What was the sin of Sodom? Some “televangelists” carelessly proclaim that God destroyed the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of “homosexuality.” Perhaps even your own childhood pastor, teacher, or other friends told you God punished these Canaanite1 towns because the people who lived there were gay. Even some respected Bible translators have equated the sin of Sodom with homosexuality. A careful look at Scripture corrects such ignorance.2
The word know is the one that raises people’s eyebrows. When being particularly nosey, a friend of mine might inquire in a faux-delicate sort of way, “So did you get to know him – like in the Biblical sense?” I understand what my friend wants to know. He could have just flat out asked, “Did you have sex with him?” But he didn’t want to be that rude.
But what rankles literalist Christians is in the previous verse: Genesis 19:4 (KJV)
These people have visions of a riot of gay men outside Lot’s house whose only purpose there was to rape the angels of God.
Let’s talk a bit about translations and paraphrases of Scripture.
The King James Version was written by a highly-esteemed committee of theologians whose purpose was to make the Bible available to the learned subjects of the King of England. Please note that it was designed to be used by educated people. The uneducated mass of people where never intended to have access to it – much less read it. It was a noble effort and was written in formal language that would satisfy the most proper of the educated nobility.
During the eleven-year translation process, King James himself lost interest in the project he authorized. During that time, there is much historical evidence that he began entertaining young men in his royal bedchamber for his own sexual pleasure. The translation committee heard about their King’s trysts with young men and did not approve. He was, after all, a married man. Their disapproval found its way into some of the word choices the committee used for several passages. Like some of the unfaithful Kings of Israel, they wanted their King to feel condemned for his outrageous behavior.
Some subsequent translations – but not all – have used that same method to change the texts from their original language and intent.
Why should we – as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians – use texts that have not been faithfully translated to guide us on our journey with Christ? Why should we revere text that has been mistranslated to include language written by people who clearly believe that homosexuals are not a part of God’s realm? It’s amazing to me how vociferously some GLBTQQA people defend these mistranslated texts. There are translations and paraphrases available that have refused to let hatred and homophobia creep into the language they use. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, called The Message, is one of those. I like it for its clear, concise, and picturesque language. It’s easy for me to understand the biblical writers’ intentions. I’ve used it for the “Telling the Ancient Story” sections of our study.
Let’s look back at what was really going on. Let’s go back to the 18th chapter of Genesis and start the story there. (To understand who Lot was, be sure to read the 12th and 13th chapters of Genesis.)
In chapter 18, some men, who we presume to be angels, tell Abraham that his wife is going to have a baby – an heir – even though she is old. Abraham is astonished and Sarah even laughs at the prediction. The men leave Abraham’s house and continue on to Sodom. Abraham is concerned for the safety of the men since that part of Canaan is considered to be quite hostile to visitors. God had already planned to deal with the people of Sodom and gets into an argument with the good-natured Abraham about sparing the God-fearing people who live there.
Every time I have read this story to people, they have gone into a blind rage concerning verse 8. So much so that they cannot hear the rest of the story. To our 21st century ears, Lot’s response to the townspeople is absolutely inexcusable. I promise that we will deal with that issue. With that in mind, let’s read Chapter 19 together. We’ll read this passage from The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language by Eugene H. Peterson. If you have your own Bible, you can follow along with the translation you have and note the differences in language.
They said, “No, we’ll sleep in the street.”
3But he insisted, wouldn’t take no for an answer; and they relented and went home with him. Lot fixed a hot meal for them and they ate.
4Before they went to bed men from all over the city of Sodom, young and old, descended on the house from all sides and boxed them in. 5They yelled to Lot, “Where are the men who are staying with you for the night? Bring them out so we can have our sport with them!”
6Lot went out, barring the door behind him, 7and said, “Brothers, please, don’t be vile! 8Look, I have two daughters, virgins; let me bring them out; you can take your pleasure with them, but don’t touch these men – they’re my guests.”
9They said, “Get lost! You drop in from nowhere and now you’re going to tell us how to run our lives. We’ll treat you worse than them!” And they charged past Lot to break down the door.
10But the two men reached out and pulled Lot inside the house, locking the door. 11Then they struck blind the men who were trying to break down the door, both leaders and followers, leaving them groping in the dark.
