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Why did God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Was the most extensive judgment found anywhere in the Bible outside of the book of Revelation actually for the sin of inhospitality, not homosexuality?

People find what they want in the Bible. If one looks hard enough, he can find "biblical" support for reincarnation, Eastern religions, Jesus as a guru, divorce for any reason, and flying saucers. Every cult of Christianity uses the Bible to validate its claims and so does some of the occult.

It's not surprising, then, that a recent trend in biblical scholarship holds that a careful reading of Genesis in its historical context offers no solid basis to conclude that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah had anything to do with homosexuality.

This view may seem far-fetched to biblical conservatives, but it is taken very seriously in academic circles. It represents a significant challenge to the rank-and-file Christian who finds in the Genesis account a straight-forward condemnation of homosexual behavior.

My goal is to answer that challenge. I have no interest to malign, name-call, offend, attack, bash, belittle, or in any way demean a group of people. I want to determine one thing only: Why did God destroy these two cities? Did it have anything to do with homosexuality itself? In short, what was the sin—or sins—of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Genesis 18:16-19:29

Though the context of the account in question begins in Genesis 18:16 during God's conversation with Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre, the details of the encounter at Sodom itself are found in Genesis 19:4-13:

Before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, both young and old, all the people from every quarter; and they called to Lot and said to him, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have relations with them." But Lot went out to them at the doorway, and shut the door behind him, and said, "Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly. Now behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof." But they said, "Stand aside." Furthermore, they said, "This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them." So they pressed hard against Lot and came near to break the door. But the men reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck the men who were at the doorway of the house with blindness, both small and great, so that they wearied themselves trying to find the doorway. Then the men said to Lot, "Whom else have you here? A son-in-law, and your sons, and your daughters, and whomever you have in the city, bring them out of the place; for we are about to destroy this place, because their outcry has become so great before the Lord that the Lord has sent us to destroy it."

What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? Why did God destroy the two cities? The traditional view is that homosexuality was the principle offense ("Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly").

Yale historian John Boswell offers four possible reasons for the destruction of Sodom:

(1) The Sodomites were destroyed for the general wickedness which had prompted the Lord to send angels to the city to investigate in the first place; (2) the city was destroyed because the people of Sodom had tried to rape the angels; (3) the city was destroyed because the men of Sodom had tried to engage in homosexual intercourse with the angels...; (4) the city was destroyed for inhospitable treatment of visitors sent from the Lord.[1]

John Boswell thinks that explanation (2) "is the most obvious of the four," though it's been "largely ignored by biblical scholars."[2] Boswell expands on explanation (4), the one he seems to favor as most consistent with "modern scholarship" since 1955:

Lot was violating the custom of Sodom...by entertaining unknown guests within the city walls at night without obtaining the permission of the elders of the city. 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.[3]

Englishman D. Sherwin Bailey also argues this way in Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (1955). The men of Sodom wanted to interrogate Lot's guests to see if they were spies. The sin of gang rape was also in view, not homosexuality. In a broader sense, the men of Sodom were inhospitable to Lot's guests.

Apparently, it did not occur to Boswell that possibilities (2) and (4) seem to be at odds. If "to know" the angels means merely to interrogate them, then there is no attempted rape, only an attempted interrogation. If, on the other hand, the men meant to have sexual relations with the visitors (the traditional view) and are guilty of attempted rape, then the interrogation explanation must be abandoned (rendering Boswell’s above summary of the views of modern scholarship somewhat incoherent).

Some of these explanations, however, are not mutually exclusive and may have been factors in their own way. For example, the general wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah (1) could have included rape (2) and/or inhospitality (4).

My principle concern here is to determine if the biblical record indicates that (4) homosexuality factored in at all.

Clues from the Text

Why did God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? We can find clues not just from the Genesis account, but also from the Prophets and the New Testament books 2 Peter and Jude. These give a sense of how ancient Jewish thinkers steeped in Jewish culture understood these texts.

First, Sodom and Gomorrah were judged because of grave sin. Genesis 18:20 says, "And the Lord said, 'The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave.'" Indeed, not even ten righteous people could be found in the city.

Second, it seems the judgment of these cities was to serve as a lesson to Abraham and to others that wickedness would be punished. In 2 Peter 2:6 we learn that God condemned and destroyed the cities as "an example to those who would live ungodly thereafter."

Third, peculiar qualities of the sin are described by Jude and Peter. Jude 7 depicts the activity as "gross immorality" and going after "strange flesh."[4] Peter wrote that Lot was "oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men," and "by what he saw and heard...felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds." These people were "those who indulged the flesh in its corrupt desires and despised authority" (2 Peter 2:7-10).

