When Duane Anderson and I wrote our piece on Sodom, I insisted on using the NIV translation of Genesis because I found it clearer and more accurate. I did not foresee, although I should have, the reaction of some readers to our not using the KJV. I assumed that most people know that the KJV, although wonderfully literary and the one preferred by the Church, is not the most accurate or reliable translation available. Joseph Smith considered the KJV inferior to the German Bible and of course set about revising the KJV (a task he never completed and one in which he carried some of the mistranslations of King James’s scholars into his own revision). Since then, many more reliable sources have emerged to give us better translations.
I found it interesting that some of those responding to our post seemed comfortable insisting on the literalness of the translation of “know” in terms of its sexual connotation but didn’t look deeper into this story or question some of the other elements, which I personally find more troubling than the fact that this may have been an act of sexual aggression. Looking closer at the text one cannot but help ask other (to my mind) more relevant questions and make more telling observations. These include the following:
- God’s willingness to negotiate with Abraham over the fate of Sodom. After Abraham challenges God’s justice, “Will you put to death the innocent with the guilty, making innocent and guilty the same?,” God finally agrees to forgive and therefore save the entire city of decidedly wicked people if only a handful of innocent people can be found:, “I will not destroy for the sake of ten.” If God is willing to both forgive and save all the wicked if a few innocent citizens can be found, doesn’t it seem somewhat capricious that, absent those few, he would destroy the entire city?
- “The innocent.” If Abraham is concerned about the innocent, one wonders if he is considering the children. If, according to Mormon doctrine, children before the age of accountability are innocent, then surely in a city so large as Sodom, there must have been many thousands of innocent children. It seems that God is willing to destroy them if no fewer than ten innocent adults can be found. This seems as arbitrary (though infinitely more unjust) as forgiving the entire city if ten can be found. Sodom’s fate seems to hang in the balance between those numbers! If ten are found, all are forgiven; if nine, all will be destroyed, along with the inhabitants of all of the other cities of the plain! At some point it seems to me we should be asking if this particular story is more of a parable than an actual historic account.
- The question of the sexual identity of the thugs who come to Lot’s home is misguided since male sexual aggression against a conquered king or others was not uncommon in the ancient world. It was in fact an act of ultimate humiliation. There is no evidence that such an act was driven by homosexual desire; in fact, given the degree of homosexuality in humans historically, it seems unlikely to have been practiced exclusively by homosexuals or for sexual gratification. Nevertheless, it seems from the context that the people of Sodom wanted to wreak violence on Lot’s visitors. Why, one wonders? My guess is that somehow they men know of the mission of these angels or prophets (or whatever they were), which is to destroy their city. Their response is typical of the truly wicked.
- Lot offering his daughters to satisfy the blood lust of the angry mob. “A Mormon” responding to comments by others on the No More Strangers website argues that the fact that Lot offers his daughters to the men outside the gate is clear evidence that they (the men) were homosexual because he wouldn’t have offered his daughters otherwise, and the men wouldn’t have been tempted by them. “Wouldn’t the rape of his daughters have accomplished the same thing in a much more pleasurable way for these ‘heterosexual’ men? It would have been easier too.” Such a statement makes the classic misassumption that rape is motivated by sexual desire rather than the wish to do violence, which is what experts on rape say it is. What guarantee does Lot have that this irrational mob would not violate his daughters? My guess is that no modern woman would read this episode with any degree of sanguinity. I certainly do not.
