Sodom: A Traumatic Scene Revisited
Key Passages: Genesis 19:1-29, Judges 19
By Bruce L. Gerig

In Genesis 19:1-29, we have the (in)famous story of the last night of Sodom, which along with three neighboring towns (Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim), was obliterated by an unforgettable disaster, some 4,000 years ago. A fifth town nearby, Bela (renamed Zoar), was spared by the angels, so that Lot could seek refuge there (Gen 19:18-23). But Abraham, even 25 miles away (at Mamre), would look down over the plain and see "the smoke of the land [billowing] up like the smoke of a furnace" (19:27-28). After studying all the geological evidence and literary references, J.P. Harland concluded that a flash of lightning probably ignited seepages of bitumen (asphalt), petroleum and gas in the area, turning the whole valley into a blazing inferno and filling the sky with black smoke. This was accompanied by an earthquake or underground explosions ("God overthrew," vv. 24,29), so that whatever remained of the cities now apparently lies at the bottom of the southern, shallow bay of the Dead Sea1 (at least some man-made architectural forms have been sighted there). This story is a very important one, not only because terms like "sodomy" and "sodomite" still swirl in the air today, derived from the name of the chief city here, but because this terrible destruction has been read by so many as a sign that God "hates" homosexuality. A close study of the text will show, however, that this is both a misinterpretation and misapplication.

Some fifteen years prior to Sodom's obliteration, Lot had moved his camp to the Valley of Siddim ("flat-country"2), because the plain around the southern tip of the Salt Sea (later called the "Dead Sea") was well-watered by the Jordan and other rivers that flowed into it; it was so green, in fact, that it was compared to the Garden of Eden (Gen 13:10). Lot moved there, in spite of the fact that the men of Sodom already had a terrible reputation for their wickedness (13:5-13). On the day before Sodom's destruction, in the afternoon, God appeared suddenly with two angels before Abraham; and the patriarch showered his guests with true Middle Eastern hospitality, washing their feet, sitting them under a shade tree, and serving them a lavish meal – way more food, in fact, than any three people could ever eat (18:1-8)! Then, the Lord told Abraham that he planned to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, for their sin was "very grave" (18:17-21, NRSV). Victor Hamilton notes that "her outcry" in v. 21 ("of it" in the KJV/NKJV) can only refer back to "Sodom" and "Gomorrah," which are also feminine3 – not to inhabitants of the surrounding region, as most translations imply. This "outcry," then, refers either to shouts coming from the attackers and spectators at their boisterous brawls or, more likely (as "outcry" is used in the OT), to the screaming of their victims, crying out, night after night, in pain and for help. And who knows how long this horrible victimization had been going on?

When the angels arrive in Sodom, to check out firsthand the truth of the outcries, they are rushed by Lot off the street and into his home, where he serves them a hastily-prepared meal (with unleavened bread). "[19:4] But before they lay down, the men [enosh] of the city … both old and young, all the people [am] from every quarter, surrounded [sabhach] the house. [v. 5] And they called to Lot and said to him, 'Where are the men [enosh] who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know [yadha] them carnally [italics shows that NKJV translators here have added this word]. [v. 6] So Lot went out to them through the doorway, shut the door behind him, [v. 7] and said, 'Please my brethren [ach], do not so wickedly. [v. 8] See now, I have two daughters who have not known [yadha] a man [ish]; please let me bring them out to you, and you may do with them as you wish; only do nothing to these men [enosh] … who have come under the shadow of my roof.'" Angry that Lot, only a guest residing (gur) in the city, should thwart their desires, the mob then "pressed hard" against Lot," trying to "break down the door" (v. 9). Lot was only saved when the angels intervened, striking the men at the door with blindness (vv. 10-11) or "blinding light" (so Hamilton).4

A number of observations are in order: (1) It has been argued5 that since enosh means "mortal" (Strong, #582), this points to a mixed crowd and therefore not a homosexual scene. It is true that enosh derives from a root meaning "frail." However, a closer look at Hebrew usage reveals that enosh is used as the plural for ish ("man," #375); in contexts in Genesis, for example, enosh is applied almost entirely to groups of men – and so it should be translated in Gen 19.6 "Brethren" in v. 7 (ach, #251) supports this view of a male crowd at Sodom, although am ("people," #5971), in v. 4, is used through Genesis to refer either to mixed groups (e.g., ancestors, descendents, citizens) or to groups of men only (e.g., troops, male attendants, male emissaries). But note, also, in Gen 18-19 that when Abraham and Lot entertain and socialize with their male guests, the women folk are not present. (2) All the men of the city gathering so quickly (v. 4) is striking; this speed clearly suggests that "at a given signal, they [are ready to] assemble" (John Calvin7) for their nightly fun-and-games. At hand must have been the king, his counselors, the city's leading citizens, the wealthy and the poor, the grandpas as well as the teenagers – and even the two young men who were pledged to marry Lot's daughters! (Martin Luther8) (3) E.A. Speiser has pointed out9 that since the verb sabhach ("surround, circle," #5437) in v. 4 is joined with the preposition al, the Hebrew here is best translated as "they closed in on the house." Tension, electricity, and danger are in the air.

