In desert country, where Sodom lay, to stay outside exposed to the cold of the night could be fatal. So a cardinal rule of Lot's society was to offer hospitality to travelers. The same rule is a traditional part of Semitic and Arabic cultures. This rule was so strict that no one might harm even an enemy who had been offered shelter for the night. So doing what was right, following God's law as he understood it, Lot refused to expose his guests to the abuse of the men of Sodom. To do so would have violated the law of sacred hospitality.
The Meaning of Male Anal Sex If, in addition, the Sodomites did want sex with the town visitors, the offense against them would have been multiplied. For forcing sex on men was a way of humiliating them. During war, for example, besides raping the woman and slaughtering the children, the victors would often also "sodomize" the defeated soldiers. The idea was to insult the men by treating them like women. So part and parcel of the practice of male-male anal sex was the notion that men should be "macho" and the women are inferior, pieces of property at the service of men.
In fact, throughout Western history, a main reason for opposition to male-male sex was that it supposedly makes a man act like a woman. Saint John Chrysostom in the East and Saint Augustine in the West in the Fifth Century and Peter Cantor in the 12th, outspoken Christian opponents of homogenitality, both raised that argument. Saint Augustine wrote, "The Body of a man is as superior to that of a woman as the soul is to the body." To be the active partner was generally more acceptable, but to be the receptive partner was "unmanly." Evidently, the objection was more to a man's being "effeminate" than to his having sex with another man.
The Sin of Sodom
So what was the sin of Sodom? Abuse and offense against strangers. Insult to the traveler. Inhospitality to the needy. That is the point of the story understood in its own historical context.
When male-male rape becomes part of the story, the additional offense is sexual abuse -- gross insult and humiliation in Lot's time and in our own. The whole story and its culture make clear that the author was not concerned about sex in itself, and it was irrelevant whether the sex was hetero- or homosexual. In place of his male guests, without a second thought Lot offered his daughters. The point of the story is not sexual ethics. The story of Sodom is no more about sex than it is about pounding on someone’s front door. In the story of Sodom, both the sex and the pounding are incidental to the main point of the story. The point is abuse and assault, in whatever form they take. To use this text to condemn homosexuality is to misuse this text.
Judges 19 tells another story that is an obvious parallel to the story of Sodom. A Levite who was traveling with his servant and concubine needed shelter for the night. He sat in the town square at Gibeah. No one offered him hospitality except a foreigner who was living in that town. When they were all inside, the men of the town assaulted the house and demanded to have sex with the Levite. Just as Lot did, the host protested, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing.” The host offered his virgin daughter to the townsmen, but they did not want her. Then the Levite pushed out his concubine, and the townsmen raped her all through the night. In the morning, she lay dead on the doorstep of the house. In punishment, all the tribes of Israel collected an army and destroyed the town of Gibeah.
Clearly, the story of the Levite’s concubine is indifferent to homosexuality or heterosexuality — as is the story of Sodom. A man or a woman would serve as equally valid sex objects. And rape in either case was equally heinous. Sexual orientation is not the point. In fact, neither is the sex. In both stories, the sexual assault only serves to highlight the wickedness of the townspeople. The people of Gibeah and of Sodom are condemned for their meanness, cruelty, and abuse. Not homosexuality but hardheartedness is the offense of Gibeah and of Sodom.
The Bible’s Own Understanding of the Sin of Sodom
That is the conclusion that follows from an historical-critical reading of the Sodom story. But in this particular case the meaning of the text is obvious from other parts of the Bible. For the Bible often refers back to the story of Sodom and says outright what Sodom’s sin was.
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