What was the sin of Sodom? (Genesis 19 and Jude 7)
The Genesis 19 account of Sodom and Gomorrah is a story of attempted gang rape of two “outsiders.” It says nothing about loving gay relationships, and actually condemns the sort of violence sometimes done to gays and lesbians.
Jude 7 talks about a first century Jewish legend that the women of Sodom had sex with male angels. Since it is about heterosexual sex between angels and humans, it clearly has nothing to do with gay relationships.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is perhaps the best known of the “clobber passages” that some try to use against gay people. This story is told in one of the oldest books in the Bible, and has been a favorite among artists and writers for centuries. Even if you have never read the Old Testament account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, you have probably seen it portrayed in a movie or book. Since the biblical account is very long, we will paraphrase it here. You can find the original in Genesis 19 and the preceding chapters.
Abraham had a nephew named Lot who moved to Sodom. At the time, Sodom was considered a comfortable, modern, sophisticated city, and Lot thought it would be a better place to raise his family than out on the plains with Abraham, who was a nomad. Unfortunately, the city was also full of wickedness, and God told Abraham that it would soon be destroyed. Two angels were sent to assess the situation in Sodom, and when Lot saw them in the town square, he invited them to his house for dinner and lodging. He did not recognize they were angels. He seems, however, to have felt a responsibility to be hospitable to strangers — perhaps because he remembered having been a stranger himself.
That night, when the city dwellers learned Lot had welcomed two strangers into his house and into their city, all the people gathered at his door. They demanded that Lot deliver the two men to them so they might “know them.” (Genesis 19:5) (The Hebrew word translated “know” in this passage is sometimes used in Scripture to mean sexual intercourse, and given the context of the passage, that is probably what it means here. (See note 1.)) Lot pleaded with his neighbors not to do such an evil thing. In a despicable act, he even offered them his virgin daughters instead, but the men persisted. Finally, the angels struck all those outside with blindness and warned Lot and his family they should leave the city because God would soon destroy it for its wickedness. The very next day, fire came down from heaven and destroyed the city and all its inhabitants.
Since the Middle Ages, many Christian theologians have viewed this story as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. They have perpetuated the idea that Sodom was destroyed for its sexual wickedness and that the proof of this wickedness was the desire of the men of Sodom to have homosexual sex. Let’s test this interpretation against both the facts relayed in Genesis 19 and the interpretation of the story by later authors of the Bible. First, let’s examine the facts.
The text of the story tells us that “the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man” (vs. 4) gathered at Lot’s door and demanded that his guests be brought out to them. This language is important because it makes clear that the group at Lot’s door was comprised of either all the people of the city (men and women) or, at a minimum, all the males of the city, both boys and men. This is a telling fact.
Today, San Francisco has the reputation for being the “gayest” city in the world. Yet even in San Francisco, gay men constitute far less than half the total male population. If the Scripture text had told us that “certain men of Sodom” or even “many men of Sodom” gathered at the door, we might then surmise that the men at the door could have been motivated by homosexual desire. But the text says “both young and old, all the people to the last man” gathered at the door. To suggest that every man and boy in Sodom was homosexual is simply not credible.
Any reasonable interpretation of the story must account for the fact that all the males of Sodom (both homosexual and heterosexual), and perhaps even the women, participated in this attack. Something other than homosexual desire seems to have been at work here.
This point is reinforced by another fact recounted in the story. We are told that Lot, in a last-ditch effort to save his guests, offered his virgin daughters to the men at the door. Although Lot’s offer is reprehensible, it does yield another important interpretive clue. Suppose you were hosting a dinner party, when suddenly a group of men that you knew to be homosexual began angrily beating on the door, demanding that you send out a male guest from your house. Would it make any sense to offer them a beautiful woman instead? Of course not! If the men were motivated by homosexual desire, offering them heterosexual sex instead would be nonsensical. Lot knew the men of Sodom much better than any of today’s fundamentalist preachers do. And it’s obvious he believed the crowd outside his door was predominantly heterosexual. Why else would he offer his daughters?
Although it might be simpler to blame what took place in Genesis 19 on homosexuals, the facts indicate that something far more encompassing and complex was taking place. But what? If the motivation for the attack was not homosexual desire, then what was it?
Consider an example from modern times. On August 9, 1997 in New York City, two white police officers were strip-searching a black Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima and grew angry with him. They dragged him into a bathroom and, while one officer held him down, the other repeatedly rammed a broken broom up Louima’s rectum. While they did this, the officers reportedly yelled things like, “We’re gonna teach you n****rs to respect police officers!” (See note 2.) In the aftermath of this terrible incident, nobody has suggested the assault was motivated by homosexual desire. Intuitively, we recognize the two officers were motivated by hatred and fear of people like Abner Louima. In their minds, there was no better way to demean and humiliate an “enemy” than to sexually violate him.
This same evil motivation is behind the vulgar phrase “F**k you!” That’s why, when Tyler is poking along the highway in his ’87 Honda Civic and an angry man in a Ford F150 flies by and flips him the finger, Tyler doesn’t think, “Oh, he must think I’m cute!” Tyler knows the man is angry — maybe angry enough to brutalize him.
From archeological records, we know it was also a common practice in the Near East during ancient times for soldiers to use homosexual rape as a way of humiliating their enemies. (See note 3.) When victorious soldiers wanted to break the spirit of their defeated enemies, they would “treat them like women” by raping them. The practice was not driven by sexual desire, but by brutality and hatred toward the enemy.
