Were the men of Sodom into Sodomy?

Sex Between Men

In my Sodomite Challenge, I argued that there is not just one double entendre in Genesis 19:5 but two. One of these double entendres is widely ‘known’. The men of Sodom employ the sexually charged verb ידע (‘to know’, ‘to have sex with’, etc) when they demand to receive the two men or angels staying the night at Lot’s house. The same sexual connotation is even more clearly present in the description of Lot’s two daughters, in Genesis 19:8.

In addition, I argued that there is an earlier sexual double entendre in the verse: the use of the phrase באו אליך הלילה, literally “they [who] came to you [ie. to Lot] tonight”, or to give it its ambiguous sexual connotation, “[the men who] gained entry to you”. On this reading, the men of Sodom believed that Lot had invited the two men/angels into his house, under the cover of night, in order to have sex with them. Why would they presume such a thing? At the very least, we might conclude that there was some presumption that male inhabitants of Sodom, of whom Lot was one, were having sex with other men. And the men of Sodom wanted some of that.

If “[the men who] gained entry to you” in Genesis 19:5a is a double entendre, sex between men must be at the centre of the sin and wickedness which the narrative alleges was being carried out in Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20-21; 19:7, 13). This is not to say that sex between men is the sum of the sinfulness of Sodom. Genesis 18:20-21 together with Ezekiel 16:46-50 suggest that Sodom had a reputation for wickedness that was “not reducible to a single act of sin” (Lyons, Canon and Exegesis, p. 235). All I am claiming is that the narrative in Genesis 19:1-11 makes sex between men the special exemplar of this proverbially wicked city.

There has been an attempt in recent scholarship to downplay or even deny the role of sex in the sin of Sodom. Instead, recent scholarship has emphasized other grounds, in particular the gross breach of hospitality against Lot’s two guests. For example:

the Genesis 19 account specifically does not fix the blame upon homosexuality but upon the failure of the Sodomites to honor the law regarding the required hospitality to strangers
– J. Harold Ellens, Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration, p. 114

this biblical story can quite properly be read as having nothing to do with homosexuality
– M. Warner, “Were the Sodomites Really Sodomites?”, p. 9

Sometimes the motif of hospitality is defended with reference to the account of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19, in which male-male sex is not an issue. Yet such a defence of the sin of Sodom as hospitality depends on (1) the priority of the story in Judges 19; (2) the direction of dependence from Judges 19 to Genesis 19; and (3) an assumption of the close correspondence of the contexts, meanings, and themes of both accounts, rather than any significant rewriting of the tradition that might change its significance. All of these, in particular the third, are highly contestable.

I do not want to contest the fact that the men of Sodom’s threat of violence towards two guests – their gross inhospitality toward strangers – is a part of the gross sinfulness of Sodom and grounds for its destruction. But the presence of a second double entendre in Genesis 19, in the phrase באו אליך הלילה, puts sex between men back at the centre of that “inhospitality”.

The sin of Sodom (and Gamorrah) is only alluded to at first in Genesis 18:20-21. But this sinful reputation of Sodom is explicated in Genesis 19.5a, in particular, by their expectation that Lot had been having sex with the two men. The sin of sex between men is then developed when the men of Sodom demand to get some of what they believe Lot is getting (Genesis 19:5b-9). The Sodomites’ presumption that Lot was having sex with the two men, together with their subsequent demand for sex with the two men, put same-sex intercourse at the centre of the sin of Sodom.

There has been a strategy in liberal Christian biblical interpretation, in recent decades, to draw out, to highlight, to emphasise the ambiguities of any text which might portray same-sex intercourse in a negative light. This applies not only to Genesis 19, but to all of the Old and New Testament texts trotted out in these often heated discussions. That such texts have been used by less liberal Christians as a way to clobber gays and lesbians has, of course, provided the impetus for such complexifying interpretations. But such a strategy may have obscured the (same-)sexual connotations which I argue are indeed present in Genesis 19:5a. Liberal sensitivity to the damaging effects of more conservative interpretation and contemporary use of Genesis 19 has obscured the centrality of same-sex intercourse to Genesis 18-19’s polemics against the sin of Sodom.

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8 thoughts on “Were the men of Sodom into Sodomy?

  1. I’ll take it that you’ve seen my comment on Noah and the dove.

    In any case, I certainly agree that it’s a mistake to deemphasize the main sexual component here. Also: among those who are theologically uncomfortable with how the Sodom narrative has been employed in anti-rhetoric, many like latching onto Ezekiel 16:49 here: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

    (In any case, it seems that the very same demonizing impetus that went into the canonical Biblical narrative where Sodomites are gang-rapists also surfaces in many later extrabiblical sources, where the Sodomites become general idolaters, sexual deviants, pederasts, etc.)

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    • Yes – and bestiality seems also to be included under the English term “sodomy”. I wonder if this involves the influence of (interpretations of) Romans 1? Yet that is another question…

      I didn’t mention Ezekiel 16, but you are of course right to. I agree there is some developing polemic here. If Ezekiel is earlier than Genesis, by perhaps 100 years (ca. 500 BCE versus ca. 400 BCE), an old polemic against misused wealth was reused and heightened.

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    • Just mine :-)

      More seriously, interpretations do seem to follow the commentator’s own ethico-political stance.

      Gagnon supports the conversion of all gays to straightness. He has been dubbed the “academic turned ayatollah” by Jean-Fabrice Nardelli. So no, he is not considered liberal by other scholars.

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      • “My academic work on the issue is reputable.” – “Robert AG Gagnon” (who places gay marriage and gay weddings inside scare quotes.) Reputed by whom? Well, there you go.

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  2. I don’t have any Theological screws to tighten here as I don’t belong to the greater J-C-I religious amalgamation of sects/cults/etc. This, however, is an over-the-top, after-the-fact screed using a pattern to bad mouth a culture which probably had moved away. They needed examples of their God coming to aid their people. Of course this didn’t have to be in any logical way. Add a little incest in at the end of the story (oh, yuuuck). The Hebrews were a loner society. They actually preferred to keep others away because they were “chosen.” This is not a story about homosexuality at all. That’s just a screen. It is another story about why we have to keep away from our neighbours.

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