Sodom and Gomorrah: Arrogant, Overfed and Unconcerned

by Duane Andersen and Robert A. Rees

We know from modern revelation that the Bible has often been misinterpreted. Sometimes this is because misinterpretations are passed on from generation to generation. At other times it is because a lack of historical, cultural or scriptural evidence prevents us from making a definitive interpretation. It is therefore important as we study the Bible to understand that some scriptural interpretations accepted as true are actually a result of centuries and even millennia of ideas and traditions that have persisted in spite of what the scriptures actually say. One of the best example of this are the traditions surrounding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Many Christians, including many Mormons, believe that these ancient cities were destroyed because of the practice of homosexuality. However, not only is this point of view not supported in scripture, it is actually contradicted by scripture.

The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is found in Genesis 18 and 19. Three strangers (seen variously as angels or prophets) visit Abraham before going on to Sodom and Gomorrah, telling him that God will destroy these cities because their “sin is very grievous.” Abraham famously negotiates with the visitors, hoping to save the cities from destruction. It is finally agreed that if Abraham can find ten righteous people in the cities, God will spare them.

When the three men arrive in Sodom and Gomorrah, they are greeted hospitably and given shelter by Abraham’s nephew, Lot. A group of ostensibly heterosexual men from the city try to break into Lot’s house with the objective of sexually assaulting the strangers—treating them “like women” and thus challenging their masculinity. Such inhospitable treatment of strangers was considered a grave social transgression in ancient Israel.  When Lot refuses and the aggressors attempt to break into his house to brutalize his guests, his visitors blind them and tell Lot to take his family and leave the city. Once Lot and his daughters are safely outside the city, it is destroyed by fire.

Traditionally, readers of the Bible have interpreted this episode as having to do with homosexuality, but homosexuality is never mentioned  in this account. In fact, other biblical scriptures make clear what the transgressions of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah were and why the Lord considered them serious enough to warrant the cities’ destruction. In Ezekiel 16, for example, the Lord threatens to destroy Jerusalem, suggesting that the sins of its inhabitants are worse than those of Sodom: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done. 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. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ez 16:49-50, NIV)

Thus, according to what the Lord tells Ezekiel, Sodom was destroyed because of pride and neglect of the poor. This accusation is reinforced by the prophet Isaiah, who adds the sin of blasphemy to the others: “Jerusalem staggers, Judah is falling; their words and deeds are against the LORD, defying his glorious presence. The look on their faces [the people of Jerusalem] testifies against them; they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! They have brought disaster upon themselves. . . .  The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: ‘It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?’ declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty” (3:9, 14-5, NIV). Again, Sodom’s sins are blasphemy, plundering, and persecuting the poor, not homosexual behavior.

The book of Jude in the New Testament adds one more sin to the catalog of transgressions of these ancient cities. Speaking of the Israelites, Jude says, “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (1:9, NIV) It is important to note that the “sexual immorality and perversion” here are not specified as either hetero- or homosexual in nature.

It is important to remember that Sodom and Gomorrah were guilty of many transgressions; nevertheless, in response to Abraham’s plea for mercy, God was willing to save them if ten righteous inhabitants could be found therein. In other words, both the great prophet Abraham and God himself were willing to save the city unless it was proven to be totally depraved, which it was. That depravity, as we have seen was a result of multiple sins, none of which is identified explicitly as homosexual.

8 comments for “Sodom and Gomorrah: Arrogant, Overfed and Unconcerned

  1. A Mormon
    February 17, 2014 at 11:52 am

    I agree that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for not taking care of the poor. Thank you for pointing this out. More people need to know this.

    Yet, the men of Sodom were clearly gay. All you have to do to find an explicit reference is look at the footnote for verse 5 where it says:

    “’Know’ is used in both Hebrew and English in this kind of context as a euphemism in place of a sexual word.”

    If you believe that this group was full of mixed company looking for sex, ask yourself why the men were there if the strangers were also all men (or male angels).

    If you doubt the sexual meaning, ask why in verse 7 Lot refers to “knowing” the strangers as “wicked.” Would it be awful for them to say hi? “Knowing” is clearly a euphemism.

    Lastly, why would Lot, a righteous man, offer up his daughters (who had never KNOWN man) unless they were unlikely to be harmed? And how could his daughters never have known man unless the word refers to sex? Were his daughters locked in the house? Weren’t they around when the strangers (prophets or angels) came in? Seems that at the very least the daughters knew these strange guests when they sat down to eat with Lot.

    • Daniel Parkinson
      February 17, 2014 at 4:37 pm

      Actually, straight men are perfectly capable of raping other men. It happens in prisons, it happens in the military, and it happens in Iraq, which is very near to where Sodom was located. Rape is an act of violence that has nothing to do with sexual orientation. It is highly unlikely that all the men of Sodom were gay, but they probably had the same 5% that every other city on earth has.

