The story of the destruction of Sodom and its sister city of Gomorrah is of compelling interest today because of the current debate in the churches over homosexuality. In the course of this debate, these two chapters of Genesis have been degraded from a story of God’s justice and providence to a diatribe against specific sexual acts, as well as a specific group of people, rendering the story repugnant and useless for any other spiritual purpose. Our intent here is not to formulate a position on sexual morality, but to rescue this Bible text from the crossfire of dispute, restoring its original theological significance and devotional value.
Buckle up! This is a long one.
The Popular Interpretation
Traditionally, the story has been interpreted as demonstrating the sin of Sodom. The usual interpretation runs as follows: God and Abraham have a conversation in which God reveals to Abraham the plan to destroy the cities on account of their wickedness. Since Abraham’s nephew Lot lived in that area, Abraham was concerned that Lot might innocently be included in the destruction and bargained God down to an agreement that if just ten righteous people were found in the city, the entire city would be saved. God then sent angels to the city, and they went to Lot’s house. After nightfall, all of the men of the city gathered at Lot’s door and demanded that Lot bring out his guests so that the crowd could rape them. The crowd is interpreted as consisting of raging homosexuals intent upon rape. Lot begs them not to do this and offers them his two virgin daughters for sexual abuse instead. The crowd becomes angrier and turns on Lot; but before they can do anything, the angels snatch Lot into the house and strike the crowd with blindness. The angels decide that this is the last straw for Sodom, forcibly remove Lot and his family from the city and throw the switch. Thereafter the city is spectacularly destroyed, demonstrating God’s wrath against homosexuals forever.
Is this true? Is the popular sexual interpretation of the story a misunderstanding? Let’s go through the story verse by verse and see if it is borne out by more than a superficial reading.
The Hospitality Interpretation
A second, more recent, and less common interpretation is in reaction to the popular interpretation. It alleges that Sodom was destroyed because the men of the city interfered with Lot’s hospitality toward his guests. This theory requires this one part, and only this part of the Torah to exalt hospitality over morality. The interpretation only works if an unrighteous man is paradoxically rescued for being a righteous man, which defeats the stated purpose of the story, and it only works if the value of women in that society approaches zero. Both of those assumptions are palatable to the interpreters’ sensitivities, but they are spectacularly inconsistent with the values and precepts elsewhere in the Torah. Someone may point out that the Torah is not a transcript of events as they occurred, and that it is most likely a compilation of constituent documents. However, it is equally true that the people who compiled all these writings into the Torah were fully conscious as they worked. If there were a gross mischaracterization of Lot, an absurdity, or a moral inversion in the story, they would have just left it out. If not, the rabbis, who are primarily teachers of the Torah, would have been wrestling with the inconsistency for thousands of years—yet they have not.
We can only refute the popular sexual interpretation by finding a better one, and that would replace the hospitality interpretation also.
A Fresh Look
The biblical record of the destruction of Sodom is contained in Genesis 18 and 19, and is one of a chain of episodes in the life of Abraham. The story begins with an appearance of God to Abraham:
And the Lord appeared unto him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.”
—Genesis 18:1-3, RSV
It is important to note that the Lord appears to Abraham in a group of three “men.”
The next verses (4 through 8) describe in detail how Abraham went about extending his hospitality to the strangers. Anyone who is well read in the Old Testament will recognize Abraham’s behavior as being the usual response to unexpected visitors. Then in verses 9 through 15 an account is given of the circumstances surrounding the announcement of the future birth of Isaac, which is not relevant to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him?”
—Genesis 18:16-18, RSV
What is not mentioned here, but is relevant, is that Abraham’s nephew Lot had recently settled near Sodom (Genesis 13:12), and so the destruction of Sodom would be of more than passing interest to Abraham. God’s thoughts continue:
“No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
—Genesis 18:19, RSV
God is anthropomorphically represented here as “realizing” that the situation presents the opportunity to teach Abraham about justice and righteousness. Therefore, we should expect the remainder of the story to show unambiguous righteousness and justice on the part of God.
Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 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.”
—Genesis 18:20-21, RSV
Here God tells Abraham that He plans to determine the guilt of both cities personally. Then:
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord.
—Genesis 18:22, RSV
Here the group of three visitors breaks up. The Lord remains with Abraham. The “men” leave for Sodom and only Sodom. Therefore, one of the group stays behind, while two leave—and it turns out that only two arrive at Sodom. Since the one who stayed behind is the Lord, the two “men” who departed must have been something else—as it later turns out, they were angels.
Why Were the Angels Sent to Sodom?
What was the mission of the two angels who left for Sodom at this point? Well, the mission was not to determine the guilt of the city. First, God promised to make a Personal determination of the guilt of the cities in verses 20 and 21. Since God cannot lie, and since judgment is exclusively a divine prerogative, we cannot say that He delegated this task to the angels who had just left. Second, God promised to evaluate both cities, but the angels went to Sodom and never visited Gomorrah. If their mission had been to evaluate the cities, then God would be unfair for destroying Gomorrah for Sodom’s deeds. This would contradict the point of the story, which was (as God said) to showcase God’s justice. Therefore, their mission cannot have been to judge the city.