12The two men said to Lot, “Do you have any other family here? Sons, daughters – anybody in the city? Get them out of here, and now! 13We’re going to destroy this place. The outcries of victims here are deafening to God; we’ve been sent to blast this place into oblivion.”
14Lot went out and warned the fiancés of his daughters, “Evacuate this place; God is about to destroy this city!” But his daughters’ would-be husbands treated it as a joke.
15At break of day, the angels pushed Lot to get going, “Hurry. Get your wife and two daughters out of here before it’s too late and you’re caught in the punishment of the city.”
16Lot was dragging his feet. The men grabbed Lot’s arm, and the arms of his wife and daughters – God was so merciful to them! – and dragged them to safety outside the city. 17When they had them outside, Lot was told, “Now run for your life! Don’t look back! Don’t stop anywhere on the plain – run for the hills or you’ll be swept away.”
18But Lot protested, “No, masters, you can’t mean it! 19I know that you’ve taken a liking to me and have done me an immense favor in saving my life, but I can’t run for the mountains – who knows what terrible thing might happen to me in the mountains and leave me for dead. 20Look over there – that town is close enough to get to. It’s a small town, hardly anything to it. Let me escape there and save my life – it’s a mere wide place in the road.”
21God said to him, “All right. If you insist. I’ll let you have your way. And I won’t stamp out the town you’ve spotted. 22But hurry up. Run for it! I can’t do anything until you get there.” That’s why the town was called Zoar, that is, Smalltown.
23The sun was high in the sky when Lot arrived at Zoar.
24Then God rained brimstone and fire down on Sodom and Gomorrah – a river of lava from GOD out of the sky! – 25and destroyed these cities and the entire plain and everyone who lived in the cities and everything that grew from the ground.
26But Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt.
27-28Abraham got up early the next morning and went to the place he had so recently stood with God. He looked out over Sodom and Gomorrah, surveying the whole plain. All he could see was smoke belching from the Earth, like smoke from a furnace.29And that’s the story: When God destroyed the Cities of the Plain, he was mindful of Abraham and first got Lot out of there before he blasted those cities off the face of the Earth.
Around the time of King David, there came a royal decree that the ancient stories that were handed down from the descendants of Abraham needed to be collected and preserved. The stories that are found in chapters 18 and 19 are much later stories than that. In fact, these stories were written around the time of the exile of the Hebrews in Babylon because the priests were very afraid that they would lose them completely. While these stories were not written down by Moses nor by anyone who lived during Moses’ time, nevertheless, there is good evidence that people had told these stories about their forebears for many centuries. They are the faith stories of the children of Abraham.
From one story to the next in Genesis, we hear how the one God of Abraham wants people to treat each other. God’s people had lots of difficulty learning how to do it right, and often, they got it all wrong. This story is the crowning example in Genesis of how important the ancient rules of hospitality were to God. God did not want the children of Abraham to fear people who were different from them. Just because one of God’s children didn’t know anything about a person was no reason to hate or fear him. On the contrary, God demanded that God’s children welcome strangers into their homes. They were to feed them and give them shelter from their sometimes-hostile environment.
This principle was not unique to the children of Abraham. From the ancient Near East to Northern Africa, certain rules of hospitality were in place. If a person traveled from Mesopotamia to Egypt, it would be a long, hard journey filled with many challenges, but there was little fear that the inhabitants of the lands where they passed would raid the caravan. That is, except for one particular place: the neighboring cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah lay on either side of an important trade route.
Keep in mind that God had already decided that something had to be done about Sodom and Gomorrah and had already decided to destroy them. Note this in Genesis 13:13 (NRSV): “Now the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Sovereign.”
The Hebrew word for “know” – yãdhà, usually means “have thorough knowledge of” – or what we might say today “became a really good friend” – in the 943 times it is used in Scripture. It could also express intent to examine the visitors’ credentials, and in only ten references does the term imply sexual activity.3 If the latter was the author’s intended meaning, it would have been a clear case of attempted violence and gang rape – not sexual at all!
Nevertheless, our literalist brothers and sisters have taken the narrow, rare meaning of the word and have persecuted us with it.