- Some of the commentary suggested that Lot would not knowingly endanger his daughters because he is “a righteous man.” Of course, the bible (and modern church history) is replete with examples of bad deeds performed by “righteous” men. But even within the context of this story, Lot does not always act as we might expect “a righteous man” might be expected to. For example, when the angels tell Lot to “flee to the high country lest you be wiped out,” even though the messengers warn him not to stop anywhere on the plain, Lot doesn’t want to go and pleas with them to let him go instead to a nearby town, which, surprisingly, they permit. One wants to ask why Lot doesn’t want to put as much distance as possible between himself and Sodom, which is soon to be engulfed in cataclysmic destruction. As Robert Alter’s excellent translation of the text reads, “And the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord from the heavens. And he overthrew all those cities and all the plain and all the inhabitants of the cities and what grew in the soil.”1 Fleeing to the mountains rather than the near neighborhood seems like a good idea—which Lot eventually does.
Another example of Lot’s less than sterling character is seen earlier (Chapter 13) when, after traveling to Canaan from Egypt and finding that the land is not sufficient to support both his and Lot’s flocks, Abraham graciously offers Lot the choice of the lands that lie before them, and Lot, rather than deferring to his elder relative and the prophet, chooses what he considers the best land for himself. As Alter’s translation reads, “And Lot raised his eyes and saw the whole plain of Jordan, saw that all of it was well-watered, before the Lord’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, till you come to Zoar. And Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, . . . and Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain, and he set up his tent near Sodom.” Why doesn’t Lot offer the more favorable land to Abraham, as one might expect? We don’t know of course, but the Jewish rabbis speculate that he did it because he was enticed by Sodom:
“According to the midrash (Tanhuma, Vayera 12), Lot, from the outset, decided to dwell in Sodom because he wanted to engage in the licentious behavior of its inhabitants. His negative behavior comes to the fore when the townspeople mill about his door, demanding that he hand over the angels, and he instead offers his daughters to the mob. The Rabbis observe that a man usually allows himself to be killed in order to save his wife and children, while Lot was willing to allow the townspeople to abuse his daughters.”2
- And then there is the problem with Lot’s wife. The command for those fleeing Sodom not to look back seems not only trivial and arbitrary but to ignore universal human curiosity. Who among us could flee the city of our home that is being engulfed in fire and brimstone (especially with children and possibly grandchildren—and other relatives and friends being left behind) and not look back! But even so, being turned into a pillar of salt for having done so? That seems more cruel and capricious than what Zeus would have done! Is this believable by modern readers? As Alter observes, “As has often been observed, this tale looks doubly archaic, incorporating both an etiological story about a gynemorphic rock formation in the Dead Sea region and an old mythic motif (as in the story of Orpheus and Euridyce) of looking back in fleeing from a place of doom.”3
- Finally, we have to deal with the messy story of Lot and his daughters. This seems to be a very dysfunctional family! After the cities of the plains have been destroyed and all the inhabitants as well (presumably Lot’s other two daughters and their husbands4), and Lot is finally safe in his mountain cave with his two remaining daughters, they conspire to get their father drunk so they can be impregnated by him. Putting aside for the moment whether this is possible (I won’t go into the anatomical detail of what is technically required for impregnation), one wonders why Lot, a supposedly righteous man, allows his daughters to get him so drunk on two successive nights that he doesn’t know what he is doing (or they are doing to him) and has no remembrance of it.
Once again, the midrash provides an alternative way of seeing this episode. The rabbis, somewhat uncharacteristically, do not blame the daughters but rather Lot for earlier offering his daughters to the men who sought to violate his guests: “This midrash [Tanhuma, Vayera 12] sharply focuses the reversal between these two episodes. In the first event, in Sodom, Lot was ready to force his daughters, against their will, to engage in sexual relations with the townspeople. In contrast, in the second episode, which takes place after the upheaval of Sodom, Lot’s daughters engage in relations with their unwitting father. Consequently, these acts of incest are Lot’s punishment for his unseemly behavior.”5
Another midrashic reading sees “the daughters’ act as punishment for their father’s own sexual promiscuity. Lot thought that if he were to dwell in Sodom, he could engage in licentious behavior without anyone’s knowledge. He accordingly was punished by his daughters engaging in intercourse with him; this episode became common knowledge and is read each year during the public Torah reading of the verse: ‘Thus the two daughters of Lot came to be with child by their father’ (Gen. 19:36).”6
A more favorable reading sees the daughters as acting to preserve the human race, which they believe, as in the days of Noah, to have been utterly destroyed. Thus, their act is not one of lust but rather a righteous desire to save humankind!7
What complicates the story further is that is through the lineage of one of these daughters that Christ is born! The one daughter called her son Moab who became the father of the Moabites and it was Ruth who married Boaz, a Moabite, from whom both King David and the lord descended.
