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About the biblical story of Sodom & Gomorrah: Genesis 19

Why did God destroy the
city of Sodom & its people?

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What was the sin of Sodom according to Genesis 19?

The text of Genesis 19 implies that God approved of Lot's behavior, even though he made an offer of his virgin daughters to be raped. This approval would have been extended to Lot's family as well. But God apparently had a fierce anger directed at the other inhabitants of the town. He destroyed Sodom with fire and brimstone (sulfur) dumped from above. According to the story, he killed all of the men and women of Sodom, as well as all the innocent children, infants, newborns, etc. who lived in the city. This is one more example of a theme that runs throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation: transferring the punishment from guilty people to innocent people. This is commonly called "scapegoating" and is condemned in all major religions.

It is unclear from this brief passage in Genesis why God demolished the city. The following theories  have been advanced.

The people of Sodom:

  1. Engaged in consensual homosexual acts -- a same-sex orgy in this case. This is the belief of most conservative Christians. This option seems unlikely because:
    • Genesis 19:5 said that all of the men (perhaps all of the people) of Sodom formed the mob at Lot's house and demanded to "know" the angels. The percentage of homosexuals in a typical group of male adults is generally around 5%, not 100%.

    • Also, Lot had lived in the city for some years and would have know if all of the men were homosexuals; he would hardly have offered to sacrifice his daughters to the mob if the men were entirely homosexual.

    • Finally, as noted above, if the men of Sodom were all homosexuals, there would be few if any children and widows in the city as are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.
       
  2. Were uncharitable and abusive to strangers, the poor, sick, and disadvantaged. In that society, a person had a very strong obligation to protect any guests in their home. Many liberal Christians believe that this is the meaning behind the story of the destruction of Sodom. This belief has considerable support in the many other references to Sodom in the Bible and Jewish literature.
     
  3. Wanted to humiliate their visitors by engaging in "an act of sexual degradation and male rape...These are acts of violence that are committed by parties seeking to show their hatred for those they are degrading. It is not an act of love or of caring" 1 Some theologians suggest that the sin of Sodom was the threat of mass rape.
     
  4. Wanted to engage in bestiality -- having sex with members of another species. The mob may have wanted to rape the angels; angels are not human beings; they are of a different species. This would be consistent with the frequently mistranslated verse in Jude about the men of Sodom going after "other flesh" or "strange flesh."
     
  5. Wanted to adsorb the power of the angels: In ancient times, sacred sex was very common. People would engage in sexual intercourse with temple prostitutes who represented a god or goddess. By doing so, the people believed that they would receive a blessing from the deity. If the people of Sodom realized that angels sent by God were present in their city, the men of Sodom may have concluded that raping the angels might give them supernatural powers. 2

What were the sins of Sodom according to other biblical passages that refer to the city:

A common procedure in biblical apologetics is to let the Bible interpret itself. Looking elsewhere in the Bible for references to Sodom may help us determine which of the four above interpretations is correct.

The interpretation of Genesis 19 as referring to a homosexual sin appears to have been created in the 11th century by the Italian ascetic St. Peter Damian. 3 Christian theologians generally accepted this explanation until recently. In fact, the English word sodomy, which popularly means either homosexual or heterosexual anal intercourse, was derived from the name of the city. The term "sodomy" is also used in some ancient laws to refer to a variety of sexual behaviors in addition to heterosexual intercourse. Some of these laws are still on the books although the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in 2003-JUN as part of its Lawrence v. Texas decision.

Opinion among most liberal and mainline Christian and Jewish theologians has now reverted to the original Christian belief that Genesis 19 refers to a lack of charity and to ill treatment of strangers. Consider:

bulletIn ancient Jewish literature, such as the Ethics of the Fathers and the Talmud, there are many references to Sodom. The phrase "middat Sdom" was used. It may be translated as "the way the people of Sodom thought". It meant a lack of charity and hospitality towards others; ignoring the needs of the poor, etc. In the Middle East, a person's survival could depend upon the charity of strangers. To help strangers was a solemn religious duty of paramount importance. See Leviticus 19:33-34 and Matthew 25:35, 38 and 43.
 