      • A Mormon
        February 18, 2014 at 3:13 pm

        Daniel, thank you for your reply. Your response brings up a good point but has some problems to it.

        First, men in prisons and the military usually lack opportunities to rape women instead of men whereas in a city they do not. I think that men living in a city could have looked for plenty of women to abuse if that was their preference. They could have even asked for Lot’s daughters instead of his guests.

        Speaking of which, the second problem is that you have not addressed why Lot (a righteous man) would offer up his daughters to be raped unless he knew the intruders were gay. Would any righteous father knowingly endanger his children?

        Third, a 100% gay population in Sodom is not necessary to deduce that the men at Lot’s door were gay. We can’t take literally that the “whole city” was at Lot’s door. Instead, it was likely the leaders or a vocal group in the city. I should point out, though, that even regions of the U.S. that are recognized for their gay communities have a much higher than average gay population. San Francisco is almost 16% gay: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_demographics_of_the_United_States

        In pointing out that these men were gay, I don’t mean to attack anyone with same-sex attraction because I know that God loves them just as he loves any man. I think that same-gender attraction would be a very hard thing to deal with for a large number of reasons. I also think that changing the Bible does them a disservice, however.

        • B.R.
          February 19, 2014 at 1:46 am

          A Mormon, you’re missing the point. The post (as well as Daniel’s reply) are not trying to “change” the bible, merely point out an assumption about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah which is not substantiated by the text itself. What they’re saying is that the issue with the men coming to rape the visitors was not that the rape would involve men but that they sought to humiliate and mistreat Lot’s visitors which was completely against the customs of the time. Visitors were to be treated with hospitality and kindness. Also, considering the way women (and yes, people’s own daughters) were treated as property, as well as the incest that occurs between Lot and his daughters following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, I don’t see Lot offering his daughters to the townspeople as an empty offer because he ‘knew they were gay and wouldn’t actually rape his daughters.’ Even if the townspeople were gay (which for the record I don’t think is a valid assumption), and all they wanted was to have sex with other men, there were plenty of other men in the own they could have tried to rape instead of these visitors. The point is that they didn’t want to rape them simply because they were men, therefore they must be gay; they wanted to rape them because their intent was to humiliate and degrade the visitors who should have been treated with respect. We can’t just apply our own cultural views and assumptions to a culture that lived thousands of years ago and was very different from our own.

          • A Mormon
            February 19, 2014 at 10:41 pm

            B.R., thanks for your post, but I assure you I’m not missing the point. I’ll go through the points you make in your post to tell you why. First, you cannot establish that the traditional view of Sodom and Gomorrah is “not substantiated” or “clearly contradicted by scripture” (as the original article says) by simply suggesting an alternate interpretation. You seem to assume that Sodom and Gomorrah were not guilty of widespread homosexual acts simply because they were not explicitly condemned for these specific acts, when in fact the evidence suggests very strongly that they were and homosexuality is referred to indirectly every time it appears in the Bible. Let me show you where you may have things confused.

            First, you claim that rape was an act meant to humiliate Lot. If this were true, 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. Don’t try claiming that raping the daughters would not have been humiliating for Lot. Having been to the Middle East, I know that a woman’s chastity is tied to her family’s honor there and has been for millennia. The public nature of the rape of his daughters would have been very shameful.

            Second, you claim that the humiliation was meant for the strangers themselves. The only problem is that the city must have welcomed strangers- else why would they appoint Lot to a position at the city gate? Even ignoring this, no city could leave its gates open to strangers and then have the resources to humiliate them without starving themselves. Remember that everything comes into the city via strangers and there was nothing strange about these men in particular.

            Next, saying that there were plenty of easier targets for rape in the town is important (as you point out) but for different reasons. I mentioned this to discredit the idea that there were no alternatives to raping other men (as opposed to jail). Beyond this, it’s not important why the gay mob preferred some men to others or instead of women.
            Fourth, you are guilty of ignoring historical context and reading modern conceptions into an ancient text (the very thing you criticize) by only looking at the NIV and ignoring ancient opinions. For example, the Greek phrase Sarko Heteras (literally to seek after strange flesh) in Jude contains quite a bit of nuance that the NIV’s English translation does not, especially when taken with its neighboring passages. There is also something to be said for the fact that Philo and Josephus, both of whom were near contemporaries to Jesus and Jude and who lived in a society where homosexuality was much more prevalent and accepted, considered homosexual acts to be among the sins of Sodom. The traditional approach has more merit than simply being mere preconceived modern biases. If you are truly looking for the truth check out the Old Testament Commentary I will link to below as well as more specific references for some of the points I’ve made:

            http://books.google.com/books?id=Ao5ecZ0ZsG8C&pg=PA748&lpg=PA748&dq=Sarkos+heteras%2C+Academic+commentary&source=bl&ots=bc71fP9MLS&sig=xTYmAC19OblC9GjcMA6QGv6yiwA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=i7cAU-mEE-LmyQHXuoG4BQ&ved=0CE0Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=Sarkos%20heteras%2C%20Academic%20commentary&f=false

  2. B.R.
    February 20, 2014 at 1:29 am

    Wow, where to start? First, I don’t agree that the interpretation you assume to be correct is necessarily the “traditional interpretation” and all others are therefore just “alternate interpretations” which must be wrong. Next, I never claimed that there weren’t any homosexual acts occuring in the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. What I said was that homosexual acts were not the reason for the towns’ condemnation and destruction.

