Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

The Sodom Story: GLBT Persons in Church, 4

Okay, for those who have not followed this series, I kindly suggest you read here, here, and here before going further.

Most contemporary biblical scholars, no matter their personal views on “homosexuality,” agree that the Sodom story (Genesis 18:16-19:38 )  has little to do with the subject.  I begin with this story because that scholarly consensus has not reached the popular church. Most of the flamboyant rhetoric against gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgendered persons is filled with references to this story and to God’s judgment on the city. I have lost track of the number of people who have told me that everything from 9/11 to blizzards to Hurricane Katrina and more were signs of God’s judgment because (supposedly) the U.S. is becoming more tolerant of same-sex relationships–always ending with “just like Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Why this strong connection in the popular Christian mind? Part of it comes from using the term sodomy to refer to illicit sexual behavior, usually illicit same-sex behavior. But there is no Hebrew equivalent: Nowhere in the Bible is a sexual term built off of the city-name Sodom. The term “sodomy,” was coined in the Middle Ages by Peter Damien. He wrote a book to be used by priests for setting penances in confession called The Book of Gomorrah in which he classified numerous sexual practices (some same-sex and some between opposite sexes) as “sodomy.” This elaborate categorization was expanded by St. Thomas Aquinas who condemned any sexual act in which pregnancy was not a possibility. In fact, for Thomas, even married heterosexual sex in any other position than man-on-top & woman-on-back was considered “sodomy.”   Now we see why “sodomy laws” have varied so widely in the West and in various U.S. states–because of the many different ways this term has been used since it was coined in the Middle Ages. (The Thomistic view that the ONLY valid purpose of sex was for procreation led to such bizarre moral judgments as classifying masturbation as MORE evil than heterosexual rape since the latter has at least the possibility of pregnancy!!!) [For the detailed history of this, see Mark D. Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998).]

We have to set all this aside as “baggage,” in reading the Sodom story in Genesis if we are to hope to understand it correctly.

Notice in the Sodom story that the city is already under God’s judgment BEFORE the angels visit Lot. The first part of the story concerns Abraham’s attempt to protect the city–to get God to spare it if even 10 people in the city are righteous. The narrative does not tell us what “great wickedness” had so outraged God. (Never mind the issues about the wrath of God; one thorny theological issue at a time.)

Now the angels/strangers come to the city and Lot offers them hospitality–that is, he invites them to spend the night as guests in his house. The ancient world had no hotels. Travel from place to place was dangerous and difficult. Throughout the Ancient Near East, therefore, the practice developed as a moral imperative: to offer hospitality to strangers–which includes feeding them, giving them the best bed in the house, and offering them your protection. There have been several recent studies of the importance of hospitality as a moral practice in Scripture including studies by Arthur Sutherland, Luke Bretherton, Lucien Richard, John Koenig, & Christine Pohl to name only a few. [I am not claiming that all these authors would agree with me on GLBT issues. Some would and some would not. All are worth reading in order to better understand the biblical practice of hospitality.]

Then the men of the city come to do bodily harm to the strangers–inhospitality. They are clearly intent on same-sex rape. I reject revisionist readings which try to claim that the men’s desire “to know” the strangers was only a demand that Lot introduce them! No, the context clearly shows that “to know” here means “to know sexually” as when Genesis says that Adam “knew” Eve and she became pregnant. Moreover, this crowd is clearly hostile. They plan a homosexual gang rape.  But these are not “gays gone wild,” because the text of v. 4 says, “ALL the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people down to the last man, surrounded the house.” If ALL the men were “homosexual,” there would have been no marriages and families–in short, no city at all. This is not a case of 2 men in love or even a pickup for casual sex. No, this is an attempted rape and many of those involved would have to be people who normally engaged in heterosexual relations–that is, to be normally straight.

The failure to grasp this point comes because so many consider “homosexuality” to simply be chosen. But actions such as prison rapes are mostly committed by men who prefer to have sex with women in most circumstances. Gay men and lesbians do not. They are attracted to their own sex. Offering them a heterosexual substitute cannot work in such a case.