bulletIsaiah 1; The entire first chapter is an utter condemnation of Judah. They are repeatedly compared with Sodom and Gomorrah in their evildoing and depravity. Throughout the chapter, the Prophet lists many sins of the people: rebelling against God, lacking in knowledge, deserting the Lord, idolatry, engaging in meaningless religious ritual, being unjust and oppressive to others, being insensitive to the needs of widows and orphans, committing murder, accepting bribes, etc. There is no reference to homosexuality or to any other sexual activities at all.
 
bulletJeremiah 23:14:"...among the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen something horrible: They commit adultery and live a lie. They strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his wickedness. They are all like Sodom to me; the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah." Jeremiah compares the actions of the prophets with the adultery, lying and evil of the people of Sodom. Homosexual activity is not mentioned.
 
bulletEzekeiel 16:49-50:"Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen." God states clearly that he destroyed Sodom's sins because of their pride, their excess of food while the poor and needy suffered; sexual activity is not even mentioned.

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bulletMatthew 10:14-15: Jesus implied that the sin of the people of Sodom was to be inhospitable to strangers.
 
bulletLuke 10:7-16: This is parallel passage to the verses from Matthew.
 
bullet2 Peter 6-8: Peter mentions that God destroyed the adults and children of Sodom because the former were ungodly, unprincipled and lawless.
 
bulletJude, Verse 7: Jude disagreed with Jesus and Ezekeiel; he wrote that Sodom's sins were sexual in nature. Various biblical translations of this passage in Jude describe the sin as: fornication, going after strange flesh, sexual immorality, perverted sensuality, homosexuality, lust of every kind, immoral acts and unnatural lust. It looks as if the translators were unclear of the meaning of the verse in its original Greek, and simply selected their favorite sin to attack. The original Greek is transliterated as: "sarkos heteras." This can be translated as "other flesh". Ironically, our English word "heterosexual" comes from "heteras."

A likely interpretation is that the author of Jude 4 criticized the men of Sodom for wanting to engage in sexual activities with angels. Angels are described in the Bible as a species of created beings who were different from humans. The sin of the people of Sodom would be that of bestiality. Another possibility is that the "other flesh" refers to cannibalism, which was a practice associated with early Canaanite culture. However, there is no mention in Genesis 19 about actually eating the angels.

On the other hand there are some passages which might imply that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality:

bulletJeremiah 49:18: Some conservative theologians have interpreted this verse as criticizing the inhabitants of Jerusalem for their sexual sins, and implying that they were like the men of Sodom.
 
bullet Ezekeiel 16:50: Although the preceding verse describes Sodom's sins as pride, laziness, insensitivity to the needs of the poor, and haughtiness, verse 50 refers to the citizens of Sodom as having "committed abomination." The Hebrew word "to'ebah," translated here as "abomination," was used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) to refer to various ritually impure acts, such as Hebrews and Egyptians eating together, Hebrews eating lobster, shrimp, or snakes, sacrificing an animal in the temple that contained a blemish, women wearing men's clothing (e.g. pants), a man remarrying his former wife, etc. It was also used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to condemn same-sex activity between two males. It is not known which "abomination(s)" occurred in Sodom, but it could conceivably have been same-gender sexual activity.

References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Reb Gershon Caudill, "A Heterosexual Jewish Rebbe's View on the (Supposedly) Homosexual Texts in the Hebrew Bible," at: http://www.affirmation.org/
  2. "Elaine," "Sodom and Gomorrah," Gay Church, at: http://www.gaychurch.org/
  3. Father Basil Isaacs, "Proofx booklet", Fountain of Life Western Orthodox Church Catholic Mission. Available for $2.50 from 1928 E. Highland, Suite F104-142, Phoenix, AZ 85016.
  4. We refer to "the author of Jude" rather than use his name. This is because there is no consensus on the identity of the author. Conservative Christian theologians generally believe that the book was written by Jude, a brother of Jesus circa 67 to 73 CE. Liberal theologians generally believe that the author is unknown, and that the book was written some time after 100 CE.

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Copyright © 1996 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2012-FEB-29
Author: B.A. Robinson.

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