Growing up, I was repeatedly taught in church that God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as punishment for homosexuality. Indeed, even the Merriam-Webster Dictionary indicates that the word “sodomy” derives from “the homosexual proclivities of the men of the city [of Sodom].” The belief that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexuality has been passed on for generations, reflexively and with little inquiry. Contrary to popular opinion, the widespread homophobic understanding of the story is not supported by the story itself, or by the various passages throughout the Bible that mention it.
The Story of Sodom and Gomorrah
We are first introduced to Sodom in Genesis 13, where the people of the city are described as “wicked” and “great sinners against the LORD.” No information is provided, however, regarding why the people are believed to be wicked sinners. In the next chapter of Genesis, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned as having been involved in various wars, and the names of their kings are identified as Bera (“in evil”) and Birsha (“in wickedness”), respectively. Again, however, no information is provided regarding the nature of the “evil” or “wickedness” in either city.
The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is set forth in Genesis 18 and 19. The story begins with God and two angels stopping by for a meal at the home of the first biblical patriarch, Abraham, in Canaan. After their visit, God and the angels depart for Sodom and Gomorrah. As they leave, God tells Abraham why the trip is necessary:
‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.’
Yet again, neither the “outcry” against Sodom and Gomorrah, nor their “grave sin” are explained. The passage concludes with a rather lengthy negotiation between God and Abraham, during which God agrees to spare Sodom if at least ten righteous people are found in the city. Abraham was likely concerned about the fate of the city because his nephew, Lot, lived there.
As the story continues, the two angels meet Abraham’s nephew as soon as they arrive in Sodom. Lot happens to be sitting near the gates of the city when the visitors arrive, and he treats them hospitably by inviting them to stay in his home for the night, and by providing them with a feast for dinner. After the meal, the following horrifying events unfolded:
[T]he men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’ Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’ But they replied, ‘Stand back!’ And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.
The passage continues with the angels directing Lot to flee Sodom with his family. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is then described as follows:
[T]he LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
I should point out here that, contrary to the biblical authors, I do not believe that the cities were destroyed by God (if they existed at all) as punishment for any particular sin or sins. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah was written long before people understood the scientific reasons for natural disasters. Ancient cultures operated under the assumption that all calamities, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, famine, etc., could only be explained as divine punishment for human misdeeds. Nevertheless, for purposes of discussion, I assume that the cities were destroyed by God, as set forth in the Bible.
While many Christian leaders assert that homosexuality brought upon God’s wrath against Sodom and Gomorrah, this conclusion is simply not supported by the story itself. The story describes the Sodomites’ gross lack of hospitality, and their desire to dominate and humiliate strangers. It is not a story about sex per se, or about “homosexual proclivities.” According to the narrative, all of the males living in Sodom surround Lot’s house, and ask him to bring out his two male visitors “so that we may know them.” While the crowd’s specific intent toward Lot’s guests is unclear, it is pretty obvious that they do not have a meet-and-greet in mind. Lot’s plea that the Sodomites act not so “wickedly” shows his understanding that the crowd’s intent toward his guests is not benevolent. Indeed, most biblical scholars agree that use of the phrase to “know them” means that the men of Sodom sought to dominate and humiliate the visitors by raping them. As we will see in chapter 3, Lot lived in a culture that had an extremely hierarchical view of sex, and it was not uncommon for men to rape their male enemies in order to effectively reduce them to the inferior status of women. The Sodomites clearly had such violence in mind when they descended upon Lot’s home. This conclusion is supported by the threat of the mob that they would “deal worse” with Lot than with his guests, and by Lot’s offer of his two virgin daughters who have not “known a man” to all of the men of Sodom to do with “as you please.” In making this offer, Lot adds, “do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof,” and he seems determined that no harm of any kind––gang rape or otherwise––would come to the honored guests in his home. (Lot is clearly less concerned about protecting his virgin daughters.) By no stretch of the imagination could it be said that the men of Sodom were seeking an amorous and consensual same-sex encounter with Lot’s visitors.
