(From Chapter 2 of Strange Flesh: The Bible and Homosexuality by Steve Wells)

Sodom's Sin

This is one of the conservatives'1 favorite Bible stories. To them, it is simple enough: God destroyed Sodom because the Sodomites were homosexuals. They are completely unfazed by the story's obvious injustice, misogyny, cruelty, absurdity, and contradictions. There is only one moral to the story, they say, and that is this: God hates homosexuality (and homosexuals) and you should too. Conservatives, of course, seldom phrase Sodom's moral this way. God hates homosexual acts, they say, because they are sins. But he still (somehow) loves the homosexual sinner. He just has a strange way of showing his love for them. (He smashes and burns them to death, at least that's what he did to the Sodomites in Genesis 19.)

Liberals claim that God didn't destroy Sodom because its inhabitants were homsexuals; he destroyed it because they were inhospitable to strangers, refused to help the poor, because of the Sodomites' greed, pride, adultery -- anything but homosexuality. And, in this case, they have some biblical justification for their belief.

The story of Sodom

The story begins when God and some of his friends stop by to visit Abraham.
The LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him. Genesis 18:1-2a
Abraham bowed himself to the ground, told them to wash their feet, and then ran off to prepare a non-kosher meal for them.
And when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said ... wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree ... And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf ... And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them ... and they did eat. 18:2b-8
Then God and his friends decided it was time to go.They were heading off toward Sodom and Abraham decided to tag along.
The men rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way. 18:16
As they were walking along, God said,
Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do? 18:17
How's that for weird? God asked himself if he should tell Abraham what he is about to do. Which is, of course, kill everyone in two cities.

But God finally snaps out of it and tells Abraham what he's up to. He has heard that the people in Sodom have sinned and he's decided to go to Sodom and see for himself.

The LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know. 18:20-21
To which Abraham said,
Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? 18:23
God, who is in one of his moods, ignores him. So Abe starts to bargain. What if there are 50 good people in Sodom? Would you kill them, too? "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? ... Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?18:24-25
God says if he can find 50 good citizens of Sodom, he won't kill everybody.
The LORD said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes. 18:26
So Abe tries 45, and God says he wouldn't kill everyone if there were 45.
Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it. 18:28
Abe keeps going this way (knowing that God is a tad slow). How about 40? 30? 20? 10? And each time God answers the same way: If God can find a few good men (well, 10, anyway), he won't kill the whole city.2
He said, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake. 18:32
And then God just takes off and Abraham goes home.
And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place. 18:33
But God's two friends (they're called angels now) keep going to Sodom. Lot invites them in and and tells them to wash their feet while he prepares a meal for them.
There came two angels to Sodom at even ... 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. 19:1-3
Then a strange thing happened. Every man in the city of Sodom came to Lot's house and demanded to have sex with Lot's two angel friends.3
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. 19:4-5
Man, those must have been some good looking angels!

Lot's response was to protect the angels by offering the sex-crazed mob his two virgin daughters instead.

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. 19:8
As it turns out, though, there is no time for Lot to make good on his kind offer because God is getting ready to commit a mass murder. The angels strike the people of Sodom blind, tell Lot, his virgin daughters, their husbands,4 and his unnamed wife to flee.
But the men ... smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness ... And the men said unto Lot, Hast thou here any besides? son in law, and thy sons, and thy daughters, and whatsoever thou hast in the city, bring them out of this place: For we will destroy this place ... the LORD hath sent us to destroy it. 19:10-13
And then all hell breaks loose, and God kills everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah.
The LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven. 19:24

So what was Sodom's sin?

It's hard to tell from the story, isn't it? God seems to be upset about something in Sodom even before the angels' visit, calling the Sodomites' sin "very greivous."5 And yet he wasn't really sure until the men of Sodom asked to "know" the visiting angles.

