The Old Testament contains two stories that are very similar, in Genesis 19 and Judges 19 – 20. For those who see the Bible opposing homosexuality, these stories show God’s disgust and punishment of ‘sodomy’. Both stories are truly disturbing, and do indeed detail disgusting acts of homosexual and heterosexual violence. But the Bible itself interprets these stories for us, giving very specific reasons why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, and it has nothing to do with covenantal, monogamous same sex relationships.
Biblical scholar, Mark Jordan in his book, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology sums it up best: “Even if the story were about lust, it is about rape, not homosexuality. The Sodomites were not ‘gay’. They were rapists. This is why Lot could offer his daughters in replacement, why the Judges version of the tale actually has a female substitute, and why those few Biblical references to Sodom as being sexually-related speak in general terms rather than specific ones” (my emphasis).
Let’s look at the evidence in detail.
The stories are fairly similar. In Genesis, the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah forms part of a larger narrative which establishes the relationship between the patriarch, Abraham and YHWH God. In a dialogue about the sinfulness of the twin cities, Abraham gets God to agree to attempt to find just ten good men in Sodom. Two angels disguised as men enter the city, and Abraham’s nephew, Lot gives them lodging for the night. But the men of the city demand that Lot send the men out so they can rape them. Lot offers his two daughters to the baying crowd instead, but before this can be acted upon the Angels strike the men with blindness and then help Lot and his family escape before destroying the cities.
In the parallel story of Gibeah in Judges 19, a Levite who has spent some time reclaiming a run away concubine (yes, it really starts off badly and just gets worse) spends the night in Gibeah, a Benjamite city. He is given lodging by an old man, who’s house is surrounded and the exact same demand made by a crowd of men: send out your guests so we can rape them. The old man offers both his daughter and the concubine, instead of the Levite. Eventually the concubine is offered to the crowd, who gang rape her through the night and leave her for dead on the doorstep. The Levite takes her home, and then cuts her body into twelve pieces and sends these to each of the twelve tribes of Israel, who later go and exact revenge on the men of Gibeah.
So strong are the similarities between these stories, and also similar stories of inhospitability and providing shelter for heavenly visitors in the myths of ancient cultures (e.g. Ovid’s account of Philemon and Baucis ), that some commentators believe that these stories are mythical, rather than real. I take the Bible at face value on this issue, and see the story of the Levite in Gibeah in Judges as a separate account. The authorship and dates of both stories make no difference to their meaning and applicability to our discussion.
Both are vile stories, and definitely not fit for Sunday School. It’s no surprise that if people think these stories are warnings about the dangers of same gender sexuality that they have such a visceral negative reaction to homosexuality.
Personally, I find it quite disturbing that people can read these stories and the main issue they come away with is homosexuality. The treatment of women in these stories astounds me (and go further to Judges 21 to be further horrified at how the Benjamite men who were not killed got wives). To ancient Middle Eastern ears, the deeply shocking issue here would have been the lack of hospitality (to put it mildly) and the attempted ritual humiliation of men. However they make you feel, even at a first reading it must be obvious that these stories are about much more than homosexuality.
The Sins of Sodom (and Gibeah)
The term ‘sodomy’ is not a Biblical term. The word itself, used as implying a sexual sin, is first found in letters between Saint Jerome and a priest Amandus, dated to 395 AD, but the details of the act and the nature of the sin are not explained. Early church fathers such as St. Ambrose and Origen clearly associate the sins of Sodom with inhospitality (see references below), with the shift coming mainly from St. Augustine. Even then, throughout church history, the word ‘sodomy’ itself has been used to refer to a number of different sins, but almost never homosexuality until recent years. For example, in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas Aquinas ranked ‘sodomy’ as the worst crime second only to murder itself, but in so doing he was talking about any sex act which was not aimed at producing children. For Aquinas it was “spilling the seed” that was sodomy, as it essentially amounted to destruction of a potential person. He included masturbation, oral sex and any form of contraception as “sodomy”. Even John Calvin, in his commentary on Genesis, defined sodomy as “the habit of vexing strangers”. We cannot take the modern usage of the word and impose it back on the story – the label for homosexuality has emerged out of cultural interpretations of the story, and has done so only recently in history.
