The news from the Radical Right this week is that "gay" is out -- and "sodomy" is back in. Yep, a conference at Liberty University this past week has decided that "gay" is too happy, too political and illusory. "'Gay' is a left-wing socio-political construct designed to create grounds for fundamental rights [based on] whimsical capricious desires," said Ryan Sorba, chairman of the Young Conservatives of California. "Gay identity does not exist."
Consequently, Sorba and others have urged conservatives to stop using the G-word, and revert to older, hoarier notions like "sodomy." The irony here is that "sodomy" in the Bible has nothing to do with homosexuality. It wasn't until the medieval period that the word was even invented -- as a legal classification for sins of Catholic priests -- and in the Bible itself, the sin of Sodom has to do with inhospitality and greed, not sex.
I assume we all know the story: God's about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for being wicked, but three angels (in the form of men) are dispatched to see if they really deserve it. They do: the men of Sodom try to rape the angels, who are lodging with Abraham's cousin Lot. The rest is fire and brimstone.
In Genesis, rape is the means, not the essence, of Sodom's wickedness. 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.
The essence is the violation of hospitality. Genesis 19 clearly contrasts Lot, who goes above and beyond the requirements of hospitality, with the Sodomites, who do the reverse. Lot insists that strangers dine and rest with him; the Sodomites seek to humiliate them. This was a central value in the Bible. Consider Exodus 22:21 and 23:9 and its injunction not to oppress strangers, Luke 7:44-46 (where Jesus rebukes Simon that "I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet ... You gave me no kiss ... My head with oil you did not anoint."), Hebrews 13:2 ("Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.) and Romans 12:13 (Christians should be "given to hospitality"). Treating guests properly is of paramount concern to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, which makes sense, given their historical context in which hospitality could literally mean the difference between life and death.
Moreover, the story of Sodom is in a Biblical section where hospitality and ethics are central themes. Only one chapter earlier, Abraham had welcomed three men to his tent, and the text spends five long verses on the details of the menu he prepares. Right after Abraham's bargaining with God on behalf of Sodom comes the Sodom story, and right after that comes yet another story of hospitality, this time of Abraham and Sarah's visit to Gerar, where Abraham, fearing that the king will kill him in order to obtain Sarah, tells the king that Sarah is his sister. In other words, this section of Genesis is about variations of hospitality: Abraham's and Lot's generosity, the wickedness of Sodom and Abraham's fear that Gerar would act similarly.
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.
Other texts of the Hebrew Bible discuss Sodom in similar terms. Jeremiah 23:14: "I have seen also in the prophets of Jerusalem a horrible thing: they commit adultery, and walk in lies: they strengthen also the hands of evildoers, that none returns from his wickedness: they are all of them unto me as Sodom, and the inhabitants thereof as Gomorrah."
Amos 4:1-11: "Hear this word, children of Bashan, that are in the mountain of Samaria, which oppress the poor, which crush the needy, which say to their masters, Bring, and let us drink. I have overthrown some of you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah."
Ezekiel 16:49-50 defines the sin of Sodom as "pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty, and did toevah before me, and I took them away as I saw fit." (The Hebrew word toevah is used 103 times in the Old Testament. About 70 of those times, it refers to idolatry. Twice in Leviticus, it refers to homosexuality. Ezekiel uses it 39 times, but never about homosexuality. But even if it refers to sexuality here, it is no more central to "sodomy" than are pride, gluttony, sloth and economic injustice.)
Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned time and again in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Ready for the list? Isa. 1:9-10, Isa. 3:9, Isa. 13:19, Jer. 49:18, Jer. 50:40, Lam. 4:6, Amos 4:11, Zeph. 2:9, Matt. 10:15, Matt. 11:23-24, Luke 10:12, Luke 17:29, Romans 9:29, 2 Peter 2:6. In not a single one of these sources is homosexuality mentioned. Only a couple of them (Jude 1:7, Deut. 32:16-18) even mention sexuality at all. Yet, over and over again, Sodom is linked with oppression of the poor, crushing the needy and ethical wickedness. Indeed, given how "strengthening the hand of the poor and needy" is regarded as socialist anathema by today's arch-conservatives, Sorba's "Young Conservatives of California" have more in common with the Sodomites than do gays or lesbians.
Early Jewish and Christian sources are similar: Origen, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose and the Talmud all associate Sodom with inhospitality, pride and greed. It was only later, with St. Augustine, that the term migrated over to homosexuality -- sort of. Really, "sodomy" refers to any non-procreative sex and thus applies to many more straights than gays. If you've ever had oral sex, then, according to the classical definition, you, too, are a Sodomite. Welcome to the club!
The Sodomites were rapists, not gays. Sodomy is a crime of violence against strangers, not an act of sexuality and certainly not one of love. It is an act born of hardening the heart against people who are vulnerable -- like people getting Medicaid or members of minority groups. If the Young Conservatives of California are looking for Sodomites, they should start by looking in the mirror.
For further reading, see Ed Noort and Eibert Tigchelaar, eds., Sodom's Sin: Genesis 18-19 and its Interpretations (2004); Michael Carden, Sodomy: A History of a Christian Biblical Myth (Equinox,2005); J. Harold Ellens, Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration (2006); Daniel Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality 43-50 (2000 ed.).