Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

GLBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion, 4

Okay, for those who have not followed this series, I kindly suggest you read here, here, and here before going further.

Most contemporary biblical scholars, no matter their personal views on “homosexuality,” agree that the Sodom story (Genesis 18:16-19:38 )  has little to do with the subject.  I begin with this story because that scholarly consensus has not reached the popular church. Most of the flamboyant rhetoric against gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgendered persons is filled with references to this story and to God’s judgment on the city. I have lost track of the number of people who have told me that everything from 9/11 to blizzards to Hurricane Katrina and more were signs of God’s judgment because (supposedly) the U.S. is becoming more tolerant of same-sex relationships–always ending with “just like Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Why this strong connection in the popular Christian mind? Part of it comes from using the term sodomy to refer to illicit sexual behavior, usually illicit same-sex behavior. But there is no Hebrew equivalent: Nowhere in the Bible is a sexual term built off of the city-name Sodom. The term “sodomy,” was coined in the Middle Ages by Peter Damien. He wrote a book to be used by priests for setting penances in confession called The Book of Gomorrah in which he classified numerous sexual practices (some same-sex and some between opposite sexes) as “sodomy.” This elaborate categorization was expanded by St. Thomas Aquinas who condemned any sexual act in which pregnancy was not a possibility. In fact, for Thomas, even married heterosexual sex in any other position than man-on-top & woman-on-back was considered “sodomy.”   Now we see why “sodomy laws” have varied so widely in the West and in various U.S. states–because of the many different ways this term has been used since it was coined in the Middle Ages. (The Thomistic view that the ONLY valid purpose of sex was for procreation led to such bizarre moral judgments as classifying masturbation as MORE evil than heterosexual rape since the latter has at least the possibility of pregnancy!!!) [For the detailed history of this, see Mark D. Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998).]

We have to set all this aside as “baggage,” in reading the Sodom story in Genesis if we are to hope to understand it correctly.

Notice in the Sodom story that the city is already under God’s judgment BEFORE the angels visit Lot. The first part of the story concerns Abraham’s attempt to protect the city–to get God to spare it if even 10 people in the city are righteous. The narrative does not tell us what “great wickedness” had so outraged God. (Never mind the issues about the wrath of God; one thorny theological issue at a time.)

Now the angels/strangers come to the city and Lot offers them hospitality–that is, he invites them to spend the night as guests in his house. The ancient world had no hotels. Travel from place to place was dangerous and difficult. Throughout the Ancient Near East, therefore, the practice developed as a moral imperative: to offer hospitality to strangers–which includes feeding them, giving them the best bed in the house, and offering them your protection. There have been several recent studies of the importance of hospitality as a moral practice in Scripture including studies by Arthur Sutherland, Luke Bretherton, Lucien Richard, John Koenig, & Christine Pohl to name only a few. [I am not claiming that all these authors would agree with me on GLBT issues. Some would and some would not. All are worth reading in order to better understand the biblical practice of hospitality.]

Then the men of the city come to do bodily harm to the strangers–inhospitality. They are clearly intent on same-sex rape. I reject revisionist readings which try to claim that the men’s desire ”to know” the strangers was only a demand that Lot introduce them! No, the context clearly shows that “to know” here means “to know sexually” as when Genesis says that Adam “knew” Eve and she became pregnant. Moreover, this crowd is clearly hostile. They plan a homosexual gang rape.  But these are not “gays gone wild,” because the text of v. 4 says, “ALL the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people down to the last man, surrounded the house.” If ALL the men were “homosexual,” there would have been no marriages and families–in short, no city at all. This is not a case of 2 men in love or even a pickup for casual sex. No, this is an attempted rape and many of those involved would have to be people who normally engaged in heterosexual relations–that is, to be normally straight.

The failure to grasp this point comes because so many consider “homosexuality” to simply be chosen. But actions such as prison rapes are mostly committed by men who prefer to have sex with women in most circumstances. Gay men and lesbians do not. They are attracted to their own sex. Offering them a heterosexual substitute cannot work in such a case.

So, why the attempted gang rape, here?

In the ancient world, as in modern prison populations, male on male rape was used as a method of humiliation–to show how weak the victim was. Since in a patriarchal society anything associated with women is inferior, to treat a man as a woman by penetrating him, was/is to degrade him. There are archeological finds of bronze friezes depicting conquering armies raping the conquered armies–sometimes showing the king/emperor (with a huge phallus) anally raping the entire conquered enemy. Even military rapes of women were designed to humiliate the conquered MEN–saying to them, “you are too weak to protect your women from us.”

The men of Sodom are offering inhospitable humiliation to “the strangers/aliens in their midst,” which is considered to be an incredible social sin. The need for Lot to protect his guests under the rules of hospitality is so great that (horrifying to us–but showing the devalued status of women, then)  he offers to let the mob gang-rape his virgin daughters if they will just leave his guests in peace!! Now, setting aside our (quite justified) horror at Lot’s attempted solution, this detail makes clear that the mob was not composed of “homosexuals” as we understand the term–not composed of men whose sexual desires are oriented toward their own sex. Because, in that case, offering the daughters makes no sense. [The horror of this passage is not only in its description of a planned same-sex gang rape–condemned strongly by the text–but also in the SILENCE of the text on Lot’s “solution.” Only the fact that sexism is still such a strong feature of most churches keeps us from being horrified that the biblical author of this story says NOTHING to condemn Lot’s willingness to let his virgin daughters be gang-raped in the (male) strangers’/angels’ place.]

There is a parallel, but much less well-known, story in Judges 19 where the men of Gibeah threaten such inhospitality to a Levite. In this case, the Levite throws his concubine (whom he apparently loves from earlier details in the story) outside and she is gang-raped all night and dead in the morning. Whereupon the Levite cuts her body into pieces and sends them to the 12 tribes of Israel and they, horrified, attack and wipe out the city of Gibeah. The horrible story is given to show moral chaos “when there was no king in Israel.” (19:1). Here again, same-sex gang rape is contemplated, inhospitality to strangers is the major crime (with added issues of sexual purity for the Levite)–only this time the “bargain” of getting to gang-rape a woman instead is accepted. [And, once more, nothing is said in condemnation of the Levite for sacrificing his concubine in this way.]

In the rest of Scripture, Sodom comes to symbolize great evil–but not generally sexual evil. E.g., Ezekiel 16:49-50, “This was the guilt of your sister, Sodom, she and her daughters[i.e., surrounding villages] 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.”  Similar references are made throughout the prophets and in the New Testament. Only in Jude 7 is the Sin of Sodom and Gomorrah specified as sexual immorality–and even there no mention is made of same-sex actions specifically as reasons why the city was destroyed.

What do we learn from this text? Rape of any kind, heterosexual or homosexual, is evil. Along with not helping the poor, it is an example of inhospitality–grave evil.

Please note: nothing in this story shows a positive evaluation of same-sex actions under any circumstance. This text does not, in that way, advance the case I am making for full inclusion of GLBT persons in the church. All we have done is remove this text from further discussion. It is useful in reinforcing our view that same sex rapes and other forms of using sex to humiliate are wrong. If we are to evaluate the morality of loving same-sex relationships analogous to marriage, however, this text is not of any use. It does not speak to the subject.

January 19, 2011 - Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, ethics, GLBT issues


  1. […] events, but I haven’t forgotten it. For the previous posts in this series, see one, two, three, four, five, and this addendum. We come, at last, to the New Testament.  We shall have to spend much […]

    Pingback by GLBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion, 6 « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | January 19, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] The Sodom Story […]

    Pingback by GLBT Persons in the Church: Index « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | January 20, 2011 | Reply

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