The essential purpose of this discussion is to point out that fixating on this story as a condemnation of homosexuality is to miss the scriptural forest for one tree—and an artificial tree at that! The story is about many things, and as a mirror of the story of Abraham and Sarah, demands our close and serious study. As Alter observes, “The whole episode is framed in an elegant series of parallels and antitheses to Abraham’s hospitality scene at the beginning of Chapter 18.”8
One might observe that it has certainly been less than hospitable to our gay brothers and lesbian sisters to have insisted on a narrow and uninformed interpretation of this and other scriptures. We can do better! As Lowell Bennion observed, “If we study all scriptures, certain fundamentals emerge clearly. One is the character of God. Over and over again in all four scriptures Jesus and the prophets bear witness that God is our Father–just, impartial, merciful, forgiving, law-abiding, creative, and intelligent. If we believe the scriptures, we can depend on God’s integrity and love. I do not accept any interpretation of scriptural passages that portrays God as being partial, unforgiving, hateful, or revengeful. It is more important to uphold the character and will of God than it is to support every line of scripture.”9
1 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (New York: Norton, 2004)
2 Tamar Kadari, “Lot’s Daughters: Midrash and Aggadah,” http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lots-daughters-midrash-and-aggadah.
3 Alter, Footnote 26, p. 95.
4 One has to assume this is the case since the scriptures speak of Lot’s “sons-in-law” who do not take his warning to flee the city seriously and because he hear later of only the unmarried daughters (who would have been the virgins Lot offered to the men besieging his home).
5 Tamar Karari, “Lot’s Daughters: Midrash and Aggadah.”
6 Ibid. According to Karari, “R. Nahman adds: ‘Whoever is driven by his hunger for transgression will eventually be fed from his own flesh’ (Tanhuma,Vayera 12). Lot was eager to engage in promiscuity; in the end, his daughters played the harlot with him. . . . Another Rabbinic view was that Lot secretly lusted after his daughters. He was intoxicated when the elder sister lay with him, but he was sober when she rose, as is indicated in the Torah by the dot over the word u-ve-komah (“when she rose”). Despite his knowledge of what had transpired, he did not refrain from drinking wine the next night as well, and lying with his younger daughter (Gen. Rabbah 51:8–9).”
7 “When Scripture tells of the incestuous act by the daughters of Lot, who say: “that we may preserve seed from our father” (Gen. 19:34), it uses the word zera (“seed,” or “offspring” in a more general sense), and not “son,” since the intent of the Holy One, blessed be He, was related to the Messiah (Gen. Rabbah 51:8). Thus, from a historical perspective, this act was essential for the future advent of the Messiah. . . . An additional wonder: a virgin does not become pregnant from her first intercourse, while Lot’s daughters, who were virgins, did become pregnant from this initial act (Gen. Rabbah 51:9). This midrash reiterates the purity of their intentions, since they lay with their father only a single time, to ensure the continuity of the world. Just as Ruth acted for an ideal when she went down at night to the threshing floor of Boaz, so, too, the daughters of Lot acted altruistically (Gen. Rabbah 51:10). Tamar Karari, “Lot’s Daughters: Midrash and Aggadah.”
8 Alter, Footnote 1, 91.
9 “Learning How to Know Scriptures: Values and Limitations” in The Best of Lowell L. Bennnion: Selected Writings 1928-1988, ed. by Eugene England. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988). 209.