What was the Sin of Sodom?4
The prophet Ezekiel states it clearly:
The prophet Isaiah pleads to Sodom that they stop being selfish and bringing meaningless offerings. He asks them to make themselves clean, to feed the poor, seek justice, and to defend orphans.
In the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Jesus sends the disciples out into the community to proclaim the Good News and instructs them to take nothing with them so they can find out who is worthy. Jesus says to stay with people who accept them until they go to another place.
Why was it so important to “be hospitable” in ancient times?
I will not excuse or apologize for Lot in his response to the townspeople in verse 8. While it is obvious that he treasured the male angels, it appears that he did not treasure his own daughters. There are several ways we could view this:
- He was so devoted to God’s Law of Hospitality that he was willing to do anything to carry it out. There are other examples of this kind of devotion. In Genesis 22, we hear that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son on an altar if that was what God required. (This is the way I would like to view this verse, but it still doesn’t feel good.)
- Since females were considered “property” in ancient Hebraic culture, Lot may have been trying to appease the townspeople with something they might like that he owned. While we think such an offer is totally unacceptable, the ancient children of Israel would not have given it a second thought.
What are some other thoughts you have as to why Lot may have responded in this way?
Regardless of that issue, it is obvious that the people of Sodom had taken their arrogance, vanity, and hatred to the next level - violence. They felt that just because someone was different from them – “they’re not from around here and don’t look like us” – that they had a good enough excuse to violently harm them.
Isn’t it interesting that literalists use this story to show what they think God might do to homosexuals – people they want to think are so very different than them – and then use it as an excuse to condemn and then harm us as well? Is it possible that they are finding a scapegoat to cover their own shame?
With this in mind, let’s see just how much importance God places in dealing kindly with people who are different. Let’s read the first 25 verses of chapter 19 again.
Was what God did enough to scare the children of Abraham into treating strangers with kind hospitality?
Many of us have felt uncomfortable when we find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings. One of our study participants offered this example: “Driving through a ‘bad’ neighborhood in a metropolitan city can trigger deep-seated fears. I once got lost on ‘Crack Hill’ in Greensboro. When I stopped the car to get directions from one of the men standing outside, he tried to sell me cocaine. A friend who had a similar experience was approached by prostitutes. I was afraid that at any moment I could be ripped from my car and raped or murdered. The man laughed at me because he sensed my fear and walked away.”
When this happens to us, we take action. At the very least, we resolve never to be caught in a situation like that again. Sometimes, we will call the police to report a dangerous situation, hoping they can do something about it.
There were no police in the Canaanite Cities of the Plain, so travelers called upon the highest authority they knew – God.
So, let’s examine the situation….
What makes us generally fear people we don’t know?
When you saw someone you feared who you didn’t know yesterday (or last week), what did you do?
What happened when you saw someone who was attractive to you last week?
Why was it different?
How can you overcome that fear of people you think you won’t like?
Let’s say there are many travelers in our area who are fleeing a catastrophe. Keep in mind that fear is one of the effects of toxic shame….
What makes us generally fear people we don’t know?
Why do you think the angels initially refused to accept Lot’s offer?
Do you think the people of Sodom would have acted differently if they had known these men were from God? Why or why not?
How do you prepare for a welcome guest to your home?
Is your home ready for an unexpected but welcome guest?
What are you expected to provide as host?
Use your imagination. Create your own story. You can be any of the actors in your story:
- the person who is different or
- the person who refuses to accept those who are different.
Think about something close to your real life. Write down a few notes. If you feel comfortable enough, share what you discovered with our group.
1 The Land of Canaan is the territory surrounded by Egypt, the Jordan River, and Lebanon – given to the children of Israel as “The Promised Land.” “Canaanites” are any of the many native tribes of non-Israelites who lived in that land.
2 Another good explanation of the problem can be found in “Homosexuality: Not a Sin, Not a Sickness – What the Bible Does & Does Not Say,” by the Reverend Elder Donald Eastman, second vice moderator of the UFMCC Board of Elders. Copyright © 1990 by Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches
3 From “The Sin of Sodom and Gomorrah” by The Reverend Terri Steed. A Bible study prepared for Sunday Morning Topics in 1997. Thank you Terri!