The traditional view of the story of Sodom
In the Bible the story of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is consistently depicted as an example of the judgement of God upon human sinfulness. The people of Sodom ‘were wicked, great sinners against the Lord’ (Genesis 13:13) and God eventually wiped them and the neighbouring cities from the face of the earth.
The story of the final destruction of these cities is told in Genesis 19:1-29 and the traditional Christian reading of this story is that the final act of sinfulness by the men of Sodom was an attempt to have homosexual sex with the two male visitors staying in Lot’s house. On the basis of this reading of the story ‘sodomite’ has become a traditional term for those who engage in same-sex sexual activity (particularly male-male sexual activity) and Genesis 19 has become one of the standard proof texts used to show that such activity is sinful.
Dr Warner’s three alternative readings
In response to this, those theologians who have sought to argue that same-sex sexual activity ought not to be regarded as sinful have sought to challenge the traditional reading of Genesis 19. In her latest contribution to the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible really say…’ Dr Meg Warner follows this revisionist approach by arguing that the Bible doesn’t really tell us that the Sodomites were sodomites.
In her paper she puts forward three alternative readings of the Sodom story.
The story of Sodom is about rape
First, she argues that the story of Sodom is irrelevant to the issue of consensual loving same-sex relationships:
‘Genesis 19 may be many things, but it is NOT evidence about God’s attitude towards loving, sexual relationships between men (or women, for that matter). It tells a story in which a group of men apparently threaten to pack-rape some other men (who are actually angels), but it has nothing to say about the kind of same-sex relationships that are currently getting the churches so het-up.’
The story of Sodom is about using sex to become divine
Secondly, she suggests that the intended sin of the men of Sodom may actually have been the attempt to use sex to achieve divine status:
‘Nowhere else in the book of Genesis is concern expressed about sex between men, but sexual activity between humans and divine beings is a pervasive theme. In Genesis 6 the wickedness (r’) of humankind, manifesting itself in sexual congress between ‘daughters of humans’ and ‘sons of God’, so grieves God that God decides to blot out all humans and living things from the face of the earth. Interestingly, the same Hebrew root is used by Lot in Genesis 19:7, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly (r’)’ and by the narrator in Genesis 13:13, ‘Now, the people of Sodom were wicked (r’) …’. This strikingly consistent use of the language of wickedness (r’) supports an argument that, had the men of Sodom gone on to have sex with the visitors, their crime would not have been homosexuality but hubris—the pursuit of divinity by means of intercourse with divine beings.’
The story of Sodom is a story of misunderstanding
Thirdly (and this seems to be her preferred reading), Dr Warner suggests that the story can be read a story in which Lot misunderstands the request made by the Sodomites to ‘know’ his visitors:
‘Interpreters of Genesis 19 today are increasingly likely to look past their gut-reactions to words such as ‘Sodom’ and ‘Sodomite’ and to scenarios of same-sex violence, and to focus instead on the literary and socio-political contexts of the text. They identify both Genesis 18 (Abraham’s welcome of three strangers at Mamre) and 19 as stories about hospitality that reflect the hospitality codes of their time, recognising Genesis 18 as a story of hospitality to strangers in a non-urban context and Genesis 19 as a story about the particular challenges and tensions of offering hospitality in an urban setting. These challenges and tensions arise as a consequence of the risks inherent in inviting strangers to remain within city walls overnight. Issuing such invitations was the privilege of a city’s male citizens. The conflict in Genesis 19 arises from the fact that Lot assumes this privilege for himself, as can be seen clearly in verse 9, in which the angry citizens of Sodom say, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge!’
The men of Sodom aren’t just feeling lustful on a slow Friday night. They are angry (and, to some extent, justifiably so) with Johnny-come-lately Lot for placing them and their women and children in danger by inviting strangers to stay within the walls overnight. They want to ‘know’ (yd’) who the visitors are, so that they can assess the level of threat. Lot, who doesn’t ‘get’ all of this any more than some modern commentators (!), misunderstands the men’s demands as sexual but is unwilling to allow strangers under his roof to be mistreated, and offers his virgin daughters in their place – thus responding to the ‘comically grotesque’ in-hospitality of the Sodomites with comically grotesque hospitality, unimaginable to today’s readers in the West, but not unknown still in some parts of the world, and iconic in Lot’s own context.’
