Genesis 18 and verses 1-29 of chapter 19 are the first and best known of the references in the Bible that are claimed to refer to homosexuality. These passages tell the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Everyone ‘knows’ what the error of Sodom and Gomorrah was, right? Sure you do.
The story is familiar in its outline. Sodom, though prosperous, was so wicked that God decided on its destruction and that of three neighboring Canaanite cities Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim. Although He promised not to destroy the city if ten good people could be found in it, it could not even pass that test. Two angels went to the city to save Abraham’s nephew Lot’s family from the destruction; Lot, not knowing they were angels, invited them to his house for dinner and lodging.
When city dwellers learned of the presence of two strangers in their midst, people gathered at Lot’s door, demanding that the two strangers be brought out to them so they might “know” them (a term we will return to).
Lot, suspecting evil intentions – apparently sexual, since rape was not an uncommon way to humiliate enemies – pleaded with them not to assault the strangers, and he offered them his virgin daughters instead. Finally, when the crowd would not relent, the angels afflicted everyone in the mob with blindness and barricaded the door. They warned Lot of the imminent destruction of the city, and the next day he fled, having failed to convince his daughters’ fiancées to flee with them. As they fled, the city and all its inhabitants were destroyed, and Lot’s wife looked back despite having been warned not to and was immediately turned into a block of salt.
There are two critical questions for this passage; first, who was in the mob?
Each of these translations specifies men and only men (in fact, of the 20 translations available on Bible Gateway at the end of 2008, only seven had translations that even suggested that anyone other than just men were there). The ancient Hebrew words for this phrase could mean “men of the city, even the men of Sodom,” or they could mean “the people of the city, the people of Sodom.” The phrase “the men of the city” in the original Hebrew is the word enowsh, which basically means ‘mortals.’ In spite of the suggestion of sexual interaction, it is pretty clear that what is meant here is the majority of the population of the city, both male and female.
This obviously excludes a homosexual orgy, to which you wouldn’t invite the wife and kids.
The second question is what these people wanted to do.
The key verb here, transliterated ya,da (or yadha’ ) , is usually translated as “know.” This verb appears 943 times elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, where it generally means “to know a fact” or “to know a person well.” It has an obvious sexual connotation in only ten of these cases, all of which involve heterosexual relationships.
The translation, then, could have the following meanings:
- Gang rape the angels (a common way to humiliate men – especially enemies – at the time);
- Engage in consensual homosexual sex with them (possibly what the NIV translators intended with “have sex with them”);
- Interrogate them. (The city had in the recent past been sacked, and the strangers might have been spies sent to check out the fortifications which provided some protection for the trade routes that passed the city.)
In choosing the proper meaning, consider this. In Biblical times, travel was slow and dangerous, and safe places to rest were few. Travelers could only pray for the hospitality of strangers – an important theme in the Bible. And Jews, having been ill-treated travelers in Egypt, had particular reason to be hospitable, and emphasis on it permeates Jewish law. For many reasons, hospitality, once offered, could not be breached.
Where the Bible itself mentions the sin of Sodom (except in Deuteronomy, where unfaithfulness to the Lord is cited, and in Jude, where “sexual immorality” is mentioned), it specifies lack of hospitality, pride, idolatry, greed, and gluttony – primarily inhospitality and greed. In none of these is there a word about gay behavior.
Jesus himself singled out only Sodom’s inhospitality (Matthew 10:15, Matthew 11:23, and Luke 10:12). Rejecting His disciples, or refusing to show them hospitality, He said, was a worse sin than anything that went on in Sodom (Matthew 10:15). The sin here, according to the Bible itself, had nothing to do with homosexuality.
The closest the Bible comes is in Jude 1:7:
The Greek word translated in the KJV as ‘strange’ was heteros, which is to say that the immorality was heterosexual. In this case, though, men were seeking intercourse with angels; ‘strange’ flesh indeed. Even with shifting the focus to sexual immorality, it takes a particular attitude to interpret this solely and specifically as gay behavior.
Also consider: Biblical references that mention Sodom emphasize the neglect of orphans and widows. If all male “Sodomites” were gay, where would widows and orphans have come from? And where would Lot’s daughters have found potential husbands there?
And consider one more thing. In the culture of the time (see the relationship of Mary and Joseph), engagement was a binding proposition. It gave Lot authority not only over his daughters but over his two sons-in-law as well. If Lot believed that the mob was interested in sex, why on earth would he offer his daughters to a mob of homosexuals rather than his sons-in-law?
The situation doesn’t actually blacken Lot as much as it seems. The obligations of hospitality were obviously powerful; the value assigned to women was just as clearly low (in the 11th chapter of the Qur’an, Lot is told to leave his wife behind in Sodom). See the discussion of the value of women in the comments on the 1 Corinthian use of malakos.
Moving along, in Judges 19:14-29 a story very similar to that of Sodom and Gomorrah appears (although supposedly almost five hundred years later). An old man offers to host a Levite traveler passing through Gibeah; once they are at his home, a gang of men appears and demands that he send out the Levite so that they might ‘know’ him (sound familiar?)
The old man offers to send out his virgin daughter and the concubine of the traveler; they accept the concubine and serially rape her (the same word, ‘knew’) all night. She dies at the front door of the old man’s house. The Levite cuts her into 12 pieces and sends one to each tribe of Israel, initiating a civil war that almost wipes out the entire tribe of Benjamin (Gibeah belonged to the tribe of Benjamin).
Can you say ‘family values?’ Thousands of the tribe of Benjamin were slaughtered, including all the women and children; only a few hundred men survived. To find women for these men so the tribe would not pass out of existence, a sub-tribe of Jabesh Gilead that hadn’t joined the fight was exterminated except for four hundred virgins. Family values indeed; this is worthy of an X-Box program.
Overlook the lack of any criticism of the Levite for his part in the death of his concubine or for mutilating her body; the focus is clearly on the mob’s ultimate act of inhospitality. Even more clearly than in Genesis, these passages condemn abusive treatment of visitors.
Even harshly anti-gay authors agree that homosexuality is irrelevant to these stories. And it is deeply ironic that the story of Sodom, scripture intended to deplore inhospitality, is being used to justify inhospitality to gays.
The next supposedly anti-gay passages in the Bible are in Leviticus.