While the two angels are on their way to Sodom, Abraham bargains with God. As is stated above and in Genesis 19:29, Abraham’s concern is that his nephew Lot would perish unjustly in the destruction. God allows Abraham to bargain down to an agreement that if God only finds ten good people in Sodom, the entire city will be spared. The purpose of the conversation, which is recorded in Genesis 18:23-32, is to emphasize that God may spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous, but would never punish the righteous for the sins of the wicked.
And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking with Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place. The two angels came to Sodom in the evening; and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed himself with his face toward the earth.
—Genesis 18:33-19:1, RSV
The physical form that represented God left Abraham, but the text does not show Him going to Sodom or Gomorrah. Thus we conclude that Genesis does not record God’s promised evaluation of the facts in the case.
The Story So Far
God and the two angels came to Abraham in the heat of the day (mid-afternoon), ate a large meal which required extensive preparation (the main course was on the hoof), and had a lengthy conversation. Then the two angels set out for Sodom on foot and arrived there at dusk the same day. Later on in Genesis 19:13, the angels explain to Lot that they have been sent to Sodom to destroy the city. It is obvious that God had completed the investigation and determined the fate of the cities before He dispatched the angels. The angels were not sent on a fact-finding mission; they were sent to execute a sentence. Therefore the conversation between God and Abraham could not have had any effect upon the fate of Lot and his family or the people of the city of Sodom. The purpose of the conversation was to educate Abraham about righteousness and justice, as God stated in Genesis 18:19.
Lot Invites the Angels
Picking up where we left off:
And (Lot) said, “My lords, turn aside, I pray you, to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise up early and go on your way.”
—Genesis 19:2a, RSV
Lot is extending routine hospitality to the strangers, just as Abraham had done earlier. As mentioned above and in Genesis 13:12, Lot was a newcomer to Sodom and not a native. It is very likely that the natives of this city would be suspicious if total strangers entered the walled city (the gate mentioned in the text indicates walls) at dusk and proceeded to spend the night at a newcomer’s house without introduction or explanation. In that day of petty local wars which we find in great abundance throughout the Old Testament, strangers that acted this way could very well turn out to be spies and the vanguard of a surprise attack. Since the angels knew this, they did not want to cause Lot any difficulties and responded to his invitation:
They said, “No; we will spend the night in the street.”
—Genesis 19:2b, RSV
Problems With the Angel’s Response
The angels’ response to Lot’s invitation does not fit the traditional “homosexual rape” theory; since by staying in the street, they would only be tempting the allegedly lusty and homosexual populace to rape them all the sooner. It would be as if the pastor of a modern church, a good and righteous man, encountered angels from God. When invited to stay at the parsonage, they respond, “No, we’d rather spend the night at the homosexual bathhouse!” Since we know that these angels were sent by God and were carrying out God’s purposes, the popular interpretation presents us with a severe problem, because we know that no temptation to do evil comes from God. (James 1:13-14).
But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.”
—Genesis 19:3-5, RSV
What Does it Mean to “Know” Someone?
The popular interpretation of this story is that the phrase “that we may know them” means that the men of the city desired to rape the angels who were guests in Lot’s house. The Hebrew word translated “know” in the above text can either mean “be acquainted with” or “have sexual intercourse with,” so both are possible translations at this preliminary stage. Because of tradition, and because an alternative interpretation of this passage is lacking, most modern language Bibles interpret this word as indicating rape. However it must be pointed out that in the 936 occurrences of this Hebrew word in the Old Testament, “know” with the meaning of sexual intercourse only occurs about a dozen times, and then it only describes marital sex. Those who interpret the Hebrew word “know” in this verse to mean homosexual rape should have a lot of explaining to do. Normally when an interpretation depends upon one word having a unique, unlikely and unprecedented meaning, most scholars are inclined to discard the interpretation as contrived and as serving some unspoken purpose of its proponents. In this case, the fact that this is the popular interpretation spares its advocates a lot of work.
If “Know” Means Rape...
For the sake of argument, however, let us set the linguistic evidence aside for the moment and pretend that these two interpretations of the Hebrew word “know” have equal merit and explore how each possibility fits into the context.
The writer goes to great pains to inform us that every single male of the city desired to “know” the strangers. Therefore the traditional view leads to two rather improbable but inescapable conclusions: 1) that the male population of Sodom was 100% homosexual; and 2) that the sexual appetites of the entire population happened to coincide one fateful night! Since the strangers entered the city at dusk in an era with limited artificial lighting and went straight to a foreigner’s house, it is much more reasonable to believe that the entire male population of the city would be interested in cross-examining potential spies about their intentions in town. Thus the men of the city have a stronger motivation for wanting to “get to know” the strangers than they do for wanting to rape them. The story reads more logically and plausibly if we interpret the men of Sodom as belligerently desiring to interview suspected spies.
Finding a New Understanding
The only reason for maintaining that “know” means “rape” is a desire to preserve the perceived purpose of the story. If the purpose of the story is to exhibit how Sodom sinned and to demonstrate the reason why God destroyed it, then it is only by interpreting “know” as “rape” that this interpretation makes any sense at all. If the men of Sodom only wanted to interview possible spies, then their conduct is completely in order even if we could show that they were rude or pushy. If we assume that the point of the story is to showcase Sodom’s sin, then the most we could get out of the story is a divine overreaction to breaches of etiquette. This is patently silly.