So, why the attempted gang rape, here?

In the ancient world, as in modern prison populations, male on male rape was used as a method of humiliation–to show how weak the victim was. Since in a patriarchal society anything associated with women is inferior, to treat a man as a woman by penetrating him, was/is to degrade him. There are archeological finds of bronze friezes depicting conquering armies raping the conquered armies–sometimes showing the king/emperor (with a huge phallus) anally raping the entire conquered enemy. Even military rapes of women were designed to humiliate the conquered MEN–saying to them, “you are too weak to protect your women from us.”

The men of Sodom are offering inhospitable humiliation to “the strangers/aliens in their midst,” which is considered to be an incredible social sin. The need for Lot to protect his guests under the rules of hospitality is so great that (horrifying to us–but showing the devalued status of women, then)  he offers to let the mob gang-rape his virgin daughters if they will just leave his guests in peace!! Now, setting aside our (quite justified) horror at Lot’s attempted solution, this detail makes clear that the mob was not composed of “homosexuals” as we understand the term–not composed of men whose sexual desires are oriented toward their own sex. Because, in that case, offering the daughters makes no sense. [The horror of this passage is not only in its description of a planned same-sex gang rape–condemned strongly by the text–but also in the SILENCE of the text on Lot’s “solution.” Only the fact that sexism is still such a strong feature of most churches keeps us from being horrified that the biblical author of this story says NOTHING to condemn Lot’s willingness to let his virgin daughters be gang-raped in the (male) strangers’/angels’ place.]

There is a parallel, but much less well-known, story in Judges 19 where the men of Gibeah threaten such inhospitality to a Levite. In this case, the Levite throws his concubine (whom he apparently loves from earlier details in the story) outside and she is gang-raped all night and dead in the morning. Whereupon the Levite cuts her body into pieces and sends them to the 12 tribes of Israel and they, horrified, attack and wipe out the city of Gibeah. The horrible story is given to show moral chaos “when there was no king in Israel.” (19:1). Here again, same-sex gang rape is contemplated, inhospitality to strangers is the major crime (with added issues of sexual purity for the Levite)–only this time the “bargain” of getting to gang-rape a woman instead is accepted. [And, once more, nothing is said in condemnation of the Levite for sacrificing his concubine in this way.]

In the rest of Scripture, Sodom comes to symbolize great evil–but not generally sexual evil. E.g., Ezekiel 16:49-50, “This was the guilt of your sister, Sodom, she and her daughters[i.e., surrounding villages] 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.”  Similar references are made throughout the prophets and in the New Testament. Only in Jude 7 is the Sin of Sodom and Gomorrah specified as sexual immorality–and even there no mention is made of same-sex actions specifically as reasons why the city was destroyed.

What do we learn from this text? Rape of any kind, heterosexual or homosexual, is evil. Along with not helping the poor, it is an example of inhospitality–grave evil.

Please note: nothing in this story shows a positive evaluation of same-sex actions under any circumstance. This text does not, in that way, advance the case I am making for full inclusion of GLBT persons in the church. All we have done is remove this text from further discussion. It is useful in reinforcing our view that same sex rapes and other forms of using sex to humiliate are wrong. If we are to evaluate the morality of loving same-sex relationships analogous to marriage, however, this text is not of any use. It does not speak to the subject.

January 19, 2007 - Posted by | Biblical exegesis, GLBT issues, Hebrew Bible/O.T., homosexuality


  1. A positive argument for the importance of hospitality in the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative does not in any way necessitate the elimination of same-sex practice as a factor in their sinfulness.

    Robert Gagnon has done a powerful job of articulating the contextual argument for same-sex practice as an important part of Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin. Some small bit is present in this response, but The Bible and Homosexual Practice has the bulk of his work.

    I don’t think that you can dismiss passages such Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:7 & 10 so easily.

    In Christ,

    Comment by Bryan Peters | January 19, 2007

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Bryan. I want to engage especially evangelicals in this discussion because I come from the same place with the same background.

    I am familiar with Gagnon’s work. It is helpful in exposing some of the sloppier work among revisionists, but his treatment of Sodom is the weakest part. The same-sex activity that the text actually relates about Sodom is all violent–attempted gang rape.

