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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  • Dragoness Eclectic

    The key phrase here is “slave”. Roman slaves had no legal personhood or rights. (The one exception: Roman slaves were allowed to hold property of their own…) Their owners could do anything they wanted to them legally, including rape, torture and execution.

  • Yes, I guess Jung Znegvny was a Fuhqqre in a pretty ironic sense.

  • histrogeek

    The Greek sexual mores are almost impossible to categorize by modern standards. Degrading lust was a pretty late concept for them, mostly the Platonic school and its later offshoots, and that was pretty much all sex, not homosexuality in particular. One thing that does tend to run through most Greek and Hellenistic descriptions of sex is the notion of hierarchy, rather than consent and equality.
    Achilles and Patrokolos wouldn’t have been seen as anything shocking, romantic or not. Brother warriors on campaign, deeply involved with each other emotionally, would have been pretty normal. For that matter the Books of Samuel are cool with David and Jonathan, even if they aren’t necessarily ok with everything else David did. Some Greek city-states, Thebes especially, even used homoeroticism as the basis for their armies.

  • bmk

    We talked about this in a Sunday school class a couple of weeks ago, in relation to criminalization of homelessness and feeding the poor. Specifically, I mentioned that we don’t have to struggle to interpret the story of Sodom & Gomorrah – Ezekiel does it for us!

    > 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. (Ez 16:49-50)

    It’s not quite the same as Peter explaining his own vision in Acts (one of Fred’s hobby horses), but it’s still pretty useful. And Ezekiel’s interpretation meshes nicely with the Babylonian Talmud and other Rabbinical traditions.

  • That is why you buy slaves.

  • Cathy W

    That just doesn’t make any sense. If your argument is that Paul was a stenographer, why would he claim to not be speaking for the being he was, in fact, taking dictation from?

  • Kirala

    It’s splitting hairs, but important hairsplitting to me: the Bible never actively approves of Lot handing his daughters over. Unless you think it also approves of Lot sleeping with his daughters himself. The acts are presented without outside comment within a few paragraphs of Genesis, are never approved, and the closest it comes to “approval” is calling Lot righteous at one point in 2 Peter (where the author is mostly trying to reassure a bunch of confused and scared people that God is still in control). And the Bible regularly calls righteous people who committed heinous acts which are called out as heinous acts (David and Uriah immediately come to mind). “Righteous” doesn’t mean “always good by definition”.

    And your questions are immaterial to the point of the post. The point is not “the Bible is silent on these issues, and therefore liberals are morally okay” – the point is “the Bible is silent on these issues, and therefore, conservatives, you should be too.” It’s not a tool for arguing objective morality, it’s a tool for arguing against Christian conservative authoritarianism in their own language.

  • Jenny Islander

    Yes, this. My mainstream religious education put a lot of emphasis on how people who appear in the Bible are shown as going wrong, but apparently there is a very strong strain of Bible-worship that will not admit that there are non-holy non-admirable non-saints all over the text.

    Also note that Lot offers his daughters for rape and later in the story they rape him. Lot is saved because Abraham begs God for his life. Not because there is anything special about him or his family.

  • Well, unless you belong to the school of thought which suggests that the word translated as “eunuch” was used as euphemism to refer to something completely different. XD

  • Heck, “from a strange tribe” would go back to the xenophobia. Marrying outside the tribe is condemned many, many times in the Bible.

  • On the other hand, you CAN indulge gluttony to your heart’s suicidal content at the Heart Attack Grill, home of the 9,982 calorie Quadruple Bypass Burger, where anyone over 350 pounds eats free. If the burger isn’t to your satisfaction, add 20 slices of unadulterated bacon (the cooking grease isn’t drained) for $3.69. There’s also Flatliner Fries deep fried in pure lard, the Butterfat Shake (made from 100% butter fat cream), and “Just like Dad!” brand candy cigarettes for your children.