So let us determine the point of the story. To accomplish this, we must first determine the chronology of events and the relationships between them. For the destruction of the city to have been even partly caused by the men attempting to “know” the angels, the judgment would have to come after this event. A judgment invariably comes after a crime. Did the judgment of Sodom occur before the angels’ visit, or after the men of Sodom came to Lot’s door? In addition, the story can only be about the sin of Sodom if God empowered the angels to judge or to gather facts for use in judgment. Otherwise, the conduct of the people of Sodom during the angels’ visit would come after the judgment and therefore could not be a factor in it. And we have demonstrated:
The text says that God would pass judgment, not the angels. There is no description of God’s visit to Sodom.
The angels revealed that they had been sent to destroy the city; therefore God passed the judgment before they were sent, and the crime that led to the judgment came before that.
The nature of the agreement that God made with Abraham was that a righteous population of ten would save the city. Thus if the angels had been sent to determine the fate of the city, they should have been taking a census of righteous people, not freeloading at Lot’s house until some neighborhood toughs ticked them off.
The judgment was to have been of both cities, yet the angels only visited one!
The Purpose of the Story Revealed
Therefore the title of the story is not “The Sin of Sodom” ; rather it is “The Rescue of Lot.” God already knew there were less than ten righteous people in town and sent the angels to remove the few righteous who were there so that it could be destroyed without unfairly punishing anyone. The fate of the city was sealed before the events of Chapter 18. God’s rescue of Lot taught Abraham about divine justice. The difficulties involved in the rescue are a consolation for righteous people who are in difficult straits.
The Difficulties of Persisting in Error
However, if we persist in interpreting the men of Sodom as desiring to rape the “men” who visited Lot, we have serious difficulties in the next few verses:
Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men; for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
—Genesis 19:6-8, RSV
If the popular interpretation were valid, then we are puzzled as to why Lot would address an angry rapacious homosexual mob as “brothers”—especially considering the usage of this word in the Old Testament.
We also come up against a very uncomfortable moral problem: we can only construe Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters as permission for the mob to gang-rape them! (It is obvious that the daughters were “acquainted with” their father and their fiancés, so the phrase “not known men” must refer to marital intercourse, meaning that the daughters are virgins.)
Earlier, God stated that His purpose in this story was to show God’s righteousness and justice. According to the popular interpretation, the men of Sodom threatened Lot’s guests with homosexual rape, but were prevented from doing so by the angels’ intervention. The popular view also has it that Lot offered his daughters for a gang-rape by an angry mob, but this offer was never taken up. Therefore, the popular view would have us believe that the men of Sodom were spectacularly destroyed for a crime that they planned but never committed, whereas Lot was mercifully spared despite the fact that he had also planned a crime he did not commit! This favoritism does not square with God’s purpose in the incident, which was to demonstrate righteousness and justice! The only way out would be to assert that gang-raping women was of no import in that age; an assertion which flies in the face of the evidence in archaeology and in other parts of the Pentateuch. All the popular view could demonstrate is that Abraham’s friendship with God got his nephew Lot over a rough spot—that is, connections in the right places are more important than a moral character.
Besides, Lot’s action in allegedly volunteering his daughters as a substitute for the men in the gang rape is irrational: how could anyone who lived in an exclusively homosexual community, as Lot is reputed to have done, be so naïve as to offer girls to homosexuals intent upon raping men? Lot’s offer is not only immoral, it is demented!
The popular interpretation presupposes that Lot came from a culture that severely deprecates homosexuality and exacts spectacular, even cruel penalties for it; yet in his attempt to avoid it, he betrays total ignorance on the most superficial level of the nature of the offense.
Many commentators who advocate the sexual interpretation of this story confess that they are at a loss to explain Lot’s conduct. The liberals explain it away by alleging a second-class status for women. Not only are they flagrantly reading twenty-first-century social concerns into the distant past, their theory is flatly contradicted by God’s insistence in Genesis 20-21 that the heir of the promise to Abraham be born of the proper mother. The conservatives explain it by avowing that homosexuality is such a horrible sin, that offering one’s daughters for rape (otherwise a serious crime) becomes virtuous in comparison. Some even interpret it as a sex education lecture: a graphic demonstration of how the men should direct their sex drives! This desperate argumentation is repulsive even to its advocates.
The Difficulties Are Not in the Text
All of these difficulties vanish if we use the other translation possibility that the crowd wanted to “be acquainted with” the strangers. Lot addresses the men as “brothers” meaning that he considered himself to be one of them. If Lot were a member of the community, then the men were committing a gross violation of Lot’s hospitality to his guests by dragging them out for interrogation by the militia. The character of the crowd is not violent at this point, and Lot’s offer of his daughters is defensible: he is offering them in trust to men he calls brothers as hostages to guarantee the conduct of the strangers. Family members were commonly given as hostages to enforce and guarantee agreements, and the Old Testament is filled with examples. This offer is in the spirit of compromise; the hostages are supposed to make the interrogation unnecessary.
The Text Refutes the Popular Interpretation
If the popular interpretation of the story were correct, we would expect the response of the crowd to be something on the order of: “Forget the girls, man; send out those good-looking guys!” However, what they really said was this:
But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he would play the judge! Now will we deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door.
