genesis 18-19 - sodom and gomorrah

Previously, I noted how the Bible rushes past some topics, whereas it draws others out to ridiculous lengths. Entire chapters are devoted to peripheral subjects, while important sequences of events are compressed into a verse or two. Fortunately, the next two chapters are an exception. Chapters 18 and 19 do a fairly good job of setting up the story and bringing it to a conclusion. A few details are lost, but, for the most part, this section moves along fairly well.

Too bad its contents are reprehensible.

There are many Christians who attempt to argue that the Bible does not in fact condemn homosexuality. As much as I respect the motivations of these Christians, I must disagree with them: the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality.

However, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not a good example of this. It is vague, inconsistent, and open to considerable interpretation. The reader is left with the impression that it is not homosexuality as such that this section condemns, but gang rape. Further, given that the term “sodomy” has been used to refer not only to anal penetration, but to any “unusual” sexual activity, it would seem that at least two different interpretations arose from this tale.

Also, Lot himself provides a terrible moral exemplar.

The story begins in Chapter 18. God appears to Abraham in the form of three avatars. Abraham invites the three men into his tent to rest, and a great deal of detail is wasted on the preparations for their meal. The men repeat that Sarah will bear a child, which amuses her greatly due to her age. They then prepare to continue on their way.

The three avatars have come to judge Sodom. For a moment, God wonders if he should share his intent to destroy the city with Abraham. When he does, Abraham asks if God if he intends to destroy the righteous inhabitants of the city along with the wicked. Abraham convinces God not to destroy the city if at least fifty righteous people can be found there.

Abraham continues to argue, and convinces God not to destroy the city if forty righteous people can be found there.

Abraham continues to argue, and convinces God not to destroy the city if thirty righteous people can be found there.

Abraham continues to argue, and convinces God not to destroy the city if twenty righteous people can be found there.

Abraham continues to argue, and convinces God not to destroy the city if ten righteous people can be found there.

God, who must be getting as tired of this as I am, hurries on his way, having agreed to the ten-righteous-people promise. None of this matters anyway, though, because God doesn’t even bother to look for ten righteous people once his representatives have arrived in the city.

As Chapter 19 opens, two angels enter Sodom. This is inconsistent with the preceding chapter, which referred to three “men”. This numerical inconsistency, along with the change from “men” to “angels”, suggests that Chapters 18 and 19 were derived from different source texts. This may also explain why God conveniently forgets his ten-righteous-people promise.

Lot sees the angels and invites them to spend the night at his house with his wife and two virgin daughters. That night, the house is surrounded, and the men (or people) outside demand that Lot send the angels outside so that they might “know” them. Lot begs the crowd to reconsider, and offers his two daughters instead.

This is a troublesome passage. First of all, there is the use of the term “know”. As Religious Tolerance explains, the term is used (in its original Hebrew) 943 times in the Tanakh/Old Testament, mostly in the sense of “to know a fact”. Only on about a dozen occasions is it used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.

As mentioned in Chapter 14, Sodom had recently been invaded by foreign armies. The people would still be on alert for more enemies. The arrival of these two strange men in the city would no doubt raise their suspicions. It has been suggested that, therefore, the crowd simply wants to interrogate the angels, and it is in that sense that the word “know” is used.

Further complicating the conventional reading, the KJV refers to “the men of the city, even the men of Sodom…both young and old, all the people from every quarter” (Genesis 19:4) The problem here is that the original Hebrew could refer either to male humans alone, or to people in the general sense (analogous to the English word “man”). It is also unlikely that “both young and old, all the people from every quarter” would not include women and children in the mix.

Regardless, Lot’s offer of his two virgin daughters in place of the two angels causes those arguments to collapse. If the mob’s intent were not sexual, then why would Lot make this offer? This still does not necessarily imply homosexuality, but, regardless, the people of Sodom would have to be extremely debauched to make this demand.

This is not a very good passage on which to base moral lessons, however, given Lot’s offer: “Please! You can rape my two young daughters if you leave these strangers alone!”

The angels ward off the mob, and reveal to Lot that they have been sent to destroy the city. In the morning, Lot, his wife, and his daughters flee the city with the angels, with Lot being oddly cantankerous during the journey. The angels warn them not to look back, but Lot’s wife cannot help herself, and, in a nicely psychedelic touch, is turned into a pillar of salt as Sodom and Gomorrah and all the plains thereabout are destroyed with fire and brimstone.

The oddly inappropriate moral lessons are not yet over, however.

Lot and his daughters escape and take up residence in a cave. It appears that Lot’s daughters believe that they are the last living people on Earth, and worry that they will never have children. Therefore, they decide to get their father drunk, and each then sleeps with him and conceives a son.

So one of our “righteous moral exemplars” offers his two virgin daughters for a mob to gang rape. Later, those two righteous daughters incestuously rape their own father.

But it is homosexuality that is wrong. Go figure.

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