This article/post has been referenced a few times as containing additional information that is needed to understand what truly happened to Sodom and the relevance, if any, to homosexuality. To make things easier, I will post it here along with a few comments and responses to make it easier on the reader.
When reading this article, one must remember that the writer is correctly stating that the word homosexuality was never used in the bible, even though we sometimes see it in English translations. The writer will also reference a statement in Harper’s Bible Dictionary that states about the word homosexuality; “a word for which there is no specific equivalent in the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament, since the concept itself as well as the English word originated only in the nineteenth century”. The thing to remember is that when it is referring to “the concept” is a relationship where there is a courting type period that would mimic the modern day process of a man and a woman building a relationship over time and forming the emotional connection that would sustain a long term relationship/marriage. This is not to say that two men who had a sexual relationship with each other did not develop an emotion connection that we would equate with a form of love. This is true of heterosexual relationships of the Old Testament time period as well.
Posted on January 1, 2012 by Alex Haiken
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)
Notice the statement that “there is no mention of homosexuality in God’s commentary”. While I will agree that the word homosexual is not specifically used here, what the church and for that matter, Jewish people of the time, saw was that in verse 50, God says that the people “did detestable things before me”. The word detestable here is the same word that is used in Leviticus 18:22 that declares sex between two men as being detestable or an abomination, depending on the interpretation that one is reading.
This word is only used in two different sections in Leviticus. It is used in 18:22 to describe sex between two men and then again in verse 26 when God was telling the people not to do any of the abominations in this passage. Verse 27 says that the people before the Hebrews had committed these abominations in the land and verses 29 and 30 warn the people not to participate in any of these abominations in the land or they will be defiled and removed from the land.
Now, only verse 22 is listed as a double abomination, as it was specifically denoted as an abomination of the listed items that were identified as being abominations. Deuteronomy is seen as the re-giving of the law to the people preparing to leave the wilderness and the word “to`ebah” is used in a broader context here as opposed to Leviticus. This is not to say that the directions given Deuteronomy replaced what was given in Leviticus as the Levitcal laws were followed and still are followed to some degree by orthodox Jews.
I would be wrong to say that the only sin committed by Sodom or the reason they were destroyed was because of the incident outside of Lot’s house. The church has gotten this wrong for many years and that is simply not the case. That being said, we cannot just cast aside “homosexuality” simply because the word was not in use at that time. This is similar to saying that abortion is not addressed in the bible as the word did not exist at that time. It is trying to encourage a logical decision from a technicality.
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.”
I do not deny the outcry of the people, but remember that Yahweh went to destroy these cities and it was Abraham that asked for the city to be sparred if there was some righteous people that could be found there (Gen 18:21-33). While the outcry was from the poor and needy, there were not enough righteous people within the walls to spare the city. The people there did not worship Yahweh, but the cries of all people are heard by Him. Perhaps the poor and needy were living in the surrounding area and was thus sparred.
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)
Starting at the beginning of chapter 16, we see the Lord talking to Jerusalem reminding them how they were made chosen and holy by God and not by whom they were. Jerusalem and all of Judah had become arrogant in their being the chosen bride of the Lord and the Lord is taking this time to remind them how they started out as having the same lineage as their neighbors. Verse 15, the Lord stated that His people started trusting in their beauty and capitalized on their fame by becoming a prostitute. It was just a few verses back that the Lord detailed how he had taken them as his bride. He had put a ring in the nose and a crown on the head. When the Lord starts talking about how Jerusalem prostituted itself out, this is a metaphor about taking up with the false gods of those nations around them.
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).
I think some liberties are being taken with the assumption of cultic prostitution here. While it very well could have occurred, what verse 15 and 16 are referencing is not a literal sexual favor. In the same way that a prostitute trusts in her appearance, Jerusalem was trusting in its beauty and compromising its relationship and faithful worship of God by taking up and worshipping the gods of those who passed by.
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.