Some Bible translations have inserted the word ‘Sodomite’ into the Bible. None of these are a good translation. For example, the Authorized King James Version translates Deuteronomy 23:17 as “There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel,” but the word corresponding to “sodomite” in the Hebrew original, qadesh (Hebrew:???), does not refer to Sodom and has been translated in the New International Version as “shrine prostitute”. Male shrine prostitutes may have served barren women in fertility rites rather than engaging in homosexual acts; this also applies to other instances of the word sodomite in the King James Version. We’ll look at the issue of temple prostitutes in the next two posts in this series. For now, it’s enough to know that qadesh is translated by at least six different Greek words, as scholars struggled to decipher its meaning, and from there to English, the translations of this Hebrew word become even fuzzier.
So what then were the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah that incurred God’s wrath?
The text of the Sodom story does not imply that God’s judgment of the city is based on homosexual issues. In fact, in Genesis 18 and 19, the specific sins of the city of Sodom are not even stated. We are told that these cities were wicked and totally sinful, but the passage itself does not specify the nature of the sinfulness that led to God’s judgement. It is a dangerous presupposition to impose on the Scriptural text the belief that the sinfulness was solely or even predominantly sexual in nature. There is no evidence here or in any other parts of the Old Testament that shows homosexual behaviour was rampant in these cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In fact, let’s not forget that God had already decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah long before the events of that fateful night. You can go back a few chapters in Genesis to see God’s judgement already pronounced on the cities. We’ll see in a moment what those sins were – it’s not guesswork. The Bible actually tells us, in at least 28 references to Sodom elsewhere.
The link to homosexuality is derived solely then from the request made in 19:5b – “Bring them out so that we can have sex (yada’) with them” (NIV, NLT). Yet, the Hebrew word used here is yada’ (Hebrew: ???), which means “to know”. There are 947 uses of this word in the Old Testament, and on only 10 of these occasions is it used to signify sexual intercourse. Of those ten uses, except for this and the related verse in Judges 19:22, it is always used of heterosexual intercourse. The word usually used in the OT to denote homosexual sex (as well as bestiality – sex with animals) is shakhabh, and is not used in this story. This is surely the word the author would have used if he wanted to specifically highlight the homosexual nature of the rape the men wanted to perpetrate.
Having said this, it seems unlikely from the context that the men of Sodom just wanted to get to know the strangers in Lot’s house, or that they simply wanted to interview them. The parallel story in Judges sheds some light on Ancient Near East traditions here. Both Lot and the old man who took in the Levite were outsiders to the city. They had not followed the traditional protocols and, as outsiders, had overstepped their mandates by inviting strangers into their houses without the requisite approval from the city leadership. In those days, such strangers could bring significant danger, and the recent battle loss by Sodom would have put the inhabitants on edge. The desire of the crowd of men to do physical violence to the visitors is clear. The use of anal rape was more about violence and subjugation than sexual desire. Anal rape was often used in the Ancient Middle East as a symbolic (and physical) way of humiliating men, especially of enemies of war.
If the men of Sodom and Gibeah were intent on a night of anal sex, and this was the characteristic sin of their cities, then surely the maddened crowd would have simply turned into an orgy of sex right there in the streets. Why insist on having sex with the two strangers or the Levite? And in the case of Gibeah, why then accept the concubine as a substitute? No, it’s obvious from the context and the events, that this was not about homosexual lust. The men of the cities intended serious harm to the visitors, and that this would be incurred by various means, including (homosexual) rape. Note that the emphasis in the last sentence should rightly be on the word “rape” – that’s the issue.
So, the characteristic behaviour of Sodom that incurred the wrath of God is not homosexuality. And we’ll prove this conclusively in a moment. But even if it was (and I am not conceding this at all), the type of homosexual behaviour going on here is violent, nonconsensual, lust-filled and nasty. This would have no bearing on a discussion about loving, covenantal, monogamous same sex relationships.
It’s likely that abusive homosexuality (and abusive heterosexuality as well) was rife in Sodom. But there was also a litany of other sins, and it was these that had angered God. Remember that the destruction of Sodom had been declared by God before the angels visited that evening. We know what the sins of Sodom are by following one of the most important rules of Biblical exegesis: that the Bible interprets itself best. Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned many times throughout the rest of Scripture, and not once is there a direct link made to homosexuality. Virtually none of these verses even refer to the sins as sexual in nature.
