I suspect this lesson will be somewhat charged and sensitive, given the variety of experiences and views among LDS. And be aware, due to the nature of the text, some of the discussion below could be traumatic to people who have been sexually assaulted. Note also that I do not consider what I write in these posts to be “how I would teach the lesson” as much as useful background, details, and resources; I don’t think I would use language this blunt in a class unless I was certain no one would be traumatized by it.
I expect many people will approach the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from one of three perspectives.
Either (perspective 1) Sodom and Gomorrah is a paradigmatic story about gay people and everything that is wrong with society today or (perspective 2) Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do with sex at all, and anyone who thinks so is an old-fashioned fundamentalist. A third likely perspective? “This is just another weird Old Testament story, and who knows what’s going on. But since there’s destruction, let’s liken it to ourselves and talk about food storage.”
All joking aside, perspectives 1&2 are inaccurate, for a variety of reasons. So, let’s have an uncomfortable discussion about several generalities and details, and we’ll cap it off with some fruitful questions and comparisons that you can make in class without doing any of this other stuff.
First of all, let’s review the general plot. God hears about the great sin in Sodom, and goes to investigate. Abraham is encamped (as he is a nomadic shepherd) and encounters three men. He showers them with excessive food, friendliness, and hospitality, inquires as to their purpose, and bargains with them/God to save the city they are on their way to, in all likelihood, destroy. Two of the three continue on their way to Sodom.
No one meets them in Sodom but Abraham’s nephew Lot, who is waiting in the city gate. (City gates were not white picket fences, nor medieval portcullis-doors, but a multi-chambered area with a square, where business, legal judgments, and other such things were conducted. It was the center of town, in a way.)
They refuse his offers of hospitality, to spend the night in the square (the implication being that no one else in Sodom offered them shelter), but under extreme pressure, eventually give in, going to Lot’s home. Like his uncle Abraham, Lot makes them a feast. Shortly thereafter, the entire male population of the city surrounds the house, and in slightly-veiled language, demand that Lot send the visitors out to be gang-raped. Lot refuses and offers his two daughters who are legally married, but the marriages have not yet been consummated. The townsmen refuse, the angels step in, and miraculously blind them all, temporarily. Lot is warned to leave, along with his family and his sons-in-law.
When Lot warns his sons-in-law about the oncoming destruction in Genesis 19:14, they think he’s playing a joke on them. I would translate it “screwing around” with them, as this is a perfect alignment of semantic range between languages. The verb tsaḫaq can mean “laugh” (positive) or “mock” (negative) but also carries sexual connotations; when the king of Gerar sees Isaac tsaḫaq –ing with Rebekah, it’s a dead giveaway that she is NOT his sister. Thus, their impression that Lot is just “screwing around” with them seems to capture all of that nicely. Then Lot and family leave the town, and for me, the story more-or-less ends there.
Several details need to be unpacked, but the first thing is to reconcile the clear meaning of what happens in Genesis 19 with later summaries of Sodom. Put bluntly, the main sin in Genesis 19 seems to be sexual (homosexual gang rape), but later prophetic interpretations in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel do not mention sexual sin. They do mention “abominations” or “abominable things” which covers a variety of sexual but also non-sexual sins.
Without specifying what it was, Isaiah says Sodom did not hide their sin. (Isaiah 3:9)
Addressing Jerusalem, Ezekiel 16:49-50 says “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…” (There’s a little bit more before and after, but this is the main bit.)
3 Maccabees 2:5 refers to “the people of Sodom who acted arrogantly, who were notorious for their vices.”
Later Jewish and Christian interpretations largely return to a focus on the sexual sins of Sodom.
I think there is a way to reconcile all of these, and it has to do with one principle. Whoever gave us Genesis 18-19 assumed a native audience that shared understanding of this principle, now largely lost to us: hospitality. The ancient Near East was a harsh environment. Consequently, extremely strong taboos and duties arose (I’d say “laws” but that implies nation-states, codification, enforcement, etc.) requiring you to provide for the traveler, the outsider passing through, etc. Various degrees of hospitality are on explicit display in Genesis 18-19, and the audience is expected to take note of these and be appropriately humbled (Abraham) and horrified (Sodom). I’ll return to Abraham later, but what are some of these details in Sodom?
First is Lot (a lesser extension of Abraham), waiting in the town gate. There’s no hint he’s the only one at the gate; indeed, Lot was highly unlikely to be alone. The gate was the bustling center of town, in some ways. (See the Tidbits below.) But Lot is the only one there to extend hospitality to the visitors. Having to spend the night in the town square, as they intend to do, apparently to test the people of the city, would indicate that no one in the city had invited them home. That is, no one in the city followed the hospitality duties, which would be exceedingly shameful and worthy of condemnation. Note how this is included in Jesus recounting of the ethical requirements from the Old Testament in Matthew 25-
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
By contrast, as Jesus continues, if “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me…” merits “going away into eternal punishment” then how should we expect God to react to “I was a stranger, and you gang-raped me”?
