What Really Happened at Sodom?

This essay’s topic is the incident at Sodom in Genesis 19 which of course gave English the words sodomite, sodomy and sodomise for homosexuals and their practices, plus that vulgar abbreviation ‘sod’, more or less a gay equivalent of the proverbial ‘f-word’.  At first sight the interpretation seems obvious; a city-full of raging homosexuals threaten to rape (disguised) angels and God punishes them by destroying the city – QED, simples!

But closer examination of the text reveals that it’s perhaps not so simple.  The story starts with Abraham and his nephew Lot, who have travelled from modern Iraq to Canaan following God’s call.  But they have so prospered in various ways that the land can no longer support their combined followers and flocks and there is growing friction among those followers , so they decide to part; Lot chooses to leave Abraham’s nomadic life to settle in the more luxurious ‘cities of the plain’ near the Dead Sea, specifically Sodom.  Now for starters, forget Hollywood depictions with huge palaces; these are large towns for those days but far from cities as we think of them; the key thing is, they are walled towns, defensible citadels[i], probably surrounded by a considerable shanty town whose inhabitants would hide in the city when raiders came.

In Sodom prosperous Lot seems to have become quite important; Gen 19; 9 tells us he acted as a judge, and his position ‘at the gate’ (19; 1) has similar implications.  We might see him as the equivalent of a town councillor and magistrate; probably on market days he was like the judge of an English market town’s ‘pie-powder’[ii] court, arbitrating between traders and their customers.  Unfortunately as an upstart foreigner it seems he had made jealous enemies….

Meanwhile we learn, God has also been paying attention to the ‘Cities of the Plain’, and he isn’t happy with them.  He is, indeed, on the verge of bringing judgement upon them for their overall conduct.  As part of this process, two angels in human form visit Sodom – the way they are treated will be crucial to the judgement.  As they arrive they are met by Lot, who offers them his hospitality.  But in the evening the other Sodomites surround Lot’s house, calling for the foreigners to be brought out so that they can rape them (the word in the original is ‘know’, but that was a common euphemism for sex and the context here shows that it does mean rape).  Lot does his best to cope with this, even offering his own daughters to be raped instead to (as he under stress saw it) avoid the worst of this gross combination of breach of hospitality and sexual outrage, but the men of Sodom are insistent and Lot would be overborne but for the angels acting to protect him by striking the Sodomites blind.  The fate of Sodom and the other cities is sealed, and the angels help Lot and a few of his family to escape the catastrophe that follows….

Many issues in that, of course.  But I want to concentrate for now on the sexual question.  What exactly is going on here, and how is it relevant to the modern debates on homosexuality?

The first thing to say is, this isn’t homosexuality as usually understood today.  Yes, it is clearly about an act – or proposed act – of men having sex with other men; but it isn’t about love between ‘gay’ men as we understand that nowadays.  No doubt by biblical standards sexual morality was lax in the Cities of the Plain, and the Sodomites probably intended to enjoy this act, but we are missing the point if we see them as ‘gay’ – on the contrary, the whole point of this event is that they are being aggressively heterosexual!

Consider a case a few years ago in the UK; a gang of young men believed (almost certainly wrongly) that an older local man was a paedophile.  So they set out to teach him a lesson; not only did they beat him up, they gang-raped him.  Now these young men would not at all have considered themselves ‘homosexual’, but very ‘straight’; however in their eyes, this man, if a paedophile, wasn’t a proper man at all, so in raping him they were both ‘giving him a taste of his own medicine’ and asserting their own masculinity compared to him.  What happened in Sodom was along similar lines; not that the targets in this case were thought of as perverts or sexual malefactors, but that as foreigners they weren’t ‘real men’, and they were to be ‘taught a lesson’ by being treated as mere women, and not just as women but as slave women or war captives.  Treating them this way would also humiliate the foreign upstart Lot.  This isn’t an act of ‘gay love’ or even ‘gay lust’ but an act of political humiliation perpetrated by ‘straight’ men on other ‘straight’ men.

This kind of thing is more common than we realise; even in the Bible there are some other cases which appear to have similar implications.  Apparently in the third world the rape of defeated soldiers by the victors is still quite common, and even some western soldiers in the recent Gulf War inflicted sexual humiliation on Iraqi prisoners, though not as far as I know outright rape.  I hope that the gay movement finds such conduct as bad as straight people do.  As I understand it, modern gay rights are about consensual and loving sexual behaviour, not about rape of any kind and certainly not about using sex as humiliation.  But many Christians opposed to homosexuality also need to take account of this interpretation, and appreciate that what happened at Sodom was not ‘gay lust’ at all but a twisted aberration on the part of heterosexual men.  You are not properly making the Christian case on the subject of homosexuality by just simplistic references to the Sodom episode and quoting a passage from Leviticus without reference to the surrounding passages on dietary requirements and such which Christians do not themselves observe.  Much more responsible biblical interpretation is needed than that.

What happened at Sodom was peripheral to any real argument by Christians against homosexuality; and the divine love that Christians are meant to show means that in tackling the issue Christians should be careful in their use of scripture.

[i] I’m told that Salem, later Jerusalem, was even in David’s day, long after Abraham, a ‘city’ not much bigger than Wembley Stadium – only a few hundred yards across.

[ii]‘Pie Powder’ from French ‘Pied Poudre’ or the ‘dusty feet’ of those attending the market. 


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