Does the Bible Really Say….that Sodomites were sodomites?

by Dr Meg Warner, Biblical Scholar in Old Testament Studies and the Hebrew Bible, affiliated with both Kings College, London and the University of Exeter

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Stories, I’ve come to learn, are very like fire: they are necessary for life, they tend to be unpredictable, and without due care they can lethal.

Genesis 19, the story of God’s destruction of Sodom, is one that has been lethal. It is one of the five or six biblical texts known as the ‘clobber texts’ (because they are really good for hitting people over the head with), and it is regularly offered as biblical evidence that God hates loving, sexual, relationships between men.

As I have already said, stories need to be treated with care if they are not to prove lethal. This story has not always received that care, and so it will be appropriate here to consider it in some detail. First, however, I’d like to make one thing crystal clear – Genesis 19 may be many things, but it is NOT evidence about God’s attitude towards loving, sexual relationships between men (or women, for that matter). It tells a story in which a group of men apparently threaten to pack-rape some other men (who are actually angels), but it has nothing to say about the kind of same-sex relationships that are currently getting the churches so het-up.

So, is the story of Sodom actually a story about sodomy? And were the Sodomites actually sodomites? What does Genesis itself say about the sin of Sodom?

The first indication of trouble in Sodom comes in Genesis 13:13, where the narrator says, ‘Now, the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD’. The nature of this ‘wickedness’ remains unknown prior to Genesis 19, although its scale is noted in Gen 18:20: ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!’

The wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah was undoubtedly great, but Genesis nowhere explicitly identifies its particular ‘flavour’.

In the story, the men of Sodom surround Lot’s home, where Lot is sheltering two mysterious visitors to the city, and demand that Lot bring out his guests, in order that they might ‘know’ them (19:5). The Hebrew verb, ‘to know’, is yd’. It possesses a range of meanings, just as in English, that sometimes have sexual overtones and sometimes do not. Sometimes it is clearly used with a sexual sense (eg. Gen 19:8, ‘I have two daughters who have not known [yd’] a man’) and sometimes clearly not (eg. Gen 18:21, ‘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 [yd’]).’

In modern times interpreters have generally read the word ‘know’ in Genesis 19:5 (‘Bring them out to us, so that we may know [yd’] them’) as having a sexual sense, although this is not absolutely clear. The general thrust of the resulting interpretation is that the men of Sodom want Lot to bring the visitors out of his home so that they can have sex with them. The great sin, or the wickedness, of Sodom, so the argument goes, is therefore homosexuality, which God punishes by means of the destruction of Sodom and every person in it.

Even if the verb yd’ is best understood as having a sexual meaning in the context of Gen 19:5, it does not necessarily follow that Genesis 19 should be read as a proof-text against homosexuality. As I’ve already noted, the threatened sex here is violent, non-consensual and between strangers (not all of whom are, strictly speaking, human.) However, the simmering anger and violence in the narrative do not support an idea that the men of Sodom were seeking an opportunity to seduce the visitors, but rather that they sought to exert power over them in some regard.

Nowhere else in the book of Genesis is concern expressed about sex between men, but sexual activity between humans and divine beings is a pervasive theme. In Genesis 6 the wickedness (r’) of humankind, manifesting itself in sexual congress between ‘daughters of humans’ and ‘sons of God’, so grieves God that God decides to blot out all humans and living things from the face of the earth. Interestingly, the same Hebrew root is used by Lot in Genesis 19:7, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly (r’)’ and by the narrator in Genesis 13:13, ‘Now, the people of Sodom were wicked (r’) …’. This strikingly consistent use of the language of wickedness (r’) supports an argument that, had the men of Sodom gone on to have sex with the visitors, their crime would not have been homosexuality but hubris—the pursuit of divinity by means of intercourse with divine beings.

So, if homosexuality is not the wickedness of the Sodomites, and the catalyst for the destruction of Sodom, what is? Hubris is a possible answer, or part of one, but there are others. One of the best ways to work out what Genesis 19 is all about is to see what other biblical books have to say about it. The major prophets used the names Sodom and Gomorrah as bywords for ‘inhospitality’ and ‘abuse of power’. Perhaps the clearest statement is to be found in Ezek 16:49-50:

“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.” (See also Isa 1:10 and Jer 23:14)

Australian scholar, Mark G. Brett (currently Editor-in-Chief of the foremost international journal for biblical studies, the Journal of Biblical Literature), writes:

“If there is a common theme in these prophetic allusions to Sodom, it would be oppression of the weak. The texts in Isaiah and Ezekiel are concerned with matters of justice, while Jeremiah 23:14 condemns the abuse of prophetic power … the common thread is the perception of the Sodomites as people who abused power”.[1]

There is no text in the Old Testament, other than Genesis 19 itself, in which the populace of Sodom is connected with a reputation for homosexuality or any other kind of sexual behaviour. This tends to suggest that, at least until a century or two before Christ, there was no ‘popular Israelite conception’ of Sodom as a city of sodomites.

