Sodom and Gomorrah: What Was Going On?
Take a poll of your average church-going folk, and likely you’ll discover that the most popular answer to the following question, Why did God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, would be: because of homosexuality.
The traditional perspective on this story is that because of the rampant sinfulness of the people of the cities Sodom and Gomorrah, and specifically the sin of homosexuality, God “rained down sulfur and fire from heaven,” and “destroyed the cities of the valley” (Gen 19:23-29). Why would God take such drastic actions against two entire cities? Destroying men, women, children… killing hundreds of people? “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave,” said God to Abraham (Gen 18:20).
Evidently, whatever they were doing had gotten bad enough that the people around them (presumably?) cried out to God against them. Their sin was so grave that both God and people outside their communities had had enough. So God planned to visit to “see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me.” (Question: why did God need to visit the city to find out on God’s own if it was as bad as was rumored? Especially when just eight verses earlier God was able to “magically” hear Sarah laughing from inside her tent? Interesting. But we’ll save that for another day.)
Calling God Out for Being Unjust
What happened next, as the story goes, was a fascinating dialogue between Abraham and God. Abraham bargains with God, interceding on behalf of Sodom. He essentially shows more compassion than God does, as the story goes. Saying, “would you really destroy a city full of wicked people when there might very well be some righteous/innocent people there as well?”
Abraham said, “what if I can find 50 righteous people in the city, will you call off your plans of destruction?”
Abraham called out God for not doing what is just. And God acquiesced.
But Abraham kept going…
“what if I can only find 45?”
“Sure,” said God, “I’ll spare the whole place for 45.”
“Okay, how about 30?”
“Fine. I’ll spare them if you can find 30 righteous people.”
And then, ridiculously so, like the husband who isn’t satisfied with just getting to go play golf with his buddies, have lunch at the clubhouse, and then hit the pub afterwards to watch the big game, but STILL calls his wife to ask if he could go over to his buddy’s house to play videogames all night, Abraham asked, “Well, I’ve come this far… how about 10, God… what if I can find just 10 decent people in the whole city. You can’t honestly justify killing an entire city then, can you?!”
God, who didn’t seem to mind Abraham wagering with God and questioning the Divine sense of justice, relented. “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it,” God replied. (Gen 18:22-33)
We never get to know if Abraham was successful or not in finding just 10 righteous people. I suppose you could argue that since the story eventually ended with Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed, that that shows Abraham was unsuccessful. But that isn’t how the story plays out. We never are told if Abraham even had a chance to find 10 righteous people. The story goes straight from Abraham and God wheeling and dealing to two angels immediately travelling to Sodom at night. And, after the infamous disaster that was An Evening in Sodom, the next day brought forth the burning sulfur and fire. So who knows if God was just joking around with Abraham, never really intending on changing plans. Or, maybe it’s possible that this story was never told to reflect the exact historical accuracy of what actually happened. But, for the sake of this series (and its probable audience), I will assume that the Genesis account is a reasonably accurate description of the events that took place.
(Sidenote: Archaeologists have uncovered several sites around the Dead Sea that could possibly be the ancient ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah. And each of these sites confirm that incredible devastation was caused by some sort of burning sulfur, and entire cities were leveled. There are really some fascinating discoveries being made. Read here and here if you’re curious. I offer this sidenote because I think that there indeed was an historical event that involved the decimating of the Cities of the Plain, i.e. Sodom and Gomorrah. Whether or not it happened precisely the way Genesis retells, or precisely when Genesis suggests, is another matter. But, as I said, for the sake of this series I will move forward under the assumption that Genesis 19 is an accurate retelling of those events.)
So what DID happen that fateful night in Sodom? And based on what the author of Genesis tells us, can we deduce that homosexuality was a primary (or even secondary?) sin of Sodom’s that led to their demise? Do any other Biblical writers reflect on this story, and if so, what do they have to say?
Here’s the path I’d like to take in UnClobbering the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
- Walk through the story in Genesis 19, asking questions and making observations along the way.
- Once we’ve made it through the story, I’ll draw out some bigger observations about what the story tells us and what it doesn’t tell us.
- Then we’ll take the traditional understanding of this story, lay it over the top of what we’ve discovered thus far, and see what emerges.
- What do other Biblical Authors have to say about what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah, and why?
- Does Genesis 19 function, in any way, as Biblical support for the sinfulness of same-sex attraction, same-sex relationships, gay people, or any other issue relating to sexuality (homo or hetero)?
The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed himself with his face to the earth and said, “My lords, please turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night and wash your feet. Then you may rise up early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the town square.” But he pressed them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house. And he made them a feast and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.
