Sodom: An Ancient Story Refashioned
Key Passages: Genesis 19:1-29, Ezekiel 16:49-50, Jude vv. 6-7
By Bruce L. Gerig

Looking through the Bible, one finds the name "Sodom" mentioned 26 times (18 in the OT and 8 in the NT), in 12 OT and 8 NT passages.1 OT prophets and later Jews often recalled Sodom and Gomorrah as an unforgettable metaphor of human wickedness and divine punishment2 and they used this to declare how Israel or other nations would be (or had been) brought to utter destruction or desolation, often with lightning speed, for their evil deeds. The prophets pointed to a variety of sins, including forsaking the Lord to worship other gods (Deut 29:22-28); taunting God's people (Zeph 2:8-11); bloodshed, injustice, and neglect of orphans and widows (Isa 1:9-11,15-17); and adultery, lying, and aiding evildoers (Jer 23:10-15).3 One can see that some of these sins might connect with Sodom and Gomorrah, but others don’t.

Only Ezekiel sheds additional specific light on the sin of Sodom, saying: "Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters4 had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable [to'ebhah = offensive] things before me; therefore I removed them, when I saw it." (Ezek 16:49-50, RSV2) Robert Gagnon (a homophobic scholar) argues that to'ebhah, used in the singular in v. 50, links Sodom's sin with the homosexual ban in Lev 18:22/20:13.5 But Ezekiel uses the same singular word form in 22:11 to condemn a man lying (heterosexually) with his neighbor's wife, so this word (singular or plural) has no special "gay" connotation. That Ezekiel would draw attention to sexual wrongdoing at Sodom and Gomorrah (which certainly recalls the vicious, repeated gang-raping of visitors) is not surprising, since throughout ch. 16 the prophet is denouncing Jerusalem's deplorable lapse into spiritual "prostitution" (worshipping idols), which included physical prostitution as well (visiting the male and female prostitutes who serviced the Canaanite shrines).6

In the NT, Jesus sent out the Twelve to proclaim in various towns in Palestine that the "kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matt 10:1-15, RSV2) They were to take little and depend on hospitality offered to them; but Jesus warned, "if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words … it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town." (v. 15) Although Jesus, as the Son of God, knew the real nature of the ancient Sodom situation, our Lord condemns its inhospitality, and never mentions homosexuality. On one occasion, Paul recalls Sodom and its complete annihilation (Rom 9:27-29) and later John its general wickedness (Rev 11:3-13). Most strikingly, Paul never recalls Sodom in any of those passages where he specifically addresses certain homosexual activities (Rom 1:26-27, 1 Cor 6:9-10, 1 Tim 1:9-10).7

Some have felt that the little letter of Jude condemns homosexual acts, but closer scrutiny casts doubt on this. Jude wrote to condemn certain deceivers who had crept into the church, denying the lordship of Christ and introducing sexual misconduct (v. 4). These disruptive non-believers, he warns, shall be punished like the angels (= the "sons of God" in Gen 6:1-4) who left their heavenly station to experience sex with human women (Jude vv. 5-6). In the same way, Jude says ("just as"), "Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities … likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust [Gk. sarkos heretas]…" (v. 7). The Greek here means, literally, to go after "other/different flesh."8 Although this has been variously translated as "perversion" (NIV), "unnatural lust" (RSV2), and "lust of men for other men" (LB), a closer look shows that these can hardly be correct translations. Heteros is used elsewhere in the NT to refer to "other" tongues (a foreign or heavenly language, Acts 2:4), a "different" Gospel than Paul taught (Gal 1:6), and "another" glory (magnificence) that distinguishes earthly forms (e.g. mountains, seas, wild areas) from the heavenly sun, moon, and stars (1 Cor 15:40). In contrast, two gays share "natures [that] are only too alike" (J. Chaine and J.N.D. Kelly9) – not "other" or "different." But now angelic "flesh," that would be very different! In fact, two grammatical connectors here ("just as" and "likewise") tie verse 7 tightly to verse 6 and require that the "different flesh" lusted after in Sodom be similar to the error of the fallen angels in Gen 6. In other words, this refers to the mob in Sodom wanting to have sex with the angelic visitors.10

Gagnon holds that the men of Sodom did not know that the visitors were angels – yet the ancient Jewish author of the Testament of Asher (7:1) declared that they should have.11 Von Rad envisions "the heavenly messengers [who came to Sodom] as young men in their prime,"12 whose beauty would naturally have turned heads (one can hardly imagine that they came as old hunchbacks). Whatever the case, the Sodomites' attention was focused on the wrong thing – on sexual violence, instead of caring for needy strangers. Although the Jude text is somewhat vague, what is specifically condemned here is certain "carousing" that has been introduced at the church's "love feasts" (v. 12, communal church fellowship meals, which also included sharing the Lord's Supper). In a similar passage (and situation) in 2 Peter ch. 2, the apostle also condemns carousing in the church, connecting it specifically with (heterosexual) "adultery" (2:13-14).13

