Was Sodom the First All-Gay City?

Preston Sprinkle —  August 27, 2013 — 20 Comments
This entry is part 2 of 20 in the seriesHomosexuality in the Bible
gay-pride-sodom

I wonder how may gay people this guy’s led to Christ

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 jsodom_and_gomorrahnot 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.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Aaron Saltzer

    You asked why the men of the city would want to rape the two angels with women and children present. Well, why would he offer his daughters, with women and children present? This story does not make sense the way you’re telling it.

    • It does if you read it carefully. The answer to your question is in my previous post.

      • Aaron Saltzer

        So the law of hospitality says to make an offer to a threatening mob to distract them? Why would all the people of the city need to come to Lot’s House? Why not someone notify the police or someone who was in charge of the city’s well-being? That sounds strange to me.

        • Did you miss the part about the entire population of Sodom being outside Lot’s house? That means the police or whoever was in charge of the city’s well-being were part of the mob. And even if they weren’t, what would you expect Lot to do, pick up his cell phone and call for help? He was lucky he could get out his front door to talk to the crowd; he certainly wouldn’t have been able to go for help. Nor would he, had he been able, because to do so would have left his guests without protection.

          • Aaron Saltzer

            So why didn’t the people who were in authority come to Lot’s house? Why did the whole city have to come with them? Were the men of the city that made the request, the police?

    • The answer to your question is in my previous post. Look for the paragraph that begins with “It doesn’t take a genius to recognize a lynch mob…”

  • I’d like to throw my two cents into this. As Kirby points out, the destruction of Sodom was already certain before the incident at Lot’s house, so what happened there has no bearing on the destruction. And certainly, it was unrelated to the destruction of Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim.

    If we read this story carefully, with recourse to the Hebrew text, it becomes clear that the crowd outside Lot’s house was not restricted to men. In fact, the text indicates that the entire population of the city had gathered there, including the women and children:
    anshei ha’ir anshei S’dom
    אנשי העיר אנשי סדם
    Literally, the men of the city, the men of Sodom. But this can also be understood as the people of the city, the people of Sodom, depending on context. The rest of the verse clarifies for us:
    mina’ar v’ad-zaken kol ha’am mikatzeh

    מנער ועד־זקן כל ־העם מקצה
    From the young to the old… ALL THE PEOPLE from the end (that is, from every part of the city).

    Why would the crowd want to gang-rape the angels with the women and children there? And how did this mob of men, women and children come to be outside Lot’s house? Since the Bible doesn’t tell us, we have to read between the lines. The clues are there.
    First, we need to understand the background: Sodom had only recently been at war, so tensions in the city were high. When the angels arrived, Lot was sitting in the gate. That is important. It means he was the gatekeeper. The fact that this position was entrusted to Lot, who was not a native of Sodom was unusual. It undoubtedly had to do with the fact that Abraham was his uncle.
    The gatekeeper’s responsibility was to monitor who come in and who went out, and not to admit anyone who might endanger the city in some way. In the case of strangers, he would need approval from the city leaders to admit them.
    These angels came to Sodom in the form of men. Lot greeted them. His bowing to the ground was not uncommon: he was a civil servant, and the social status of the men was unknown to him. He did his job: He asked what their business was, where they were going in the city, etc. Upon finding out that they intended to spend the night in the street, he pushed them into coming to his house.
    Of course, there has probably never been a city where it is safe to sleep in the streets at night. But Lot was simply following the law of hospitality, which was unwritten but universal at the time. He had learned this from his uncle, no doubt. It required him to house, feed and protect strangers, even at the cost of his own life or that of his family.
    So Lot took the men to his house. But let’s switch the focus back to the gate, and read between the lines as it were. Someone clearly saw Lot invite these men to his home. And that someone knew the men were strangers to the city, and that the city rulers had not even been notified, let alone given the opportunity to approve or disapprove. It looks like secrecy, conspiracy… especially to someone whose city has endured a war. So the word begins to spread: the gatekeeper has invited strangers into his house without permission.
    Now, I want to give a heads-up here: What happens next does not seem to match the end of the story as recorded. But bear with me. I believe there is a reason for the dichotomy. As the evening wore on, alarm began to spread among the citizenry. Was an invasion planned? They would have gone to the leaders. No doubt they met at whatever location Sodom used for public gatherings.

