You know the story. Two men visit Lot and they must have been hot, because they attract the attention of the men of the city—every single one, even the kids:
“The men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house…and called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.’” (Gen 19:4-5)
This raises the question: Was Sodom the first all-gay city? And if so, how did it get this way? Was there something in the water?
As it turns out, Lot’s guests weren’t men at all. They were angels. In any case, I want to see how this passage contributes to our understanding of God’s view of homosexuality—if at all.
As the story unfolds, the men of the city never “know” Lot’s visitors. Lot offers his virgin daughters to them instead, but they decline. Instead, the men of Sodom seek to attack Lot for refusing to give up his guests, so the angels strike the men with blindness (Gen 19:4-11).
Some scholars have argued that the passage isn’t talking about sex of any form. When men of Sodom want to “know” Lot’s guests, they only want to know more about them. Where are you from? What are you doing here? Would you care for a Felafel, or would you prefer a Shawarma? This is the view of the late John Boswell—a world renown Yale theologian—who said:
“When the men of Sodom gathered around to demand that the strangers be brought out to them, ‘that they might know them’, they meant no more than to ‘know’ who they were, and the city was consequently destroyed not for sexual immorality but for the sin of inhospitality to strangers” (Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Kindle loc. 2662).
And many others agree with Boswell. However, even though the Hebrew word for “know” (yadah) rarely conveys sexual intercourse, in this passage it almost certainly does. Lot describes his daughters as never having “known any man” (19:8), which clearly means that they were virgins, not just socially awkward. Plus, was the entire city really roasted for seeking to get acquainted with some strangers? I doubt it. As weird as it may be, the men of Sodom were seeking to gang rape God’s angels.
But Boswell and others are on to something. Most of the other Old Testament passages highlight the sin of inhospitality whenever they reflect on the sin of Sodom. “This was the guilt of…Sodom,” writes Ezekiel: they had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezek 16:49). In other words, they were inhospitable, and plenty other Jewish and Christian thinkers said the same (e.g. Wis 19:13) including Jesus (Matt 10:5-15).
So was the sin of Sodom only inhospitality?
Certainly gang raping your guests isn’t the best way to welcome them. Yes, the men of Sodom were inhospitable. But the severity of Sodom’s punishment points to the extensive manner in which they sought to mistreat Lot’s guests. Seeking to sexually violate and abuse the men, or angels, was the pinnacle of their inhospitality.
But I still don’t think this passage speaks to our contemporary issue of homosexuality. In other words, Genesis 19 does not have in view consensual, monogamous, same-sex marriage. In fact, such an orientation wasn’t much of a known category in the ancient Near East. Most evidences of homosexual intercourse had to do with a man of a higher social standing having sex with another man of a lower social standing (a slave, a conquered enemy, a boy, etc.), and the one who was socially lower played the role of the woman. I’ll save you the details. In any case, consensual, same-sex attraction that leads to monogamous sex is never discussed, as far as I know, in the ancient world. It’s certainly not what Genesis 19 condemns.
What’s at stake today is whether consensual, same-sex attraction can be acted upon, not whether it’s okay to gang rape one’s guests. The story of Sodom does not directly answer the questions most Christians are asking today.
Put differently, if Lot’s guests were women, and the sin was (attempted) heterosexual gang rape, would the crime be less severe? Was there anything more sinful about the fact that men were seeking to rape (what they thought to be) men? Maybe, but I don’t think this is the point of the text. At least, later Old Testament and most early Jewish thinkers didn’t think so. Again, the sin of Sodom was remembered as evidence of pride, inhospitality, and immorality as a whole. Not acting upon same-sex impulses. I don’t think the entire city of Sodom, young and old, was gay.
In sum: Genesis 19 should not be a primary passage used in the discussion over whether God condemns homosexual sex. However, there is some evidence that it may speak indirectly to the issue. We’ll explore this in the next post.