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Penetrating the Meaning of Genesis 19

Penetrating the Meaning of Genesis 19 February 23, 2021

I felt as though my recent class about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, its use in online debates about homosexuality, went better than ever before, and I am eager to reflect on why. I think some of it had to do with my frankness in talking about some of the difficult and disturbing aspects of the stories, which included as a pairing to Genesis 19 the intentionally similar story in Judges 19. We began with an article that is now more than two decades old about Sodom and Gomorrah on the internet. It is helpful for students to think about what the internet was not long before they were born, and in what ways it has and has not changed during their lifetimes. (This also gives me a chance to introduce them to Google’s nGram viewer as well as features and limitations of Google Scholar.)

When we turn to what they have heard about Sodom and Gomorrah, it is as you’d expect. They have heard appeals to Genesis 19 from those who oppose homosexuality. Looking closely at the details of the story, I ask them what it is about, and they can see that it is describing an attempted rape. I then ask them about men who might rape other men in prison, and whether those who perpetrate such acts would consider themselves gay or act because of same-sex attraction. They say no, and I follow up by asking what the motives might be in that case, to which they offer answers in terms of dominance, domination, and hierarchy. The male students are clearly uncomfortable, which provides a chance to talk about gender differences and the different experiences of men and women ancient and modern. Women do not have the privilege of not thinking about rape, as they are the victims of most sexual assaults. Men, on the other hand, can put such scenarios out of their minds and simply try to avoid going to prison.

There are so many important subjects that get raised through tackling this passage and others related to it through an approach that acknowledges and engages with contemporary use of scripture. We can talk about whether the frequency of something being a focus in the Bible is supposed to indicate its importance. We can talk about whether those who emphasize the importance of opposing marriage equality emphasize the things Ezekiel says were the actual sins of Sodom (things that many would say apply to cities just as much in our time as ever). We can talk about whether, given that Genesis 19 is actually about attempted rape, those who refer most frequently to Sodom and Gomorrah show significant concern to oppose rape.

And we can turn to Judges 19 and see clearly what awaited Lot’s daughters if Genesis 19 had unfolded differently. It highlights the gender inequity that is there throughout the Bible’s stories and laws  Female readers may have no need for these to be drawn to their attention. Male readers often miss them. The discussion of Sodom and Gomorrah is a missed opportunity if we talk only about its use, misuse, and abuse in many discussions, and fail to address how it relates to gender, to patriarchy, and perhaps most of all what it reveals about how cisgender white males read the Bible.

What effective or disappointing engagements with Genesis 19 have you encountered?

Of related interest, see my earlier blog post about discussing these texts in my Sunday school class. See also:

Marjorie Taylor Greene opposes Equality Act

Q&A with Grace Ji-Sun Kim

Biblically Illiterate Bible Quoting


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