    Someone with a clear head probably said, “Look, this is Abraham’s nephew, and Abraham was a friend to us in the past. Instead of jumping to conclusions, why don’t we simply go over to Lot’s house and ask him to introduce these men to us. Then we’ll see that there is nothing to worry about and we can all go home and go to bed.”
    That seems like a common sense solution. And they wanted to do it properly, so they had their request worded ahead of time, using very polite language. They wouldn’t go and demand to see the men, but ask to meet them. This was phrased as “Ayeh ha’anashim asher ba’u eleicha halayla? Hotziem elenu v’nedah otam.”
    Literally, Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us and let us know them.” The last two Hebrew words are significant here: v’nedah otam. In English, it takes five words to translate these two Hebrew words: And let us know them. The important thing to notice is the H at the end of v’nedah. This turns it from a definite future statement (And we WILL know) to a polite request: And let us know.
    Before going on, think about this: When in all the history of the world has a gang of rapists ever politely asked permission to rape someone? The wording of their statement absolutely does NOT fit their obvious hostile intent when they got to Lot’s house. Something happened to the concerned citizens of Sodom who decided to go politely ask Lot to introduce his guests that turned them into a violent mob. But what?
    I think a clue to the answer is found in Matthew 8:28-29. When Jesus arrived at a particular place, two possessed men came running out of the cemetery violently and confronted him. Now, in and of themselves, there is no way those two men would have known who Jesus was. But the spirits in them did, and responded with anger and fierceness.
    What about the people of Sodom? Think about the religious practices that were common in the areas: Human sacrifice, burning infants alive to Molech, temple prostitution, eating food sacrificed to idols, even cannibalism. Spiritually speaking, people who engage in such activities are almost certainly going to end up possessed. And it is quite likely that a good percentage of the people of Sodom were possessed. And that would explain what happened: The closer they got to the angels, the more riled up the demons in them got. The people themselves had no clue what was happening. They didn’t know there were angels in the city. But the demons did. This seems the only plausible explanation for how they could arrive at Lot’s house in their agitated state, and yet, deliver a polite request.
    It doesn’t take a genius to recognize a lynch mob. And Lot’s small family couldn’t hope to fight off such a crowd. They had only two hopes: One was to talk the crowd out of it. Lot tried, with no success. The other was to distract them in some way. That’s where his daughters came in. If Lot could distract the men of the city, then they, as the leaders, could disband the mob. So he offered them something they might be willing to accept: His daughters (as the law of hospitality demanded).
    Consider this: If the men of Sodom were really interested in homosexual sex, why would Lot offer them his daughters? Common sense says they wouldn’t be interested. He had other options: He could have offered himself. And he could also have offered his daughter’s fiances, as their betrothal gave him certain rights like that. But he didn’t.
    The mob told Lot they would do worse to him than they planned to do to his guests. Did they attempt sexual contact? No. They tried to kill him.
    It doesn’t appear that there was any sexual situation here at all.

    It should be noted that even though the word sodomite appears in various English translations, it is not found in the Hebrew text of the OT or the Greek text of the NT. It’s a mistranslation. It should also be noted that the Mishnah, ancient Bible commentaries part of the Talmud, in addressing the destruction of Sodom, never mentions homosexuality as a cause. In fact, the first religious text to do so was the Quran. During the Moorish occupation of Europe, the idea spread to Christians, and they accepted it. By the time vernacular Bible translations were made, it was so much believed that the translators altered their work to reflect it. In early translations, this included adding the word sodomite when the text said “temple prostitute,” and altering Jude 7. (It should not say “strange flesh,” but “other flesh,” a possible reference to cannibalism.) Later translations got even more “creative,” altering the text of Gen. 19 to reflect their beliefs.