Some liberals interpret the request to "know" Lot's visitors in a literal, rather than a biblical sense.6 The men of Sodom, they say, demanded to speak to the angels, since the angels were new in town and seemed threatening to them. This interpretation seems a bit strange, however. Lot calls the mob's request "wicked" and then offers them his daughters who "have not known man," saying, "do ye to them as is good in your eyes." If the Sodomites had only wanted to talk to Lot's visitors, Lot's offer of his virgin daughters would have been completely nonsensical. And why would the angels have blinded the mob if the request to "know" them was just a request to speak to them?7

It does make you wonder though, doesn't it? What would have happened if the Sodomites accepted Lot's daughters? Would God have spared them, since their rape would have been heterosexual? (Assuming that the women of Sodom weren't involved in any of this.) Which would be worse to a homophobic, misogynistic god, homosexual rape or heterosexual rape?

The Bible is no help here, but the Quran is.8

When Our messengers came unto Lot, he was distressed and knew not how to protect them. He said: This is a distressful day. And his people came unto him, running towards him - and before then they used to commit abominations - He said: O my people! Here are my daughters! They are purer for you. Quran 11:77-78

Here are my daughters, if ye must be doing (so). 15:71

There are quite a few references to the sin of Sodom scattered about in the Bible, each with a different view of Sodom's sin.

Here they are:

It had something to do with whores, sodomites, dogs,9 and abominations.

There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel. Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the LORD thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the LORD thy God. Deuteronomy 23:17-18

Or failing to "do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow."

Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah ... Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:10-17

Or adultery, lies, corruption, and wickedness.

They commit adultery, and walk in lies: they strengthen also the hands of evildoers, that none doth return from his wickedness; they are all of them unto me as Sodom, and the inhabitants thereof as Gomorrah. Jeremiah 23:14

Or pride, greed, idleness, and refusing to help the poor.

Neither spared he the place where Lot sojourned, but abhorred them for their pride. Ecclesiasticus 16:8 (KJV, Apocrypha)

This was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49

Or being haughty and committing abomination in front of God and everybody. (Note that the Bible calls male homosexual acts abominations in Leviticus 18:22.)

And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good. Ezekiel 16:50

They declare their sin as Sodom, they hide it not. Woe unto their soul! Isaiah 3:9

Or being ungodly, doing unlawful deeds, having filthy conversations, and failing to follow the example of the just and righteous Lot.

Turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly; And delivered just Lot, vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked: (For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds;) 2 Peter 2:6-9

Or for being inhospitable10 (like the cities that refused to listen to Jesus's disciples).11

But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not ... it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city. Luke 10:10-12

Or for hateful behaviour toward strangers.

Punishments came upon the sinners ... they suffered justly according to their own wickedness, insomuch as they used a more hard and hateful behaviour toward strangers. For the Sodomites did not receive those, whom they knew not when they came. Wisdom 19:13-14 (KJV, Apocrypha)

Or fornication, going after strange flesh, and having filthy dreams.

As Sodom and Gomorrha ... giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh ... suffering the vengeance f eternal fire .... these filthy dreamers defile the flesh. Jude 7-8

I suppose if you're a Bible believer, you've got to believe it was all of the above, though none of these supposed sins are evident from the text in Genesis. And nowhere in the Bible is the sin of Sodom explicitly said to be homosexuality.

What should we do with "sodomites"?

Well, that's pretty obvious, isn't it? God set the example in Genesis 19 by killing everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah.
The LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven. Genesis 19:24

And if "sodomites" is just another word for homosexuals,12 then Leviticus 20:13 also commands us to kill them.

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Leviticus 20:13
Still, the Bible isn't entirely clear about this.

During the reign of King Asa, "there were sodomites in the land" doing all their usual "abominations."

And there were also sodomites in the land: and they did according to all the abominations of the nations which the LORD cast out before the children of Israel. 1 Kings 14:24
And Asa, who "did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord" and whose "heart was perfect with the Lord," "took away the sodomites out of the land." (He banished, exiled or maybe killed them.)
Asa did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, as did David his father. And he took away the sodomites out of the land ... Asa's heart was perfect with the LORD all his days. 1 Kings 15:11-14

Asa's son Jehoshaphat, who also did "that which was right in the eyes of the Lord," "took out" whatever sodomites remained after his father took them out.

