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
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”.
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. 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
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.
 Mark G. Brett, Genesis: Procreation and the Politics of Identity (London: Routledge, 2000), 68.
 For what it is worth, both the noun and the adjective are feminine.