What is a Sodomite, Anyway?

What is a Sodomite, Anyway? February 13, 2019

Last night I got into an argument with someone who kept talking about “Sodomites.”

He crashed a thread that wasn’t to do with sodomy at all; it was about Donald Trump Junior, college professors or socialism, I’m still not sure which. And he started talking about “Sodomites” and gay agendas being pushed in public schools and people who let their little sons dress in drag. He went on for quite a long time. Finally, I asked him what he thought “Sodomy” meant. Twenty-four hours later and I’m still waiting for a response.

This morning I found quite a few comments in the “flagged” section of my Disqus, by a tiresome commentator who always gets eaten by the spam filter. He, too, mentioned “Sodomites.” I hesitated between asking him what, exactly, he meant by “Sodomite” and ignoring him to see if he went away on his own.

And then it hit me. Maybe I should talk about Sodomites. It seems to be a topic that’s going the rounds. It’ll probably get me a lot of interesting clicks from people who don’t usually read my blog (hello to you, by the way). Let’s talk about the Bible story of the destruction of Sodom.

When  commentators, online antagonists and the like use the term “Sodomite,” it’s always in the context of being disgusted by gay people; they even tend to use the term in contexts that make me think they’d be happy of the Lord sent a rain of fire to kill gay people.  There seems to be a consensus among Catholics of my acquaintance that the story of the destruction of Sodom is all about God punishing people for yucky anal sex. But personally, I don’t think the text supports that.

Some of my longtime fans, particularly Deacon Jim, are already penning your condemnations of me at this point, so let me just mention that I believe and profess everything the Church teaches, including the parts about sexual morality. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s just not very much homosexuality in the story of the destruction of Sodom. As my friend Scott reminded me, the first chapter of Jude mentions that the citizens of Sodom engaged in “porneia” which is translated as “illicit sexual intercourse,” and that’s definitely in the story. But look at the text, and look at the context– and spend some time familiarizing yourself with other texts that mention Sodom– and a larger picture arises.

The Talmud has many nasty little stories about Sodom that aren’t included in Genesis, and I do not see that they are about sex. They’re about the selfishness of the citizens of Sodom, and their refusal to help people in need. Indeed, the citizens of Sodom were so against charitable giving that they made it illegal, and the penalty for giving food to beggars was burning at the stake. One of the victims of this punishment was a daughter of Lot’s; her dying cry to the Lord for justice prompted the Lord Himself to go down and investigate. ““I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached Me.”

Do Catholics think the Talmud is canonical? No. But I don’t see that it isn’t wise to consider thousands of years of Rabbinical scholarship if you’re going to try to interpret the Book of Genesis. And these stories do dovetail very neatly into the book of Genesis, because they explain what the Lord was doing wandering around disguised as three human travelers, when he appeared to Abraham. He was investigating a sin that cried out to Heaven– the burning victim literally cried out to Heaven. He was investigating the sin of Sodom.

You see, the Bible story of the destruction of Sodom doesn’t begin in Sodom. It begins near the great trees of Mamre, where Father Abraham spots three men wandering the desert and runs to them. He doesn’t wait for them to approach. He runs to them. He bows to the ground and asks if they’ll do him the honor of bathing their feet and sitting with him. He orders his elderly wife, Sarah, to go and bake bread with the finest flour, scoop up some cottage cheese and cook a whole calf’s worth of veal. He wines and dines them under the trees. Abraham exemplifies hospitality: if you see a stranger wandering in the desert, it’s not enough to wait for them to ask for help. You go and meet that person, with enthusiasm. You make an obeisance and beg them for the honor of a visit, no matter who they are, and you feed them the best of what you have.

And this is the correct answer. The Lord responds to Abraham’s hospitality by giving him the ultimate gift, the most prized reward in Abraham’s culture. Abraham is going to be a father. Sarah who cooked this lovely feast will have her disgrace taken away. She’s going to bear an heir for her husband after all. Sarah gives this idea a cynical laugh, and the Lord chides her–gently. Abraham and Sarah passed the test.

Two of the strangers go off to Sodom, and one remains with Abraham, who realizes Whom he’s addressing and what’s about to happen. He pleads for the city, for the sake of his nephew, Lot, who lives there. He bargains the Lord down from fifty innocent men to forty-five to thirty, and so on all the way down to ten. If there are ten innocent people in Sodom, the city will not be destroyed.

But there are not ten innocent men.

Maybe there isn’t even one.

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