Meet the Sodomites—Genesis 18:20-32

The Politics of Scripture

Properly to hear the story of Genesis 18-19, we must first unlearn all that we thought we knew about the Sodomites.

Then the Lord said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.’

So the men turned from there, and went towards Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And he said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’

Genesis 18:20-32

One day while St. Peter was manning the pearly gates, he realized he needed to take a break. Since he saw no one approaching he thought it would be safe to leave briefly, but just in case, he asked Jesus to cover for him.

As soon as Peter disappeared behind a cloud, an old man came up to the gates. Jesus was a bit nervous because he hadn’t done this before, so he kept glancing at the big book that listed the questions he was supposed to ask. “Well, old man,” Jesus began, “tell me about your life.” The old man thought for a bit and then said: “I worked as a carpenter. I had a son, but he didn’t come to be in the usual way, if you know what I mean. When my son grew older he fell in with some bad folks, but later there was some odd transformation. I never really understood it all.”

Jesus was dumbfounded. He looked up in shock and said: “Is that you, Father?!” The old man suddenly looked up too, and said: “Is that you, Pinocchio?!”

The literary method used in the story above (my retelling of a story here) is called “misdirection”: when we hear the old man mention a carpenter, we think of Joseph, but when it turns out to be Gepetto, we’re thrown off course. Misdirection is a method Jesus often used when he told stories.  The Old Testament Lesson for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost also features misdirection, but in this case it’s unintentional; it’s an accident connected with the associations people have when they hear “Sodom and Gomorrah”. 

Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. (verses 20-22).

I think it’s impossible to tell the beautiful story of Abraham bargaining with God without first dealing with Sodom and Gomorrah, and with Genesis 19—or with whatever our congregations have been told about it. 

The 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.  He 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.”  But 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. But 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; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”  Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, 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.”

Genesis 19:1-8

What is it that the people of Sodom have done?  The traditional answer is “homosexuality”, based on a narrow reading of Genesis 19.  Our congregations are exposed to that answer in voices such as that of televangelist Pat Robertson, who warned against marriage equality, stating, “What’s next is what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. It is just a question of how soon the wrath of God is going to come” or Mobile County Treasurer Phil Benson, who recently wrote that the “freaking queers have gotten too much sympathy”, and told the reporter to “sit down in his office and read chapter 19 in the book of Genesis” before he agreed to be interviewed.

Furthermore, the people in our pews are regularly exposed to the pronouncements of the current administration working against the full inclusion of LGBTQ people by rolling back much of the Obama era legislation in favor of it.  Vice President Pence’s Chief of Staff, Marc Short, wrote a column that described gay sex as “repugnant” and blamed HIV on the “perverted lifestyles” of “sodomites”.

So, what is it that the people of Sodom have done?  Even though the traditional answer remains popular, critical scholarship has shown that it doesn’t hold up. The Hebrew Bible seems to view the sin the Sodomites committed in terms of other ethical concerns than those of sexual morality. Beginning with the written and oral Torah, the answers offered include inhospitality, greed, theft, deception, disregard of the poor, inhumanity and mercilessness, but not homosexuality. One prominent passage is from the prophetic book of Ezekiel: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).

Jay Michaelson, a rabbi and meditation teacher with theology and law degrees, proposes a reading of the story of Sodom that emphasizes the violation of hospitality as well as the violence of the Sodomites:

The men of Sodom’s interest in men is incidental; if they were raging homosexuals, Lot would not offer his daughters in return. Homosexual rape is the way in which they violate hospitality, not the essence of their transgression. Reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe-murderer and saying it’s about an axe.

“Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25) On the background of the “wickedness” of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah—their aggressive inhospitality—we now can tell the story of Abraham’s bold bargaining with God.  

Also, having gained a new definition for what a Sodomite is, we can make connections with our administration’s policy of family separation, considered inhumane and immoral by many in our pews, and condemned by a wide array of sources including medical, scientific, religious, and human rights groups. Thus, among the true Sodomites is “Focus on the Family” speaker James Dobson, who defended the administration’s procedures as the only practical solution:

… without an overhaul of the law and the allocation of resources, millions of illegal immigrants will continue flooding to this great land from around the world.… Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it, and it could bankrupt the nation. … we have met a worldwide wave of poverty that will take us down if we don’t deal with it. And it won’t take long for the inevitable consequences to happen.

We pray. Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

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