The interpretation of the sin of Sodom as homosexuality is, therefore, nowhere found in the OT, the Apocrypha,14 or the NT. Instead, D.S. Bailey found that this "new" interpretation developed in other Jewish writings between 200 B.C.–200 A.D. in Palestine, culminating in the writings of Josephus and Philo15 in the 1st century A.D. From their writings, then, this view was absorbed by the early church fathers. Josephus, a Palestinian-born Jewish historian, wrote in his Antiquities of the Jews (I,xi,3), "Now when the Sodomites saw the young men [the angels] to be of beautiful countenances … they resolved themselves to enjoy these beautiful boys by force and violence." Here Josephus has connected the "sin" of Sodom with the paiderasteia ("love of boys") of the Greeks,16 who matched an adult male with an adolescent boy to educate the youth how to become a successful hunter, warrior, and citizen; and this liaison required also that the youth submit passively to the sexual interests of his teacher. This relationship with youths between the ages of 12-17 customarily ended once a boy reached puberty and began to grow a beard.17 Needless to say, the Jews looked on this practice with horror. Today we look no more kindly on teachers who sexually engage their grade school or high school students.

Philo, a Jewish theologian living in Alexandria, Egypt, let his imagination go even further. In Concerning Abraham (26), he envisioned the Sodomites giving themselves over to "deep drinking of strong liquor. … Not only in their mad lust for women did they violate the marriages of their neighbors, but also men mounted males … and so when they [later] tried to beget children they were discovered to be incapable of any but a sterile seed."18 Philo must be given credit for recognizing that the men of Sodom were capable heterosexuals; however, his ideas of severe alcoholism, rampant heterosexual adultery, same-sex activity between citizens, and a resulting sterility in heterosexual coitus are all details that have no base in the Genesis 19 text. So, the mythologizing and adaptation of the "sin" of Sodom has been formed. Later, sodomia ("sodomy") will appear in 11th century Medieval Latin as a term and category used to condemn so-called "crimes against nature," which included inappropriate heterosexual acts (e.g. fellatio, anal intercourse, ejaculation between the thighs), masturbation, homosexual acts, and bestiality. As Mark Jordan notes, "From the beginning, 'Sodomy' has meant whatever anyone wanted it to mean" – and so it is essentially an unstable, unscriptural, and unusable term. Moreover, only in the Latin West, and not in the Greek East, did the Church develop such anti-sodomy concepts.19

John McNeill, a gay former Jesuit priest, notes in The Church and the Homosexual (1976) how the modern rediscovery that Sodom was destroyed for inhospitality, not homosexuality per se, presents us "with one of the supremely ironic paradoxes of history. For thousands of years in the Christian West the homosexual has been the victim of inhospitable treatment. Condemned by the Church, he [or she] has been the victim of persecution, torture, and even death. In the name of a mistaken understanding of the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah, the true crime of Sodom and Gomorrah has been and continues to be repeated every day."20

FOOTNOTES:   1. See Strong; however, since the KJV/NKJV reference to Sodom in Mark 6:11 has been dropped as inauthentic by other English translations, it is omitted here, as well.   2. Sarna, p. 136.   3. Other OT Sodom passages include: Deut 32:6,16,28,32-38; Amos 4:1-12; Isa 3:8-9; Isa 13:19-20; Jer 49:7-18; Jer 50:39-40; Ezek 16:1-59; and Lam 4:2-13.   4. The three nearby towns of Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, destroyed along with Sodom.   5. Gagnon, p. 82-83.    6. Radmacher, p. 973.   7. Other NT Sodom passages include: Luke 10:1-15, Matt 11:20-24, Luke 17:26-35, 2 Peter 2:4-10, and Jude vv. 5-7.   8. Green's translation; Kelly, p. 259.   9. J. Chaine, quoted in Kelly, p. 259.    10. Kelly, p. 259; Scroggs, p. 100.   11. Gagnon, p. 89.   12. Von Rad, p. 217.    13. Scroggs, p. 100.   14. "Apocrypha" refers to those books between the OT and NT that are included in the Catholic Bible.    15. Bailey, p. 10-23.   16. Pope, p. 415.   17. Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, I,491-92.   18. For the Josephus and Philo quotations, see Bailey, p. 23,22.   19. Jordan, p. 1,46,161-3; Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, II,1231-32.   20. McNeill, p. 50.

REFERENCES:   Bailey, D.S., Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, 1955.   Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, ed. by Wayne Dynes, et al., 2 vols., 1990.      Gagnon, Robert, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 2001.   Green, Jay P., Jr., The Interlinear Bible, 1986.    Jordan, Mark, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, 1997.   Kelly, J.N.D., A Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and of Jude, 1969.    McNeill, John, The Church and the Homosexual, 1976.   Pope, Marvin, "Homosexuality," in Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume, 1976.   Radmacher, Earl, et al., Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Commentary, 1999.    Scroggs, Robin, The New Testament and Homosexuality, 1983.    Sarna, Nahum, Understanding Genesis, 1966.    Strong, James, Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.    Von Rad, Gerhard, Genesis, 1961.

TRANSLATIONS:    King James Version, 1611.   New King James Version, 1982.    Revised Standard Version, 2nd ed., 1972.


© 2003 Bruce L. Gerig

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