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.