    (Note: I began teaching Hebrew more than 30 years ago, and can also read biblical Greek.)

  • Preston

    EDS, thanks for weighing in. In many ways, my response to Kirby above might be relevant for your pushback. In any case:

    1) Believe it or not, attempting to rape another man had little to do with acting on homosexual impulses in the ancient world. Historically, socially, and biblically: the fact that the Sodomites tried to rape Lot’s guests does not necessitate a homosexual orientation.

    2) For God’s view of the (apparently) heterosexual Moabites, see Isaiah 15-16.

  • Preston

    Thanks for weighting in Kirby and for taking the time to give a rather thorough comment. I appreciate your hard work in formulating your
    argument; most of all, I love your desire to be more scriptural—even though you don’t find my post scripturally convincing.

    Let me push back on a few things. Please forgive me if I’ve misrepresented what you are arguing.

    First, it seems that you interpret the phrase “very grave” to mean homosexuality (or homosexual sex). Can you show elsewhere in Scripturewhere “very grave” has this connotation?

    Second, your phrase “fierce homosexual passion” needs more support. Every piece of evidence I’ve looked at in the ANE, including Assyrian, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian sources that discuss same-sex
    intercourse never talk about such a “fierce homosexual passion.” Many men had sex with other men but it had little, if anything, to do with being “gay.” Men had sex with conquered enemies to shame them; men visited male-cult prostitutes to gain blessing from the gods. Or whatever. But there is little if any evidence that such illicit acts were an outflow of inherent “homosexual passion.” (Maybe Gilgamesh? It’s ambiguous at best.) If you could provide evidence to the contrary, I’d love to see it.

    Third, all that is scripturally stated in Gen 19 is that the men tried to homosexually rape Lot’s guests. There’s nothing in Scripture that says, as you do, that their motivation was to gratify their homosexual passion.

    Fourth, neither 2 Peter nor Jude say as you do that Sodom
    was condemned for its “rampant homosexuality.” Check out Baukham’s thorough discussion in his commentary.

    Fifth, I’ll cover Leviticus 18 and 20 in the next post. In any case, these passages aren’t as simple as you may think. Many things were capital offenses in the Mosaic law, including breaking the Sabbath. What did
    you do last Saturday?

    Sixth, I provided, I thought, plenty of biblical support that the sin was inhospitality and not homosexual intercourse. Ezekiel 16:48-49;
    Jesus in Matt 10:5-15. In any case, here’s some more. Isaiah 1:10-17; 3:9; Jer 23:14; Zeph 2:8-11, all mention the sins of Sodom and never mention
    homosexuality.

    I’m totally fine if you disagree with my interpretation of Gen
    19, but I would hesitate saying that it lacks Scriptural support. While Gen 19 clearly condemns (attempted) rape, even homosexual rape, it does not—biblically it does not—address same-sex attraction leading to consensual sex. And biblically the weight of later OT and NT voices highlight in particular other sins of Sodom while not mentioning homosexual sex.

    Thanks again for your pushback. I would love to continue this
    dialogue! But let’s at least acknowledge that both of us are trying to be
    Scriptural.

    Preston

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  • Kirby

    This article isn’t convincing in the scriptural support cited for the conclusion that the sin of Sodom was inhospitality rather than homosexuality.

    First, the judgment from God was pronounced days before the angels ever arrived at Sodom. In the previous chapter, God had decided to destroy the city for its sin which is “very grave” (Gen 18:20). The angels were ultimately sent to rescue Lot and his family, since they were not necessary for God to determine if 10 righteous existed in the city. It wasn’t their poor treatment in the evening when they arrived that was the cause of judgment (even though, as you rightly point out, the men of the city were trying to gang rape the angels). Interestingly, the men of Sodom thought the angels were men, and were pursued for sex with a fierce homosexual passion, even when blinded by the angels, and even after passing on Lot’s “generous” offer to let them rape his daughters. This is not “inhospitality.” But once again, the broader point is that God had already seen the grave sin from heaven prior to his angels ever arriving in Sodom.