One passage in the New Testament associates the city of Sodom (as well as Gomorrah and the cities surrounding them) with unconventional sexual practices. The author of the brief Letter of Jude, however, appears to have been of the view that the citizens of Sodom and its neighbours were guilty of sexual activity with divine beings, rather than with same-gender partners:

Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord, who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who kept their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgement of the Great Day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and went after other flesh, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (Translation from NRSV, incorporating the NRSV’s own critical note – indicated with italics – from the Greek text.)

The Greek phrase that the NRSV translates as ‘unnatural lust’ is heteras sarkos.[2] The most literal translation of this phrase is ‘other flesh’, and the NRSV notes this in a footnote. Jude, then, is concerned primarily about sex between humans and the divine, just like Genesis 6 and 19.

If Sodom’s crime was not popularly understood, at least until a century or two prior to the birth of Christ, to be homosexual sex, then when did the identification of the Sodomites as sodomites first arise?

Scholars don’t agree on the first instances of extra-biblical interpretation of Sodom’s sin as homosexuality, or the influence of such early readings. Some suggest that Genesis 19 was first associated with homosexuality in the first century after Christ, and that this can be seen in the writings of Philo and some of the apocryphal writings. Others point to the work of the church fathers, noting that Origen did not link Sodom with homosexuality at all, while Augustine and John Chrysostom did so only once each, instead placing emphasis on the theme of hospitality, suggesting that the association between Genesis 19 and homosexuality had not become widespread prior to the fifth century at least.

The earliest interpreters of Genesis 19, then, did not regard it as self-evident that the crime of the men of the city of Sodom, punished by the divine destruction of the city, was homosexuality.

Interpreters of Genesis 19 today are increasingly likely to look past their gut-reactions to words such as ‘Sodom’ and ‘Sodomite’ and to scenarios of same-sex violence, and to focus instead on the literary and socio-political contexts of the text. They identify both Genesis 18 (Abraham’s welcome of three strangers at Mamre) and 19 as stories about hospitality that reflect the hospitality codes of their time, recognising Genesis 18 as a story of hospitality to strangers in a non-urban context and Genesis 19 as a story about the particular challenges and tensions of offering hospitality in an urban setting. These challenges and tensions arise as a consequence of the risks inherent in inviting strangers to remain within city walls overnight. Issuing such invitations was the privilege of a city’s male citizens. The conflict in Genesis 19 arises from the fact that Lot assumes this privilege for himself, as can be seen clearly in verse 9, in which the angry citizens of Sodom say, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge!’

The men of Sodom aren’t just feeling lustful on a slow Friday night. They are angry (and, to some extent, justifiably so) with Johnny-come-lately Lot for placing them and their women and children in danger by inviting strangers to stay within the walls overnight. They want to ‘know’ (yd’) who the visitors are, so that they can assess the level of threat. Lot, who doesn’t ‘get’ all of this any more than some modern commentators (!), misunderstands the men’s demands as sexual but is unwilling to allow strangers under his roof to be mistreated, and offers his virgin daughters in their place – thus responding to the ‘comically grotesque’ in-hospitality of the Sodomites with comically grotesque hospitality, unimaginable to today’s readers in the West, but not unknown still in some parts of the world, and iconic in Lot’s own context.

Genesis 19 is a story that, as a result of a lack of care on the part of interpreters over centuries, who have found it easier (or more convenient) to make assumptions based on associations with the word ‘sodomite’ than to explore the text’s own context, has proven lethal for LGBTI+ Christians in ours.

How terribly ironic that the real ‘wickedness’ in the story – the things that God finds abominable – should be not homosexuality at all, but ‘in-hospitality’ and ‘abuse of power’.

About the Author

Meg Warner

Dr Meg Warner is a Biblical Scholar specialising in the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible, and is affiliated with both King’s College London and the University of Exeter. She is an LLM in the Diocese of London who she represents as an elected lay member on General Synod.  She travels extensively and speaks at conferences, festivals and church events both at home and abroad. Her publications include Abraham: A journey through Lent (SPCK: 2015) and Re-Imagining Abraham: A Re-Assessment of the Influence of Deuteronomisim in Genesis (Brill, 2018).

For a full list of her publications and blogs please visit her website.