—Genesis 19:9, RSV
The crowd is not recorded as rejecting Lot’s daughters because they are female; something we should expect if the crowd consisted of homosexual men looking for a good time. They threatened Lot with rougher treatment than they had planned for the visitors. If they had intended to rape the visitors, then we should interpret this as a threat to subject Lot to even rougher sexual abuse. However, an attempt to rape Lot is curiously missing from the record. The more this passage is scrutinized, the less tenable a sexual interpretation becomes.
The Real Issue at the Door
In contrast to what the popular interpretation would lead us to expect, the reaction of the crowd is indignation that Lot, an outsider, would presume to call their action improper. We see immediately that there is a difference of opinion about Lot’s standing in the community—Lot thinks he is an insider (he calls the men “brothers”)—the men of the city consider Lot an outsider (“this fellow came to sojourn”). This disagreement is the core of the controversy: if Lot were an insider, the action of the men in violating his hospitality was indeed wicked as Lot had said. If, however, Lot were an outsider as the men of the city thought, then Lot’s action in bringing total strangers inside the city walls at dusk and whisking them into his home at night was extremely suspicious, especially since the citizens of the town had no opportunity to speak with the visitors. Lot’s attempted compromise is considered meddling and is rejected, and in their indignation, the crowd surges against Lot and nearly breaks down his door.
But the men put forth their hands and brought Lot into the house to them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they wearied themselves groping for the door.
—Genesis 19:10-11, RSV
The imputed “sin of Sodom” never took place!
Then the men said to Lot, “Have you any one else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or any one you have in the city, bring them out of the place; for we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up, get out of this place; for the Lord is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons- in-law to be jesting.
—Genesis 19:12-14, RSV
Three things are evident from this passage: First, that the angels intended to rescue the sons-in-law, and that they were worthy of exemption from punishment. Second, that the angels had been sent to destroy the city and thus not to judge it. The judgment had to have been decided before they were sent and before the incident with the crowd had taken place. Third, that the sons-in-law that the angels intended to rescue were outside the house during the crowd scene earlier and were involved in it—since it is clearly stated in the text that all the men and boys in town were in the crowd demanding to “know” the visitors. If the traditional rape theory is correct, then the angels’ intent is questionable; the sons-in-law would be eligible for rescue because of their luck in associating with the nephew of a friend of God, and not because of righteousness or justice. God’s purpose in the story would be thwarted. If the crowd scene earlier had only been a misunderstanding and was recorded as being one of the complications involved in rescuing Lot’s righteous family, then the sons-in-law could be innocent of wrongdoing and worthy of sparing. Aside from righteousness, no other reason for sparing the sons-in-law presents itself; none is given in the text.
Why the Sons-in-Law Disobeyed
The sons-in-law were warned to leave town the evening before its destruction, but they thought Lot was joking and disobeyed the warning. Some conclude that the sons-in-law were disobedient because they were unrighteous and deserved destruction, but this theory is unwarranted. If that were true, then we wonder why these two unrighteous men were singled out for preferential treatment in the form of a useless warning. The angels would either have not warned them at all and saved the useless effort, or all Sodom would have been warned so that all could prove their unrighteousness by their disobedience. The only explanation is that the sons-in-law were warned because they were righteous and deserved to be spared. They disobeyed because they possessed free will and elected to disregard the warning, as Lot’s wife did later on. (No one suggests that the disobedience of Lot’s wife proves her unrighteousness!) It is clear that they perished in the destruction merely because they did not follow instructions. Even the righteous can make careless, even fatal mistakes.
The family beds down for the night, and the action resumes at the crack of dawn:
When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Arise, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be consumed in the punishment of the city.” But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him forth and set him outside the city. And when they had brought them forth, they said, “Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley; flee to the hills, lest you be consumed.” And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords; behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me, and I die. Behold, yonder city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there-is it not a little one?-and my life will be saved!”
—Genesis 19:15-20, RSV
The Mercy of God
It is obvious that Lot has not realized (at least until this point) that his visitors are angels because he lingers. As with the sons-in-law, God’s justice is served and the angels’ mission is completed upon the delivery of the warning. The angels are not required to enforce obedience. It is Lot’s prerogative to obey or disobey. According to Ezekiel 33:1-6, those who willfully disregard a warning and perish as a result bear the responsibility for their own demise. However, the Lord is so merciful to Lot that the angels grab him by the hand and give him a shove in the direction of obedience. He, his wife and his daughters are instructed to flee and not look back. Lot bargains for a shorter, more realistic distance; the angels agree. As Abraham learned in his bargaining with God, Lot experiences that God will spare the wicked if it is necessary for the preservation of the righteous:
He said to him, “Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Make haste, escape there; for I can do nothing till you arrive there.” Therefore the name of the city was called Zoar. The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar. Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven;f and he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot’s wife behind him looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
—Genesis 19:21-26, RSV
Lot switches from addressing both angels to addressing only one of them. Exactly where this change occurs in the narration is unclear in the Hebrew; it does not affect our interpretation. The angels facilitated the destruction of the area by warning the righteous inhabitants, and the fire and brimstone came down from the “Lord in heaven.” This reconfirms the earlier statement that the two figures who dealt with Lot were angels and that neither of the two was a representation of God. Also, the sons-in-law were not the only innocent people to suffer when they ignored instructions; Lot’s wife also disobeyed and perished.