    Well, for the foreseeable future at least. Given that two spokespersons and a few patrons have actually died from heart attacks in recent years, they’re not doing so well.

  • Carstonio

    Apropos from The Godfather novel: “You know, it’s a funny thing, you can smoke yourself to death, drink yourself to death, work yourself to death, and even eat yourself to death. But that’s all acceptable. The only thing you can’t do medically is screw yourself to death and yet that’s where they put all the obstacles.”

  • ReverendRef

    The traditional rabbinic perspective – this is from my Chumash:

    This may be buried somewhere in the comments; if so, I apologize for the duplication. But I would say (and aunursa can correct me if I’m wrong) that this goes back before traditional rabbinic perspectives.

    Ezekiel 16:49-50a 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;”

    It’s pretty clear to me that not only traditional rabbinic thought thinks S&G isn’t about sex but that God thinks it’s not about sex.

    The story of S&G is really about not being an ass.

  • … Apparently they have recently one-upped themselves with an Octuple Bypass Burger. Duly note how it literally drips grease.

  • Carstonio

    While I’m not as knowledgeable about the OT as others here, my impression is that preservation of tribal and cultural identity is a dominant theme. Not surprising from a culture that existed in a hostile geopolitical environment and that spent many years in captivity. Christian fundamentalism in the US has strong Southern roots, and appears to venerate the OT at the expense of the NT. Almost like this ideology is projecting Lost Cause revisionism onto the OT theme.

  • Linzweed

    The diet we would find equally abusive and very unacceptable …

  • heckblazer

    One interpretation I’ve read is that Lot is the screw-up nephew of Abraham, sort of a Goofus to Abraham’s Gallant. So when the angels show up Lot tries to be hospitable and protect them from the mob…but then does so by offering his daughters *facepalm*.

  • Christian Fundamentalism in the US venerates Republican ideals at the expense of both the OT and the NT.

  • JustoneK


  • esmerelda_ogg

    Okay, second third try at posting this reply…

    Dragoness Eclectic – You have an excellent point. I’ve read that Romans sometimes referred to slaves as “talking tools”. And yet, if one of these “tools” was freed, they immediately became almost complete people, and the freeborn children of former slaves just melted into the general population. Some powerful compartmentalization going on there.

    Come to think of it, during the Roman republic, the only “real” people were male heads of families. (That is, the oldest living man – a Roman in his fifties wasn’t the head of the family if his father – or grandfather – was still alive.) The paterfamilias had pretty much the same rights over his children as he did over his slaves – he could kill them if he saw fit, and while he often allowed slaves or sons to manage some of the family property, that didn’t mean they owned any of it.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    It doesn’t make any sense to me either. I’d say it makes it look like God is playing silly or malicious games with his creatures, and if I believed that I wouldn’t consider him worth worshiping.

    However, it does seem to satisfy fundamentalists. Why? How? The best I can offer is to repeat part of Fearless Son’s quote above from The Authoritarians:

    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.

  • Mark Z.

    The Bible isn’t univocal, so any statement that “the Bible approves of X” is pretty dubious. Even “the Bible says X”, without further qualification, is misleading. It’s an anthology. It has authors who say things.

    As you say, the narrative voice in Genesis (traditionally called “Moses”, so sure, let’s go with that) doesn’t really comment on the morality of Lot’s actions. As for the other Biblical authors, several of them talk about Sodom, but Lot is only mentioned twice. Once is by Jesus in Luke 17, just to establish setting: “In the days of Lot…”.

    The other is 2 Peter, which is just weird.

    I’ll point out that Lot does distinguish himself from the other Sodomites by apparently being the only one who will offer shelter to foreigners (and nearly getting himself lynched for it).* So the statement that he’s “righteous” is not totally groundless.