Some Further Reading

Bolan, Thomas M. ‘The Role of Exchange in Ancient Mediterranean Religion and its Implications for Reading Genesis 18-19’ JSOT 29 (2004): 37–56.

Brett, Mark G. Genesis: Procreation and the Politics of Identity. London: Routledge, 2000.

Noort, Ed and Tigchelaar, Eibert (eds.) Sodom’s Sin: Genesis 18-19 and its Interpretations. Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Warner, Meg. Abraham: A journey through Lent. London: SPCK, 2015.

Footnotes

[1] Mark G. Brett, Genesis: Procreation and the Politics of Identity (London: Routledge, 2000), 68.

[2] For what it is worth, both the noun and the adjective are feminine.

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12 Responses to Does the Bible Really Say….that Sodomites were sodomites?

  1. Dr Meg, A heartfelt thank you for your commentary. Bringing light of darkness. I shall follow your writings in future, as you bring understanding to the Old Testament. Again a heartfelt thank you. This is what ‘Thinking Anglicans ‘should be spending time about.

    Fr John Emlyn

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    • Meg Warner says:

      Dear Fr John, thank you so much! I love nothing more than being able to share the beauty of the Old Testament with people. Meg

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  2. David says:

    Thank you, Meg, particularly for your broader reflection on the meaning of ‘knowing’ in this story. That was new to me. I would only suggest that the story properly begins the chapter before where ‘the Lord appeared to Abraham as he sat at the entrance of his tent … ’ (Gen 18.1). What happens in Sodom will stand in precise contrast to what happens at Abraham’s tent. Abraham offers every hospitality. When the angels go on to Sodom they meet Lot ‘sitting in the gateway of Sodom’ (19.1). He too offers them open hospitality. The parallels between Abraham and Lot, sitting at entrances/gates and offering welcome and hospitality to strangers, are clearly deliberate and contrast with the response of the city itself. Hospitality offered leads to blessing. Hospitality rejected leads to destruction. Thank you again.

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    • Meg Warner says:

      Hi David, thank you, and I agree entirely. A lot of scholars have spent a lot of time comparing the hospitality offered by Abraham and by Lot. I’m with you – I think that the important contrast is between Abraham/Lot and the Sodomites.

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  3. Christopher Shell says:

    Dear Meg, would you not say that if Sodom displayed only one form of wickedness it would have been a byword for virtue not vice? If they displayed inhospitality it would, as you’d agree, be a fallacy to say that they therefore did not display homosexual lust. As Sodom was indeed a byword for vice, it follows that they had several sins. Or does anyone disagree?

    Secondly, on what basis does the idea that Lot misunderstands the men’s use of yd’ rest? It would need some evidence for it, if it were to be the preferred interpretation.

    Many thanks

    Christopher Shell.

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    • David says:

      Christopher. I am puzzled by your comment about ‘only one form of wickedness’. Isn’t it the case that Sodom is only remembered for one notorious form of wickedness – though undoubtedly they had plenty of others? So to my ears you appear to miss the point of the article. Sodom has given its name to one ‘vice’ – the supposed sin of homosexuality. The discussion here whether this is not an erroneous reading of the text – one that has had appalling long term social and religious consequences. No other biblical text has had such sinister repercussions for so-called sexual minorities. I agree with Meg Warner and others that hospitality, not homosexuality, is the issue at Sodom. This is made clear by Lot’s response to the people’s demands – traditionally assumed to be to rape his guests (even if Meg Warner’s suggestion that ‘know’ needs a broader meaning here the undertones are very sinister). Lot does not say – ‘do not do this because homosexuality is wrong’, or even ‘because rape is wrong’ (he was, after all, prepared to offer his daughters to them!), but ‘do not do this because they have come under my roof’ (19.8). Furthermore, the text repeatedly stresses that the entire population of the town was present outside Lot’s door. ‘The men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house’ (19.4). To read this as a story about homosexual sin requires us to assume that the entire male population of Sodom was gay!

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      • Jayne Ozanne says:

        I think it might also be worth remembering the context in which Jesus chose to refer to Sodom – which again was in relation to hospitality. Surely if He had concerns about their “sexual wickedness” He would have said so when referencing them, but instead He says:

        “And if anyone will not welcome you or heed your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matt 10: 14-15)

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      • Christopher Shell says:

        Hi David
        Thanks for your answer.

        (1) Isn’t it the case that Sodom is remembered only for one form of wickedness? By some, yes. Biblical scholars know of a few, not just one. We’ve established that ‘they showed inhospitality *therefore* they did not show homosexual vice’ would be a failure of logic. We’ve also seen that other sins stick to them:
        abuse of power,
        possible intent to dominate by humiliating gang-rape,
        failures towards poor and needy,
        going after strange flesh,
        unspecified ‘abominable things’
        – see Bible passages above.