The two men have no need to instigate a test, as the entire male population of the city surrounds Lot’s house in an act of hostility. We know it’s the entire male population because of the phrases “the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old” (a merism), “to the last man” (Genesis 19:4.) They demand that Lot bring them outside so they can “know” them. “Know” (Heb. yada’) without any context can mean a variety of things, but “know” with a human direct object is nearly always sexual, as is the case here and in surrounding chapters. What is clearly in view is homosexual rape, and this is recognized by a variety of commentaries.
Does this mean the men of Sodom were gay? Not necessarily, for two reasons.
First, sexual *identity* is largely a modern invention that doesn’t map easily onto the ancient Near East. For that reason, applying the term “gay” to all the men of the city is seriously anachronistic.
Second, we know from other ancient Near Eastern records that homosexual rape was sometimes a tool used to dehumanize and demasculinize other men by essentially putting them in what was thought of as the female sexual role. There are records of the soldiers of a losing army being so treated, for example. Such things were something one did, acts one committed, not an identity or orientation per se.
It’s also clear that the Israelites, as an ancient Near Eastern society, did not conceive of sexuality quite the same way we do today. For example, several passages in the Old Testament make clear that homosexual acts were forbidden. “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” (Lev 20:13, there’s “abomination” again.) But no similar legislation can be found for a woman lying with a woman! This absence is much less likely to be because “Israelites approved of lesbianism” (again, anachronistic a bit) and more likely because a) it wasn’t considered sex the same way male-female sex was, and b) it probably wasn’t really happening.
Returning to the actual story, then, sexually assaulting the men would be an unthinkably heinous violation of the hospitality protocols. Lot calls the men “brothers” and emphatically tells them that they must “do nothing to these men because they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (Gen 19:8) Lot is explicitly reminding the men of the city of the laws of both kinship and hospitality; the strangers are in his care, and thus to do *anything* to them (sexual or not) violates those “laws” and duties of hospitality.
What is the motive of the men of Sodom here? It is probably not lust, given the above. Rather, their intent may be the deliberate violation of the hospitality laws! But why? “A rabbinic interpretation [found several places] suggests that the affluent people of Sodom selfishly adopted a deliberate policy of maltreating strangers in order to discourage visitors to the city and thus not to have to share their prosperity with others.” The JPS Torah Commentary.
If you want people to avoid your town, flagrantly violating the hospitality laws but leaving visitors alive to spread the tale is a sure-fire way to do it. If this is the case (and it seems probable to me), then the one subsumes the other; since today we are blind to the hospitality “laws” or their importance, we naturally focus on the sexual aspects of the story of Sodom as the sole reason for their destruction. In other words, I don’t think a hospitality-based motive for destruction is incompatible with a sexual-based motive for destruction.
What of Lot’s offer of his daughters to the men of Sodom? It’s possible that the surface reading is correct, based on the parallel in Judges 19:24ff, where a similar thing happens. But the differences between Lot and the Judges parallel are not insignificant (and I’m not going to spell them out here.) His two daughters are legally married, but the marriages have not been consummated. (Engagement was equivalent to being legally married, but you didn’t live together and weren’t alone together, if later traditions and customs hold for Genesis 18-19.) If the Sodomites motive is not lust but the infliction of harm on non-residents contrary to the hospitality laws, then there is little at stake in him making this suggestion.
In other words, it’s possible that Lot’s “offer” is a rhetorical move. Note again that in Genesis 19:8 where the daughters are offered to the men, Lot emphatically points out that the messengers are under Lot’s protection and hospitality. I read Lot as potentially saying with some sarcasm “Look, I won’t let you violate the hospitality laws with my visitors, but if you want to rape my virgin married daughters, go ahead.” He’s trying to call their attention to the moral significance of their actions by substituting something that he knows they won’t do. While meriting the death penalty, rape of his married daughters wouldn’t violate the hospitality/protection laws the same way that it would with the angels. I had that idea (i.e. Lot making a rhetorical move) independently, I’ve since found at least one commentary that also looks at it that way. But this is only a possibility.
In any case, if you want, you can take the easy way out, and just read the JST, which changes the story and motives regarding Lot’s daughters. Most classes will be satisfied with that, although I strongly suspect it a change for modern comfort, not a restoration of text or historical setting (if indeed, as per last week, this is historical). For an example of change for modern comfort, see my discussion of JST here, about halfway down, big bold The Joseph Smith Translation heading.
