The Sodomite Challenge: How to Translate Genesis 19:5

Recently there was a (sometimes heated) discussion about the translation of Genesis 19:5, on a new Facebook group, the Annual Meeting Hotel Lobby: An Unofficial SBL/AAR Member Group.

Genesis 19:5 occurs in the middle of the unusual story about two  men (also described as angels) who stay the night at Lot’s house, in the city of Sodom.

The two angels (Genesis 19)
The two angels (Genesis 19)

The Hebrew MT of Genesis 19:5 reads as follows:

וַיִּקְרְא֤וּ אֶל־לוֹט֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְרוּ ל֔וֹ אַיֵּ֧ה הָאֲנָשִׁ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֥אוּ אֵלֶ֖יךָ הַלָּ֑יְלָה הוֹצִיאֵ֣ם אֵלֵ֔ינוּ וְנֵדְעָ֖ה אֹתָֽם

The JPS translates the verse like this:

And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that they may be intimate with them.”

The Living Bible goes for the more direct route:

[the men of the city—yes, Sodomites] … shouted to Lot, “Bring out those men to us so we can rape them.”

The translation of this verse raises interesting questions about the rendition of Hebrew double entendres in English translation, and about translation more generally. The Hebrew text of Gen 19:5 contains two probable double entendres, which are both used to describe sexual intercourse.

1. The most obvious double entendre is the use of the verb ידע, which has a variety of meanings, including “to know”, but also “to have sex with”, ie. have carnal knowledge of. The Hebrew verb has been translated very mildly in JPS as “we may be intimate [with them]”, but very explicitly as “we can rape [them]” in the Living Bible. The double entendre (although inherently ambiguous) is made clear by Lot’s subsequent offer of his two daughters as sexual substitutes for the two men/angels in Gen 19:8, and their description of the two daughters as those “who have not known [ידע] a man”.

2. The less obvious double entendre is the use of the phrase באו אליך הלילה, literally “they [who] came to you tonight”, spoken by the men of Sodom to Lot, about the two men/angels who came to Lot’s house in Sodom.  As in Genesis 16:2, the phrase could also refer to “they [who] went into you [Lot]”, ie. “they who had sex with you [Lot]”. The presence of a double entendre is supported by the description of this “entering” occurring at night (הלילה) and by the double entendre that follows concerning the crowd’s desire to “know/have sex with” the two men/angels.

So the story of Sodom in Genesis 19 evokes three types of sexual intercourse, none of which actually occur, but which are only spoken about.

  • First, the crowd infer that Lot had been having sexual intercourse with the two men/angels by night (Gen 19:5a);
  • Second, the crowd of men demand sexual intercourse between them and the two men/angels, and (Gen 19:5b);
  • Three, Lot offers his two daughters for sexual intercourse with the crowd of men (Gen 19:8).

But no actual sexual intercourse takes place until, in a surprising twist, Lot has sex with his two daughters (Gen 19:30-38).

With the exception of the imagined sexual intercourse between Lot and the two men/angels, each of the other three descriptions of sexual intercourse (described or actual) involves rape: the rape of the two men/angels by the crowd of men from Sodom; the rape of Lot’s two daughters by the crowd of men from Sodom; the rape of Lot by his two daughters.

It’s a nasty little story. But I find myself agreeing with the suggestion of “Tom Wrong” that – despite the explicitly violent sexual intercourse (rape) attempted in Gen 19:5 and proposed in Gen 19:8 – the double entendres in Gen 19:5 are best rendered  in a manner that retains their ambiguity while making clear their decidedly seedy  and sordid character. Make no mistake, the story is brutal, violent, and patriarchal in the most extreme sense. So there is a good argument to make this clear, by translating the demand in Gen 19:5 in the most explicit way. On the other hand, a more muted yet sordid translation might have a similar effect, while more closely rendering the inherent ambiguity of the double entendres. So I adopt Tom Wrong’s translation:

And they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who gained entry to you tonight? Bring them to us, so that we may experience them.”

– Genesis 19:5 (tr. Tom Wrong)

But how would you translate this verse? And for what reasons? Do you even think that there are two double entendres in Gen 19:5? I tag the following bloggers, to see how they would translate MT Gen 19:5 in a way that does justice both to its content and its form:

Robert Cargill, Cláudia Andréa Prata FerreiraJim LinvilleJim West, JK Gayle, Caroline Blyth, Roland Boer

See also: “Were the men of Sodom into Sodomy?Remnant of Giants

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23 thoughts on “The Sodomite Challenge: How to Translate Genesis 19:5

  1. As I said in the Facebook thread, when we read טֶרֶם יִשְׁכָּבוּ in 19:4 in conjunction with the fact that when the city folk appear in v. 5, they appear to assume that Lot and his visitors lodged _separately_, we no longer have warrant for suspecting that there was any liaison between Lot and his guests — not anymore than we would have in the story of Baucis and Philemon.