The Similar Story of the Traveling Levite
The book of Judges describes a very similar account of townsmen attempting to rape a male visitor, and a review of that story is instructive with respect to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to Judges, a Levite traveled with his servant from Ephraim to Bethlehem to recover the Levite’s concubine who had fled from him and returned to her father’s house. Chapter 19 describes the horrifying events that took place on their journey back to Ephraim. In the midst of their journey, the trio stopped to rest in the city of Gibeah, where an old man offered them a meal and a place to stay for the night. As occurred in the story of Sodom, the meal was disrupted by an angry mob that appeared at the old man’s door. The following passage describes the appalling events that followed:
While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, ‘Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him.’ And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, ‘No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.’ But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. As morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light. In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. ‘Get up,’ he said to her, ‘we are going.’ But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey; and the man set out for his home. When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel.
This delightful tale contains several important similarities to the story of Sodom. First, it provides yet another example of the shockingly low status of women in this culture. For instance, the old man offers both his own virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine to the mob outside, indicating that the mob could “[r]avish them and do whatever you want to them.” As with Lot, the motive of the old man appears to be to prevent his male guests––the Levite and his servant––from being the victims of violence, such as gang rape. (Apparently female family members and visitors did not enjoy the same protection or hospitality as their male counterparts.) In their jockeying for “Man of the Year” honors, the Levite would not be outdone. He doesn’t merely offer his concubine to the crowd, but grabs her and throws her outside. The fact that the men of Gibeah “wantonly rape” her clearly demonstrates that the men were not seeking an amorous sexual encounter, but rather to dominate and humiliate.
Believe it or not, the story takes a turn for the worse! Because Gibeah is a Benjaminite town, the rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine results in a civil war in which tens of thousands of Israelites are slaughtered. In response to the atrocious acts of the men of Gibeah, the other eleven tribes of Israel go to war against the tribe of Benjamin, and nearly obliterate it––only 600 Benjaminite men survive. While many people assert that the destruction of Sodom is proof of God’s hatred of homosexuality, I have never heard anyone suggest that God’s support for the war against the Benjaminites is proof of his hatred of heterosexuality. Punishment for homosexual rape cannot be considered a condemnation of homosexuality any more than punishment for heterosexual rape can be considered a condemnation of heterosexuality.
Clearly the authors who wrote the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and of the traveling Levite lived in a very different time, and had moral sensibilities that were very different from our own. I doubt that those who believe that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah permits fervent homophobia in our culture are equally fervent in their support of men who protect themselves and their male visitors from attack by offering up their daughters or concubines to a mob of strangers to be gang-raped. In any event, it is quite clear that neither story is about sex per se, but about using it (or threatening to use it) in an appallingly violent fashion.
to the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
In attempting to determine why God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, it is helpful to consider the other twenty references to the story throughout the Bible. Although each reference uses the story as a symbol of the devastating magnitude of God’s wrath, not one of them indicates that the destruction of the cities had anything to do with homosexuality.
[The remainder of this chapter analyzes the general and direct biblical references to the destructiion of Sodom and Gomorrah, including Jesus' remarks on the topic.]
Biblical authors appear to have believed that God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for any number of reasons, including, for example, lack of hospitality to strangers, oppression of the poor, pride, arrogance, idolatry, murder, adultery, neglect of children, violence, rape, and/or sex with angels. It seems fair to assume that if Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed as a result of homosexuality, Jesus or the biblical authors who mentioned the story would have made this connection. There is absolutely no indication that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of consensual homosexuality. The most that can be said about the story of Sodom with respect to homosexuality is that the story condemns same-sex gang rape. Just as the brutal gang rape of the Levite’s concubine in Judges is no reflection on consensual heterosexuality, so the threatened gang rape of two men (or angels) in Sodom is no reflection on consensual homosexuality.
Ironically––and tragically––it seems that those who use the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to condemn homosexuality commit some of the very sins for which God is said to have judged those cities so harshly. Homosexual people have been disowned by families, fired from jobs, denied housing, insulted by Christian leaders and other public figures, beaten, and even killed––for no other reason than being attracted to members of the same sex. This is the sort of oppression, lack of hospitality, and violence that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah seems to denounce. Those who condemn and persecute homosexual people may well be the real “sodomites.”