Were Sodom and Gomorrah really torched for Homosexuality?
For a more detailed answer, I'll begin with an overview of the fable: Two messengers, or angels (Hebrew ma 'alak, Greek angelos), arrive at the gates of Sodom. There, Lot, Abraham's nephew, greets them and invites them to his home for the night, where a meal has been prepared. Soon, a mob gathers outside Lot's door and demands that he serve up his guests for a gang rape, which appears to be something of a local tradition. Lot, a relative newcomer to Sodom, goes out and asks that they leave his guests alone, and offers his two virgin daughters in their place. But the mob, incensed by the new guy's uppity attitude, decides it'll just start with him. As the crowd surges forward, the messengers open the door, grab Lot, and pull him in. Outside, an intense light leaves the crowd temporarily blind. Inside, the messengers tell Lot to gather up his family and get out of town immediately because they plan to destroy it. Sure enough, just after dawn, the whole valley explodes.
Back to motive. "Those were vile people in both those cities, as is well known," says Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim. "The world was better off without them." No argument there. But, exactly what about them was vile? Was it that they were homosexuals? The text itself makes no such claim. In fact, James Kugel, Starr Professor Emeritus of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature at Harvard, and currently chair of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv, writes that the early interpreters were "perplexed about the city of Sodom. God destroyed it because of the terrible things that were being done there -- but what exactly were those things? Strangely, the Genesis narrative does not say."
In other words, what homosexuality? Richard Elliot Friedman, professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego, tells us that there is "no basis for this whatever. The text says that two people come to Sodom, and that all of the people of Sodom come and say, 'Let's know them.' The homosexuality interpretation apparently comes from misunderstanding the Hebrew word 'anasim to mean 'men,' instead of people."
This is an ancient story, created for an audience in a time when few could read and write, when a people's knowledge and culture were passed between generations through the medium of storytelling. The author(s) of this story assumed an audience versed in the nuances of the language and culture of their time and place, not ours. What if the author(s) of this fable intended the mob's behavior to point beyond itself, to be understood as symptomatic of something far more ominous -- that is, a breach in the social contract that, if allowed to stand, could threaten the fabric of desert culture? Kugel points to a tradition claiming that the flaw in Sodom's character was its failure of hospitality. While life in the Jordan valley was easier than that of the desert, its culture was nevertheless shaped by the experience of the desert, one of the harshest and deadliest climates on earth. The tradition of hospitality -- the obligation to welcome both friend and stranger with an offering of food, water, shelter, and protection -- was among the highest of virtues, without which life would have become untenable. So rooted was this obligation that one theory explains Lot's bizarre offering of his daughters as the demands of hospitality trumping the host family's well-being.
About the origin of the story, Kugel writes that it "looks like an etiological narrative, that is, the recounting of some incident from the distant past that serves to explain the way things are 'now,' at the time of the story's composition, when Sodom was a ghost town." Because ancient cities were located where water was sufficient and the land fertile, a new settlement would often be built atop the ruins of previous civilizations. People in the Jordan Valley of biblical times would have seen in the ruins of ancient cities the scars of some unexplained, fiery catastrophe that seemed to have engulfed a huge area. Being story tellers, they'd have created stories about these mysterious, long dead places, about how and why they were destroyed, and why new cities were never built atop their ruins.
As for what may have been the actual cause of the catastrophe, Gerhard von Rad, writing some 40 years before Kugel, speculated that "Perhaps a tectonic earthquake released gases (hydrogen sulfide)," which, ignited, would have made it seem that the air itself was ablaze. This story, then, may have been born in the wake of some bizarre geological event. Survivors and witnesses, like all ancient people, would have assumed the causal force to be the same divine energies behind all the mysteries pervading their world, and that the divine motive would have been punishment for something done or not done. As the memory of the event was passed on to new generations, the story as it appears in Genesis may have evolved.
William Sloane Coffin once wrote that "[i]n reality, there are no biblical literalists, only selective literalists." The truth of that is found in simple observation. Its denial begs the asking: what of those who labor on the Sabbath (Numbers 32-36)? And the idolaters (Deuteronomy 13:7-11, 17:1-6)? The defiant sons (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)? Adulterers (Deuteronomy 22:22, Leviticus 20:10)? The young women found not to be virgins when married (Deuteronomy 20:21)? Unlike the effort required in attempting to make a case for Sodom's fate, each of these violations is quite specifically written into the biblical text. As is the mandatory punishment of death by stoning -- that is, execution by members of the community who, having surrounded the condemned, hurl rocks until the man, woman, or child is dead. For anyone to claim Sodom's fate as evidence of divine punishment for homosexuality while remaining silent on these and other matters in the Bible assumes a position wholly without integrity -- and a rather convenient one, given the bloodbath that would be required. Yes, required. None of the texts referenced above allow for promises not to do it again, only for the execution of the guilty, and by the method specified.
Try wiggling out of any part of that and the whole structure of literalism evaporates. Moreover, if the fate of Sodom is to be the expected fate of all human settlements in which wicked things occur -- these being violations of divine commands either implied (supposedly) or written into the biblical text -- and if Hurricane Katrina was God's judgment on New Orleans for its sins of corruption, drugs, and general immorality, then what city, town, or village on the planet would not long since have been reduced to cinders, or laid waste by natural disaster?
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