(4) The most important word here, however, is yadha (Strong, #3045). Like the English verb "know," yadha is applied in the OT to a wide range of circumstances, including having "sexual knowledge" (sex with someone). D.S. Bailey noted (1955) that yadha is never used anywhere (else) in the OT to refer to homosexual union, while another word shakhabh ("lie down" for rest or sex, #7601) is used to refer to cases of "illicit sex," including incest, adultery, rape, same-sex union, and bestiality (for the last two, see Lev 18:22-23). Therefore, he concluded that yadha in 19:5 meant simply to "get acquainted with" – to find out whether these strangers held hostile intentions toward the city.10 Bailey's view has been accepted by some interpreters (e.g. John McNeill, John Boswell, Marvin Pope), but rejected by others (e.g. Gerard von Rad, Tom Horner, Victor Hamilton). However, as Horner points out,11 a word in Hebrew (as in every language) can only be precisely understood in its context; and Lot's offer to hand over his two virgin daughters for sexual abuse (yadha in 19:8 clearly has a sexual meaning) makes most sense as an attempt to satisfy the mob's sexual lust for the male visitors. Calvin (1509-64) suggested that the men of Sodom meant to frame their question in a concealed way, to hide their real, more-sinister motives. Maybe so, maybe not, since they had been at this so long. In any case, the ancient reader would have immediately contrasted the mob's vicious intent toward their visitors with Abraham's generous hospitality given his visitors (as was expected) in the preceding chapter.

A similar story of mob violence is told in Judges 19, occurring ca. 900 years later, in Gibeah, an Israelite city, located ca. 8 miles N of Bethlehem. Here, when a Levite priest seeks refuge with his concubine (female slave and sexual partner) for the night and is taken by an old man into his home, "scoundrels" (JB)12 surround the place, beat on the door, and demand the male guest be handed over that they may "know" him. (vv. 22-23) The priest is only able to save his own skin by handing over his beloved concubine, whom the riffraff then abuse so violently that by morning she is dead. (vv. 24-30) When the other tribes are informed of this, they wage war on the tribe of Benjamin (where Gibeah is located), avenging the outrage. (ch. 20) Here, again, the word yadha implies much more than just "getting acquainted" – as sexual violence once again rears its ugly head.

Since Sodom had flourished for many years, its men certainly must have been bisexual (Patai13), not "homosexuals" with a same-sex orientation, as implied by this 19th-century term. Notice the youths who are running around and who join their dads for the nightly orgies. Also, as Scanzoni and Mollenkott have noted, "Rape is not a sexual act so much as it is an act of "violence" and "power" and "contempt."14 It is hard for us to understand some "values" of this ancient society and world – e.g. that women are inferior to men and "property" that can be sacrificed to save even male strangers, and of the sacred honor attached to providing hospitality to any passing visitor almost at any cost – but we must still recognize their function and impact in this story.

With Bailey's understanding of yadha ("to get acquainted"), we are left with a terrible destruction in Gen. 19, but with no explanation in the text why. Instead, an old Jewish commentary gets it right, when it explains: "The Sodomites made an agreement among themselves that whenever a stranger visited them, they would force him to sodomy and rob him of his money."15 It cannot be said that Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality, for four reasons: (1) Lot's horror was expressed over having his sacred offer of hospitality violated (v. 8), nothing else. (2) Gang-rape of visitors, night after night, over many years, would certainly have been more than a sufficient cause for God to destroy this place. (3) Although the men of Sodom had developed a taste for sexual violence and male rape, they were still heterosexuals, husbands and fathers, who bore children and kept the city populated. (4) One cannot use a story about ritualized gang-rape to condemn all forms of homosexual expression, including bonding and sex that involve mutual consent and pleasure. The Sodomites, then, were vile creatures who broke the revered custom of offering hospitality – instead to inflict pain, torture, robbery, and perhaps even murder on travelers who turned into the city seeking simple shelter and safety for the night.

FOOTNOTES:    1. Harland, "Sodom," IDB,IV,396-97.   2. Cf. Strong, #7708.   3. Hamilton, p. 15,19-21,39.   4. Hamilton, p. 37.   5. Kader, p. 25-26.    6. Cf. listings for "men" and "man" in Strong.    7. Calvin, I,497.    8. Luther, III,252-53.    9. Speiser, p. 139.   10. Bailey, p. 3-4.   11. Horner, p. 49-50.   12. Soggin, p. 287.   13. Patai, p. 153.   14. Scanzoni & Mollenkott, p. 56.   15. Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 50.7.

REFERENCE:   Bailey, D.S., Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, 1955.   Calvin, John, Commentaries on the First Book of the Bible Called Genesis, 2 vols., trans. 1948.    Hamilton, Victor, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 1995.    Horner, Tom, Jonathan Loved David, 1978.   Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols., 1962.   Kader, Samuel, Openly Gay, Openly Christian, 1999.   Luther, Martin, Luther's Works, III: Genesis, Chapters 15-20, trans. 1960.   Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, trans. 1939 by H. Freeman and M. Simon.   Patai, Raphael, Family, Love and the Bible, 1960.   Scanzoni, Letha, and Virginia Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, 1978.   Soggin, J.A., Judges, trans. 1981.   Speiser, E.A., Genesis (Anchor Bible), 1978.   Strong, James, Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.

TRANSLATIONS:   Jerusalem Bible, 1966.   King James Version, 1611.   New King James Version, 1982.   New Revised Standard Version, 1989.


© 2003 Bruce L. Gerig

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