Fourth, there are 27 references outside of Genesis where Sodom is mentioned. It is emblematic of gross immorality, deepest depravity, and ultimate judgment.

Piecing together the biblical evidence gives us a picture of Sodom's offense. The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was some kind of activity—a grave, ongoing, lawless, sensuous activity—that Lot saw and heard and that tormented him as he witnessed it day after day. It was an activity in which the inhabitants indulged the flesh in corrupt desires by going after strange flesh, ultimately bringing upon them the most extensive judgment anywhere in the Bible outside of the book of Revelation.

What do we know about the conduct of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah that fits this description?

Just a Couple of Questions

Was the city destroyed because the men of Sodom tried to rape the angels (option (2) above)? The answer is obviously no. God's judgment could not have been for the rapacious attempt itself because His decision to destroy the cities was made days before the encounter (see Genesis 18:20). Further, Peter makes it clear that the wicked activity was ongoing ("day after day"), not a one-time incident. The outcry had already been going up to God for some time.[5]

Was this a mere interrogation? Though the Hebrew word yada ("to know")[6] has a variety of nuances, it is properly translated in the NASB as "have [sexual] relations with."[7] Though the word does not always have sexual connotations, it frequently does, and this translation is most consistent with the context of Genesis 9:5. There is no evidence that what the townsmen had in mind was a harmless interview. Lot's response—“Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly"—makes it clear they had other intentions.

In addition, the same verb is used in the immediate context to describe the daughters who had not "known" a man and who were offered to the mob instead. Are we to understand Lot to be saying, "Please don't question my guests. Here, talk to my daughters, instead. They've never been interviewed"?

Did God judge Sodom and Gomorrah for inhospitality? Is it true that God's judgment was not for homosexuality per se, but because the people of the town were discourteous to the visitors, violating sacred sanctuary customs by attempting to rape them? A couple of observations raise serious doubt.

First, the suggestion itself is an odd one. To say that the men of Sodom were inhospitable because of the attempted rape is much like saying a husband who's just beaten his wife is an insensitive spouse. It may be true, but it's hardly a meaningful observation given the greater crime.

Second—and more to the textual evidence—it doesn't fit the collective biblical description of the conduct that earned God's wrath: a corrupt, lawless, sensuous activity that Lot saw and heard day after day, in which the men went after strange flesh.

Third, are we to believe that God annihilated two whole cities because they had bad manners, even granting that such manners were much more important then than now? There's no textual evidence that inhospitality was a capital crime. However, homosexuality was punishable by death in Israel (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13). Does God ignore the capital crime, yet level two entire cities for a wrong that is not listed anywhere as a serious offense?

The Only One That Fits

The prevailing modern view of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is that the attempted rape of Lot's visitors violated the Mid-East's high code of hospitality (19:9). This inhospitality, however, is an inference, not a specific point made in the text itself.

Further, the inhospitality charge is dependent upon—and eclipsed by—the greater crime of rape, yet neither could be the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah because God planned to judge the cities long before either had been committed. What possibility is left? Only one.

We know the men of Sodom and Gomorrah were homosexual, "both young and old, all the people from every quarter" (19:4), to the point of disregarding available women (19:5-8). After they were struck sightless they still persisted (19:11). These men were totally given over to an overwhelming passion that did not abate even when they were supernaturally blinded by angels.

Homosexuality fits the biblical details. It was the sin that epitomized the gross wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah—the "grave," "ungodly," "lawless," "sensual conduct of unprincipled men" that tormented Lot as he "saw and heard" it "day after day," the "corrupt desire" of those that went after "strange flesh."

In their defense, some will cite Ezekiel 16:49-50: "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.[8] Therefore I removed them when I saw it." No mention of homosexuality here.

Clearly, the general wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah was great. That's not in question. Our concern here is whether homosexuality was part of that wickedness. Our analysis of Genesis shows that homosexuality was the principle behavior at issue in that passage. Ezekiel simply enumerates additional sins. The prophet doesn't contradict Moses, but rather gives more detail.

Stinginess and arrogance alone did not draw God's wrath. Ezekiel anchored the list of crimes with the word "abominations." This word takes us right back to homosexuality. The conduct Moses refers to in Genesis 18 he later describes in Leviticus as an "abomination" in God’s eyes.

Leviticus

The Mosaic Law has two explicit citations on homosexuality. Leviticus 18:22 says, "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female.[9] It is an abomination [toebah][10] ." Leviticus 20:13 says, "If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act [toebah]. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood guiltiness is upon them."