    I am not dismissing Jude 7, nor 2 Peter 2:7-10. Jude says that sexual immorality was one of the reasons for Sodom’s destruction, and 2nd Peter says it included “licentiousness,” which may include sexual immorality. But NEITHER is more specific. To read more into it than that, as Gagnon does, is to import the understandings we have from the homophobic tradition beginning with Peter Damien.
    There are negative judgments in Scripture on same-sex activity that are not rape/violence related. We will get to those. But the Sodom story has zero references to same-sex activity other than attempted gang-rape. Gagnon has been ably answered on this point by the likes of Robin Scroggs, Walter Wink, William Countryman, Victor Paul Furnish, and Bernadette Brooten to name just a few.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 19, 2007

  3. What about Jude’s specific description of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah “going after strange flesh” (“aperchomai opisō heteros sarx”)?

    Also, the connection between Sodom and Gomorrah and aberrant sexual sin, if not the actual term “sodomy” dates at least back to Augustine of Hippo, if not further I might also add that labeling this tradition as “homophobic” may be an inaccurate descriptor. Moral rejections of same-sex practice does not always proceed from fear of the unknown, but may find their foundation in Biblical conviction.

    Comment by Bryan Peters | January 19, 2007

  4. “Strange flesh,” in Jude 7 COULD be a reference to same-sex matters. It could also more generally be a reference to adulterous sex. Another possibility is that this is a reference to the rabbinic tradition outside Hebrew Scripture that the men of Sodom were trying to mate with angels–like the other obscure ref. in Genesis of “the sons of God marrying the sons of men” and the result being a race of giants!! We know that Jude likes to quote apocryphal texts.
    The point is that the reference is far too brief and vague to serve as a hermeneutical key to Gen. 18 & 19. One of the oldest principles of biblical interpretation is that what is clear guides our interpretation of what is obscure–NOT the other way around.
    Now, as to Augustine’s negative injunctions on sex–which are clearly wrapped up in his own warped history–I am not saying that they aren’t there–although he doesn’t coin the term “sodomy.” I am saying, with the Reformers, that no church tradition is infallible. We constantly have to go back “to the sources” and see if the interpretive tradition is right–or if we have gotten lazy in reading these texts because of layers and layers of interpretive history. That’s the Protestant principle.

    Again, I am not claiming that this solves the questions of the modern church struggle over loving same-sex relationship analagous to heterosexual marriage. I am saying that we cannot shortcut that question by reference to this text in Genesis. Gagnon stands nearly alone in claiming that we can. Even others who agree with his overall conclusion have disagreed with his “maximalist” reading of the Genesis 18-19 text. (See, for instance, the comments of his fellow Presbyterian exclusivist, Marion Soards.)
    You are, of course, right that the term “homophobic” is problematic. There is, however, no neutral terminology that is acceptable to all. I find Gagnon’s constant references to “homosex,” etc. to be just as problematic.
    I hope you’ll stick with this series to the end, Bryan, and thanks for working to keep me honest. Your comments have been far more helpful than the usual kinds of conservative criticism this series has gotten.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 19, 2007

  5. Happy to stick with it. Penetrating dialogue is always a good thing.

    My point with this particular narrative is thus:

    I grant that it is shaky ground to base a rejection of same-sex practice upon this particular narrative alone. However, I would argue that it is reasonable to read this narrative as a supporting part of a larger context which promotes a traditional sexual framework. The isolation of hospitality as the sole or even primary factor in Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin seems to me to be at least as shaky a hermeneutical move as traditionalists are accused of making.