The Survivors and the Aftermath
There had been six righteous people in Sodom: Lot, his wife, his two daughters and their fianc?-four short of the ten required for sparing the city. Three of these lost their lives to disobedience leaving only three survivors of the catastrophe: Lot and his two daughters.
And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord; and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and beheld, and lo, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace. So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelt.
—Genesis 19:27-29, RSV
The Author’s Explicit Statement of Purpose
Here, at the end of the story, we find a summary of what it was about: the Rescue of Lot. In rescuing Lot, God remembered Abraham’s desire that the innocent not perish in the punishment of the wicked. It is true that some innocent people did perish, but only because they took matters into their own hands and disobeyed. The story itself sums up its topic and message in Genesis 18:19 at the beginning of the story and in Genesis 19:29 at the end of the story. The message is that God demonstrated His righteousness and justice by rescuing Lot. Nothing more, nothing less.
Confirmation from 2 Peter 2:9
2 Peter 2:9 presents the story as an example of how God rescues the righteous from the punishment of the wicked. If the popular interpretation were correct, the divinely inspired writer of would be in error about the point of this story!
Genesis 18:1-19:29 is the Rescue of Lot. It presupposes that Sodom was sinful, but does not disclose that sin.
Puzzles for Eisegetes
A few questions for those who still hold to the traditional “homosexual rape” theory:
- Why didn’t the angels make an effort to seek ten righteous people?
- Why did God allow the angels to judge the city contrary to His promise to do it Himself?
- Why did the women of Sodom die in the destruction?
- If the altercation at the door caused the destruction to be unleashed, why did the people of Gomorrah and the other neighboring towns die?
- If the men of the city were destroyed because they wanted to rape the angels, why wasn’t Lot destroyed for offering his daughters for rape?
- How does the story demonstrate God’s righteousness and not just simple favoritism?
- Why was Sodom destroyed if the men of the city never committed the alleged sin?
- Why would God’s angels prefer to spend the night in the street since in doing so they would be blatantly tempting the men to sin?
- Why would God send His angels to entrap people into sinning?
- If God’s discipline and control over His angels is so lax, what hope does this story give us?
If the angels destroyed the city in reaction to the mob’s alleged rape attempt, why did they wait until the next morning to do it? Since they were waiting for a prearranged time, God set the time of the destruction before the angels even arrived in Sodom.
How could Lot be considered righteous if he allows his daughters to marry homosexuals?
Since we cannot escape the fact that the sons-in-law were in the crowd demanding to “know” Lot’s visitors (the text makes it amply clear that all the men in town were in the crowd and that the sons-in-law were in town but not in Lot’s house),
Why You Must Immediately Abandon the Popular Interpretation
It is clear that the traditional “homosexual rape” theory involves too many theological difficulties and presents us with too many discrepancies and contradictions. We are given a haphazard God who plays favorites; we are given holy angels who follow orders so loosely they should have been placed on probation; we see a man rescued for “righteousness” whose character is as questionable as the criminals from whom he is rescued. This murky mess cannot be explained away by asserting that there were lower moral standards in the distant past or that the writer had an unenlightened concept of God—the mess is caused by the interpreter, not the text. The popular interpretation is theologically defective because of its characterization of a haphazard God. It is morally offensive because some crooks get punished and others get off because they have friends on the outside. It is scripturally unsound, because it requires conduct on the part of God’s representatives that other parts of the Bible assure us is impossible. It is logically inconsistent because it requires people to react absurdly and ignores chronology. It is intellectually dishonest because it inserts the interpreter’s meaning instead of extracting the author’s meaning. It is, from a literary standpoint, unwarranted because it ignores parts of the story in interpreting other parts.
The traditional “homosexual rape” theory must therefore be discarded as theologically defective, morally offensive, scripturally unsound, logically inconsistent, intellectually dishonest, and unwarranted.
What Should Have Been Obvious All Along
The following is a summary of the events in Sodom described in Genesis chapters 13, 18 and 19:
Because their households have grown too large for them to camp together, Abraham and his nephew Lot part company, Lot taking the low lands. Lot eventually moves his camp to Sodom.
Sodom loses a local war. All the inhabitants, including Lot and his household, are carried into captivity. Abraham rescues the whole city in order to rescue Lot and restores it. In gratitude for his victory, Abraham gives God’s High Priest Melchizedek ten percent of all he owns. The King of Sodom imitates this action and offers to give Abraham ten percent of his property in gratitude. Abraham turns down the offer, saying that he doesn’t want the reputation of benefiting from an unrighteous man’s gifts.
Three “men” appear to Abraham to announce the birth of his son. After a long and pleasant visit, two depart. The third turns out to be God and tells Abraham of a plan to destroy Sodom and the surrounding region. Concerned that Lot would be destroyed unjustly in the cataclysm, Abraham reaches a bargain with God that a population of ten righteous people will abort the disaster. God departs.
