What Is the Sin of Sodom?

What Is the Sin of Sodom? August 26, 2018

John Martin, 1852

But Alt!” a reader cries. Sodomy cries to heaven for vengeance!” I hear this from someone who seems to think I am a defender of gay sex, an LGBT apologist. That’s bizarre. (Exhibit A / Exhibit B / Exhibit C / Exhibit D / Exhibit E / Exhibit F / Exhibit G / Exhibit H / Exhibit I / Exhibit J / Exhibit K / Exhibit L.)

In spite of this clear track record, people have called me all sorts of things this week. I am a “homophile” and a “homosplainer.” I am part of the “lavender mafia.” (I prefer chartreuse, even cerulean.) I am a “wannabe Catholic.” I am “a liar with an agenda.” It seems there are many people who don’t know how to search an archive, or to refrain from reading into (as opposed to reading). To say that homosexuality and sexual assault are separate issues does not mean I think gay sex is good, or that gender is fluid. (Someone accused me of that too.) It means I think they are separate issues.

Anyway, by “sodomy,” I have to assume my interlocutor meant “gay sex.” Gay sex cries to heaven for vengeance. But the Catechism does not say “sodomy.” Look for yourself: CCC 1867 says “the sin of the Sodomites.”

“But Alt, you’re splitting hairs! That’s the same thing! Why do you think it’s called sodomy? The sin of the Sodomites is sodomy, hello!”

But bear with me, now. In a footnote, the CCC cites Gen. 18:20. and Gen. 19:13.

  • Gen. 18:20. “And the LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous…”
  • Gen. 19:13. “For we will destroy this place, because the cry of them is waxen great before the face of the LORD; and the LORD hath sent us to destroy it.”

The footnotes are meant to establish no more than that this particular sin cries out for vengeance, since the phrase “cries out” is in the biblical text. But the cry is against Sodom, the place, and those who live there. Near as I can tell, “Sodomites” in the Catechism means “people of Sodom.” It has no larger meaning than that.

“But Alt! The sin of the people of Sodom was sodomy! It was gay sex! You’re trying to split hairs!”

Well, let’s look at that. But before we look at that, I want to make a few points clear.

First, sexual activity between two people of the same sex is a sin. End stop. This is true even of consensual sex. We know this quite apart from any discussion of Sodom and Gomorrah in particular.

  • Lev. 18:22. “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.”

This is part of a long passage of strictures forbidding sex with certain persons. You must not have sex with your mother, your sister, your granddaughter, your aunt, your sister-in-law, an animal, two people at once. And don’t have sex with another man, or another woman.

  • Romans 1:26-27. “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

Some LGBT apologists, like Matthew Vines, have argued that St. Paul is simply speaking about cultural norms in this passage—norms that applied in his day, but not necessarily in ours. I have already answered that error. Paul uses the word “natural” in this passage relative to natural law as defined by the creation, not relative to cultural custom.

  • Persona Humana (here). “Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved of.”
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (CCC 2357).

Second, homosexuality is not of itself a sin, but it is “objectively disordered”. That does not mean that homosexual persons are disordered, but that the orientation is. (Fr. James Martin explains here.) It is not ordered toward its proper end, which is the procreation of children and the union of male and female in marriage.

Third, homosexual persons are “called to chastity,” according to CCC 2359. Nevertheless, “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” And they are capable of “Christian perfection.” The Catechism warns us against “unjust discrimination” of LGBT persons.

Well, one form of “unjust discrimination” is to scapegoat LGBT people in the Church as somehow the reason for the sexual abuse in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

***

All this being said, I have not found where the Church tells us what “the sin of the Sodomites” is. You’re welcome to tell me if you know of any text in which such a listing of sins occurs; I don’t. And by “sin of the Sodomites,” I mean specifically the sin of the people of Sodom.

I know of one text only that says “the sin of Sodom was this.” It is Ezekiel 16:49-50.

Behold, 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 an abomination before me.

Was the sin of Sodom lack of charity and hospitality, or was it a sexual abomination? Many debate this question, and it’s a boring debate because the answer is: The sin of Sodom was both. But Ezekiel does not characterize the species of “abomination,” possibly because he assumes (rightly) that his audience will know without being told.

But what Ezekiel does say is that Jerusalem’s abominations are greater, and more numerous, than Sodom’s. In Ezekiel 16, the prophet condemns Jerusalem for “whoring” after other gods. Jerusalem is guilty of adultery in a metaphorical sense. But in the worship of false gods, Jerusalem committed far more abominations than Sodom did.

Jude 1:7 says that Sodom “indulged in porneia,” which is a catch-all word for sexual immorality of any kind. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines it as “illicit sexual intercourse in general.”