    In Christ,
    Bryan Peters

    Comment by Bryan Peters | January 19, 2007

  6. I know the pun was unintentional, Bryan, but on THIS topic I would call the dialogue by some other adjective than “penetrating.” A-hem!
    I do agree that the final overall judgment will be more of a clash of rival wider narratives.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 19, 2007

  7. Given your explicit desire to include evangelicals in this conversation, I do see why you must present exegetical information, but at what point does “going to the scriptures” give exclusivists the advantage of having the home court? Don’t get me wrong, the stuff here on S&G needs to be passed along to such groups – there is a lot of popular faulty information out there – but ultimately (and I believe you’ve expressed this…) inclusivists (especially advocates such as yourself) do not have the luxury of simply looking up a “rule” by chapter and verse. As Bill Coffin put it, “It is a mistake to look to the Bible to close a discussion; the Bible seeks to open one.” (Coffin, The Heart is a Little to the Left, p. 49) (There are other parts of Coffin’s book that deal with the issue at hand as well…)

    There are points that the literalist fails to bring up: Christians’ selective use of the Hebrew laws (one man must not lie with another man, but we can, as Coffin alludes, eat pork rinds and watch a sport that is played with an object made from the skin of a dead pig); the overall message of slavery as an acceptable social institution; patriarchalism; the many contradictory notions in scripture (e.g., is war okay, or is Jesus’ message of peace superior? Should I speak against empire as the writers of the Gospels, or use my Roman citizenship to its full advantage, as did Paul? etc.); and the other questions that could be brought up here. First, if one is going to be a literalist, why be selective? And if one is going to be a selective literalist, why the subject same-sex relations? There is an overarching hermeneutic at work here: a homophobic hermeneutic.

    And in reference to Bryan Peters’ comment about how we shouldn’t use the term “homophobic” in reference to this “tradition,” since when did it become the responsibility of a heterosexual exclusivist to set the rubric for what language should or should not be used in reference to same-sex relations? Just because white people say that the oppression of blacks is long gone, that doesn’t mean blacks will agree. Whose decision is it? What we need, then, is an actual lgbt person (who, of course, is competent on these matters) to help set that agenda. Something tells me that a lgbt person would wish to keep that specific term on the table, and for good reason.

    I think what is more important, then, is the recognition of a queer hermeneutic that is allowed to speak for itself, a hermeneutic that is not “inferior” to that of straight, white people. (For the record, I am both straight and white, and Pentecostal, to boot!)

    But since the present discussion (and I realize this is only the present discussion, b/c I am sure that you, Michael, have MUCH more up your sleeve – and I don’t mean to jump ahead any…) DOES involve scripture, I’d like to throw in Luke 4.18-19 for the exclusivist readers. A more positive spin, wouldn’t you say…

    Comment by Jon | January 19, 2007

  8. Wow, Jon, you said a mouthful. I generally agree, except that I have no choice but to “go to the texts”–not as a prooftext, but as the canon which shapes our conversation. Recall what I said in post # 2–unless Christian ethics is related–in SOME fashion to Scripture, it can’t really be called Christian.
    The HOW is a big question. I will have more hermeneutical and theological reflections after the exegetical posts, but we do have to engage them.
    A fellow member of my church, with a similar background to mine, says he has come to believe that people are not persuaded by these kinds of arguments, but only by becoming friends with gay or lesbian Christians and seeing the holiness of their lives. (Cf. Peter in Acts 15, “Yeah, I know what Moses says about Gentile perverts and circumcision, but I tell you I saw them receive the Holy Spirit WITHOUT circumcision!”)

    I see my friend’s point, but I don’t entirely agree. My experience with GLBT Christians made me OPEN to a new view than the exclusivist one I held previously, but I was ambivalent for several years as I wrestled with various biblical texts from several standpoints. If biblical arguments were not everything, they at least let my mind finally accept the direction my heart was leaning.

    Thanks for comments, Jon. BTW, I like the name of your blog, The Prophetic Edge. When will you actually post something there so I can see whether or not to add you to the blogroll? And do we know each other? Your name sounds familiar and when I add that to your location (Texas/Brite Div.) and your admission to being Pentecostal, I wonder if I didn’t meet you a couple of years ago when I was a guest speaker for a retreat of the Pentacostal & Charismatic Peace Fellowship. Do you, perchance, know Paul and Deborah Alexander?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 20, 2007

  9. I think I’d need to devote a blog series to everything that you’ve hit on, Jon, but let me just throw out some very brief comments.

