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Rev. Patrick S. Cheng, Ph.D. Headshot

What Was the Real Sin of Sodom?

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To many anti-gay Christians, I'm nothing more than a "sodomite" who is damned for all eternity. It doesn't matter that I've spent the last decade immersed in the Bible, ancient biblical languages, and the Christian theological tradition. It doesn't matter that I've dedicated my life to preaching, teaching, and ministering to all people, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. The simple fact that I'm an openly gay man makes all of that irrelevant. To anti-gay Christians, God's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in chapter 19 of the Book of Genesis is a warning to people like me.

Ironically, I believe that these anti-gay Christians actually have it backwards. The true sin of the Sodomites as described in the Bible has nothing to do with same-sex acts per se. Rather, the ancient Sodomites were punished by God for far greater sins: for attempted gang rape, for mob violence, and for turning their backs on strangers and the needy who were in their midst. In other words, the real sin of Sodom was radical inhospitality. And, ironically, it is often anti-gay Christians who are most guilty of this sin today.

The biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah begins when two angels, disguised as travelers, arrive at the gates of Sodom. They meet Lot, a relative newcomer to the city, who insists that they spend the night in his house. The other men of Sodom learn about the two strangers in their midst. In contrast to Lot's gracious hospitality, which includes preparing a feast for his guests, the men surround Lot's house and demand that he turn over his guests so that they may "yada" them (Genesis 19:5). Anti-gay Christians have interpreted this Hebrew word narrowly to mean "to have sex with" and thus have interpreted the sin of Sodom as nothing more than engaging in same-sex acts, as opposed to "rape" or "molestation."

Interestingly, most people don't realize that Biblical translators do not agree on how to translate yada into English. Of the 983 times that yada appears in the Hebrew Bible, it literally means "to know" at least 973 (that is, 98.9 percent) of those times. Indeed, the King James Version (KJV), the English Standard Version (ESV), and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) all use the more literal word "know" in Genesis 19:5. By contrast, the New International Version (NIV) uses the phrase "have sex," the New American Standard Bible (NASB) uses "have relations with," and the New American Bible (NAB) uses "have intimacies with."

I am not criticizing the NIV, NASB, and NAB for making explicit the sexual meaning of the word yada. After all, the same word is used by Lot a few verses later when he offers up his daughters to the men of Sodom. What I am saying, however, is that translation is not simply a matter of reading a Hebrew word and plugging in a corresponding English word from the dictionary. If that were the case, there would be no need to love God with our minds in addition to our hearts and souls. In my view, a much more accurate -- and responsible -- translation for yada in the NIV, NASB, and NAB would be "to rape" or "to molest," since the acts described in Genesis 19:5 have nothing to do with consensual or loving sex.

To continue the story, Lot offers up his virgin daughters to appease the angry mob (which, by the way, is highly problematic and is rarely addressed by anti-gay Christians), but the men of Sodom turn down Lot's offer and try to storm Lot's house. At this point, the angelic visitors blind the men of Sodom so that they are unable to find the door. The next morning, the visitors whisk away Lot, his wife, and his two daughters right before God destroys Sodom and its neighboring town Gomorrah with sulfur and fire from the heavens. Despite being warned not to look back, Lot's wife cannot help herself and is therefore turned into a pillar of salt.

To me, it is clear that the real sin of Sodom is radical inhospitality, or turning one's back upon the strangers and the neediest in our midst. Rather than welcoming traveling sojourners into their homes and feeding them, the men of Sodom wanted to gang rape them and exert their power over them. (In fact, gang rape is precisely what happens to the unnamed concubine in Judges 19, which is the parallel story to Sodom and Gomorrah in the Hebrew Bible.)

In fact, the Bible itself expressly describes the sin of Sodom elsewhere as radical inhospitality. According to the prophet Ezekiel, the real "guilt" of the Sodomites was the fact that, although they had "pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease," they "did not aid the poor and needy" and were "haughty" (Ezekiel 16:49-50). Similarly, the Letter to the Hebrews warns Christians by alluding to the true sin of the Sodomites as inhospitality: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2).

Even St. Jerome, the distinguished fourth-century Doctor of the Church, biblical translator, and author of the Vulgate Bible, described the primary sin of Sodom as "pride, bloatedness, the abundance of all things, leisure and delicacies." (See "Commentaria in Hiezechielem" 5.16.48-51, as translated by Mark D. Jordan in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997], at 33 n.11.)

(I recognize that some readers may point to the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah in Jude 7 as a counterargument to my reading of Genesis 19. However, the Greek text in that passage, "sarkos heteras," literally means "strange" or "other" flesh, which I believe refers to the divine, or other-worldly, nature of the angelic visitors. In other words, the Sodomites' desire to rape God's angels is akin to the transgressions of the mysterious "sons of God" in Genesis 6 who copulated with human females and thus led to the Great Flood in Genesis 7.)

It should be no surprise that radical inhospitality was a sin of the first-order magnitude in the Ancient Near East. Taking care of the sojourner or traveler in the midst of a hostile desert environment often meant the difference between life and death. According to ancient Jewish texts, such as the Babylonian Talmud and the Genesis Rabba, the inhabitants of Sodom were infamous for their cruelty and their failure to support the poor and the needy in their midst, as well as their failure to practice charity and justice. Extra-biblical stories included the Sodomites' physical torture of travelers as well as their burning of a young woman who had dared to share food with a family that was starving of hunger. This is in stark contrast to Lot's radical hospitality, or the radical hospitality of Abraham and Sarah to the three disguised angels who visit them in Genesis 18, the chapter that immediately precedes the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative.

So, who are the real Sodomites today? Who are the people who turn their backs on the strangers and the least among us? Ironically, I believe that anti-gay Christians are often the ones who are most guilty of committing the true sin of Sodom. These include the Roman Catholic cardinals and bishops who are trying to scapegoat LGBT people for the horrific crimes of child rape that were committed by their brother priests. These also include the Mormon leaders who are secretly funding campaigns to fight marriage equality for LGBT people, despite the fact that their founders practiced polygamy. Finally, these include anti-gay politicians and self-appointed "family values" advocates who insist that LGBT people are categorically unfit to serve as parents or judges (because they are sinners and morally flawed), but are too blind to see their own sins and moral flaws.

The bottom line is that nowhere in the Bible does Jesus Christ ever condemn LGBT people. However, Jesus does expressly condemn people who turn their backs on strangers and on those who are the neediest among us. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says that whoever fails to welcome such people has failed to welcome Jesus himself (Matthew 25:43). In my view, the anti-gay religious leaders, politicians, and "family values" advocates who turn their backs on LGBT people should spend far less time obsessing about LGBT people and far more time thinking about the true sin of Sodom: radical inhospitality.