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This is the third in a series of articles examining the Biblical bases for opposition to homosexuality by The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC.
Now, we move on to Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-16, see text at end of post), the infamous cities of homosexual sin. Or is that their sin? Certainly, that is how tradition has passed them on to us – even giving us a name (sodomites) for the unspeakable sin and those who commit it. However, most modern Old Testament scholars agree that that may not indeed be true, and that the point of the story was Sodom’s violation of the rather strict and universally acknowledged norms of hospitality – a code of ethics one still finds in Middle Eastern cultures today. This unwritten, but fiercely practiced, code of hospitality was a foundation of civil society in Biblical times. The desert is a harsh environment for travelers, and to deny hospitality to a stranger in such a setting was seen to be the height of cruelty.
In the Genesis story of Sodom after welcoming two men (whom the story identifies as angels) into his house, Lot is confronted by all the men in the town, who surround the house and demand, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” There is some debate about the word “to know” here. Most scholars would agree that it has the sexual meaning here – but it is very clear that we are talking about homosexual rape, a violent act of aggression – and clearly something we would all condemn and deem worthy of God’s punishment.
And just in case you were not convinced of my characterization of the anti-woman bias before, listen to Lot’s proposed solution to this dilemma: “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (vs. 7-8) That passage alone should cure anyone from wanting to quote this story as one with lasting authority and worthy of emulation! [A similar story in Judges 19 has the host offer the men his own virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine – the latter of whom is abused and “wantonly raped.” By morning she is dead.]
Even by the internal standards of the scriptures themselves, such a condemnation of same gender intimate relationships is not the point of the story. The prophet Ezekiel compares the sins of Jerusalem with those of Sodom, which he says had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) No mention of homosexuality being the problem here. The towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were an ancient version of wealthy, gated communities, had canceled the law of hospitality to keep strangers from visiting, seeing their wealth, and potentially returning to plunder that wealth. This was the point even Ezekiel drew from the story.
Indeed, Jesus’ only reference to the notorious town indicates that he also understood that Sodom’s infamy came from its inhospitality. Jesus instructs his disciples that if they go into a town and they are not welcomed, to shake the dust from their feet and go on to another, knowing “on that day, it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.” (Luke 10:10-13) No mention of homosexuality here, even by Jesus. Sodom’s sin is one of inhospitality and injustice.
Whatever else one makes of this story, it cannot be used to decry loving, committed, lifelong-intentioned, monogamous relationships between two people of the same gender. It is simply not about that kind of relationship. The story is about homosexual rape – and like any rape, it is an act of violence, not an act of sexuality. In short, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all references to it elsewhere in scripture, provide no guidance for modern day believers about the morality or immorality of same gender loving people. It simply does not offer an answer to the questions we are asking.
Read the passages Robinson mentioned below:
1 The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2 He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” 3 But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. 4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; 5 and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” 6 Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, 7 and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. 8 Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” 9 But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. 10 But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. 11 And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door. 12 Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city–bring them out of the place. 13 For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” 14 So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up, get out of this place; for the Lord is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting. 15 When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city.” 16 But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city.
17 When the old man looked up and saw the wayfarer in the open square of the city, he said, “Where are you going and where do you come from?” 18 He answered him, “We are passing from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, from which I come. I went to Bethlehem in Judah; and I am going to my home. Nobody has offered to take me in. 19 We your servants have straw and fodder for our donkeys, with bread and wine for me and the woman and the young man along with us. We need nothing more.” 20 The old man said, “Peace be to you. I will care for all your wants; only do not spend the night in the square.” 21 So he brought him into his house, and fed the donkeys; they washed their feet, and ate and drank. 22 While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him.” 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. 24 Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.” 25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. 26 As morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light. 27 In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28 “Get up,” he said to her, “we are going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey; and the man set out for his home.