sodom and gomorrah: punished for homosexuality?

Saturday just gone was an important day in Australia for LGBTQI* people.

The Australian Labor Party (the current government) voted on its policy position regarding same-sex marriage at its National Conference; it voted to change its platform in support of changing the Marriage act to include same-sex couples.

In addition was a rally held in the Sydney CBD, with somewhere between five to ten thousand participants, calling for marriage equality in Australia.

In response to these events many Christians I know on Facebook posted comments critical of the push for the recognition of same-sex marriage.

Some, on both sides of the argument, were reasoned and thoughtful, recognising that there are in fact different viewpoints on the matter. They merely sought to offer an opinion in a respectful way.

Others were not so gracious.

But what struck me most was the amount of Christians posting quotations from the Bible, completely out of context and, by my judgement, absent of any form of exegetical investigation.

Something that I found fascinating was the repeated quotation of verses pertaining to Sodom and Gomorrah.

As many of you would know, Sodom and Gomorrah were cities described in the book of Genesis. It is recorded in Genesis 19 that they were destroyed by God as punishments for their immorality.

Questions of historicity aside, the quotations on Facebook that I saw seemed to imply that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because their inhabitants engaged in homosexual acts.  This seems to be the general assumption of a great many Christians, that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was in fact homosexuality, hence the origin of the term sodomy.

Is this really why Sodom and Gomorrah were punished? When was the last time you looked at this closely?

In my view if you look at the entirety of the Genesis narrative, and also study the interpretation of the Sodom story by later biblical authors, you find that the “homosexual” interpretation holds no water.

Indeed the issue for the inhabitants of these cities is not homosexuality, but their lack of hospitality. Wes Howard-Brook argues:

… the story has nothing to do with condemning “homosexuality.” Rather, it condemns … the lack of hospitality provided in cities to strangers. While Abraham and Sarah lavishly welcomed YHWH’s messengers, the people of Sodom radically reject them.**

Howard-Brook’s argument is embedded in a much larger interpretation of Genesis, and I encourage you to read his book. He goes on to point out that Ezekiel, commenting on the story of Sodom to compare it to Jerusalem in his own time, does not construe the city’s sin as homosexuality, but rather injustice:

Behold, 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. (Ezekiel 16:49)

This makes much sense, since hospitality to strangers was essentially an issue of justice in Hebrew thought.

Jesus also understood the story the same way when he compares Sodom and Gomorrah to cities which, far from engaging in homosexuality, refuse to accept his disciples, showing them no hospitality (Matthew 10:5; Luke 10:12).

One person who posted on my Facebook posted from Jude 7:

… just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

Surely this verse makes it clear – Sodom and Gomorrah committed homosexual acts that were condemned by God!

Not so fast there, partner.

We must remember that the figures who were being sought after for sexual relations by the men of Sodom were not men at all – they were angels. This is reflected in the Jude text, which in Greek does not say the Sodomites sought “unnatural desire” (as most English translations say), but rather that they lusted after “other flesh” (sarkos heteras).

The “other flesh” was not other men at all (which are the same flesh), but angels, or in other words, non-humans.^

What was the sin of Sodom as understood by Jude? It was that they sought sexually immoral relations with non humans, the very same relationships that are condemned all the way back in Genesis 6.

This could equally be construed as an extreme form of inhospitality toward strangers…

What becomes clear from looking more closely at the Bible is that the reason for the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah was not in fact homosexuality, which plays no part in the story, but rather was inhospitality construed in the ancient world as injustice to the needy and sexual lust for non-humans.

The moral of the story?

  1. The Bible is not nearly as concerned with homosexuality as are contemporary Christians.
  2. Remember to think twice before posting those out-of-context verses on Facebook, lest you misrepresent the Bible (and God himself).


* Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Intersex
** Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!”, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010), 60.
^ Richard Bauckham and J.N.D. Kelly, both highly respected exegetes and commentators, concur with this interpretation.

Posted on December 8, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Current Events, New Testament, Old Testament, Sexuality & Gender and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Good point. Wish I thought of it first. 🙂 But I am going to run with it…about the sense of hospitality and care for each other.