    As for offering his daughters to the mob, three thousand years ago in Mesopotamia that wasn’t an issue. They’re his daughters; their function is to be bargained away for the survival and prosperity of the family.** And to the author of 2 Peter it’s still not an issue, because he’s interested in examples of God destroying the evildoers while sparing the righteous. For that purpose, what matters is that Lot was just less awful enough not to be obliterated with fire from heaven like the rest of Sodom.

    * Corvino jokes that the angels were going to sleep in the town square because “they didn’t get paid a per diem”; I think there’s some substance to that. Jewish tradition says that Sodom was notoriously brutal to the poor to discourage them from immigrating. (See aunursa’s comments.) So the angels come in the guise of migrant workers and try to sleep in the public square and see what happens. That’s the test that Lot passes and everyone else in the city fails.

    ** Even a son could be bargained away if necessary; see Isaac, and the son of Mesha of Moab in 2 Kings 3:27.

  • Boidster

    JustoneK – Brilliant.

    Cathy W – I think the “argument” is that unbeknownst to Paul he was being God’s stenographer. So when Paul writes, “Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord,” God is snickering in the background.

    Think Professor X manipulating Paul’s mind, not Magneto forcing his adamantium skeleton to write the words. Yes, Paul had an adamantium skeleton. Duh.

  • stardreamer42

    And it’s amazing how many of them are convinced that the line “the Devil can quote scripture for his own purposes” is in the Bible. It’s not — it’s from The Merchant of Venice. Someone i know once got a “street preacher” asshole to spend nearly 15 minutes looking for it in the Bible before having pity on him and telling him where it’s from.

  • mountainguy

    well Mr Pendejo, then could you provide a conservative plain reading of the text, that happens to be more plain than the “liberal” plain reading of Mr Corvino?

  • Nay, it is credible, not incredible. :-)

  • Bethany

    I’ve read most of the way through The History of God — bogged down about 2/3 of the way though — but one thing that’s clear is that the Old Testament in general, the Pentateuch in particular, and Genesis in even MORE particular, is a VERY complicated document, encompassing probably thousands of years’ worth of oral tradition over several different cultures and probably even over different religions and different deities.

    I think we tend to want to boil it down to, “God says” or “the Bible says” when even “Genesis says” is making things much too simplistic as Genesis is very much not a unitary entity.

  • *Nods* One of the explanations I’ve always thought was most credible was that Genesis was formed by merging the oral traditions of at least two tribes together, hence why several characters have more than one name, why events are repeated with slight variations, why God is referred to as YHWH and Elohim (and why Elohim is a somewhat curious choice of name), why the mountain where God resides alternates between the names Sinai and Horeb…

  • Lorehead

    That particular translation has not aged very well. Likewise, “Is this not so?” when what is meant is, “That is not so, is it?” or “I will accept no bull from your house nor he-goat out of your folds.”

  • It’s a straightforward, face-value reading of the text without any
    radical criticism or deconstruction or appeals to any esoteric scholarly

    -Sorry, Fred, but the part at 2:01 is, to the fundamentalists, “radical criticism”, “deconstruction” and an appeal to an esoteric scholarly theory.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    According to the Sages, this cruelty stemmed from an attitude of, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours (Avos 5:10),” …

    Sounds like Atlas Shrugged

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    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…

    Begs the question — if so, then how does “Biblical Inspiration” differ from the “automatic writing” of occultists and spiritualists? And how does the Bible differ from Oahspe or Seth Speaks?

  • Lorehead

    Most of them think that all sorts of aphorisms are from “The Bible,” such as, “Heaven helps those who help themselves!”

    Another common variant is that all the parts of the Bible they want to ignore are called “the Old Testament” and all the important parts are called “the New Testament,” which, first, is not actually a rule they follow when deciding which parts they’re going to selectively ignore; and second, combines with the notion that Jews follow only “the Old Testament” to create a lot of antisemitism.

