Late last week on the blog the I made mention of the sins that “cry to heaven for vengeance.” The traditional list, is summarized in the Catechism which states The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are “sins that cry to heaven”: the blood of Abel, the sin of the Sodomites, the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt, the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan, injustice to the wage earner (# 1867).
It probably does not surprise you that I got push-back from certain homosexuals who wrote in to “remind” me that the sin of Sodom “has nothing to do with homosexual acts, or homosexual rape. Rather,” they said, “It is only about violations of hospitality rules of the ancient near east.”
I did not post these comments since I did not have time then to deal with this oft heard but very mistaken notion about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. But the meaning of the story is not unclear, and attempts to radically reinterpret the fundamental issue at the core of the story, tell us more about the struggle of the “interpreter” than of the story which has a rather plain, unambiguous meaning. The sin, the abomination, of Sodom, while not excluding any number of injustices, is clearly set forth as widespread homosexual practice.
When interpreting the meaning of a passage we do well to look not only to the plain meaning of the text, but also to other Biblical texts that may refer back to it and help clarify any ambiguities. In this text we can do both.
So first let’s look at the text itself as set forth:
Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” The men turned away and went toward Sodom….The two arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.” “No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.” But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” “Get out of our way,” they replied. And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door. But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door. The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here,because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.” (Genesis 18:20-22; 19:1-13)
Now those who want to argue that this text is vague in meaning, begin by stating that the phrase “have sex with them” is more literally rendered from the Hebrew as “that we may know them.” And it is true that the Hebrew word יָדַע (yada) is rendered “know.” But this word is also a Hebrew idiom for carnal knowledge. For example in Genesis 4:1 we read: Now Adam knew (yada) Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.”
That the carnal knowledge meaning is intended here is also made clear in the context of what follows. Lot first calls their proposal a “wicked thing.” But just getting to know someone, or to greet a stranger, is not a wicked thing. Further that unlawful carnal knowledge is meant is also made clear in that Lot (horrifyingly) proposes that they have sex instead with his daughters “who have never slept with a man” (i.e. his virgin daughters).
It is true that Lot is further motivated by the fact that these men (angels in disguise) are under his care. But that does not change the nature of the threat that is involved, namely homosexual seduction or rape.
Being unable to dissuade “all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old” from the attempt at homosexual seduction, Lot is pulled to safety by the the two angelic visitors who tell Lot to get ready to go since they have come to destroy the city.
Now to the average reader who does not need to be defensive, the text conveys a clear message of widespread homosexuality in Sodom, a fact rather bluntly confirmed by the angelic visitors. And this is the clear emphasis of the story, not hospitality norms or other secondary concepts.
However, it may help to confirm this fact in other texts of the Bible and to legitimately ask if this is the only sin involved. Two texts are most specifically helpful in this regard. First there is a text from Ezekiel:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)
Now this is the text used most often by those who deny any homosexual context in the sin of Sodom. And, to be fair, it does add a dimension to the outcry God hears. There are clearly additional sins at work in the outcry: pride, excess or greed, and indifference to the poor and needy. But there are also mentioned here unspecified “abominations.” The Hebrew word is תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה (tō·w·‘ê·ḇāh) which refers to any number of things God considers especially detestable, such as worshiping idols, immolating children, wrongful marriage and also homosexual acts. For example, Leviticus 18:22 uses the word in this context: Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.
But of itself, this text from Ezekiel does remind us that widespread homosexuality is not the only sin of Sodom. And while the abomination mentioned here may not be specified exactly, there is another Scriptural text that does specify things more clearly for us. It is from the Letter of Jude:
In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. In the very same way, these dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings. (Jude 7-8)
And thus it is specified that the central sin of Sodom involved “sexual immorality (ἐκπορνεύσασαι) and perversion (ἀπελθοῦσαι ὀπίσω σαρκὸς ἑτέρας – literally having departed to strange or different flesh).” And this would comport with the description of widespread homosexual practice in Sodom wherein the practitioners of this sin are described in Genesis 19 as including, “all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old.”
Hence we see that, while we should avoid seeing the sin of Sodom as only widespread homosexual acts (for what city has only one sin?), we cannot avoid that the Scriptures do teach that homosexual acts are central to the sins of Sodom which cry to heaven for vengeance, and for which God saw fit to bring a fiery end.
Genesis 19 speaks plainly of the sin, Ezekiel 16 broadens the description but retains the word “abomination,” and Jude 7 clearly attests to sexual perversion as being the central sin with which Sodom and Gomorrah were connected.
God the Holy Spirit has not failed to teach quite clearly on the fundamental nature of the sins involved in these ancient cities. Widespread homosexual practice is surely the keynote of condemnation received by these cities and attempts to recast the matter as a “hospitality” issue must be seen for the fanciful distortion they are.