Everyone is familiar with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. At least many people think they are. The point of the story is to condemn homosexuals and homosexual behavior, right? Wrong. And contrary to the belief of some, it’s not merely about a breach of the ancient sacred duty of hospitality either. Fact is there is much to cull from the biblical text that is often missed. Let’s take a closer look at this often misconstrued passage and I suspect you’ll see some things you did not see before.
As historian and Yale professor John Boswell rightly pointed out, “Sodom is used as a symbol of evil in dozens of places [in the Bible], but not in a single instance is the sin of the Sodomites specified as homosexuality.” In Ezekiel chapter 16, we read that the prophet declares the word of God saying that a self-righteously religious Jerusalem had not only imitated the vile deeds of the Sodomites, but had become even more corrupt. Then the prophet spells out explicitly what God calls the sin of Sodom:
“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord … this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16:48-50)
Here we have the Bible commentating on the Bible. We can hardly get better Bible commentary than that. Here we have what the Bible says is God’s commentary on the story of Sodom and on Sodom’s sin. Note that contrary to what some are taught, there is no mention of homosexuality in God’s commentary of Sodom’s sin. In fact, in Genesis 18:20, we read that long before the attempted gang rape at Lot’s house in Sodom the Lord said:
“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” (Genesis 18:20-21)
As evangelical Bible scholar William H. Brownlee explains in the Word Biblical Commentary on Ezekiel 1-19, “The word used for ‘outcry’ always refers to the outcry of the oppressed.” He says, “this is exactly the situation of Ezekiel 16:49. We are to think of the anguished cries to God of the ‘poor and needy’ to whom the wealthy Sodomites afford no help or encouragement. … ‘Gave no help and encouragement is literally ‘did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.’ The verb ‘to strengthen’ means not only to give material assistance, but also to give encouragement. …the converse charge [such as is found in Jeremiah 38:4] of ‘weakening the hands of the people’ … means to discourage, to demoralize. Thus the ‘poor and needy’ of Sodom and her daughters were so completely demoralized that they had no one to whom to turn, except to Yahweh.”
So God heard their anguished cries of complaint and investigated. Not that there’s anything God is ever in the dark about. But he shows the fairness of his judgments which are never the result of rash or sudden resolves. He judges on his own infallible knowledge, not on the information of others.
In addition to charges that the Sodomites were arrogant, overfed, unconcerned, and did not help the poor and needy (16:49), God’s commentary on the story of Sodom and on Sodom’s sin also says Sodom “did detestable things before me” (16:50). Some Christians are quick to stop here and say, “Um, its homosexual; that settles it, let’s move on.” But before we read our own interpretation into the text, let’s first see if the Bible tells us specifically what these detestable things were. It is respectful of God’s gift to us to go after his intentions and meanings before arriving at our own. Sure enough, we find that God, speaking though the prophet, spells out in striking “in your face” condemnation explicitly what Sodom’s abhorrent conduct entailed.
Jerusalem we’re told has a resemblance to her “sister” Sodom (16:46, 16:48, 16:49, 16:56). The Lord repeatedly calls them sisters because they are kindred spirits in wickedness. They are also both ancient Canaanite cities. Sodom was a leading Canaanite city (Gen 10:18) and, according to Ezekiel, a city where people would do anything to maintain their surfeit of wealth and ease and power. Sodom’s sister Jerusalem too was an old Canaanite city (16:1-3), conquered by King David who made it his new national capital. And here in Ezekiel 16, the prophet critiques the many cultic Canaanite practices Jerusalem has adopted, some of which are quite revolting. But from the viewpoint of Ezekiel, this isn’t too surprising since Jerusalem was descended from pagans in the first place:
“The word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, confront Jerusalem with her detestable practices and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Jerusalem: Your ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites…” (Ezekiel 16:1-3)
The root of the unitary nature of these “detestable practices” is everything that had to do with the exercise of the pagan Canaanite religion. Canaanite religious practices were barbarous and thoroughly licentious. The astounding characteristic of Canaanite deities, that they had no moral character whatsoever, brought out the worst traits in their devotees and entailed many of the most demoralizing practices of the time. In his commentary on their sin in Ezekiel 16, God starts by indicating their vile deeds included cultic prostitution and building “high places” (16:15-16).
Cultic prostitution was practiced by the Canaanites to promote fertility. Fertility was highly prized in Ancient times in ways that are completely foreign to our modern thinking. Fact is in many ways their lives literally depended on it: fertility of the land in the form of rains to ensure and boost crop production, fertility of life through pregnancy and birth, fertility for reproduction of their livestock, and so on. Devotees would visit the pagan shrines and perform sacred sexual rituals with male and female shrine prostitutes to give honor to the Canaanite pagan gods and thereby ensure fertility and prosperity.
The “high places” were the illicit shrines where their worship occurred and their cultic prostitution rites were performed (1 Kings 13:32; 2 Kings 17:29). God hated the “high places” of the Canaanites and after the Israelites entered the Promised Land they were strictly commanded to overthrow these “high places,” lest they be tempted to worship the Canaanites’ pagan gods and partake in their depraved practices (Ex 34:13; Num 33:52; Deut 7:5; Deut 12:2-3).