    In practice, people who say they believe iin “The Bible” usually mean the folkways of white people in the American South. There’s theoretically a book in existence that has all the answers, but they’re not very familiar with it.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    And Romans 1 is a type of literary convention called a “decline narrative”; considering it was written by an educated Jew, you could preface it with the Talmudic expression “For these are the things which the goyim do.”

  • Lorehead

    Was this in reference to 1 Corinthians 7:25?

  • esmerelda_ogg

    You got me! This is one of various reasons I’m not a fundamentalist.

  • histrogeek

    Genesis is pretty much believed to come from at least 3 sources, J and E from the two different Hebrew kingdoms (probably based on two earlier tribal stories) and P from the Exile period, plus the much harried redactor who tried to bring some order to the mess without annoying anyone.

    The rest of the Torah has at least two additional sources, D and H. D for Deuteronomy from the late Kingdom of Judah and H for the Holiness Code, which is a little hazier and occasionally gets lumped in with P.

  • Alix

    Well, except it’s at least implied in the passage where Abraham bargains with God over the destruction of Sodom. Then again, that was pre-angel visitation, so Lot might no longer be among the righteous after that.

  • Alix

    Well, y’know, the bible says all sorts of things about the rightness of slaughtering Canaanites and stoning your children to death, and most of us don’t consider those morally acceptable anymore.

    I’m … not entirely sure where you’re going with your comment, actually, though I think I agree with you?

  • Jenny Islander

    And this is always in tension with what God actually does. Ruth, for example, is a foreigner, and her descendants include David. The writers of the Gospels extend this theme. providing genealogies for Jesus that include outsiders.

  • I always thought the Priestly source came in on the latter half of Exodus, where it starts with “this is the law” and ends with “GIMMIE GIMMIE GOLD FOOD JEWELS INCENSE OIL OR YOU ALL DIE.”

  • Alix

    preservation of tribal and cultural identity is a dominant theme.

    Yep. There’s also a very strong secondary theme of “cities/settled people are really evil,” which, y’know, also underlies the Sodom story.

  • Foelhe

    … Wouldn’t that still make the bible fallible, though? Because Paul said he wasn’t speaking for God, but he was speaking for God, so when the bible says he isn’t speaking for God, the bible is wrong.

    Wait, logic, never mind.


    “Uh… ‘true,’ I’ll go ‘true.’ Huh, that was easy. I’ll be honest, I might have heard that one before though. Sort of cheated.”

    “It’s a paradox, there is no answer! Look, the Earth is going to overheat if we don’t slow down global warming!”

    “Uh… ‘false,’ I’ll go ‘false.’ “

  • ohiolibrarian

    Your name may be Mudd if …

  • Nick

    I got it from Jay Michaelson so go ahead lol.

  • ohiolibrarian

    To what extent was this normal practice of homosexuality versus the ability to use and abuse slaves? Were other inferior-in-rank persons approached/coerced into sex as well?

  • Nick

    I’m no expert but I think the love of Achilles and Patroklos is more of a filial bond, sort of like blood brothers or maybe even what we would describe as a “bromance.”

    This could have included sex, but doesn’t seem to have really required it or featured it as important the way a marriage would, whereas to the Greeks as well as the Hebrews, marriage was first and foremost predicated on sex and child bearing. I think the psychology involved is completely different.

  • Nick

    Yikes, Aramaic primacy nuts!

    I’ve never really looked into that argument, but since we don’t find modern ideas of sexual orientation anywhere else in the Ancient literature- it would seem odd to posit that Jesus brought up a completely new and anachronistic concept in his sermons only to pass over it without elaboration.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    From what I’ve read, using slaves was what the elite defined as “normal” homosexuality. There seem to have been occasional consensual relationships between adults, and they were considered very improper because there was no clear definition of who was in control of whom.

    As far as I can make out, to Romans “correct” sex was more a power issue than a love issue. Of course, it’s a long time ago, and we’re talking about millions of people most of whom never had the chance to write down what they thought.