Sunday, October 13, 2013

Text: Genesis 19: 1-11

Yesterday I had the joy of speaking to a great group of LGBTQ students at the LGBT Wave of Hope Conference at the University of South Alabama. In addition to being the keynote speaker, I led a workshop on “one of the clobber passages” in the Bible that some people use to condemn homosexuality. I’m sharing notes from that workshop since we had a guest preacher today at Open Table. Did I mention how terrific these students and the sponsoring organizations are?

I can understand if you’re not a fan of the Bible. The Good Book has been used as a bad weapon against too many people. But understanding a little more about the Bible may be a key to achieving the aims of full equality of all persons because it is the main means by which people in our culture continue to marginalize and sometimes even terrorize the LGBTQ community. Even if you do not read the Bible for personal instruction or inspiration, you are affected by those who do—right here in the Bible Belt. You cannot say it’s irrelevant to you. And while I know many gay friends who manage to take the Bible literally by simply ignoring the six or seven “clobber passages” that supposedly condemn homosexuality, I suggest reading the Bible seriously, maybe even eventually reverently—without reading each and every verse literally.

Let’s look at one particularly problematic story which, according to some people, is the first mention of homosexuality in the Bible.

The first and maybe best known scripture used to condemn homosexuality is found in Genesis 19, which tells the story of the destruction of the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and the rescue of Lot and his family from that destruction. We’ll limit our study to the first 11 verses, which are really the first episode in the chapter-long narrative about Lot and the residents of Sodom. The question we’ll use to test this story as a prooftext that condemns homosexuality is: “What is the sin of Sodom?”

Most people today would answer that homosexuality is the sin for which the ancient city was destroyed by an angry God. The troubling term “sodomy” is rooted in this story. But many scholars today no longer think this story has anything to do with same-gender loving people or acts. They say Sodom’s sin was something else entirely and base this conclusion on these things:

  • the context of this story within the larger Abraham saga in Genesis,
  • the other references to Sodom in the other parts of the Bible,
  • the details in the story itself.

1. So let’s first consider what’s happening in Genesis 18, which precedes our reading. Abraham, Lot’s uncle, is visited in the heat of the day by three men. These three strangers appear at his tent at Mamre, and Abraham immediately brings food and water to them, as was required in this ancient Near Eastern desert culture. He bows to these total strangers and washes their feet and kills a calf and prepares a feast for them. He does so because survival in that desert culture required that travelers be given gracious hospitality and protection. And to this day in parts of the Middle East this code of hospitality remains. Hospitality to strangers was/is the highest value in those cultures. In response to Abraham’s protection, the three strangers tell him that his long-barren wife will finally bear a child in her old age. And that chapter ends as the strangers set out toward the city of Sodom. But as they leave, God cries out to Abraham: ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!” God has already been offended by the sin of Sodom.

If Sodom has already earned a sinful reputation and the wrath of God, then the actions in the next chapter, which some define as homosexual, cannot be the sin for which Sodom was punished. Whatever is wrong with Sodom predates the events in Genesis 19.

2. Next, let’s recognize how the rest of the Bible views the sin of Sodom. Sodom’s ambiguously sinful reputation was previously attested to in Genesis 18, and its enduringly sinful reputation is later attested to by no fewer than 15 biblical allusions. Significantly, of these 15 references, only Jude 1:7-8 understands the sin of Sodom to be of a sexual nature; the Bible mentions Sodom in other places in association with sins of idolatry, murder, greed, mistreating the poor, arrogance, pride, cruelty, oppression—or unspecified sin. However, even the Jude passage does not mention homosexuality. Ezekiel 16: 49 (NIV), for example, announces, “‘Now 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.”Thus, the Bible itself does not perceive the sin of Sodom to be homosexuality.

3. Finally, we look at details in the story itself, dividing the 11 verses into three sections:

1The 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. 2He 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.’ 3But 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.

Do you notice similarities between Gen. 18, the story of the angels visiting Abraham and this story of angels visiting Lot? The theme common to both stories is hospitality. Like his Uncle Abraham, Lot is honoring the code of hospitality to strangers.