John Boswell offers the standard rebuttal to what appears to be an obvious biblical prohibition of homosexuality:

The Hebrew word "toebah," here translated "abomination," does not usually signify something intrinsically evil, like rape or theft..., but something which is ritually unclean for Jews, like eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation, both of which are prohibited in these same chapters.[11]

Leviticus, the suggestion goes, is not where we generally go for moral instruction. The sections quoted deal with the cult of worship: sacrifice, priesthood, ritual bathing, etc. These directives have to do with ritual purity, not moral purity. An observant Jew could not worship after ritual contamination until he had been ritually cleansed.

Others have added that many details of the Mosaic Law are archaic. Who concerns themselves with mixing wool and linen together (Deuteronomy 22:11)? The death penalty itself doesn't mark homosexuality as particularly heinous. Disobedience to parents was also a capital crime, as was picking up sticks on the Sabbath, yet no one suggests these should be punishable offenses today.[12]

This rejoinder is filled with inconsistencies. First, even if this prohibition was restricted only to ritual purity and the cult of worship, then minimally it applies to Jewish clerics. Yet many who use this approach see no problem with homosexual rabbis and instead champion such "diversity" as a religious virtue. On the other hand, if the Torah's proscriptions no longer apply at all, then any distinction between the cultic and moral aspects of the Mosaic Law is moot; none of it pertains anyway.

Second, it's a serious error in thinking to conclude that if some of the Torah no longer applies, then none of it applies. Jewish thinker Dennis Prager observed, "It is one thing not to put a Torah punishment into practice and quite another to declare that a Torah sin is no longer a sin."[13] [emphasis in the original]

Third, it's true that much of the Law seems to deal with religious activity rather than universal morality. That observation in itself, however, is not enough to summarily dismiss the Torah as a source of binding moral instruction. Ritual purity and moral purity are not always distinct.

Context is king here. Note the positioning of the verses. The toebahof homosexuality is sandwiched between adultery (18:20), child sacrifice (18:21) and bestiality (18:23). Was Moses saying merely that if a priest committed adultery, had sex with an animal, or burned his child on Molech's altar he should be sure to wash up before he came to temple?

More to the point, these sections were not addressed to the priests, but to all the "sons of Israel" (18:2, 20:2). In addition to the prohibitions on adultery, child sacrifice, and bestiality just mentioned, Moses also prohibits spiritism (20:6) and incest (20:12).

The conclusion of Leviticus 18 contains these words:

But as for you [the "sons of Israel" (v. 2)], you are to keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled. (18:26-27)

Moses spoke as clearly here as he did in Genesis. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were guilty of many things, but foremost among them was the sin of homosexuality. In this section of Leviticus, God gives directives not just for ritual purity, but commands to be observed by every Jew, and even by every visitor.

Homosexuality was wrong for the Jews. It was wrong for gentiles who visited the Jews ("aliens"). It was even an abomination that defiled the land when practiced by pagans who inhabited Canaan long before the Jews came.

Homosexuality is a defiling sin, regardless who practices it. It has no place before God among any people, in any age, then or now.


[1] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 93.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Some have suggested the sin was seeking sexual union with angels ("strange flesh"). Though this is a possible interpretation, there's no indication the men knew Lot's visitors were angels. Jude's point is that the Sodomites, like the angels, "did not keep to their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode" (v. 6). "Strange flesh"—the improper domain—wasn't angelic flesh, but homosexual flesh.

[5] The rejoinder that homosexual rape could still qualify as the ongoing activity fails to convince. Who would be the ongoing victims? Not the townspeople. Because of their sexual proclivity they would not likely resist homosexual advances. Visitors would have to be the target. But if newcomers were molested “day after day,” I’m sure this would put a crimp in the tourist trade. The steady supply of sexual candidates would dwindle rapidly once word got around, with most making a wide berth around the area.

[6] Strong’s #3045.

[7] “Know a person carnally, of sexual intercourse...man subj. and obj. (of sodomy) Gn 19:5).” Brown, Driver and Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody ME: 1996), 394. See also Judges 19:22 ff.

[8] Curiously, this last sentence was overlooked in Boswell’s citation of the text.

[9] "Lie" is the Hebrew word shakab meaning “lie down” (Strong’s #7901). In this case, it refers to having sexual relations as in Genesis 19:32: "Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may preserve our family through our father" (Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 1012).

[10] Strong’s #8441.

[11] Boswell, 100.

[12] It's curious that some choose to conclude homosexuality was a minor crime because it was no more offensive to God than picking up sticks on the Sabbath. Both were capital offenses. If you want to know how God really felt, look at the punishment He requires.

[13] Dennis Prager, "Homosexuality, Judaism and Gay Rabbis," The Prager Perspective, 3/1/97.

Article | Christianity & Culture, Theology
Mar 8, 2013
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