Meanwhile, the two “men” who had left the company of God and Abraham arrive at the gate of Sodom and find Lot sitting there. Lot offers them routine hospitality, which they turn down, being mindful of Lot’s status as a newcomer in town and not wanting to place him in jeopardy. They prefer to spend the night in the street, where their actions will be in plain view of the entire citizenry. Lot becomes very insistent about his invitation, so they allow him to have his way and suffer the consequences of his own poor judgment. Shortly before bedtime, all the men of the city gather outside Lot’s house, demanding that he bring out the visitors for questioning. Lot goes outside, closes the door behind him and talks to the assembly. He addresses the crowd as fellow citizens and asks them not to disturb his guests. If they are concerned that the outsiders might be spies, then he is willing to hand over his daughters as hostages to guarantee their conduct. Lot points out that this is no empty gesture; the daughters are virgins. (Sleeping over at a friend’s house would only be a minor inconvenience for the girls.) The crowd is not mollified by Lot’s proposal; in fact, it is angered that Lot, an outsider, would presume to judge the way they run the town’s affairs. The crowd surges against Lot, pressing him against the door. The angels in the house reach out, grab Lot and bring him in. They disperse the crowd by striking them with blindness.
The angels ask if Lot has any other relatives in town and reveal that they were sent to destroy the city. This means that Abraham’s bargaining and Lot’s angry town meeting have no bearing on the fate of the city, since God had commissioned the angels before either of those two events occurred. Lot informs the angels of his two sons-in-law and receives instructions to warn them, which he proceeds to do. They do not heed the warning because they think it is a joke. Then Lot’s family settles down for the night and goes to sleep. Just before dawn, the guests awaken the family and urge them to flee. Lot lingers, so they grab him by the hand in an act of unusual mercy and help him up. The angels instruct the family to flee to the hills without looking back. Lot points out that the distance is too great and asks permission to flee to a small town. They give him permission, but tell him to hurry. (Lot’s assurance that the town is very small betrays that he suffered the common misconception that God delights in punishing as many evil people as possible.) When Lot’s family reaches the town, the destruction is unleashed. Lot’s wife, like the sons-in-law, disobeys instructions. She looks back and is transformed into a pillar of salt.
Meanwhile up in the hills, Abraham’s morning constitutional takes him by the place that overlooks Sodom and he finds that the region has been destroyed.
The Author’s Purpose Vindicated
The title of the story is given as “The Rescue of Lot” in Genesis 19:29. The message to God’s people is clear: if you have fallen into bad company and find yourself entangled there, do not worry. God knows how to preserve you from the punishment of the wicked and will rescue you from their midst.
Let’s rescue this uplifting message of hope from the sleazy, almost pornographic interpretation forced upon it by tradition. Whatever God’s opinion on homosexuality may be, it is not set forth in this passage.
The Sin of Sodom
In all this there is no mention of the nature of the sin that brought about the destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah and the neighboring towns. To find the sin of Sodom, we must search elsewhere in the Bible.
We have just demonstrated that the events of Genesis 18:1-19:29 describe the rescue of Lot from the destruction of Sodom, and do not reveal the offense that brought about the destruction. To discover the nature of Sodom’s sin, we will now examine every biblical reference to the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Searching For “Sodomites”
The traditional view that Sodom was destroyed because of a homosexual rape attempt has been around for a very long time. It lead to the invention of the word “sodomy” in the English language. As a legal term, “sodomy” has developed over the years to include prohibited sex acts of almost every type, depending on the legal jurisdiction, but because of the word’s obvious derivation, it is generally felt that “sodomy” refers to homosexuality in general or to one particular homosexual sex act in specific. This is the meaning of the term outside the courtroom. As a consequence, “sodomite” refers to an individual homosexual. These words and usages are exclusive to the English language; none of the biblical languages has a word like “sodomy” which derives from the name of either Sodom or Gomorrah and denotes any kind of sexual sin—or any other kind of sin, for that matter. Likewise, the word “sodomite” in Hebrew or Greek only has the meaning of “resident of Sodom,” which is how it is always translated.
When the King James Version of the Bible was translated in 1611, the Hebrew word “qadesh” was rendered “sodomite,” because in those days they believed that “qadesh” referred to a person who engaged in the sexual practices ascribed to the men of Sodom by their understanding of the story of the rescue of Lot. Therefore, the word “sodomite” appears in the King James Version for the word “qadesh” in the following passages:
- 1 Kings 14:24
- 1 Kings 15:12
- 1 Kings 22:46
- 2 Kings 23:7
- Deuteronomy 23:17
The King James translators did not have the wealth of archaeological information that we have, and their mistake can be excused. The term “qadesh” is the masculine form of the Hebrew word “qadeshah” which means “cult prostitute.” This second term was correctly translated by the King James translators as “harlot.” We now know that the pagan cults of the Old Testament used male and female prostitute-priests and incorporated sex acts and orgies into their ceremonies. The idea was that the worshiper could have sexual communion with the pagan deity (usually a fertility god), the prostitute priest acting in proxy. The King James translators missed a clue in the word itself: “qadesh” and “qadeshah” derive from the Hebrew word for “holy”; a puzzling fact until we realize the pagan religious purpose of the prostitution. Another clue they missed was in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. It makes it very clear that these terms refer to pagan priests. When we realize the true meaning of these words, it explains why the “sodomites” all lived together in the Temple and were evicted during religious reforms.
Responsible modern translators translate the words “qadesh” and “qadeshah” in a manner that makes it clear that pagan prostitute priests are meant.