4But 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; 5and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’

Most scholars acknowledge that the crowd’s demand “to know” the visitors, means sexual knowledge, since it uses the Hebrew word yd’, which can mean sexual knowledge. But sexual knowledge does not necessarily mean these men are homosexual. Since this group represents all the men in the city of Sodom, it seems unlikely that every male in the city is homosexual (assuming, for argument’s sake, that that culture shared our concept of homosexuality). But despite popular understandings of this verse and the etymology of the term sodomy, most scholars now agree that “the turbulent mood of the narrative suggests gang-rape rather than a private act of either ‘sodomy’ or any specific homosexual act” (Countryman 164). These men are not knocking on Lot’s door looking for a date. They are threatening violence, as we will see in the final part of this pericope.

6Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, 7and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. 8Look, 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.’ 9But 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. 10But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. 11And 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.

The mob’s shouts, threats, and physical intimidation—“pressing hard against” Lot and trying to “break [the door] down” (19:9)–are actions of violence, not sexual desire. The men of Sodom reveal that the moral dilemma Lot faces is about honoring a code of hospitality rather than defending a code of heterosexuality.

Male gang rape (like any rape) was and is an act of aggression, not of sexual desire. Evidence from antiquity, including artistic renderings, attests that conquerors raped defeated soldiers to humiliate the enemy to the utmost by forcing the men to assume the inferior position of women. At least one writer compares this ancient horror to male-on-male rape in contemporary prisons, a violent practice that signals power and control over a victim, not sexual attraction.

There is not a word that can be translated directly from the biblical texts to fit our meaning of homosexuality. In other words, “in biblical times there was no elaborated understanding of homosexuality as a sexual orientation. The ancient Israelites did not even think about sex in these terms” (Helminiak 39). Whatever is being condemned in Genesis 19: 1-11—it is not homosexuality as we mean it today.

What would you say is the sin of Sodom? Contrast this story with the one in Genesis 18 about Abraham serving the 3 strangers, where Abraham epitomizes the hospitality code. These same strangers/angels then visit Sodom where, in shocking contrast, they are threatened with actions that violate the hospitality code to the extreme. The fact that Lot offers his two virginal daughters for the crowd to do with them as they please (verse 8) rather than betray the implicit oath of protection he’s made as host to the strangers is another dramatic means of underscoring Lot’s adherence to the code of hospitality. (Perhaps he’s being hyperbolic to make his point, or perhaps he was willing to go that far to protect his guests. Certainly the story reflects a disturbingly patriarchal culture. But the story’s point is clear: hospitality to the stranger trumps all other duties.) Bear in mind that the other fifteen allusions the Bible itself makes to Sodom never name its sin as homosexuality. Recall the details of this story.

This story seems to be about the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and offer radical hospitality to all, so the sin of Sodom is clearly not homosexuality but rather the extreme violation of sacred hospitality codes. In fact, this text might, ironically, be used to advocate for the protection of all “strangers” in our midst, especially those who are different from us and including those seen as Other by virtue of their sexuality. It may be that the very people who are condemning others for the sin of sodomy may themselves be guilty of that very sin of Sodom: not welcoming and protecting the stranger.

Works Cited and Consulted

Achtemeier, Paul J., Gen. Ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996.

Bellis, Alice Ogden. Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994.

Brawley, Robert L., ed. Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture. Louisville: Westminster, 1996.

Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.

Countryman, L. William. Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.

Frick, Frank. A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson, 2003.

Hasting, James, ed. Dictionary of the Bible. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1963.

Helminiak, Daniel. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. New Mexico: Alamo Square, 2000.

Miller, Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller. Harper’s Bible Dictionary, 8th ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. Michael D. Coogan, ed. Oxford, Oxford UP, 2001.

Phipps, William E. Genesis and Gender: Biblical Myths of Sexuality and Their Cultural Impact. New York: Praeger, 1989.

Rosenblatt, Naomi H. and Joshua Horwitz. Wrestling with Angels: What the First Family of Genesis Teaches Us About Our Spiritual Identity, Sexuality, and Personal Relationships. New York: Delacourte, 1995.

Category Scripture
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