    Hebrew Laws: Sharp evangelical scholars argue that a principle is at work in the inclusion of certain bans in OT legal codes, not that the mere presence of a precept in Leviticus is a solid argument for its application for New Covenant believers. Historic Reformed theology distinguishes three uses of the Law which greatly advance such an understanding of its application today.

    Slavery: Sheesh, that’s a huge discussion. It involves the differences between OT practices, first century Palestinian practices, and our own contemporary experience. Let’s just say that it is a tricky question of exactly what Scripture does and does not sanction.
    Patriarchalism: Sanctioned by Scripture or simply described as a result of the Fall?
    War & Peace: …heh. I’m pacifist and I believe that the Scriptures teach that all New Covenant believers should be. That’s a huge discussion too, of course.
    Government & Citizenship: Ay yi yi. Any other huge discussion you want to hit?

    My general sentiment on this list: There are cogent and articulate ways to deal with these issues from an evangelical standpoint which don’t necessarily betray an uneven hermeneutic.

    The term “homophobic”:
    This betrays my worldview, of course, but I would say that this is more a matter of truthful description. The fact is that not every individual holding a traditionalist perspective on sexual ethics does so out of fear. In the interest of promoting constructive dialogue, it would be beneficial to refrain utilizing such a pejorative and inaccurate label.

    Comment by Bryan Peters | January 20, 2007

  10. Michael,

    I do know the Alexanders, mainly Paul – he’s a fantastic guy. You and I have never met in person – while I enjoy the PCPF, I did not attend that conference. But you may have met my friend Sam Martinez. And as for my blog, it’s on the getting-around-to-it list 😉


    I’m aware of Reformed approaches to the law, but even with that considered I still think we’re approaching the Law selectively, looking for the ‘cans’ and ‘cannots’. Reformed Theology is not the answer; in fact, it has probably contributed more to a homophobic hermeneutic than it has to a queer one. And I don’t necessarily think we have to hash out those other issues – I used them illustratively. But I do enjoy reading people’s thoughts on them, so if you do post anything on them, let me know (jon.m.reeves@tcu.edu). And again on the use of “homophobic,” to whom is the term more pejorative? You? or members of the lgbt community who have suffered from it? My point is to let THEM decide whether or not it is included. It’s their call. But I do appreciate your opinion… I’m not just some jerk who disagrees with everyone 😉

    Comment by Jon | January 20, 2007

  11. >Then the men of the city come to do bodily harm to the strangers–inhospitality. They are clearly intent on same-sex rape.

    Note: The Sodomites did not initially force Lot’s male guests to have sex with them. But just by them mentioning it, Lot urged them not to do such a ‘wicked’ thing.

    Comment by Roger | January 22, 2007

  12. This is naive, R. If you have “all the men of the city,” surrounding the house, their intentions are clearly hostile even if their tone initially is not. They weren’t inviting the strangers to an orgy. They were clearly asking Lot to abandon his hospitality duties as host and remove his protection from them. This is still attempted rape–like a large man saying to a small woman, “Well, this is going to happen, but you can relax and try to enjoy it.” That’s still rape!
    David with Bathsheba was rape because you cannot refuse the king and live.
    Anytime there is a power imbalance (and being surrounded in a house by all the men of the city certainly counts!), then you are NOT talking about voluntary, consentual sex. To say that the men of Sodom only attempted rape when their initial request was refused IS THE VERY ESSENCE of rape!
    Rape is not about lust, but about power, control, domination and humiliation. That’s the set-up in this story. That it was same-sex attempted rape rather than of the opposite sex is a side-issue.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 22, 2007

  13. roger the spammer who keeps coming where he’s not wanted said, “You can’t separate rape from lust.” I didn’t think there was anyone still that ignorant. Even heterosexual rape is not about lust. How could you be this IGNORANT about every study concerning the psychology of rape in the last 40 years!

