The Redemption of Sodom

I originally published this post a while back on my Wordpress blog. As I move content over to the new site, I'm going to periodically highlight certain posts. Here's another one.

Genesis 19, the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, is well known within the Bible as a whole, but also within the context of the discussion about homosexuality. Christians have used this text for quite a long time to show that homosexual behavior is wrong. Because of all the assumptions surrounding it, this passage deserves a closer look. My central argument about this passage is that the condemnation it portrays is only a small part of the exegesis of this passage, and therefore this should not be the primary topic we discuss when working with Genesis 19. I come to this conclusion through a constellation of details as follows:

  1. The first thing to note is that this particular vignette, the destruction of the cities in Genesis 19, fits within the larger story about Lot’s life, which itself is set within the larger story about Abraham, which is itself set within the larger story of God’s redemption of mankind. Thus when discussion this passage the reader needs to maintain the proper macro-focus in this story. It’s not simply or solely a condemnation of homosexuality. It is a larger story about sin and redemption.
  2. The first big exegetical debate in this passage centers on the Hebrew word ידע, “to know.” It shows up in Gen 19:5, as the men of the city demand that Lot release his visitors to them. Here is the reading of the RSV: "and they called to Lot, 'Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.'" This word ידע has a number of meanings. Particular to this context, it could mean “to know through observation and investigation.” It could also be a euphemism for sexual relations, which is the way many modern translations take it. One basic lexical rule is that the meaning of words is always determined by context. Subsequent context proves the latter definition is in view here. Lot offers his virgin daughters to the men for their pleasure. It would make no sense for Lot to offer his daughters as a substitute if they simply wanted to get acquainted with the guests.
  3. The second exegetical debate centers on the nature of the sin of these individuals. Here we have to raise the cultural expectation of hospitality. Many scholars argue that the sin of the men was a lack of hospitality to the guests, but as stated above later context shows the sexual nature of their intent. Other scholars argue that the sin was not homosexuality per se but homosexual gang rape, but the passage lacks words for “seizing” or “forcing” which are used to show rape in other texts.
  4. The sin of the city was already known to God but unspecified in the text and spoken of generally (see Gen 13:13; 18:20-21). Why is this important? It means that the homosexuality presented here is a specific instance of sinfulness, but not the whole sum of the sin of the city.
  5. Lot is in no way a shining example of righteousness here. The story shows that he had been influenced by his surroundings in a negative way. There is no approbation for offering his daughters as sexual playthings, but we hardly ever discuss that when wrestling with this text.

Long and short, when we say that Genesis 19 condemns homosexuality, we say at the same time too little and too much. We say too much because we have lost focus on God's redemption of Abraham and his relatives, which is the whole basis for this story. At its root Genesis 19 is not a polemic against homosexuality, and we shouldn't talk as if it is. We say too little when we don't also condemn Lot's offering of his daughters. We must also speak out against sexual domination of women by men in our culture, manifested in problems such as pornography and human trafficking.