By Sheldon Greaves, Ph.D.
The section in Genesis for this week’s lesson is Genesis 13-14; 18-19, a crucial set of passages where the Bible paints a defining picture of Abraham, Lot, their families, and the world they lived in. There isn’t time to do proper justice to these sections, because understanding some of them demand a deeper knowledge of ancient pastoral nomad life in the ancient Near East.
For instance, the story in Genesis 14 of Abraham’s rescue of his nephew Lot and his recovery and disposition of the booty makes a lot more sense when one understands the art of the raid, reputation, and the role of wealth in nomadic societies. This story not only tells us about the rescue of Lot, it is there to explain how Abraham became a powerful figure in the region. For more information on this, I suggest you check out my podcast on Abraham in the Desert which runs just under 20 minutes.
That podcast also treats the topic of hospitality to a stranger, which is quite possibly the most important single social institution in the Patriarchal narratives. It comes down to this: show hospitality to the stranger and you enjoy the favor of God. If you don’t, you’re toast.
This brings us to the section that is likely to receive the most attention this week, and that is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There is a persistent, and incorrect belief that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of homosexuality. The Bible itself shows otherwise.
The story of Lot and Sodom is actually the second part of a story that begins when Abraham entertains some mysterious messengers, and does so lavishly. We get the whole menu; he orders Sarah to take “3 Seahs” of flour—nearly five gallons—to make cakes as just one part of the meal. Afterwards, Abraham is rewarded with the news that Sarah will bear a child. This blessing, coming on the heels of Abraham’s hospitality, would make perfect sense to the reader; cause and effect. The messengers then move on to Sodom.
When they arrive, Lot greets them and welcomes them into his house, just as Abraham had done. He offers them food and lodging. But then the men of Sodom gather around and threaten to rape Lot’s guests. Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the mob instead, but the angels take control of the situation when it becomes more than Lot can handle. They render the attackers blind.
It may seem strange, and even horrific to our sensibilities, but the primary rule of hospitality was that the host sees to the guest’s needs and provide for his safety, even at the expense of his own household. Lot offering his daughters to protect his guests was precisely the correct thing to do in this circumstance. Having seen to the needs of his guests as best he could, Lot, like his uncle Abraham, is blessed with the option for survival. Cause and effect.
By contrast, the rest of Sodom threatened Lot because of his observance of hospitality. Genesis notes all this to justify the destruction of the cities; they were guilty of just about the worst thing anyone could do, which was to abuse a stranger. The stories of Lot and Abraham are a unit, to be read and compared side by side. Both tell the story of why the two men and their families survived and went on to produce serious progeny. The fate of Sodom is meant as a warning, of course, but not to homosexuals, as we shall soon see.
By the way, an incident similar to that of Lot takes place in Judges 19, with the story of the Levite’s Concubine. It is another example of how the abuse of strangers and hospitality justified the near-extermination for an entire people (Be warned; this story is truly hideous).
Homosexual rape in the story of Lot is incidental. It is a threat made against the guests, but not the cause of the Sodom’s destruction. The Bible supports this. Sodom became proverbial to describe the worst depravity and degeneracy imaginable, whose only end is destruction.
So, it is very interesting to note that of the 27 references to Sodom outside of Genesis, not a single one makes even a passing reference to homosexuality. These outside reference are priceless for Biblical scholarship, they are an example of the Bible interpreting itself.
The classic instance of this is in Ezekiel 16:49-50 which castigates the people of Jerusalem:
“This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
Another, Isaiah chapter 1, also enumerates the sins of Jerusalem, whom he addresses directly as Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 10):
Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
Verse 17 implies what those sins are, by stating what the people should be doing:
… learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Not a word about homosexuality. As in Ezekiel, the sin is the abuse of the vulnerable. There are other examples I could cite, but the main point is that homosexuality does not show up where we would expect to find it. If it was the reason for God’s tactical nuke-out of Sodom and Gomorrah, why doesn’t anyone else make that association? The reason is because a careful reading of the Old Testament shows that homosexuality was not a sin.