The story begins with the two angels, who just recently departed from partying with God and Abraham in chapter 18, entering the city of Sodom at night. Lot, who possibly was functioning as the gate-keeper, greets them and invites them to his house to spend the night. When they decline and suggest they’ll just stay in the town square, Lot seems to panic, and “presses them strongly,” the writer tells us, to come to his place instead. Lot had been with these people in this city for possibly more than 20 years. He knew their ways and he knew that it would not be safe or wise for two visitors to stay the night in the town square. So he strongly encouraged them to come to his place, where he made them a nice meal and they prepared to turn in for the night.
But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.”
They finished eating and were getting ready for bed, when suddenly a great commotion arose outside. Evidently, word had gotten out that two outsiders had come to Sodom for the evening, and this caused the men of the city to come and surround the house.
Now, estimates for the population of Sodom (based on some of the archaeological studies mentioned above) are between 600-1200 people. Just to get an idea of what is happening, let’s say 900 people lived in Sodom, which would equal approximately 450 men. What does the story say? “The men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man.” Wow. Every single man, the story says, came to surround the house of Lot and demand access to the town visitors. Young men (read here: boys). Old men. All the men.
And what do they ask? “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them.”
(Another Sidenote: At this point, I could spend some time on the word “know” in this verse. It is the Hebrew word yada (which immediately brings all new light to that Seinfeld episode, doesn’t it…). I could point out how yada appears over 900 times in the Hebrew scriptures, and only 14 (1%) of those times is it used as a euphemism for “have sex with.” But I won’t. Some people take this line of reasoning and say that the men didn’t want to have sex with the visitors, only that they wanted to interrogate them. It’s a convenient argument, but I don’t think it holds water. If for no other reason than because just a few verses later in the story Lot offers his daughters to the men, daughters who “have not known any man.” I doubt he was saying, “my daughters have never gotten to sit down and get to know other men before, so why don’t you interrogate them for a while?” Moving on…)
No, I think it’s safe to say that the 450 or so men and boys of the city wanted to have sexual relations with the visitors. They wanted to know them in the Biblical sense.
Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
This is what Lot was afraid of. This is why he pressed so strongly that the two visitors not stay in the town square. He had lived with these people for 20 years or more, and was terrified at what they might do to his guests. “I beg you,” he says, “do not act so wickedly.” And then, in a sadly-ironic moment, Lot offers his two virgin daughters as a substitute. Speaking of acting wickedly… #fail
But Lot’s primary concern was that no harm would come to the men taking shelter under his roof. 450 men and boys forcing themselves on two men was not a good thing, in any shape or form. It is no wonder that the wickedness of Sodom (and Gomorrah) was well known throughout the area. Gang rape like this does not go unnoticed. Neither to God nor to people in the surrounding communities.
But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door down. But the men reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the entrance of the house, both small and great, so that they wore themselves out groping for the door.
The men and boys of Sodom, who had surrounded Lot’s house, were now thoroughly pissed off that Lot was denying them their fun. “Who is this outsider, this Lot fellow, who thinks he can come to our city and judge us? He will have a worse fate than the two visitors when all is said and done!” Not only were these men and boys planning on gang-raping the two visitors, but also they were now intending on doing even worse to Lot. Does it get worse?
Unfortunately (or, rather, fortunately) the men and boys didn’t know whom they were messing with. Our modern day saying of “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight” is directly derivative of the ancient saying, “don’t bring a rape party to the house of angelic beings.” (It’s true. Don’t bother Googling it.)
The two men rescued Lot from the attackers and proceeded to blind all 450 of them… “the small ones AND the great ones” (weird statement, isn’t it?). Evidently the men’s newfound blindness caused them to grope about for the door, eventually leading to them wearing themselves out. Can you picture 450 blind men and blind boys, blind GREAT and SMALL men and boys, excuse me, groping about in the dark for a door? I’m telling ya, the Bible is full of weird stories.
Anyways, the net result is that Lot was spared and the 450 men and boys gave up their hopes of gang-raping two visitors.
Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city, bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the LORD, and the LORD has sent us to destroy it.” So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up! Get out of this place, for the LORD is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.
The two men urged Lot to go and get whomever he wanted to save and then get the heck out of dodge. Evidently, Lot was informed, the two men were about to set fire to the rain (thanks Adele, for the theme song) and burn the houses down! (Which again raises the question: was God fooling around with Abraham? The two men make it sound like they were sent there for the purpose of destroying the city all along. Hmmm…)
And we are reminded, from the two men, that “because the outcry against the people of Sodom had become great before the LORD” that the city would be destroyed. God had heard people’s cries against the inhabitants of these cities and now God has firsthand evidence of their wickedness.
Lot tried to get his future sons-in-law to come with them and escape, but they thought the old kook was just jesting about. I’ll bet they regretted that decision. Show some respect for your elders, boys.
The rest, quite obviously, is history.
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So there it is.
The infamous story of God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah.
In the next post I'll make some observations about what we just walked through.
But a question for you: what stood out to you as we journeyed through this story? Was there anything that you noticed that, perhaps, you hand't noticed before?