The problems with Dr Warner’s three readings
What are we to make of these three alternative readings?
If we take her preferred reading first of all, the first thing to note is that she has misinterpreted Genesis 19:9. The accusation that Lot is seeking to ‘play the judge,’ even though he is an alien, refers not to his offering his two visitors hospitality, but to his request to the men of Sodom not to do harm to his visitors ‘…only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof’ (v 8). The conflict in Genesis 19 is thus not about Lot offering hospitality, but about his refusal to acquiesce to the demands of the crowd.
More fundamentally, however, this reading of the text depends on our knowing about the motives of the men of Sodom in a way that Lot does not. How do we know that Lot’s belief that the men’s demand is sexual is a misunderstanding? The text certainly does not say so.
Genesis has told us about the wickedness of Sodom in 13:13 and this point is reinforced in Genesis 18:20 where we are told that ‘the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave.’ According to Genesis 18:21 the purpose of the visit of the two angels to Sodom is to give the cities one last chance by allowing God to assess the situation for himself; ‘I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not I will know.’
In this context the purpose of the story in Genesis 19:1-11 is to show why the cities fail the test and are destroyed. The reason they fail the test (and why Sodom and Gomorrah are subsequently destroyed) is that the men of Sodom confirm the depravity of the inhabitants of the cities by seeking to act ‘wickedly’ (19:6) in wanting to ‘know’ Lot’s visitors. The story thus only makes sense if the men of Sodom really are wanting to act in a wicked fashion. The idea that it is all one big misunderstanding simply doesn’t fit the plot line of the narrative.
Even if we accept this point, it does not tell us what the wickedness intended by the Sodomites was. However, it is clear what the wickedness was.
- The juxtaposition of the use of the Hebrew verb yada (‘know’) in verses 5 and 8 indicates that the verb has the same meaning in both cases and since the meaning in verse 8 is clearly sexual, ‘Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man,’ it follows that the meaning in the request in verse 5 ‘that we may know them’ must be the same. The men of Sodom want to have sex with Lot’s visitors.
- This reading of the text is reinforced by the fact that in Judges 19:22-26, a text which scholars generally agree is based on the Sodom story (and which is thus the first commentary on it), the verb yada is also used with a consistently sexual meaning.
- This reading of the text is further supported by the nature of Lot’s counter offer to the men of Sodom, have sex with my two daughters instead of my two visitors, and by the double use of the specific term ‘male’ (anse) in 19:4 (itself an intertextual echo of the use of the term ‘male’ in the reference to the wickedness of Sodom in Genesis 13:13). Those who are proposing to act wickedly in Sodom are the male inhabitants of the city and the nature of their proposed wickedness is sex with Lot’s (supposedly) male visitors.
- Finally, this reading of the text is supported by the fact noted by James De Young that in the literary structure of Genesis the story of Sodom forms part of a trio of stories that sit between the promise of the birth of Isaac in Genesis 18:9-15 and its fulfilment in Genesis 21:1-7, the other two being the story of the incest of Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:30-38) and the story of Abraham, Sarah and Abimelech (Genesis 20:1-18). As De Young explains ‘each episode relates sexual sin and its punishment…The literary structure of the text demands a homosexual meaning for the sin of Sodom. Illicit sexual enjoyment or opportunism links all three episodes.’
Moving on to Dr Warner’s second suggestion, her idea that we can read Genesis 19 as being about the desire of the men of Sodom to use sex to attain divinity is problematic for a number of reasons.
First, it is simply not the case, as Dr Warner claims, that ‘sexual activity between humans and divine beings’ is a ‘pervasive theme’ in the book of Genesis. There is only one text where such activity might possibly be referred to, namely Genesis 6:1-4, and even in this text it is much more probable that the ‘sons of God’ are male human beings of the line of Seth rather than angels.