If you’re prepared to trust me that this is true, you can skip over the next section and jump down to the conclusion. You could also quickly look at the really useful spreadsheet created by John Lein. I am trying to keep a balance in these posts between an easy-to-access level and some deep textual analysis. So, if you’d like more proof that the sins of Sodom, Gomorrah and Gibeah have absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality, then here is a complete list of other Biblical references, and a good representation of extra-Biblical and historical references that show what sins were actually being committed:
- Ezek 16:49-50 – “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (NIV). See below for more on “the detestable things”.
- Isaiah 1:9-10, 3:9 – the sins are “your hands are full of blood” (1:15) and “the spoil of the poor is in your houses… grinding the faces of the poor” and “the women of Zion are haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, tripping along with mincing steps, with ornaments jingling on their ankles” (3:14-16).
- Jer 23:14 – Adultery.
- Zeph 2:9-10 – “…pride, [and] for insulting and mocking the people of the LORD Almighty.”
- Inhospitability: When Jesus Himself referred to Sodom and Gomorrah he emphasized this as the issue: “But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.” Luke 10:10-12 (NIV). This is important confirmation of the primary final sin of that night in Sodom, and comes directly from Jesus Himself. Note also that this sin is contrasted with the generous hospitality Abraham shows to celestial strangers in Genesis 18.
- General references to Sodom (and Gomorrah), with no specific sins mentioned, usually warning others about utter destruction about to be meted out on them: Deut. 29:22, 32:32; Isa 13:19; Jer 49:18, 50:40; Lam 4:6; Amos 4:11; Matt 10:15, 11:23-24; Luke 10:12, 17:29; Rom 9:29; and 2 Pet 2:6.
- We first meet Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 14, when they are routed in battle and Abram goes out to free Lot, and wins a significant battle. The King of Sodom has an interesting request, asking Abram to return just the people to him. There is a hint here that the king assumes Abram will enslave the people, possibly indicating slavery was part of Sodom’s fabric.
Updated October 2015: One of the stranger arguments made by traditional interpreters of the Sodom story is that Ezekial 16:50 actually does directly refer to homosexuality by referring to “the detestable thing” that Sodom did. In the NIV and other translations this phrase is translated in the plural, and as such is best read as “Sodom did a lot of other wicked things”. But the original Hebrew is singular, “detestable thing” or “abomination”. Interestingly, it does not have the definite article (“the”), which is why most translations prefer to translate it in the plural. But even assuming this phrase (Hebrew: ?????????, toevah) is referring to something specific, what might that be? This word is used repeatedly throughout the Old Testament – you can see a full listing here for the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew analysis. But, briefly, it refers to Israel’s sacrifices (see Exodus 8:22, compare Genesis 46:34); to unclean food (Deuteronomy 14:3); worshippers of idols (Isaiah 41:24); idolatrous practices and cultic worship (Deuteronomy 13:15 & 17:4; 2 Chronicles 34:33; Jeremiah 16:18, and most tellingly all over Ezekiel: 5:9 & 11, 7:20, 8:6, 11:18,21, 14:6, 18:12 compare Ezekiel 6:9, 16:36); and children sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31). The word is also used in Leviticus 18:26 (yes, just a few verses after the prohibition of “a man lying with mankind as with a woman”), where it talks about “all manner of evil acts”.
Ezekial himself almost always uses the phrase “detestable thing” or “abomination” to refer to idolatrous practices and temple rituals that God disapproves of. We’re going to see in this study that this IS precisely what Moses is forbidding in Leviticus: temple prostitution and male homosexual cultic practices.
Besides the fact that the use of toevah is clearly linked to temple cults, traditional interpreters of the Bible cling to the singular form of the word in Ezekial 16:50, claiming it as proof that “the detestable thing” in Sodom was obviously and unquestionably homosexuality. I find this an immense stretch of both logic and Biblical exegesis.