Their idolatries also included “making male idols and engaging in prostitution with them” (16:17, 16:20-21, 16:36). If this was not enough, they also “took their sons and daughters and sacrificed them as food to the idols” (16:20-21). The practice of child sacrifice to the Canaanite god Molech included a ritualized slaughter of their children (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; 2 Kings 17:31; 23:10; Jer. 7:31; 19:5; 32:35), followed by burning the bodies to ashes. Drums were pounded to drown out the cries of the children.
They are also repeatedly condemned for building “lofty shrines” to worship the Canaanite pagan gods (16:24-25, 16:31, 16:36, 16:39). You can read the whole chapter for more on these sordid details and a greatly expanded essay on the subject in Ezekiel 23. They are also described in my earlier post: Leviticus 18: What was the Abomination? (link also found on ”Archives” page). But not in a single instance in this extensive list of vile deeds, or anywhere else in the 26 times where Sodom is mentioned in the Bible (18 in the OT and 8 in the NT), is the sin of the Sodomites ever specified as homosexuality.
Among other things, this illustrates how blinded we can be by our “reifications” and “canonical interpretations”. A reification is when we use a concept or doctrine so often and for so long that it comes to be a distinct “thing” to us, something that’s really there, a piece of our mind’s furniture. We are unaware of how much of our mental furniture consists of reifications. A canonical interpretation is a way of looking at a biblical passage or doctrine that we’ve become so accustomed to, that the interpretation has become indistinguishable in our minds from the text or passages themselves.
SACRED DUTY OF HOSPITALITY
Evangelical Bible scholar Brownlee also notes, “hospitality to strangers was a virtue exemplified by Abraham (Gen 18:1-8) and Lot (Gen 19:1-3) and an important virtue expected of noble-minded people. Contrarily, the oppression of the stranger as exemplified by [the attempted gang rape at Lot's house] in Gen 19:1-9 was, according to ancient Semitic custom, a very grave crime.”
It is difficult for us as modern readers to imagine that a breach of hospitality could be so serious an offense (though according to Genesis, the Lord was already inclined to punish the Sodomites even before the angels arrived there, which is why they were sent.) In the ancient world, inns were rare outside of urban centers and travelers were dependent on the hospitality and goodwill of strangers not just for comfort but physical survival. In desert country where Sodom lay, to stay outside exposed to the cold of the night could be fatal. Ethical codes almost invariably enjoined hospitality on their adherents as a sacred obligation.
Stories of divine testing of human piety by dispatching beggars or wayfarers to demand the sacred right of hospitality are commonplace in the Old Testament. In nearly all such stories evil persons appear either as neighbors or other townsfolk who do not fulfill their obligation and are punished, violently or by exclusion from some divine benefice, while the solitary upright family is rewarded with a gift or a prophecy of misfortunes to come.
It is shocking to us to think that Lot would have offered his daughters to the Sodomites. But this is another example of how different their culture was from our own. In that time, the father of the house actually “owned” the women. They were his property. He was free to do with them almost whatever he wanted. This action, almost unthinkable in modern Western society, was analogous with the low status of female children at the time and was not without its parallels even in the more “civilized” Roman world. Once again, we cannot assume the ancient people to whom the Bible was written were just like us. In some ways, they were and in others, their thinking was so foreign to us that the gulf is almost impassable.
The identification of Sodom with the breach of the sacred duty of hospitality is also made by Jesus when he warned his disciples, sent like the angels as God’s messengers, that they would not be received in some places:
“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.” (Matthew 10:14-15)
We should also note that during biblical times men (and the kings) of conquered tribes were often raped by the invading army as the ultimate symbol of defeat and humiliation. Male-to-male rape was a way for victors to accentuate the subjection of captive enemies and foes and a way of humiliating visitors and strangers. If we miss this, we not only miss what was going on in the Sodom and Gomorrah text, we also miss the meaning behind other passages such as 1 Samuel 31:4 and 1 Chronicles 10:4 where Saul, gravely wounded by the Philistines, instructs his armor-bearer to:
“Draw your sword and thrust me through with it lest these uncircumcised come and abuse me.” (1 Chronicles 10:4)
So what then were the grievous sins that caused God to judge Sodom worthy of such destruction? The sin of Sodom was avarice, pride, and a determination to have riches at any cost, according to God’s commentary in Ezekiel. Sodom did practice pagan rituals, including cult prostitution involving ambisexual sadomasochism. Why did they do such abominable things? Because they believed that these things would bring them fertility and secure their place in the world. They were haughty, had prosperous ease, too much food and did not aid the poor and needy. Ezekiel said that they practiced all that to get and to maintain their enormous wealth.
Sodom was perverse, according to Ezekiel, because it was rich and powerful and coveted ever more and yet more power. They believed they obtained that power through multi-sexual sadism, the drinking of blood, semen and other body fluids, the eating of flesh, animal sex and the sacrificing of their children to the pagan gods. This was the famous sin of Sodom, not what you’ve heard. And as bad as Sodom was, according to Ezekiel, Jerusalem was much worse off as a city.
This is not my interpretation; it is that which is given in the Bible. You and I do not get to rip passages from their context and replace them in another age for the sake of convenience. And we don’t get to make things up as we go along. As always, we are stuck with the internal interpretation of the text as the primary meaning.
See also on this blog the following related posts:
Leviticus 18: What Was the Abomination?
Romans 1: What Was Paul Ranting About?
Romans 2: Paul’s Bait and Switch
Exegesis: Not for the Faint in Heart
Why No One in the Biblical World Had a Word for Homosexuality
* Links to these and other posts may also be found on the “Archives” page .