Now back to the big picture. What does this story do? Among other things, it really elevates Abraham. Think back to his hospitality. He’s sitting in the opening of his tent during the hot part of the day, sees some men in the distance, and *runs* to them, bows to them, treats them excessively kindly, makes them a feast. He is enthusiastic, quick, and generous in his hospitality. Jewish tradition picked up on this, of course, and recounts how Abraham, in spite of his age, would go out in the middle of the day, looking for anyone who might be lost in the desert. By contrast, Lot is less hospitable but still respectable. And the Sodomites, are as anti-hospitable as you can get, which merits destruction. Abraham’s model of amazing hospitality is placed next to the Sodomites’ model of anti-hospitality, deliberate disregard of their fellow humans needs, that merits direct destruction from God himself.
Another comparison is implicit. Abraham bargains with God/the angels/men/messengers to save the righteous in the city. He perhaps allows that God is justified in destroying the wicked, but what of the righteous? Is it fair to treat them the same way? Abraham is concerned for others. What other major destruction have we discussed recently?
The Flood! In Genesis, when God says “I’m going to destroy everything” Noah gives a virtual shrug. Indeed, Noah never speaks in the Flood story. Is he not concerned? Does he have no empathy at all, or at least, sorrow at the death of the wicked? God, we are told later, cares even about such flagrantly wicked people as the Ninevites as well as their animals, and takes notice of the fall of every sparrow (Matt 10:29). But Noah makes no arguments, no bargains, just sets about silently making his boat. Abraham, at least, cares about the righteous. Though he speaks of justice, he seems fine with God being unjust towards the wicked or at least sparing them because of the few righteous. To bring in yet another scriptural figure, Enos even goes beyond Abraham to embody Matthew 5:44 and praying for one’s enemies. Enos prays first for his own people, and when God tells him, in essence, “I’m sorry, your people are not going to make it” he turns instead to praying for his enemies (Enos 1:10, 13.) A comparison between Abraham, Noah, and Enos may prove fruitful in asking about our own attitudes towards “our enemies.”
- Note Lot’s transition. “Lot had, by stages, integrated himself into Sodom’s society. First he merely “pitched his tents near Sodom” (13:12). Then “he had settled in Sodom” (14:12). It was solely on his account that the city had earlier been saved by Abraham (14:14). Now he lives in a house there and “sits in the gate” where the city elders gather. His daughters are about to intermarry [or already have] with local men.” The JPS Torah Commentary
- Confronting God
“Abraham talks God down to sparing the city if ten innocent people are there. While many things could be said about this text, the important thing for our purposes is that Abraham is perfectly content with confronting God with difficult questions. He never says, “God, your plan makes no sense to me, but I’ll hold my tongue and blindly trust.” Instead, Abraham confronts God with tough questions about God’s violence. Strikingly, God yields to Abraham. This example suggests that we have the freedom to ask God questions, too” Schlimm, This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities, 78.
Notably, Psalms are full of these people who cry out to God because of their difficult circumstances. Schlimm has an entire chapter on this.
- The Gate of the city–
“The gate is the place where men met to discuss personal or city affairs and held court. For examples see Deut 21:19; 25:7; Ruth 4:1–12; Amos 5:10, 12, 15. Lot’s presence in the gate need not be taken to mean that he was one of the city officials. As a foreigner he most likely was not an official. (See verse 9.) In translation the literal word gate may only suggest a hinged door-like passage through a fence. To be more accurate it is often necessary to use an expression such as “town meeting place,” “town square,” “market place.” In some languages the focus must be primarily on the function of this place: for example, “where people meet to talk,” “place where men meet to decide matters.” A good expression of this from one translation is “at the meeting and market place by the big gate in the city wall.” SPCL says “at the entrance of the city” and goes on to describe it as “that is the place where people meet.” If it is thought best to focus on the physical feature, we may say, for example, “at the entrance to the city.” – A Handbook on Genesis (UBS Helps for Translators), 413.
- Any kind of story explaining causality is an etiology of sorts, and etiological explanations or stories are not necessarily false. Any book that explains the causes of the Civil War is engaging in etiological reasoning. But many cultures have folk tales explaining strange or unusual things in their surroundings, probably best represented with Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories, like “How the Leopard Got His Spots” and “The Elephant’s Child”, explaining why elephants have long noses. It would be surprising for ancient Israelite culture not to have these kinds of stories. These chapters explain the origin of several things. The unusually barren, scorched nature around the Dead Sea? Divine retribution for sin. The origin of the Moabites and Edomites? The result of incest by Lot’s confused daughters (see here, beginning with “to illustrate this”). A human-like pillar of salt? The disobedience of Lot’s wife.
- LDS Links
- the official LDS website, MormonAndGay
- Ty Mansfield on “Homosexuality and the Gospel” at LDS Perspectives. (Note also his publications.)
- Elder Christofferson’s brother Tom has published through Deseret Book, That We May be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith and Family
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