  2. Thanks again Matt..
    Another good read.. Can you please explain briefly (don’t want to make you write a whole new blog) Leviticus 18:22..
    Cheers mate

  3. Some entertaining questions for those who oppose ‘gay marriage’ based on scriptural evidence:

    What is gay? ‘Homosexuality’ as we understand it today is actually a fairly modern social construction, and particular to a Western context which has been exported globally. ‘Homosexuality’ as we understand it would be inconceivable to the writers of scripture and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that renderings of ‘homosexuality’ in translations of those scriptures are at best lazy and at worst inaccurate and forwarding certain agenda. For example, the Ancient Greeks regularly engaged in pederasty, for example, but had a very different conception of sexuality where this was acceptable and did not preclude procreative sex with their wives. If that’s what Paul is condemning in his letters to Greek cities (which is likely, given the social dominance of the idea), then how do you compare that to the kinds of homosexual relationships we see today? You can’t. It’s not at all analogous.

    What is marriage? Because that’s a pretty modern social construction too, as opposed to the institution everyone wants to claim it is. At one point in Western society it actually was a social institution, but that was a point in the past when your parents or your community decided who you married and if you were super fortunate, the King of the land would come and sleep with your wife on her wedding night, as was his ‘duty’. It was still a bit of an institution in the 18th century when if you got bored of your wife you could sell her to another husband, leading her around the streets on a piece of ribbon before auctioning her off. The institutional purposes of marriage (political and social unity, creating links between particular families to forward common goals as determined by the senior heads of said families) pretty much died when people started being able to choose who they married (you know, marrying for love — that thing that basically all of you have done or want to do some day) and the final nail in the coffin was probably no fault divorce. Biblical marriage doesn’t actually look anything like what we know of it. For one, polygamy was totally acceptable, and there is plenty of subtext in the Old Testament to suggest that premarital sex was rife. Song of Songs is most probably the seduction of an unwed maiden by Solomon rather than the ‘monogamous joy of marriage’ that exegetically sloppy preachers often claim. And that guy had 700 wives and as many concubines, so he’s probably not the example you want to be looking to. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to go back to a time where women were chattel property and subject to the whims of a patriarchal society. I don’t want to have to marry my brothers widow if he dies — nothing against her, if he ever marries, but I don’t know if my wife (if I ever marry) would be impressed that I not only have to support her but also have kids with her. Again — biblical marriage is impossible to make analogous to modern marriage, or to even develop a consistent institutional concept of.

    So in the spirit of Bertrand Russell, who the ACL loves to mangle in their ‘defence of marriage’ — define your terms and get back to me.

    • “Homosexuality’ as we understand it today is actually a fairly modern social construction, and particular to a Western context which has been exported globally.”

      All mammals do it, and that would indicate it’s been around since the dawn of time. They didn’t suddenly start because of aggressive marketing strategies by the Village People in 1976. It’s the same for people. Big picture, guys.

      It’s 2011: the obsession with other people’s sex lives is redundant. If we don’t start channelling those energies into more important things, like climate change, there won’t be any tiny moral victories or finger-pointing. Because there won’t be any people. Worshipping Mother Earth might mean surrendering a licence to persecute, but we might all live a bit longer!

      • I totally agree with you Mark, what I’m getting at is that the socio-cultural construction of homosexuality which is condemned by ‘biblicists’ today isn’t at all akin to the kinds of social relations which existed in the bible. I was less interested in the widely accepted naturalist argument and more interested in the far more controversial social determinist argument against marriage.

  4. Well said good sir. You’ve pretty much condensed my thesis into 1 page, dang now I’ll have to find some new material 😀 kidding.

    Well done for speaking up…

  5. I think we need to make a very real and concerted effort to identify as to what we mean by homosexuality and how that fits into the schema of Christianity.

    Within the framework of the GLB there is only a small percentage of men and women who are actually committed to the idea of a long term committed relationship – whereas the rest are committed to a more licentious way of life.

    How we critique the gay mardi gra, and lifestyle needs some deeper thought, and indeed it does need critiquing. Particularly in its mocking of greater society and promotion of licentious behaviour.

    While theoretically I am not against same sex marriage and have written about my thoughts on that – I’m yet to read any ‘theological’ works by anyone who claims they are gay which addresses the above. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, only that I’m yet to read it.

  6. I am loving what everyone is reflecting about this topic. Pete and Craig, you have both raised the issue of how we define homosexuality, and how (and whether) we can translate a biblical view onto this definition. i think this is an important task, and certainly there is no direct analogy between the ancient world and our contemporary world.

    This post obviously does not seek to do this, but simply seeks to show that the S&G story does not condemn to any form of homosexuality. This simply results in the conclusion that any form of translation of an idea of homosexuality is irrelevant in this case. This may well reflect the obsession of many Christians with condemning forms of sexuality (this is not even to mention gender).

    If this article leads to thoughtful engagement with the issue of defining sexual orientations and alternate forms of gender then fantastic. I look forward to more comments.


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