The motivation to sexually abuse those we hate is, sadly, part of the general human experience (even if it is not part of each of our personal experiences). And it is this motivation, not homosexual desire, which stands behind the sin of Sodom. Perhaps the men of that city feared the two angelic strangers were spies. Perhaps the fact that Lot (a recent immigrant) had taken them in served to heighten their suspicion. Whatever caused their panic, a mob mentality took over, and before long the people of Sodom were at Lot’s house clamoring to brutalize the strangers. This is a story about attempted mob violence, not homosexual desire.
To test this proposition, let’s ask a simple question. Suppose the two angels in the story had been women, but the story otherwise unfolded exactly the same: The men of Sodom clamored to have sex with the two female angels and God destroyed the city. Do you think anyone would conclude this story was a blanket condemnation of heterosexuality? Of course not! Instead, we all would conclude (correctly) that the wickedness of Sodom was shown by their desire to sexually violate two strangers in their midst.
In fact, this is the way other authors of the Bible interpreted this story. (See note 4.) There are about twenty references to the story of Sodom in the Bible, and none of them says homosexuality was the sin of Sodom. One of the most extensive references to Sodom is found in Ezekiel, which says, “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 abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50 (See note 5.)
It is clear from this passage (and others like it (See note 6.)) that the abomination of Sodom, according to the Old Testament prophets, was that they behaved with callous indifference toward the weak and vulnerable — the poor, orphans, widows, and strangers in their midst.
Why then do some Christians interpret this story as condemning all homosexual behavior? We would submit that their interpretation is driven by anti-gay prejudice. Many Christians only know the stereotypes they learned in childhood. They buy into the idea that all gay men are predators and that loving relationships between inherently homosexual people do not exist. So they read the story of Sodom and see a stereotype of what they think all gay people are like. They then assume the story must be a sweeping condemnation of homosexuality, because they assume all homosexuality takes the form shown in this story. In truth, this story is at most a condemnation of homosexual rape. And, as other Scriptures affirm, it is more generally a condemnation of the mistreatment of those who are most vulnerable, including strangers. It is ironic that the story of Sodom is now used by Christians to justify hatred toward another vulnerable group — gay people.
This story clearly does not apply to the question we bring to Scripture, namely, whether two persons of the same sex can live in a loving, committed relationship with the blessing of God. So we can take this clobber passage and set it aside.
Going after strange flesh (Jude 7)
The second of the clobber passages is another reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. In the King James Version of the Bible it reads:
“Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” (Jude 7, See note 7.)
When we read this verse in modern America, having been raised in a culture that despises gays and refers to them as “queer,” it is easy to assume Jude’s reference to “going after strange flesh” must mean homosexuality. For many heterosexual people, it seems unnatural or strange for a person to desire intimacy with someone of the same sex. However, well-informed theologians will tell you this is not what Jude was talking about.
At the time the book of Jude was written, many believed some of the women of Sodom had engaged in intercourse with male angels. This belief was probably derived from Genesis 6:1, 2 and 4, where we are told the “Sons of God”(angels) took the daughters of humans as wives. This was the final act which brought God’s judgment on the earth in the form of a great flood. And it seems some Jewish writers believed this was also the sin which sealed Sodom’s fate.
According to first century legend, some of the women of Sodom (and other wicked ancient cities) were thought to have had sex with beings who were made of different flesh — angelic flesh. (See note 8.) This is what Jude was referring to when he talked about “going after strange flesh.” He was referring to heterosexual sex between male angels and human women, not homosexual sex between humans. Many theologians, including many conservatives, interpret the passage this way. (See note 9.)
Again we ask, does this passage apply to the question we bring to Scripture? And we must answer that it has nothing to say about whether it is possible for two humans of the same sex to have an intimate, loving relationship with the blessing of God.
Note 1. The same word is used in a similar story in Judges 19. However, in that story, a group of men rape a woman to death.
Note 2. Christopher John Farley, A Beating In Brooklyn, Time.com: Time Magazine Archive, August 25, 1997.
Note 3. On pages 130 and 147 of The Construction of Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1988), David F. Greenberg discusses the use of sexual intercourse as a form of humiliation. Martti Nissinen in Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1998) says, “Homosexual rape has been a traditional way of establishing the relationship with captured enemies and foes.” (page 48)
Note 4. Likewise, Jewish scholars did not associate the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah with homosexuality until Philo in the first century AD and not with any measure of consistency until the sixth century. For a good discussion of this see Greenberg, page 201, footnote 91.
Note 5. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.
Note 6. See Deuteronomy 29:23, 32:32; Isaiah 1:9-17, 3:9, 13:19; Jeremiah 23:14, 49:18, 50:40; Lamentations 4:6; Ezekiel 16:46-56; Amos 4:11; and Zephaniah 2:9.
Note 7. When quoting the clobber passages, we have chosen to use the King James Version, because this is the translation most often quoted by Christians who use these passages against gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.
Note 8. For an excellent discussion of this, see Nissinen, pages 91 to 93. In these pages, Nissinen discusses Jewish writings from 200 to 1 bc which associate the sin of the people of Sodom with that of people before the flood of Noah.
Note 9. For example, see JND. Kelly, A commentary on the Epistles of Peter and of Jude (Harper and Row, New York, 1969), pages 258-259; Fred Craddock, First and Second Peter and Jude (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 1995), page 139; Richard Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (Word Books, Waco, 1983), page 54; Michael Green, The Second Epistle General of Peter and the General Epistle of Jude (Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1987), page 180; CEB. Cranfield, I and II Peter and Jude (SCM Press, London, 1960), page 159; and Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Harper, San Francisco, 1996), page 404.