According to Harper’s Bible Dictionary, under the definition of homosexuality says; “It is difficult to understand how homosexual prostitution could have had any symbolic function in the Canaanite fertility religion, against the practices of which this legislation was directed. The same may be said of the cultic prostitution mentioned elsewhere (e.g., 1 Kings 14:22-24)”
There are recorded cultic practices on how some religions had male, female, and transgendered prostitutes. Now if Harper’s is wrong here, it might be wrong as well when it said that the concept of homosexuality did not exist until the nineteenth century.
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.
Liberties are being taken again with the translation here. The “making male idols” here refers to images of men. Not a literal man but of manmade images and gods, such as the golden calf from Exodus. Since Jerusalem is being depicted here, metaphorically as a woman, the images are described as male to complete the imagery. Idols to false gods were not limited to male images only. There were images made of women and animals.
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.
Actually, Jude specifically mentions the sexual immoralities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but remember that the writer is looking for the specific understanding of homosexuality as being between a loving couples with a relationship built up from mutual respect and emotions. Even though under a modern day view, homosexuality includes two men having meaningless sex without any relationship, the writer is looking at homosexuality from the perspective of a relationship.
When you go back to the Talmud and the understandings of Jewish scholars from the first century, you can see that their understanding of what Leviticus 18:22 was stating and one of the sins of Sodom was the issue of sex between two men. Sex between two women was included in as Egypt practiced same sex marriages between women prior to the exodus.
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)
Now when we see this explanation, it makes a lot of sense. Hospitality was and, to a point, still considered a very noble practice among the Middle Eastern cultures. You see this custom being highly elevated among many of the tribes in Africa, so we can form a sense of understanding about what it meant to the people of that time period. What we do not see, however, is an explanation of why the Lord would destroy a region of people because they broke social customs that were never listed as a must keep in Levitcal law. We have to go with the understanding of Ezekiel here and not read into what was being written from our own lack of understanding.
When we see the reference that Jesus makes, we are seeing a warning that those people who rejected the word of God and by that salvation, will have a more serious judgment on them than did Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. One indicator that Jesus was not talking about keeping a social custom was the inclusion of Gomorrah in the reference. The Bible never tells us about how Gomorrah treated visitors. Furthermore, you see Jesus reference Sodom again in Matthew 11:23 when he stated that if the same miracles/works had been performed in Sodom in its day, it would still be around. What is seen in this example, while valid to a point is more of an exegesis nature and less exegesis.
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)
I will not deny that men would often rape and humiliate those that it conquered. Perhaps this is one reason that Israel was instructed to always put the men to the sword. That could be pure speculation on my part however, so not to be taken as fact. What we do have as fact is that laws have been found that outlaw the raping of a man by another man, regardless of social status or rank. These were in place, long before Israel ever left Egypt.
What the writer is failing to mention here are there are numerous mentions of sex between men by surrounding nations and from times much older than Sodom. In one of the oldest documents, the Epic of Gilgamesh, we have references to Gilgamesh who had a male lover whom he loved. When his lover was killed, he was grieved over in the same way one would grieve over a wife. Now the writer might point out that the marital process was much different in that time period compared to modern day, but that does not exclude the development of feelings that grow, even within arranged marriages. You can see an example of this with Abraham and the care in which he took to ensure a burial place for his beloved wife. While women were seen as property of husbands and fathers, we cannot dismiss that feelings other than one has for property existed in those relationships. Now the feelings, in the case of a wife, might not have been in place in the beginning of the marriage, the feels developed. To dismiss that any feelings ever developed between two men in the same way, is dishonest at the least.
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.
I will leave it up to you to decide what the bible means and meant when it talked about Sodom. There was greed there and pride; an arrogance that intimidated and oppressed the land. While the charges were made against Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, we only see the encounter of what happened in Sodom and the attempted rape of the angels by all of the men of the town. We are left to speculate on the evils that occurred in Gomorrah, but we do know that it was not used as a comparison by the Lord in the book of Ezekiel when talking about the detestable practices and abominations.
Look at the evidence that exists and make your own decisions as to what is meant and represented in the texts.