What was the sin of Sodom?

The Genesis 19 account of Sodom and Gomorrah is a story of attempted gang rape of two “outsiders.” It says nothing about loving gay relationships, and actually condemns the sort of violence sometimes done to gays and lesbians. Jude 7 talks about a first century Jewish legend that the women of Sodom had sex with male angels. Since it is about heterosexual sex between angels and humans, it clearly has nothing to do with gay relationships.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is perhaps the best known of the “clobber passages” that some try to use against gay people. This story is told in one of the oldest books in the Bible, and has been a favorite among artists and writers for centuries. Even if you have never read the Old Testament account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, you have probably seen it portrayed in a movie or book. Since the biblical account is very long, we will paraphrase it here. You can find the original in Genesis 19 and the preceding chapters.

Abraham had a nephew named Lot who moved to Sodom. At the time, Sodom was considered a comfortable, modern, sophisticated city, and Lot thought it would be a better place to raise his family than out on the plains with Abraham, who was a nomad. Unfortunately, the city was also full of wickedness, and God told Abraham that it would soon be destroyed. Two angels were sent to assess the situation in Sodom, and when Lot saw them in the town square, he invited them to his house for dinner and lodging. He did not recognize they were angels. He seems, however, to have felt a responsibility to be hospitable to strangers — perhaps because he remembered having been a stranger himself.

That night, when the city dwellers learned Lot had welcomed two strangers into his house and into their city, all the people gathered at his door. They demanded that Lot deliver the two men to them so they might “know them.” (Genesis 19:5) (The Hebrew word translated “know” in this passage is sometimes used in Scripture to mean sexual intercourse, and given the context of the passage, that is probably what it means here.) Lot pleaded with his neighbors not to do such an evil thing. In a despicable act, he even offered them his virgin daughters instead, but the men persisted. Finally, the angels struck all those outside with blindness and warned Lot and his family they should leave the city because God would soon destroy it for its wickedness. The very next day, fire came down from heaven and destroyed the city and all its inhabitants.

Since the Middle Ages, many Christian theologians have viewed this story as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. They have perpetuated the idea that Sodom was destroyed for its sexual wickedness and that the proof of this wickedness was the desire of the men of Sodom to have homosexual sex. Let’s test this interpretation against both the facts relayed in Genesis 19 and the interpretation of the story by later authors of the Bible. First, let’s examine the facts.

The text of the story tells us that “the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man” (vs. 4) gathered at Lot’s door and demanded that his guests be brought out to them. This language is important because it makes clear that the group at Lot’s door was comprised of either all the people of the city (men and women) or, at a minimum, all the males of the city, both boys and men. This is a telling fact.

Today, San Francisco has the reputation for being the “gayest” city in the world. Yet even in San Francisco, gay men constitute far less than half the total male population. If the Scripture text had told us that “certain men of Sodom” or even “many men of Sodom” gathered at the door, we might then surmise that the men at the door could have been motivated by homosexual desire. But the text says “both young and old, all the people to the last man” gathered at the door. To suggest that every man and boy in Sodom was homosexual is simply not credible. Any reasonable interpretation of the story must account for the fact that all the males of Sodom (both homosexual and heterosexual), and perhaps even the women, participated in this attack. Something other than homosexual desire seems to have been at work here.

This point is reinforced by another fact recounted in the story. We are told that Lot, in a last-ditch effort to save his guests, offered his virgin daughters to the men at the door. Although Lot’s offer is reprehensible, it does yield another important interpretive clue. Suppose you were hosting a dinner party, when suddenly a group of men that you knew to be homosexual began angrily beating on the door, demanding that you send out a male guest from your house. Would it make any sense to offer them a beautiful woman instead? Of course not! If the men were motivated by homosexual desire, offering them heterosexual sex instead would be nonsensical. Lot knew the men of Sodom much better than any of today’s fundamentalist preachers do. And it’s obvious he believed the crowd outside his door was predominantly heterosexual. Why else would he offer his daughters?

Although it might be simpler to blame what took place in Genesis 19 on homosexuals, the facts indicate that something far more encompassing and complex was taking place. But what? If the motivation for the attack was not homosexual desire, then what was it?

From archeological records, we know it was also a common practice in the Near East during ancient times for soldiers to use homosexual rape as a way of humiliating their enemies. When victorious soldiers wanted to break the spirit of their defeated enemies, they would “treat them like women” by raping them. The practice was not driven by sexual desire, but by brutality and hatred toward the enemy.

The motivation to sexually abuse those we hate is, sadly, part of the general human experience (even if it is not part of each of our personal experiences). And it is this motivation, not homosexual desire, which stands behind the sin of Sodom. Perhaps the men of that city feared the two angelic strangers were spies. Perhaps the fact that Lot (a recent immigrant) had taken them in served to heighten their suspicion. Whatever caused their panic, a mob mentality took over, and before long the people of Sodom were at Lot’s house clamoring to brutalize the strangers. This is a story about attempted mob violence, not homosexual desire.

To test this proposition, let’s ask a simple question. Suppose the two angels in the story had been women, but the story otherwise unfolded exactly the same: The men of Sodom clamored to have sex with the two female angels and God destroyed the city. Do you think anyone would conclude this story was a blanket condemnation of heterosexuality? Of course not! Instead, we all would conclude (correctly) that the wickedness of Sodom was shown by their desire to sexually violate two strangers in their midst.

In fact, this is the way other authors of the Bible interpreted this story.  There are about twenty references to the story of Sodom in the Bible, and none of them says homosexuality was the sin of Sodom. One of the most extensive references to Sodom is found in Ezekiel, which says, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters 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.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50 It is clear from this passage, that the abomination of Sodom, according to the Old Testament prophets, was that they behaved with callous indifference toward the weak and vulnerable — the poor, orphans, widows, and strangers in their midst.

Why then do some Christians interpret this story as condemning all homosexual behavior? We would submit that their interpretation is driven by anti-gay prejudice. Many Christians only know the stereotypes they learned in childhood. They buy into the idea that all gay men are predators and that loving relationships between inherently homosexual people do not exist. So they read the story of Sodom and see a stereotype of what they think all gay people are like. They then assume the story must be a sweeping condemnation of homosexuality, because they assume all homosexuality takes the form shown in this story. In truth, this story is at most a condemnation of homosexual rape. And, as other Scriptures affirm, it is more generally a condemnation of the mistreatment of those who are most vulnerable, including strangers. It is ironic that the story of Sodom is now used by Christians to justify hatred toward another vulnerable group — gay people.

This story clearly does not apply to the question we bring to Scripture, namely, whether two persons of the same sex can live in a loving, committed relationship with the blessing of God. So we can take this clobber passage and set it aside.