There are fewer Biblical references to the parallel passage about Gibeah, but they similarly do not reference sexual sins. Hosea 5:8, 9:9, 10:9 just refer generally to all forms of evil, sinfulness and corruption. However, there are strong overtones of the cultic practices, especially those of the surrounding nations and Israel’s continued slide into these. If homosexuality is implied (it is certainly not mentioned), then it could only be implied in relation to these cultic observances. We’ll talk more about cultic practices in the next part of this series. It is also important to note that when the Levite explains the injustice he suffered at Gibeah he says only that the men wanted to kill him. No reference is made of homosexuality or even rape.
Regardless of all this Biblical proof that Sodom’s sins were not related to homosexuality, some people see the demand for homosexual rape as proof that trumps other references. But here’s an interesting thought experiment to undertake: if the desire of the men of Sodom for homosexual rape is proof of a persistent homosexual lifestyle there, then the parallel story of Gibeah creates problems. The men in Gibeah came demanding to rape the male visitor, but when they were offered the female visitor instead. And they accepted. To be consistent, we would therefore need to interpret the Gibeah story as saying that all men are rapists. This makes no sense of the story, and logically is just silly. The same is true then of the story in Sodom. The fact that the men of Sodom wanted to rape the visitors is not proof of a persistent lifestyle or of homosexual sinfulness.
In the multitude of verses to refer to Sodom and Gomorrah and Gibeah, the sins listed are not even sexual in nature, let alone homosexual. This is an extremely important point in deciding how these stories can be used to guide our thinking about homosexuality today.
The only two references that come close to linking the sins of Sodom with anything sexual are:
- 2 Pet 2:10 – “… those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…” (see also 2 Pet 2:6-7).
- Jude 1:7 – “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion.”
The reference in 2 Peter 2:10 is to an overall “filthy” lifestyle (2 Peter 2:7). The word used here is “aselgeiais”, which is elsewhere rendered in the KJV as lasciviousness (Mark 7:22; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Ephesians 4:19; 1 Peter 4:3; Jude 1:4) or wantonness (Romans 13:13; 2 Peter 2:18). In the NIV it is sensuality. There is no specific reference here to homosexuality.
The last verse in that list, Jude 1:7, is often quoted as proof of a homosexual issue in Sodom. Before looking at its possible meanings, though, I hope that the preceding list – including the words of Jesus Himself – shows overwhelming that the issue in Sodom was something other than homosexuality. But we cannot ignore Jude, which talk of perversion. As we’ve just stated about the parallel verse in 2 Peter, “perversion” is not a Greek term used for homosexuality, but rather a term for various forms of sexual abuse. If the author of Jude wanted to reference homosexuality specifically, he would surely have used one of a number of more specific words. He did not, instead opting for a more general term for a sexual sin. And even if the author had homosexuality in mind, the point seems to be that a particular type of aberrant sexuality – an abusive type – is the problem. If we use this verse to say that homosexuality is sinful, we could equally apply the same rules of exegesis to say that heterosexuality is sinful – since it mentions both sexual immorality and perversion.
As an interesting aside, the word “perversion” in the verses in Peter and Jude is possibly linked to some kind of sexual interaction between humans and angels. A simple look at the context in Jude 1 makes it very clear that there is some strange sexual practice happening. There is a well established Jewish legend (for example, contained in the apocryphal Naphtali 3.3.4-5 in The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and in 1 Enoch) that the women of Sodom had intercourse with angels (See also Genesis 6:1-7). This is a myth that was well established in other cultural histories too. The reason for the parallel here in Jude is to do with sexual transgression and having sex with angels, as the men of Sodom wanted to do. The verses on either side of Jude 1:7 talk of humans and angels interacting in inappropriate ways. You cannot just lift Jude 1:7 out of that immediate literary context, and impose the concept of “homosexuality” onto the issue of “perversion”. No-one is sure what the precise “perversion” of Jude 1:7 is, but it is really bad exegesis to think that it can only be homosexuality.
Whatever was intended in the book of Jude, it is clear that the overwhelming Biblical evidence is that Sodom and Gomorrah (and by extension the parallel story of Gibeah) are not about homosexuality. At very least, they’re not about lifelong, covenantal, monogamous, consensual same sex relationships.