    Second, in 2 Peter 6, we see that God condemned the cities “as an example to those who would live ungodly thereafter.” We get more clarity in Jude 7 on what this was, described as “sexual immorality” or in some translations “gross immorality” and “going after strange flesh.” Once again, no reference to inhospitality.

    Third, the Ezekiel passage doe not exclude sexual immorality and say the only sin was inhospitality. Verse 50 says “they were haughty and did an abomination before me.” This could be read either that the haughtiness was the abomination, or that the abomination was in addition to haughtiness that led to inhospitality. It could be read both ways. But the clarity in 2 Peter 6 and Jude 7 give additional warrant for the sin of Sodom being rampant homosexuality. So the clearer passages need to interpret the ambiguous.

    Finally, homosexuality was considered to be a capital sin in Leviticus. However, inhospitality was no mentioned anywhere in the law as a capital offense. Are we to to believe that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for bad manners, when the Levitical law which came relatively shortly after Abraham in the biblical timeline was unambiguous? (Lev 18:22 and 20:23)

    I disagree with the D.J. below’s characterization of a contrary viewpoint to your interpretation of the passage (such as mine) as “hate” – it is a silly word borrowed from communities that would try to relegate contrary viewpoints to the fringe using ad hominem argumentation rather than reasoning through the scriptures together. It is a gross mischaracterization of those of us who hold to the traditional reading of the text. It is further reinforced by loaded pictures like at the top of the article which show a ridiculous Westboro Baptist-like person with a stupid sign as a representative sample of those who would disagree with your position. It’s not helpful in the dialogue.

  • EDS

    You state, “I don’t think the entire city of Sodom, young and old, was gay.” Yet the scripture you chose from Geneis states just that, “The men of Sodom, both young and old, *all the people to the last man*…” The Moabites were known for sexual sin yet God did not rain down destruction on them. Was the outcome of Sodom just for being gay, no, like you state, it was a myraid of sin. Though the fact that the attempted gang rape of angels by all the men of Sodom as the example of Sodoms sin presented to the reader shouldnt be discounted. How does this relate to the gay issue nowdays? The act of being gay, having same sex attraction is not a sin; its not a sin to be tempted, its a sin not to go to Christ with that temptation and to act on that temptation. Consenual couples, temple prostitues, whatever…the act of going against Gods word on the natural order of sex is the sin, not the temptation to do other wise. And that was Sodoms ultimate undoing, they chose to do what they wanted, to give in to that temptation with no thought of righteousness.

  • Preston

    Agreed! Thanks for weighing in, D.J.

  • Frank Amaya

    Nice!!!! I had never seen this passage like you did there.

    • Preston

      Thanks Frank!

  • I agree with what you’ve written here. I would add one thing though. For some reason, almost everyone whom I’ve seen comment on Ezekiel 16:49 doesn’t include the next verse. Here’s the whole thing together.

    “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:49, NASB)

    The inhospitably was the initial sin, yes, but that led to haughtiness and abominations. All those sins together were the reason the city was destroyed.

    • Preston

      Chuck, good catch! I’ll address Ezek 16:50 in the next post.

  • D.J. Yoder

    Great post and thanks for tackling this topic. I’m excited to follow it as you continue on! Even in the ultra-conservative Midwest this issue has begun to divide our churches and continues to affect more and more families. It’s great that you’re taking the time to ensure those of us standing behind the sanctity and exclusivity of heterosexual marriage are standing on biblical truth and proper context. We need less hate and preconception about what the bible says in this debate and more love and biblical truth, because we can stamp out the Spirit’s ability to bring unity to the church by abusing what God’s word says on the topic. In the process we’re not allowing truth to shine through so that the families and individuals affected can find spiritual restoration. Thanks again and looking forward to more!

  • Nice post, brother!

    • Preston

      Thanks David!