Therefore, if our English translation contains the words “sodomy” or “sodomite,” we know that this is a reference to pagan religion. The meaning of these English words and their similarity to the name of Sodom has its origin outside the Bible and does not aid us in discovering the sin of Sodom.
Searching the Towns of Sodom and Gomorrah
Unlike the words “sodomy” and “sodomite,” we can be sure that if our translation contains the words “Sodom” or “Gomorrah,” the original text contains them also. Examining the circumstances under which these cities are mentioned could shed light on the nature of Sodom’s sin.
In addition to the story of the rescue of Lot, Genesis refers to Sodom and Gomorrah in two other places. In Genesis 13:9-13 the circumstances under which Lot came to live in the area of Sodom and Gomorrah are related. The text informs us that the men of Sodom were very wicked, but the details we seek are not theref. In Genesis 14:8-17 a petty local war is recounted which involved both Lot and Abraham. Lot and his possessions were captured in the war, and Abraham sent his men to rescue him. Although we might pick sides against Sodom in this war, we find no clue as to the sin that later led to Sodom’s destruction.
Because Sodom’s destruction was spectacularly sudden and complete, Biblical writers made use of the event as an example of how quick, unexpected or comprehensive God’s judgment of wrongdoers would be.
In many places, the punishment of those who are enemies of God’s people, who break God’s commandments or who reject the Gospel is compared to the punishment that Sodom received. The passages in this group are: Deuteronomy 29:23, Lamentations 4:6, Amos 4:11, Zephaniah 2:9, Matthew 10:15, Matthew 11:24, and Luke 10:12. The sin of Sodom is not revealed in these passages: the imposition of the same penalty does not mean the same crime was committed. Whatever the crime of Sodom was, it was not rejecting the Gospel; and yet the crime of Sodom and the act of rejecting the Gospel are given the same punishment. Death by stoning, for example, was prescribed for various crimes. Knowing that someone died by stoning does not allow us to deduce the crime without further information. Examples from the New Testament: Two men were crucified with Jesus; although all three suffered the same penalty, they were accused of different crimes. In John 8, a woman was nearly stoned for adultery. In Acts 6-7, Stephen was stoned; but for blasphemy, not adultery. To infer that the woman committed blasphemy or that Stephen was an adulterer would indicate somewhat less than clear thinking. Thus, passages that prescribe Sodom’s punishment for various crimes do not allow us to deduce that Sodom’s crime was the same.
Passages that Mention Sodom, but Do not Identify its Sin
In the following passages, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is used as an example of total annihilation: Isaiah 1:9-10 (quoted in Romans 9:29 for the same purpose), Isaiah 13:19, Jeremiah 49:18 and Jeremiah 50:40. These passages also do not indicate Sodom’s sin.
This passage says that the people of Sodom were wicked, but gives no details.
The enemies of God, in general terms, are likened to the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in Jeremiah 23:14 Israel is likened to the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. These passages do not state Sodom’s sin or cite what God’s enemies, Israel, and Sodom and Gomorrah all have in common. We still have no legitimate clue to Sodom’s sin.
2 Peter 2:6
The story of the rescue of Lot is given as an example of how God rescues the righteous from the punishment of the wicked, but does not state what the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were.
The name “Sodom” is used as an allegorical name, and nothing is said about Sodom’s sin.
Bible Passages that Mention Sodom and Explicitly Identify its Sin
There are only two passages remaining in the Bible which mention either Sodom or Gomorrah or both. They are the only passages which contain an outright, plain language declaration of Sodom’s sin. They are Jude 7 and Ezekiel 16:44-58.
The wording of Jude 7 varies significantly from translation to translation, and most speak of “sexual immorality” or “unnatural perversion” in disappointingly vague ways. Most of these translations are very broad, and whether they include or refer to any specific sexual act is a matter of interpretation rather than reading.
The editors of the popular “Living Bible” paraphrase do interpolate wording which unambiguously refers to homosexuality and identifies it as the sin of Sodom. These words have no basis in the Greek, as we shall see. They inserted the wording in the spirit of a true paraphrase which combines the Bible text with the paraphrasers’ interpretation to give the reader a pleasant reading experience free of intellectual puzzles. Because a paraphrase combines fact and interpretation, it prejudices the outcome of serious study and thus cannot be used for that purpose. Paraphrases should be restricted to devotional use.
The King James Version renders Jude 7 as follows:
Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.
—Jude 7, KJV
In the original Greek, the phrase “giving themselves over to fornication and going after strange flesh” is worded as follows:
’εκπορνευσασαι και απελθοσαι ’οπισω σαρκος ’ετερας
(ekporneusasai kai apelthousai opiso sarkos heteras)
—Jude 7, Greek
The King James renders it literally. The first word of the Greek phrase is formed from the Greek word porneia which is usually translated “fornication.” It is immediately recognizable as the root of our English word “pornography.” In the Septuagint, it meant “house of prostitution,” apparently the part of a fertility cult temple where one could avail oneself of the services of the prostitute priests. The related terms pornos and referred to male and female prostitutes, usually religious, who performed their duties in “porneia” of the temple, which we might call a house of prostitution. At the time Jude was written, the word ekporneusasai (or “giving themselves over to fornication”) meant “giving themselves over to [religious] prostitution” —in other words, the people of Sodom “prostituted themselves out in fertility cults.”