    If the men of Sodom were simply inviting the strangers to a friendly little time of group sex (gross, but that’s another issue), they could have sent one or two people with a kind invitation. Get serious! They surrounded the house! They threatened. They didn’t say, “Okay, but if you change your mind, meet us at Joe’s!”
    They picked out the strangers. This is about humiliation. It is about exploiting the weak. And this kind of violent inhospitality must have been something well enough known that Lot was afraid for these people if they slept in the street–so that he goes beyond inviting them home to almost demanding it!

    Again, the point is that this passage has little to do with the moral questions surrounding loving, monogamous same-sex relationships between people who were born with sexual orientations toward their own sex. That is an important moral topic and we will seek biblical guidance, but it is completely off the mental radar of this story in Genesis.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 22, 2007

  14. Roger,

    I encourage you to read up on the S&G issue. Michael is not out in left field standing by himself on this topic. You could start with Louis Crompton’s book, Homosexuality & Civilization, pp. 36-9.

    And if it really is all about lust, and assuming you’re a take-the-Bible-for-what-it-says kind of guy, then what about the rest of the biblical witness, especially the prophets, and especially Ezekiel?

    I agree with Michael that sexual behavior is not always about ‘lust’, which could use some definition here as well. I’ve even had a friend whose marriage ended on account of his infidelity look me in the eye and tell me it was not about the sex; it was about the power he felt. I think you’re giving lust too much credit.

    Comment by Jon | January 22, 2007

  15. noted 😉

    Comment by Jon | January 22, 2007

  16. This whole passage of scripture is really about the bigger issue of sin. The actions of the Sodomites are shocking because of the nature of sin: it takes us further than we ever wanted to go and it is never satisfied (they are treating people as objects of sexual satisfaction and using their bodies in ways they weren’t created to be used, and seeking out new pleasures by lusting for these strangers in town).

    Jon said:>And if it really is all about lust, and assuming you’re a take-the-Bible-for-what-it-says kind of guy, then what about the rest of the biblical witness, especially the prophets, and especially Ezekiel?

    Can’t Ezekiel and Jude both be truthful? They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, do they?

    Also, if lust is not at the core of this, what is? Why is the flesh involved?

    Comment by Roger | January 23, 2007

  17. “It’s because it’s a selfish act and not a God-honoring act.”

    Glad I’m not your wife. You appear to have an ugly view of sexuality, Marshall. It does not even appear to fit within traditional religious bounds, which has always (or often – the puritans apparently didn’t think this way) been that sex is a beautiful and wondrous thing in the proper context.

    Sex itself is selfish and not God-honoring? So that means it’s to be avoided and preached against? Is that really what you’re saying?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | April 1, 2007

  18. Thanks for that comment, Dan, but I have to defend the Puritans here against popular misconception. It was really the VICTORIANS of the 19th C. who thought sex was evil. The Puritans were positive about married sex and part of their polemic against Catholicism was against the “unnatural” celibacy of priests, monks, and nuns. Whereas other Christian groups argued that sex was ONLY for reproduction, the Puritans argued that marital sex was primarily for strengthening the spousal bond (which they quaintly called “companionship,” since they tended to reserve the term “love” for God) and they believed that spouses ought to read the Song of Songs aloud to one another in private. In fact, in Puritan New England, if a husband neglected his bedroom “duties” toward his wife, she could take him to court and the magistrate and preacher would ORDER him to please her–although how good legally order sex would be, I am unsure.

    The picture we get from such things as Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is somewhat misleading, although the Puritans WERE quite negative about adultery or premarital sex, etc. And whereas the Medieval religious authorities tolerated prostitution, the Puritans attacked it unmercifully as a threat to marriage.

    I actually share much of the real Puritan attitude toward sex: loving, committed, monogamous. I simply believe that gays and lesbians ought also to have that life option.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 1, 2007

  19. Thanks for the education on Puritans. To all Puritans out there, I apologize for the mis-speaking.

    My point remains that I’m glad I’m not Marshall’s wife…

    Comment by Dan Trabue | April 2, 2007

  20. […] If you are new to the series, please read the previous installments first:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, this addendum, and 6.  Jumping straight to this post is not advised.  Also, even those who […]

    Pingback by GLBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion 7 « Levellers | November 18, 2007

  21. […] The Sodom Story […]

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