If that’s enough Biblical scholarship for you, and you’re convinced that these stories are not about homosexuality, consider skipping down to the concluding remarks. Or just keep wading through even more evidence from Jewish scholarship and church history…
The Deuterocanonical books echo the assertion that the sins that were punished were not specifically sexual:
- Wisdom 19:13-14 – “… and deservedly they suffered for their crimes, since they evinced such bitter hatred towards strangers. Whereas the men of Sodom received not the strangers when they came among them; the Egyptians made slaves of the guests who were their benefactors.”
- Ecclesiasticus 16:8 – “he did not spare the people among whom Lot was living, whom he detested for their pride.”
- Sirach 16:8, 3 Maccabees 2:5 and Wisdom 19:15 all reference Sodom and Gomorrah without mentioning any sexual sins at all.
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.
Early church tradition also did not see the sins of Sodom as homosexuality:
- “In the Quaest. et Salut. in Genesis IV.31-37, Philo interpreted the Genesis word yada’ as ‘servile, lawless and unseemly pederasty (sex with boys).’”
- Josephus emphasised the pride, arrogance, wealth and hatred of foreigners as the reasons for God’s destruction of the cities. He also seems to have pederasty in mind, even adding details to the story to make the two angelic visitors appear as young men: “But the Sodomites, on seeing these young men of remarkably fair appearance whom Lot had taken under his roof, were bent only on violence an outrage to the youthful beauty.”
- Origen says: “Hear this, you who close your homes to guests! Hear this, you who shun the traveler as an enemy! Lot lived among the Sodomites. We do not read of any other good deeds of his: …he escaped the flames, escaped the fire, on account of one thing only. He opened his home to guests. The angels entered the hospitable household; the flames entered those homes closed to guests.” In Homilia V in Genesím (PG, 12:188-89)
- Ambrose said: “[Lot] placed placed the hospitality of his house – sacred even amongst barbarous people – above the modesty [of his daughters].” In De Abrahamo 1.6.52 (PL, 14:440)
In addition to this evidence, it must be noted that none of the other verses in the Bible that are traditionally interpreted as opposing homosexuality mention Sodom, which is surprising if the sin of Sodom was actually homosexuality. It would seem an obvious reference to make.
Therefore, although it is possible, even probable, that (abusive, and maybe some loving) homosexuality existed in Sodom and Gomorrah, and although it is clear that abusive, homosexual sex (in the form of rape) was the intention of the gang of men who descended on Lot’s house that fateful night, to say that homosexuality is the sin that God was specifically judging at Sodom is to put something into the text that just isn’t Biblical.
In both these stories, God’s judgment was against rape, abuse, perversions, intolerance, and extreme inhospitability, as well as adultery, pride, boastfulness, arrogance, abuse of the poor and greed, and humans having sex with angels, amongst other sins, according to the witness of other passages of Scripture. The sins of Sodom certainly included a sexual element. But the sins were not the sex acts themselves. “Any claim, however, that the story is a blanket condemnation of homosexuality in general is unjustified. The attempt on the bodies of the guests is but an example of the general evil, which has already caught God’s attention. It is, furthermore, an attempt at rape. The most that can be said is that the story judges homosexual rape to be evil and worthy of condemnation.” (John McNeill, “The Church and the Homosexual”).
To quote Biblical scholar, Mark Jordan, again: “The bible never links the story of Sodom with homosexuality. To use the Sodom story as evidence that the Bible condemns homosexuality is totally inaccurate. It is an anachronism, projecting later Church interpretation onto the biblical text, which is essentially about hospitality.” (The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology) In “Changing Our Mind: A call from America’s leading evangelical ethics scholar for full acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church” David P. Gushee concludes: “Genesis 19 and Judges 19 are narratives with huge implications for the ethics of war, prison, gender, violence and rape. But they have nothing to do with the morality of loving, covenantal same-sex relationships.”
Of course, if we find that the consistent witness of the Bible is that homosexuality is, in itself, sinful (not just homosexual rape), then we could always project this understanding back onto the stories we’ve looked at above. But we cannot find a direct condemnation of homosexuality here. Next up, then, is the Old Testament Laws.
Previous article in this series: How we Interpret the Bible
Next article in this series: Part 5: Consistency, Punishments and The New Covenant
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