Sunday, October 29, 2006

Looking Back On Sodom

One of my pet peeves in the religious debate has to be found in the contemporary understanding of the Sodom and Gomorrah tale. Good thing I’ve got this soapbox here. (I’ll be using some of the Bible, Homosexuality and Civilization by Louis Crompton, and some online material, to which I'll link.)

Briefly, Sodom and Gomorrah (oddly means “ruined heap”; seems Gomorrah’s founding fathers had self esteem issues) were two cities about which God had heard horrible rumors, in need of confirmation (Gen 18:20-21). God presumably is set to destroy the city of Sodom if what He heard is true, but Abraham then talks Him into sparring it if some righteous people live there.

In the next chapter, two angels enter Sodom, and are shown hospitality by Lot, one of the few righteous locals. Hearing of these strange supernatural beings in their city, the townsfolk come to Lot’s house with the primary intent of raping the angels; they're so bad, it’s how they say “hello” in Sodom. Instead, Lot offers them his virgin daughters, whom they reject. At that, the angels then blind the men who consequently disperse, as they became “weary trying to find the door”. Finally the cities are destroyed while Lot’s family escapes. Though his wife is turned into salt for looking back on the work. In the end a disgraceful, drunken, and incestuous genesis for the genealogy of the Moabites and the Ammonites is posed with Lot as their progenitor.

Take that! You filthy red-rock love’n Moabites ;-).

So, why does this colorful story relate to homosexuality so strongly in the minds of the modern public? The story tells about a group of menacing men (and women and children by Gen 19:4), from a horribly wicked town who want to rape God’s angels and all most see today is homosexuality? Even if homosexuality were a sin, it’s as though a person runs down another in their car, and all anybody cares about is whether or not they first used their turn signal.

To top it off, the Old Testament’s own text details the sins of Sodom:

Ezekiel 16:49-50: Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good.

One may think, “Ah, Abomination!” but remember, at the time, eating crab, graven images, and sacrificing a not-quite-perfect animal to that same Hebrew God were “abominations”. It’s simply wrong to claim homosexuality was intended to be the issue in the Sodom story. But, if some rich guy robs and rapes a destitute angel while boasting and worshiping some half-donkey demigod with their mouths full of bread, then I’d be fine calling that “sodomy”.

So, how did this story morph into an anti-gay tract?


In the Apocrypha, Sodom’s sin is still primarily about pride and inhospitality (“inhospitality” is putting it lightly…). In the Pseudepigrapha (A likely source of Jude’s, as discussed below), Sodom’s sins become more about sexual misconduct, only loosely including homosexuality.

One of the first works in which Sodom becomes significantly about homosexuality is in Philo’s On Abraham (20 BC-40 AD). Here the sin is not much about pride and inhospitality anymore, but about indulgence in food, drink, and sex, which was proposed to be a result of their wealth. But still, these Sodom men became sex fiends, not what most call homosexuals; men, women, it didn’t matter (as most gays know, it matters :-)).

In the Antiquities of the Jews (94 AD), Josephus repeats the story of Sodom, seemingly with a bit of Philo's opinion (with whom Josephus was clearly familiar), but goes partially back to the pride/inhospitality angle:

"About this time the Sodomites grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth; they became unjust towards men, and impious towards God, insomuch that they did not call to mind the advantages they received from him: they hated strangers, and abused themselves with Sodomitical practices. God was therefore much displeased at them, and determined to punish them for their pride, and to overthrow their city, and to lay waste their country, until there should neither plant nor fruit grow out of it."

Josephus then goes on to make clear the final straw was the attempted rape of the angels.

About this same time (not opening up that can of worms :-)), we have Matthew’s account of the word of Jesus:

Matthew 10:14-15: If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

Far from clear (Jesus is remarkably quiet on the subject), but this, of course, echoes the inhospitality angle of Ezekiel, to connect not being welcomed to this story.

The closest to a biblical homosexuality-Sodom connection is found late in the NT, in Jude (~65-120 AD), talking about “strange flesh” and fornication, but it comes after the evolutions made by Philo, and the apocryphal literature (which Jude cites). Besides, come on, it’s Jude, with all it’s baggage :-). It should also be noted that those sex crimes could reasonably mean anything from bestiality, to incest, to, as the actual story reports, attempted rape of angels. Still, I do think Jude does show a part of the sin of Sodom’s cultural evolution away from inhospitality towards sexuality.

Over the years, and beyond Jude, early Christianity picked up on the homosexuality angel, and the sins Ezekiel bemoans drop into the background, and if they were mentioned they were mentioned as symptoms of homosexuality in a community. It seems, Paul already saw the orientation as a curse for competing pagan religions (Rom 1:23-25), and those smoldering cities would be and become a great tool. Sodom became the example city, as it always was, but it became the example city with gays in it (And what city does not? The worth in this angle is clear, as I’ll go into later.).

In the 3rd century, Clement of Alexandria took a small step back and characterized Sodom’s sin as gluttony, in food and sex, gay and other, but St. John Chrysostom, in the 4th century, and St. Augustine, in The City of God (412 AD), made homosexuality Sodom’s unique sin. Now, the primary sin of Sodom wasn’t anything most reasonable folks call immoral today, like rape, or mistreatment of strangers. It wasn’t about crimes people do to each other or do at all, as much as it was about having a certain type of person in the city’s midst, people who “God gave up unto vile affections”, as Paul supposedly put it (Rom 1:26).

Playing on that paranoia found in making a Sodom-homosexuality connection with this perpetual minority has been valuable throughout history, and it continues to be so to this day in the form of some religious leaders and radio hosts. Within the week, I’ll go into how it was used in western civilization…

Disclaimer: I’m not one of those who thinks he can take the Bible, every literal bit, and make it into some 100% pro-gay manual. While it’s not as hostile as many would have you believe, there are certainly difficulties for the gay Christian, but I don’t think Sodom should be one of them.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Thanks for this post, Scot. I think there are lessons that can be applied quite broadly beyond homosexuality. Specifically, that interpreting Scripture literally requires one to ignore history, culture and how these texts came to be what they are today.