So we must go to Genesis to find out what specific abomination “the sin of the Sodomites” is. (Answers in Genesis, dear reader.) The Bible first mentions Sodom in Genesis 13: “The men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly” (Gen. 13:13). That’s not very specific. Nor is Gen. 18:20 any more specific when it describes the sin of Sodom as “exceeding grievous.” Whatever it is, it is bad, and God is going to destroy the city. Abraham bargains with God and God agrees to spare the city if he finds ten righteous people living there. (Evidently there were not even ten.)

Then, in Genesis 19, two angels come to Sodom. The men of Sodom do not know they are angels; they are foreigners to them. No sooner do these guests appear in Lot’s house than “the men of the city” surround the place. It is like a siege. The men of the city demand Lot give up the strangers so that they, the Sodomites, can “know” them. I do not dispute that “know” here is sexual in character.

But what the text describes is a threat of violent rape. We must understand—go back and read Genesis chapter 14—that Sodom had been at war with its neighbors. Rape of strangers passing through the city was a way to send a particularly strong message. And that is why I am not convinced by one particular argument used by those who think the men of Sodom have homosexual attraction.

The argument relies on Lot’s actions in Genesis 19:8. Lot offers the men of the city his daughters instead. But they refuse. The argument is, they refused because they were gay. They weren’t attracted to women but to men.

But if it is true that the men of Sodom wanted to send a strong message to surrounding nations, the Sodomites’ refusal of Lot’s offer suggests no more than that raping men was particularly humiliating. Rape of women was not good enough. And the fact that Lot offered his daughters willingly suggests he thought it a good compromise—not quite as humiliating. The men of the city were in no mood for compromises like this.

So you need stronger proof if you want to argue that the men of Sodom actually had homosexual attraction, rather than the desire to humiliate foreign nations. (This is what happens if you attack us.)

Based on the actual text, “the sin of the Sodomites” is violent rape. It is sexual assault. It is not, however, “gay sex” understood as sex between two consenting men. That is a sin, and a grave one, but it is not the sin of Sodom” that cries to heaven for vengeance. No Catholic ought to treat it as though it is.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker agrees: “It is arguable, therefore, that it is unfair to use the word “sodomy” for all homosexual behaviors. Sodomy is not less than that. It is more than that.” Its “proper definition” would be “rape or sexual violence of any sort,” especially the gang rape that the text describes.

One more verse is instructive here, and that is Hebrews 13:2. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” By “entertaining angels,” the author refers to Sodom, since the guests in Lot’s house were angels and the men of Sodom did not know it. They feared that any stranger who came into their midst might be a foreign enemy. (Sound familiar?) Violently raping men was a way of showing “zero tolerance.” But not every stranger is an enemy; some might be angels. That—a particularly egregious and brutal inhospitality to a stranger—was the sin of Sodom. It was not acting upon homosexual attraction.

One must also take note of what the other sins are that cry to heaven for vengeance. Murder is one. Slavery is another—the cry of the foreigner, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed. And defrauding workers of a just wage is the last. What all of these have in common is that the victims of these sins are utterly helpless before those more powerful. The sin against them cries to heaven because God is their only recourse. Homosexual sex, understood consensually, does not fit this category. But sexual assault does.

I know that many understand “the sin of Sodom” to include any species of homosexual activity. This usage has a very long history. As for “sodomy,” many use that word, too, to describe homosexual activity of any kind. Others mean anal sex specifically (or oral sex too), including between a man and a woman.

We must define terms, but I don’t think any broadening of the phrase “sin of Sodom” or “sin of the Sodomites” beyond rape is warranted by the text of scripture. And I would ditch the term “sodomy” altogether. It has too loose a usage, and too pejorative connotation, to be of any use in these discussions. When we use it, we speak to the converted, not those who need converting. People like Matthew Vines close their ears when we say “sodomy.” People like Matthew Vines close their ears when we suggest that the sin of gang rape is a particular species of gay sex. It’s not.

“But Alt! If you agree, as you say, that all homosexual activity is a sin, why is it so important what people mean by these terms? Why argue so much over words?”

Well, “sodomy” is offensive to people, for one. Let your speech be always with grace. But accuracy should matter in these discussions. Should it not? If Catholics are going to explain to others why the Church teaches what she does about homosexuality, then we need to be precise about what the biblical text says and what it doesn’t say. Otherwise we open ourselves up to refutation and unbelief. We cannot continue to make reference to biblical texts that have nothing at all to do with homosexuality. That hurts our witness; it does not help it. And there are enough biblical texts (and Church texts) that tell us that even consensual sex between two men or two women is a sin. We need not misrepresent Genesis 19, or cling to the hurtful word “sodomy,” to retain that truth.

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