        (2) My beef is certainly with those who, given all of this, still want to say that there was a ‘sin of Sodom’ rather than more than one. Meg’s conclusion speaks (not sure why) of a single sin (‘the real wickedness’), while naming 2 related ones (both of which are acceptable to name as sins in our present culture). You too David are at fault here, because you say that there was something called ‘the issue’ at Sodom (vanishingly unlikely) having elsewhere agreed that there was more than one.

        (3) For the same reason, within Meg’s phrase ‘the real wickedness’ there is a fallacy. It is once again assuming that there can only ever be precisely one. Never none or two plus. So the second main contender counts as not being a sin. That that is illogical will be plain.

        (4) Jesus’s words on Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum do not show Sodom’s main sin to have been inhospitality (though even if it were, they had other sins including the usual one). This has often been shown – however, the answers given have been ignored. Why do I say this?

        -4i: The central topic is these 3 cities’ failure to repent: something quite different from showing inhospitality.

        -4ii: Sodom, which is not central but a peripheral example, serves the purpose of being the stock ‘wickedest city’, so that Jesus can say they are even worse than the wickedest. There is no requirement for Sodom to be wicked in the precise same way.

        -4iii: However, on this occasion Sodom was indeed wicked in precisely the same way. Failure to repent.

        -4iv: The fact that Jesus’s topic is wicked and unrepentant cities not inhospitable ones (a concept that is not mentioned here) is strengthened by the mention of Tyre.

        -4v: Luke 10.10-12, 16 may be the reason that some people link these cities with not receiving Jesus. 10-12, 13-15 and 16 are of 3 separate origins (they are parallel to Matt 10.9-16; Mt 11.21-4; Mk 9.37) and it is only Luke that links them. However, all see Luke as post-Mark and most see Luke as post-Matt and (more importantly) not independent of Matt, so that any linking of these verses is squarely his own post-Matt work, rather than that of Jesus.

        (5) The suggestion that yd’ is not necessarily sexual is not Meg’s own but has been made scores of times. It is, as all will see, self-refuting:
        -Firstly, if they wanted to get to know them socially, then they have sent out the biggest welcome team ever, and will win the first prize for hospitality not for inhospitality its opposite. (As mentioned, it would not be possible for a *hypothetical* and unreferenced supposed-misunderstanding by Lot to take pole position among interpretative options.)
        -And secondly why would avowedly wicked people behave this way (in a welcoming manner)?

        (6) It is not a story about being ‘gay’ as you put it at the end, not about orientation, but is written from the understanding that their homosexual behaviour is a practice that the people turned to at some later point in their lives, as in Rom.1, which may well have Sodom as a background.

        (7) ‘All’ or ‘whole’ is frequently used conventionally not literally, especially within non eyewitness stories. It has already been established that fewer than 10 good men (lacking the characteristic sin[s]) are present there. So the whole town comes out.

        many thanks for reading and letting me comment. Interested to know what you think of these several points.

        Best

        Chris.

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  4. David says:

    Christopher, you make 14 comments or sub- comments here. Have mercy of us! Let me just briefly respond to your opening comments and then I will leave it. Sodom’s name has long been attached to one particular (presumed) vice – historically, socially (and legally) ‘Sodomy’ has referred only to homosexuals and homosexual behaviour. That is what is meant by the claim here that Sodom is remembered for one vice/sin. That is indisputable. Meg Warner and I agree with you that there is more than one sin in Sodom – you misread us if you think we are saying that. But we are also arguing that the supposed one vice/sin of Sodomy was nothing of the sort and comes from a disastrous, prejudiced, mis-reading of the ancient text.

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    • Christopher Shell says:

      Thank you David. That point which you address is comparatively trivial – I mentioned before that both you and Meg spoke of more than one. There are other points in need of addressing, of course. I’m sorry to have made so many points, but I thought that that unusually large number was the number of questions that could be thought to be begged by the presentation.

      All The Best

      Chris.

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      • Jayne Ozanne says:

        EDITOR’S NOTE
        Can I urge the two of you to take this conversation off line please? I do not think that it is helpful to call David Runcorn’s point “comparatively trivial”, however I am intervening as I believe that readers can see the differing mindsets that lie behind these comments. As all know, few of these sorts of exchanges are ever truly about someone trying to form their opinion, but rather are made to reinforce an opinion they already hold.

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      • Christopher Shell says:

        To speak on the basis of mindset or preferred or congenial presuppositions is the reverse of scholarship. There are 2 reasons I am not doing, and could never do, that. First, no-one can do that and remain a scholar. Second, conscience would not allow it.

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