Secondly, there is no indication in the text of Genesis 19 that the men of Sodom know that Lot’s visitors are angels. Verse 5 tells us that the men of Sodom referred to them as ‘men.’ The reader of Genesis knows that the visitors are angels. The men of Sodom do not.
Thirdly, In Jude 7 the Greek words sarkos heteras (translated ‘unnatural lust’ in the RSV) literally mean ‘a different kind of flesh.’ What Jude 7 thus says is that the men of Sodom ‘pursued a different kind of flesh’ and some commentators have taken this to mean that they sought to have sex with angels. Dr Warner accepts this idea, but a more probable interpretation is that the ‘different kind of flesh’ they pursued was the flesh of other men rather than the flesh of women. In the words of Peter Davids in his commentary on Jude, ‘…it is more likely that Jude too is thinking of homosexual activity as the ‘different kind of flesh’ (different not from themselves, but from the women they were supposed to desire).’
This view is supported (a) by the fact that it would have been as obvious to Jude as to us that the men of Sodom did not know that Lot’s visitors were angels, (b) by the fact that there is no other Jewish or early Christian writing that supports the idea that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was a desire for sex with angels and (c) by the fact that the aorist tenses used in Jude 7 indicate that the judgement of God occurred when the inhabitants of Sodom, Gomorrah and the surrounding cities had already acted immorally and ‘pursued a different kind of flesh,’ and this existing sexual immorality cannot have involved seeking sex with angels.
If we turn to Dr Warner’s first suggestion, which is that even if the Sodom story is about sex it is about rape rather than about loving sexual relationships, the point to note is that, as Victor Hamilton points out in his commentary on Genesis, Hebrew has a vocabulary used to describe rape and this is not used in Genesis 19:5. All that this verse tells us, therefore, is that the men of Sodom wanted to have sexual relations with Lot’s visitors. It does not limit what the men of Sodom were contemplating to rape even if the context suggests that that this may have been what the crowd had in mind.
The fact that the text leaves it at that and that it says nothing about the motivation of the crowd, or whether they were homosexual or bisexual,is theologically significant. In order to make it clear that Sodom was a gravely sinful place all that the text has to say is that its male inhabitants sought to have sex with other men. That in itself constitutes a wicked act (Genesis 19:6) which illustrates the more general wickedness for which Sodom, Gomorrah, and two neighbouring cities are going to be destroyed.
In Genesis 19, as in Judges 19, the desire for homosexual sex is in itself evidence of the wider sinfulness of a society that has turned from God and is therefore subject to God’s judgement . This is the same point that is made on an even wider canvas by Paul in Romans 1:26-27.
What all this means is that none of the three alternative readings of the story of Sodom proposed by Dr Warner are persuasive. The best reading of Genesis 19:1-11 remains the traditional one that sees the Sodomites (and the inhabitants of the neighbouring cities) as people who engaged in same-sex sexual activity and wwere thus in the traditional sense sodomites.
Furthermore as Sam Allberry, who is himself same-sex attracted, notes, according to Jude 7:
‘What happened at Sodom is clearly meant to be a cautionary tale. They are an example of facing God’s judgment. Peter says much that same. Sodom and Gomorrah stand ‘as an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly’ (2 Peter 2:6). Jude makes it clear that their ungodliness involved sexual immorality. They were punished for sexual sin along with the other sins of which they were guilty. Their destruction serves as a warning: God takes sexual sin very seriously.’
Because God takes sexual sin very seriously it follows that orthodox Christians are entirely right to get ‘het up’ about same-sex sexual activity, just as they should get het up about all forms of sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage.
M B Davie 17.6.19
 James De Young, Homosexuality: Contemporary Claims Examined in Light of the Bible and Other Ancient Literature and Law (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), pp.39-40.
 For this point see Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), pp.181-184.
 Peter Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude (Grand Rapids/Nottingham: Apollos, 2006), p.53.
 The apocryphal Jewish text The Testament of Naphtali has been suggested as an example, but this is not the most likely reading of this text.
 Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp.34-35
 Sam Allberry, Is God Anti-Gay? (Epson: The Good Book Company, 2013), p.28. Italics in the original.