    Next paragraph, where did I or anyone else say that the townspeople were trying to humiliate Lot by raping his visitors? I’m going to ignore this whole paragraph because I never claimed they were trying to humiliate Lot, and I have no idea where that came from. Glad you understand this point.

    Next paragraph, yes, I said that the reason for them trying to rape the visitors was to humiliate and degrade the visitors, which by the rest of your paragraph here you seem to understand why it would be so aggregious to treat visitors in such a horrible, violent way. So I guess you understand that the condemnation was for their intent to mistreat the visitors.

    I’m not really sure what to say about your next point. In your previous posts, you made an assumption that the townspeople that came to rape the visitors are gay because the visitors were men. To which Daniel pointed out that a person who rapes someone of the same sex is not necessarily gay because of the sex of the person they raped. (Because the rape is not about the sex in either the Sodom and Gomorrah story or the example of rape occuring in a sex-segregated prison situation. The rape in both of those scenarios are about violence, humiliation of the victim, and the rapist exerting dominance over the victim.) But this point seems to be lost on you.

    Finally, I did not refer to the NIV or any other version of the Bible. For the record, my experience has been with the KJV of the Bible which I assume you also use since you are Mormon, as am I.

    I will take a look at the link you provided. I would hope that you will also consider commentary of other Bible scholars which explain the understanding provided in the original post and my comments.

    • A Mormon
      February 20, 2014 at 2:39 pm

      The view that the men of Sodom and Gomorrah tried to rape Lot’s visitors because they were homosexual IS the traditional interpretation (see Jude, Philo, and Josephus). As I have said above, I agree that homosexual acts were not the main reason for the town’s condemnation; however, I object to any attempts to write them out of the Bible where they are condemned.

      My mistake, you did not claim that the rape was for Lot’s humiliation. I anticipated you would make this argument and then worded it wrongly by saying that you had already pointed it out. But I’m glad we agree that it wouldn’t have made sense to humiliate Lot this way.

      However, you ignore my reasoning why targeting these (or any visitors) for humiliation is a complete stretch. Why THESE strangers? Why such an organized and large crowd (with spokesmen) if the city welcomed strangers? Please re-read my argument above. This point alone makes the homosexuality scenario more likely than the humiliation one. (And to anticipate your response, it’s not clear from the cultural context because, as has been pointed out, the custom was to respect strangers and not humiliate them- a custom which was true in all cities regardless of righteousness etc.).

      About rape as purely dominance, you would need to first justify your above assumed scenario of humiliation to even get to this motivation for the event. Again, the context just doesn’t bear it out. If this is a random event, why are the strangers so organized as to have a spokesman? If this is organized, how did the city survive when it raped strangers, thus biting the hand that feeds them? Either way, why does the writer (presumably Moses) choose to include the daughters scenario instead of spending the same space talking about humiliation since rape of strangers to humiliate would not have been common at Moses’ time? Again and again, the context points to targeted rape based on the victims’ sex.

      I am glad that, unlike the original post, you do not use the NIV. Even well-intentioned and otherwise very accurate scholars sometimes distort things.

      I look forward to your response and any sources to the Bible scholars you mention.

      • A Mormon
        February 23, 2014 at 5:45 pm

        I should amend my argument a little after today’s Sunday School lesson. I was missing an extended JST in this chapter that changes the interpretation of Lot and his willingness to offer his daughters to these men. Here are the verses of Gen 18 as they read from the JST:

        11 Wherefore they said unto the man, We will have the men, and thy daughters also; and we will do with them as seemeth us good.
        12 Now this was after the wickedness of Sodom.
        13 And Lot said, Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, plead with my brethren that I may not bring them out unto you; and ye shall not do unto them as seemeth good in your eyes;
        14 For God will not justify his servant in this thing; wherefore, let me plead with my brethren, this once only, that unto these men ye do nothing, that they may have peace in my house; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.

        Now, this still doesn’t change the fact that the men wanted the girls “as seemeth them good” “after the wickedness of Sodom” that leaves me to believe Lot feared they would be Sodomized (anally raped) because the men outside the door preferred this as a mainly homosexual act.

        However, in light of the fact that the Sunday school lesson mentions nothing of homosexuality, I will concede that your interpretation is very possible. I still disagree with the original article here that says the traditional interpretation is “contradicted by scripture” though, as the two interpretations are ambiguous in the scriptures themselves and we must rely on the circumstances and reasoning surrounding them to get to either result.

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