Leviticus 18:22 is the primary justification for outlawing homosexuality, but this interpretation ignores the context of this prohibition:
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
First, notice that only males are mentioned. The Old Testament says not a single word about female homosexuality; lesbians, you’re in the clear. This proves immediately that one cannot cite the Old Testament to prohibit all homosexual behavior.
But what about male homosexuality? Verse 22 comes after a list of prohibited sexual unions, nearly all of which are between close relatives. The point of the chapter is to protect the holiness of the land of Canaan. This was a major concern to the authors of Leviticus; they believed that if the land became defiled, it would physically eject the offending peoples. Verses 24 and 25:
“Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves;
and the land became defiled, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.
This is very, very important. Verse 22 goes to the trouble of specifying the homosexual male congress as “an abomination.” But what is an abomination? In Leviticus “abomination” has a very specific, technical meaning. If you keep reading through to verse 30, you’ll see two things. First, the land itself was holy and subject to defilement. Second, an “abomination” is any act or practice that defiles the holy land of Canaan in such a way as to provoke the land into “vomiting out” the inhabitants. This applies explicitly and specifically to Canaan, and only to Canaan.
We also need to examine the phrase “to lie as with a woman,” which in Hebrew is mishkeve ‘ishah. It is an idiomatic phrase that only refers to illicit heterosexual relations. One cannot mishkeve ‘ishah with one’s legal spouse. This raises a question: if the verse goes to the trouble of prohibiting male homosexuality based on some kind of forbidden heterosexual intercourse, what would that be?
The only example that makes any sense, given the context of the passage, is the prohibited heterosexual unions between close relatives, just like all the other examples in the chapter, with the exception of adultery. Adultery would not fit, as it would still permit intercourse between unmarried men.
Therefore, we must conclude from a close reading of the text that male homosexual union was only forbidden under the following circumstances:
- The participants were male
- The participants were close relatives
- The act took place in the land of Canaan.
There is much more that could be said regarding this; for instance, what about the passages in Paul that appear to prohibit homosexuality? Space does not allow for a fuller discussion, but I will say that some recent analysis of those passages throws significant doubt on the idea that they actually reflected Paul’s beliefs. But what is even more relevant is that Paul apparently wasn’t a big fan of sex, period.
But even without the additional analysis, it should be clear by now to any objective observer that the prohibitions against our gay brothers and sisters yield only a harvest of shame, hate, and degradation. They rip apart families, justify discrimination, and driven otherwise well meaning people to disown family and friends, or even to take their own lives. It is unacceptable for these toxic attitudes to persist at all, let alone receive religious sanction through a misreading of the Biblical text.
I have a fuller discussion of this subject on my personal blog Cogito! For those who are interested.
THANK YOU! How people come away from Genesis 19 thinking homosexuality is the biggest problem has always been beyond me. I’m pretty sure gang rape is a major hospitality issue.
This academic approach is so helpful in understanding these scriptures and applying them to ourselves. I wish we always taught them this way.
Joseph Smith revealed a little more about the account of Lot entertaining the angels (holy men). You can read about that here: https://www.lds.org/scriptures/jst/jst-gen/19?lang=eng . You might find it interesting to see the Mormons’ take on it.
I strongly disagree with your interpretation of Leviticus 18. The chapter provides a laundry list of things not to do– things practiced in Egypt and in Canaan (which included Sodom, where they openly practiced homosexuality). The condemnation of homosexual acts most immediately follows a prohibition on ritual infanticide, and I see no reason to connect verse 22 with verses 6-20 as you have done. If you want to make correlations, connect homosexuality with pagan worship and rituals, as verse 21 connects infanticide with Molech worship.