Jehoshaphat ... walked in all the ways of Asa his father; he turned not aside from it, doing that which was right in the eyes of the LORD ... And the remnant of the sodomites, which remained in the days of his father Asa, he took out of the land. 1 Kings 22:42-46

And Josiah, one of God's favorite kings,13 broke down the houses of "the sodomites."

He brake down the houses of the sodomites. 2 Kings 23:7
So according to the Bible there are only two options when it comes to "sodomites": kill them or exile them.

The tricky part is knowing one when you see one.

  1. In this book, I will be referring to Christians who believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality as "conservatives" and those who believe that the Bible is either neutral or approving toward homosexuality will be referred to as "liberals" (whatever their religious and political beliefs might be).

  2. Here are the missing details of Abraham's negotiation with God, in which God promises not to destroy Sodom if he can find 40, 30, or 20 good Sodomites.
    And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty's sake. And he said unto him, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there. And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty's sake. Genesis 18:29-31

  3. "Know refers to sexual relations (v. 8), here homosexual ('sodomy')." Note for Genesis 19:5 in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, 23 OT.

  4. Although Lot claimed that his daughters were virgins, that seems unlikely since they were married. But maybe Lot was just trying to make his daughters a bit more appealing to the sex-crazed mob. In any case, Lot's sons in law were killed with the rest of the Sodomites, since they thought Lot was joking when he told them Sodom was about to be destroyed. ("Lot went out, and spake unto his sons in law, which married his daughters, and said, Up, get you out of this place; for the LORD will destroy this city. But he seemed as one that mocked unto his sons in law." Genesis 19:14)

  5. "The men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly." Genesis 13:13. See also the previously quoted passage from Genesis 18:20-21.

  6. See John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, p. 94; Peter. J. Gomes, The Good Book, pp. 149-150; and Byrne Forne, Homophobia, pp. 77-81.

  7. This interpretation seems a bit strange, however, since Lot calls the mob's request "wicked" and then offers his daughters who "have not known man" to them, saying, "do ye to them as is good in your eyes." If the Sodomites only wanted to talk to Lot's visitors, Lot's offer of his virgin daughters would have been completely nonsensical. And why would the angels have blinded the mob if the request to "know" them was just a request to speak to them? See David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality, pp. 135-6; Tom Horner, Jonathan Loved David, p. 50; and Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, God's Phallus, p. 94.

  8. The quoted verses are taken from Pickthall's translation of the Quran.

  9. "[T]he epithet "dog" in Deut 23:18 suggests a degree of revulsion more suited to same-sex male cult prostitution. ... Thus the most likely explanation is that the term "dogs" in Rev 22:15 primarily has in view emasculated male cult prostitutes, without excluding a wider reference to any who engage in homosexual practices." Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, pp. 104-5.

  10. "A confirmation of the interpretation of the primary sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as inhospitality occurs in the New Testament where Christ is recorded as discussing the problem of the inhospitable treatment of his disciples." John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual, p. 45.

  11. Jesus, by the way, believed the story about Sodom and Gomorrah as told in Genesis 19. He thought the punishment was appropriate and warned that whoever didn't listen to his disciples would be punished more severely. (I suppose he meant that they'd be tortured forever in hell after they died.)

    "Whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words ... It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city." Matthew 10:14-15

    "But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not ... it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city." Luke 10:10-12

  12. Only extreme conservatives refer to homosexuals as "sodomites" today but it was commonly used before modern times. "Sodom in fact gave its name to homosexual relations in the Latin language, and throughout the Middle Ages the closest word to 'homosexual' in Latin or any vernacular was 'sodomita.'" Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, pp. 92-93

  13. "Now the rest of the acts of Josiah, and his goodness, according to that which was written in the law of the LORD...." 2 Chronicles 35:26