    בּוֹא אֶל is just way too common to make much of. The dove “came to” Noah in the evening, as well (Gen 8:11) — as we to see a sexual reference here, too? (That the phrase in Gen 19 just so happens to occur in proximity to a genuine attempted sexual assault is no great feat: considering how common the phrase is, just based on statistical likelihood alone, we’d expect this to happen.)

    (And for maximum clarity I should emphasize that I’m an atheist, and couldn’t give two shits whether Lot and his guests had sex or ate babies together.)

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    • I don’t understand why you think that the two men/angels go to a different house for lying down. Surely we should identify בֵּית֑וֹ (“his [Lot’s] house”) in 19:3 with the “house” in 19:4 to which the crowd come before the two men/angels lie down?

      Yes, בּוֹא אֶל is common in both sexual and non-sexual connotations. But my argument is that the passage in question is charged with sexual connotations already and the author uses a double entendre in the second half of the same verse.

      In addition, even if somehow the author had not considered the possible double entendre of באו אליך הלילה, I would conclude that there is enough in the passage to justify such a translation (the sexual context, the other double endendre, etc). Often it is less that an author uses language, and more that language uses a person.

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      • I didn’t mean to suggest that these were different _houses_; I only meant to suggest that there’s a lot of “space” put between Lot and his guests (metaphorically and probably literally, in terms of different rooms?).

        The first verb of Gen 19:4 suggests that the guests are sort of by themselves (assuming — as I think we should — that Lot himself is not included in the plural there). The question/demand of the crowd in 19:5 seems to put further space between Lot and his guests: “where are they? Bring them out to us.”

        Also, we could add that Gen 19:2’s סוּרוּ אֶל־בֵּית עַבְדְּכֶם is parallel to the בּוֹא אֶל which you’ve honed in on; but surely this has no sexual overtones.

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  2. As for a translation: although I had made several original offerings, on second thought I quite like going with the more dynamic option of something like “…so that we may use them.”

    (I might even put “…_for sex_” in italics.)

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  3. I think any analysis has to take into account the fact that it seems to be a direct quote of Judges 19:22.

    Obviously, taking the entire story into account, the destruction of the cities of the plain is preordained and not a result of the mob’s intent in this particular instance. (Though the incident with the mob illustrates the general inhospitality and wickedness of Sodom.)

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    • True, Judg 19:22 is relevant. But it has a crucial difference: בָּ֥א אֶל־בֵּיתְךָ֖ (“[who] came into your house“).

      So two questions, at least – is Gen 19 a development of Judg 19? I think so. And so, did the author of Gen 19 enhance the already present double entendre?

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  4. I like your idea of retaining the double entendres/ambiguities in the Hebrew text, and Tom Wrong’s lovely translation, which tips a stylish hat to the ambiguous potential, has a decidedly sordid edge to it. But I’d have no objection to a more explicit translation such as that of the Living Bible. The JPS tries to sanitise the violence IMO with its focus on intimacy.

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    • Yes, I agree – and there’s value in calling it out as rape for a general audience (as for the Living Bible). And I think the JPS sanitisation is the worst of the options.

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    • Before the JPS was the LXX. Violent. Intimate. It goes like this:

      καὶ ἐξεκαλοῦντο τὸν Λωτ
      καὶ ἔλεγον πρὸς αὐτόν

      ποῦ εἰσιν
      οἱ ἄνδρες οἱ εἰσελθόντες πρὸς σὲ τὴν νύκτα
      ἐξάγαγε αὐτοὺς πρὸς ἡμᾶς
      ἵνα συγγενώμεθα αὐτοῖς

      Bringing the Greek into English, Brenton has this –

      And they called out Lot, and said to him, Where are the men that went in to you this night? bring them out to us that we may be with them.

      And Hiebert this:

      and they were summoning Lot and were saying to him, “Where are the men who came in to you tonight? Bring them out to us in order that we may have relations with them.

      But I have this for the Hebrew-translated-Hellene (with nods to what the Genesis translator does just a bit later in Gn 16.2, and to what Plutarch does in “Solon” 23.1-3 and Plato in “Laws” 930d and to how Anne Carson plays with English translation of the Greek of Sophocles with “Antigonick”):

      And they outed Lot, called him out.
      And they inserted their Logic, stuck it in him:

      Where are they,
      Those men, those having gone in you tonight?
      Out with them, get them in to us,
      To be with them, Oh, to know them.

      This, of course, isn’t the MT. And yet the Jewish translation into Greek plays in a literary way, punning sexually as we all know Shakespeare does in his English plays.

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  5. I think I would use inverted commas around the ambiguous word to mark the potential and add a parenthetical gloss: “Where are the men who ‘came’ to you … that we may ‘know’ (nudge nudge wink wink) them too”

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