Also, there’s no evidence that the actions in Lev. 18 would *only* be prohibited “in Canaan” as you claim. If the acts were so immoral that they defiled the land, they would be immoral enough to defile the person committing them whether they lived in Canaan, Babylon, or America. And consider this– if, according to the Bible, widespread ritual homosexual activity defiled a country and incurred God’s wrath, what would happen to a country that didn’t just tolerate, but specifically legalize and encourage ritual homosexual activity (such as gay marriage)? According to Leviticus 18, it would incur God’s wrath. Mormons believe that America contains another “promised land” like Canaan, and the people living on it are bound by similar requirements as the ancient Israelites.
Finally, Jude 1:7 explicitly links Sodom and sexual perversion. That counts as more than a “passing reference” to homosexuality.
I do appreciate the article’s initial emphasis of Sodom’s greatest sin being pride and lack of hospitality to strangers. That’s right on the money, and a lesson that ought to be preached from the rooftops and connected to our current situation. The pride inherent in Western civilization is a much greater cause for concern than LGBT issues.
Leaving aside the matter that this post is about the OT only, Jude 1:7 refers to fornication, not homosexuality. The reference to “strange flesh” is generally regarded as referring to raping angels, which would be strange flesh indeed. But Jude’s reference to Sodom does not make reference to homosexuality.
I am quite aware of what the JST says on this subject, but I don’t believe that it reconstructs ancient material. There are just too many problems and lapses for that to be possible.
As for evidence that the actions would only be prohibited in Canaan, the instructions at the end of the chapter are explicit. It refers to Canaan, and only Canaan. The definition of “abomination” further down leaves no doubt of what it meant. Gay marriage would, according to Leviticus 18, only be a problem if the partners were close relatives, just as it proscribes sexual unions between consanguinous heterosexual couples.
It is clear to me that writings in the old and new testament clearly condemn Homosexual behavior. While I agree that the Sodom story is not an explicit denouncement, Leviticus and New Testament references are. To suggest otherwise is to be blind to the text and to 2000 years of Christian interpretation.
However, that does not mean that we cannot consider our modern understanding of Homosexuality and develop a new moral and religious interpretation. This has occurred with everything from interracial marriage to dietary laws to the behavior of menstruating women to the justification for slavery.
Lets accept that past for what it is, learn from it’s errors, and evolve to a more enlightened future. I don’t think trying to rewrite history to suite our modern cultural ethics is honest and will not hold up to scrutiny, in the long run. It is really okay if we decide to admit that bronze-age and middle-age cultures got this wrong.
The real challenge is, with our modern understanding, to now understand what is right.
I don’t understand this part:
“Adultery would not fit, as it would still permit intercourse between unmarried men.”
I don’t understand the point
And from your personal blog:
“If male homosexuality is intrinsically forbidden, why compare it to illicit heterosexual unions?”
If male homosexuality is intrinsically forbidden, to what else could it be compared?
Adultery is a violation of a marriage. So my point is that male homosexuality would be fine between unmarried men; no marriage is being violated, no problem.
The other point is a bit ore subtle, and I probably could have stated it more clearly. If you incorporate the full meaning of the phrase mishkeve ‘ishah, then text reads, “You shall not lie with a man as you would illicitly with a woman.” Now if male homosexuality were flat-out forbidden, why is there a qualifier about illicit heterosexual unions? In other words, the homosexual unions under discussion are those that would be forbidden if they were heterosexual.
Which heterosexual unions are those? The only ones that make sense for this context are the list of close-relative relationships found a few verses earlier. Here is how Biblical Scholar Jacob Milgrom explains it in his commentary on Leviticus:
I hope that helps; this can be a confusing passage that can easily get confusing. Let me know if you still have any questions.
While I can see each of your points, I wonder how one arrives at deciding that a passage only meant one thing, and not anything more?
That said, I completely agree with your main reading. I can’t remember the passage, offhand, but even when Joseph Smith was interpreting the Bible in the Doctrine and Covenants, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not listening to God, and homosexuality is once again conspicuously not mentioned.