The Last Judgement by Michelangelo (Jüngstes Gericht)

The word sodomy always confused me, as it means different things in different jurisdictions. It usually means any penetrative sex between men, but may include two women together, and often includes oral or anal sex between married heterosexuals. Basically, sodomy is our word for sex acts the authorities do not approve of.

I do not understand laws that list what is acceptable and unacceptable for other people to do in private, but they make more sense in antiquity. I admire the Bible’s attention to hygiene. For a desert people of little water and little understanding of disease transmission, many of the restrictions made sense. Basic sanitation requires rules of social behavior, so guidelines around sex are reasonable, particularly around menstruation. Concern with mixing blood and sex was clearly a valid concern, so pre-modern societies developed rules, taboos, and customs around women’s menstrual cycles. The same is true with other health concerns, which is why the Old Testament lists man to man sex as a taboo on the same order as eating shellfish. Both were seen as ritual impurities. As modern people we have adjusted our attitudes on menstruation and shrimp eating to match modern understanding of healthy practices.

The story of Sodom underpins Christianity’s 2,000 year obsession with homosexuality. It is a great old tale and a fascinating example of the complexity of biblical morality. As our story opens, God asks if there are any righteous men in Sodom, saying he will not destroy the city if he can find ten righteous men. Angels disguised as men appear at the gates of the city, where they meet Lot, who invites them to stay in his home, deep hospitality in a dangerous world without safe highways and hotels.

And there came two angels to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom: and Lot seeing them rose up to meet them; and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground; And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in, I pray you, into your servant’s house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your ways.

And they said, Nay; but we will abide in the street all night. And he pressed upon them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.[1]

What a strangely horrible scene. All the men of Sodom come to rape the visitors! This is the single scene by which gay men have been condemned across millennia.

But stop and think for a second. Are these gay men? According to the common interpretation, all the men of Sodom are gay—think hairdressers and accountants and gay soccer team members—who formed one massive mob of rapist intent. Does that sound right? Given that Sodom is back in the time of myth, do we have an example where this has happened anywhere in recorded history? Does this sound like something likely to happen in Provincetown or Chelsea or West Hollywood?

No. Gangs of gay men do not go on raping rampages—this is not a Pride Parade gone wrong, and the entire male population of cities do not turn suddenly gay. If they did God wouldn’t need to destroy the city as it would be gone in a generation. So what is going on here?

The threatened crime is rape, and rape is a crime of violence, not lust. New York City cops don’t sodomize an arrested man with their baton because they think it is hot, they do it to humiliate him. Rebels in Congo’s recent wars didn’t rape hundreds of thousands women and men because of an erotic frenzy, they did it as an act of war. Anyone who has seen the movie Deliverance knows that male-male rape is not even homoerotic. The men of Sodom are violent men who use sex as a weapon, just as it has been used on women throughout history, and they are just as likely to be straight.

Lot goes outside and makes the men an offer:

And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly.

Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.[2]

Incredibly brave, Lot faces the mob in defense of strangers. However, a) if these are crazed gay men, offering your daughters does not seem a productive solution. Either Lot is unbelievably clueless about his city’s dominant sin, or these men are not gay. And, b) Seriously? The biblical solution to violent rapists is to toss your virgin daughters at them? This is a story of the one righteous man of Sodom. Thank God we do not live those Biblical morals anymore, because that is really disturbing.

The story resumes with the men pressing forward, either because they are so very gay that the daughters offer didn’t take, or because their real motive is assault. The angels save Lot from the mob and tell him to leave the city with his family and not to look back. They leave.

Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground. But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.

And Abraham gat up early in the morning to the place where he stood before the Lord: And he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace.[3]

The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah (painting by John Martin, 1852)

And that’s why we read Genesis, for the gory destruction and wrath of a story like that. In this tale, following soon after Noah’s flood and the Tower of Babel, again the bad people get zapped.

Because the story is about the horrors of threatened male-on-male rape, we should consider the Bible’s ethics around rape. In another example of the Bible’s surreal morality, female rape is OK, and the Bible even gives instructions on how to do it ethically. Repeated verses make clear, even from Moses himself, that if the righteous capture a city, they can keep the virgins even as they kill off her family and community.[4] In fact, the Bible says these brave men deserve a couple of women for their efforts: “They must be dividing the spoils they took: there must be a damsel or two for each man.”[5] If a man rapes one of his own people, however, he is punished by having to pay off her father and marry her.[6] Of course this means a raped woman must marry her rapist, but that is not seen as a problem. Oh, and if she has a child from the rape, God’s people can kill it.[7]

So how can Lot ethically offer up his daughters for rape? In biblical morality women are property, and the Bible gives specific laws for selling your daughters:

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are.  If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again.[8]

Daughters sold do not get freed in the seventh year like male slaves, plus they come with a money-back guarantee if they do not please their new owner, and we know what kind of satisfaction a man requires. Christians preach that Sodom was a city worthy of destruction because the men threatened rape, even though it was never committed. In the patriarchal world of the Bible a threat to violate a man is worse than actually violating a woman. Fortunately, this is  not our modern ethics, even for those who claim they take the Bible literally.

To finish the Sodom story is to marvel at the morality tale the Bible is telling. Lot is newly widowed as his disobedient wife was turned into a condiment. Lot and his two daughters are holed up in a cave as their shared husband wouldn’t leave with them. (Nothing like sharing a man with your sister. However, considering that the daughters are married but virgins, I can see why their husband let them leave.)

And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth: Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.

And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.

And it came to pass on the morrow, that the firstborn said unto the younger, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father: let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.

And they made their father drink wine that night also: and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.

Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father.[9]

Lot and his daughters (Hendrick Goltius, 1616)

So there we have it, after God incinerated the evil homosexuals, the good righteous folk went to live in a cave where the married-but-virgin daughters get dad blind drunk and raped him twice, incestuously impregnating so the family can continue their righteous heterosexual ways. (There is a similar tale about Noah’s drinking problem, involving a son, but we won’t get into that here. Old Testament prophets seem to use the “but I was drunk” defense a lot.)

The story of Sodom is one twisted morality tale. It is hard to see how the ethics described here provide guidance for modern gay people, yet this is the story continually used to justify anti-gay hate. It makes my stomach turn every time I hear it.

Having read the story, it is now easier to understand that the Sodom story wasn’t always about sex. Early commentators noted that Sodom was arrogant and violent to visitors, whereas Lot was righteous for providing hospitality and protection. Jude condemned the men of Sodom for craving “strange flesh,”[10] but he is referring to the angels in that verse, and craving angel flesh would be truly strange. It wasn’t until St. Augustine wrote The City of God in 412 AD, after 400 years of Christians fighting Roman paganism and more than 2,000 years after Sodom, that homosexuality was first clearly named the sin of Sodom.

Yet some would have have us use this story, so old it smells more of myth than fact, as the basis for our modern morality, applying it to people who are clearly not in the story at all.

[1] Genesis 19:1-5
[2] Genesis 19:6-8
[3] Gensis 19:24-28
[4] Numbers 31:7-18 NLT, also Judges 21:10-24 NLT, Deuteronomy 20:10-14, Deuteronomy 21:10-14
[5] Judges 5:30
[6] Deuteronomy 22:28-29
[7] 2 Samuel 12:11-14
[8] Exodus 21:7-11  (NLT)
[9] Genesis 19:31-36
[10] Jude 6-7

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