There is perhaps no more abused passage in the Bible for condemning gays and lesbians than the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. We’ve discussed other major anti-gay clobber passages on this blog multiple times, including the ambiguous Romans 1 with its mysterious interlocutor, and the equally perplexing 1 Corinthians 6:9 with its invented terms for sexuality.
But fundamentalists return time and again to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, routinely dismissing the conclusions of informed critical analysis and instead presenting this text as a definitive warning of the impending destruction that awaits those who embrace the homosexual “lifestyle.”
They argue for this understanding despite the plain and literal definition of the sin of Sodom in Ezekiel 16:49:
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.
In light of Ezekiel’s explication, it should go without question that hostile, wandering townsfolk violating the ancient premise of xenia, or hospitality, by demanding to rape the guests in your home is in no way analogous to two men wanting to share a last name and a life-insurance policy — yet the absurdity persists.
It persists despite the fact that Lot, held up as Sodom’s model citizen, offers his daughters to the rapists and yet is still spared by the Lord.
It persists despite the fact that there are parallel hospitality myths from antiquity of gods who take the form of human travelers to test mortals, find their hospitality wanting, and then engage in mass destruction (such as the Greco-Roman myth of Baucis and Philemon).
It persists despite the fact that of course rape is not the same as any form of mutual sexual expression.
And it persists despite the facts that, though disguised, Lot’s guests were, in fact, angels, and that the ancient Christian-Jewish world had a documented anxiety about human-on-angel sexuality.
To support their interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorra, conservatives often quote the tiny (and really somewhat nasty) Epistle of Jude to suggest that their neo-traditional take on the cities’ destruction as punishment for homosexuality is “biblically correct.”
Whenever we post a meme from our Redefine Sodomy campaign on the Unfundamentalist Christians Facebook page, we usually get at least one comment “proving” us wrong by citing Jude. This perspective isn’t just confined to trollish Facebook comments: the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer recently wrote that “Jude uses the verb form of porneia quite explicitly to refer to homosexuality when he connects the word to the behavior of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
But the truth of the matter is that the Epistle of Jude doesn’t support the misguided notion that the sin of Sodom and Gomorra was one of homosexuality. Let’s look at the passage that supposedly supports this argument, Jude 6-7:
And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgement of the great day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
Here we have angels who have left “their proper dwelling.” But what does that really mean? Many have assumed, because of the author’s preoccupation with the apocryphal 1 Enoch, that Jude is here referring to the Watchers, angels who came down from heaven and mingled with earth women:
It happened after the sons of men had multiplied in those days, that daughters were born to them, elegant and beautiful. And when the angels beheld them, they became enamored of them, saying to each other, “Come, let us select for ourselves wives from the progeny of men, and let us beget children.” (1 Enoch 7:1-2)
This makes sense when coupled with Jude’s remarks about Sodom and Gomorrah, whose inhabitants were said to “in the same manner” pursue “unnatural lust.”
But what exactly is this “unnatural lust”? In the Greek it seems clear that it was the Sodomites’ desire to have sex with angels,. The text states that they literally desired “other flesh,” or sarkos heteras (σαρκὸς ἑτέρας), which quite literally suggests non-human, angel flesh, which he clearly deems immoral and transgressing.
It’s in this context that we must understand the “sexual immorality” mentioned in tandem (ekporneusasai, ἐκπορνεύσασαι). Fisher may want porneia and its various forms to refer specifically to homosexuality, but in fact it’s a broad term whose only specificity, if any still exists at all by this period, would be to prostitution. Here, however, the author’s emphasis on the sameness of the two sins (ton homoion tropon, τὸν ὅμοιον τρόπον), coupled with his description of “other flesh,” makes it clear he’s concerned with angel-human copulation.
Those who claim that Jude supports the idea that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorah was because of human homosexuality are essentially arguing that same-sex people having sex is just like angels preying on human women or human men trying to rape angelic visitors, a position that, given the textual, historical and cultural evidence, makes no sense at all.
Instead of twisting the words of the Bible to advance hate and homophobia, fundamentalist Christians would be wise to heed what the Bible actually says about the tragic consequences of continuing to ignore and perpetuate the true sin of Sodom:
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:41-46)
About Don M. Burrows
Don M. Burrows is a former journalist and current college preparatory school teacher. Don holds a Ph.D. in Classical Studies from the University of Minnesota. A former Christian fundamentalist, Don is now a member of the United Church of Christ and contends most firmly that the Bible cannot be read or explored without appreciating its ancient, historical context. Don lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two young children. Don blogs at Nota Bene and can also be found on Facebook.