able to determine whether they viewed the Achilles and Patroklos relationship as a romantic one.

  • JustoneK

    Well, I’m convinced.

  • Ezekiel 16:49-50:

    Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.

    I think you may be confused, because verse 50 doesn’t change the meaning of verse 49 taken in isolation *at all*.

  • Regarding Jude 1:7; the key function there would seem to be the use of heteras, a greek word which is usually translated as “strange” or “from a strange tribe”. It’s pretty obvious that the writer of Jude wasn’t trying to imply that the sexual immorality of Sodom was necessarily related to their desire to have sex with humans at all. That you approach it with a world view that suggests he was says more about you than homosexuality.

  • Carstonio

    Yes, our boundaries regarding sex seem to involve principles of consent. From what you describe, the Romans may not have distinguished morally between rape and, say, rampant promiscuity with consenting partners. Ironic that modern opponents of homosexuality don’t seem to make that distinction either.

    I admit that my knowledge about their actual practices is limited. I’m suggesting that later proselytizers and writers had their own agendas, such as exaggerating the level of Christian martyrdom in that era. Las Vegas has been similarly exaggerated, not just by modern proselytizers but also by Cold War propagandists – one Soviet defector said he expected to see the Strip lined with couples copulating and gangsters having shootouts.

  • Cythraul

    “Reading the story as condemnation of homosexuality in general is like saying that a story about an ax murderer is really about the ax.”

    Can I steal that? That’s fantastic.