Now we come to something curious. The Septuagint, which is in Greek, was the Bible of the church and synagogue in the first century. It remained the Old Testament in the western church until the fifth century, it remained the Bible in the Synagogue until the Masorets, and it is still the official Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox churches. Despite that, modern translators depart from the Greek meanings of these words and change “male cult prostitutes” into “fornicators,” “female cult prostitutes” into “prostitutes,” and they generalize “porneia” as “fornication” or “sexual immorality,” even though they translate the corresponding words in our Hebrew Old Testament correctly. The word “arsenokoites” has an uncertain meaning, but that doesn't stop the NRSV translators from rendering it as “male prostitutes,” even though the word “pornos,” which really does mean “male prostitute” appears in the same sentence.
This is doubly curious because the Roman Empire of the first century was rife with fertility cults complete with male and female prostitute priests, and one of the problems that the ancient church faced was educating catechumens that it was not proper to use them.
The translators argue that by the first century, the meanings of those words had become more general, but they determine the meanings of words from their usage in all the documents of the era. It is unlikely, however, that the church would use words from Scripture with secular meanings, when the issue was still current.
One might say that the words are generalized to make them more applicable to us. I am sure that we are right that the apostles were concerned with sexual immorality in general, but translators should stick to translating to give us an accurate basis for our interpretation. Interpretation is our job.
The last four words in the Greek phrase above (“going after strange flesh”) make a little more sense when it is realized that “strange” in King James’ day meant “different” or “from elsewhere” —much as a “stranger” is different from us and from elsewhere.The Greek word heteras means “another of a different kind.” This part of the phrase cannot refer to homosexuality, as the adjective is incorrect for that purpose. (Homosexuality is when one has sex with another of the same kind. The Greek word allos would have been used, if that were the author’s intent.) The phrase also cannot refer to the angelic visitors, because angels do not, cannot, and never have had flesh. The word for “flesh” here is the New Testament technical term for “human nature” ; thus we would have angels preempting the baby in the manger in Bethlehem. This interpretation degrades the incarnation of Christ and requires the creation of a new doctrine that angels may take on human nature at any time. True, Lot and the townspeople did not know that the visitors were angels, but the writer of Jude did. To interpret these words to refer to the angels creates more problems than it solves. There is also little evidence to support the idea that the “different” flesh referred to bestiality, although the wording might permit it. The naturalistic meaning of the phrase “different flesh” would simply be “people of different towns or tribes.”
We can understand this passage when we examine the little word “and.” “And” can have two meanings: it can connect two events which are simultaneous (“She played the piano and enchanted the audience.”) or which occur one after the other (“He drove to the store and bought a quart of milk.”) If we interpret “and” in the first sense, the Greek phrase means:
They prostituted themselves out, even pursuing people from other towns.
The meaning is clear. Sodom and Gomorrah were engaged in a very high degree of activity in pagan sex cults, and were recruiting from nearby towns. As we know from archaeology and the Bible, these cults engaged in a variety of grossly immoral activities which included such extreme acts as self-mutilation and infant sacrifice.
Ezekiel 16:44-58 goes into greater detail than Jude 7 and in plainer language. It is the only passage in the Bible that identifies the sin of Sodom in so many words. In this passage, Ezekiel is prophesying to Jerusalem and begins by comparing the Jews to Sodom and Samaria. Ezekiel states that Sodom, Samaria and Jerusalem are morally equivalent except that Jerusalem sinned worse in engaging in “abominable practices.” In the Old Testament, an “abomination” was a religious wrong. Pork chops, dead bugs, pagan idols, left-over sacrificial meat and pagan prostitute-priests were all abominations; whereas sex crimes not associated with pagan religion were never called “abominations.” Thus this passage refers to the Jews’ perennial cycle of adopting, then purging pagan religious practices; a constant theme in the Old Testament. Otherwise Ezekiel would be crediting Jerusalem with a more fervent embrace of homosexuality even beyond what Sodom is alleged to have done!
Beginning in verse 49, the sin of Sodom is revealed. There were two sins: first a lack of concern about the poor and needy despite their wealth. A very serious sin in a day where the poor and needy could only beg in the streets until they died. The second sin consisted of haughtiness and abominable practices. Unless we are willing to assign a special meaning to the word “abomination” when it applies to Sodom (an intellectually dishonest approach which reveals that someone has a doctrinal ax to grind), we must assume that this charge refers to pagan religious practices as it does elsewhere in the Bible.
God’s Surprising Promise to Sodom!
Beginning in Ezekiel 16:53, God promises to restore the fortunes of Sodom and Samaria, since Jerusalem made them look good by comparison.
Even More Difficulties for the Eisegetes!
The proponents of the “homosexual rape” theory of Genesis 18-19 must overcome the following difficulties:
- How can the word “abomination” have a specialized second meaning which only applies to Sodom?
- How could Jerusalem be corroborated as being a hotbed of homosexual activity in Ezekiel’s day, worse than Sodom?
The Biblical Writers Resolve all Difficulties
However, as we have presented it, all these difficulties have been resolved. Jude 7 and Ezekiel 16 agree totally that one of the sins of Sodom was pagan religious practices. This is a sin that the Jews committed over and over, sometimes with greater enthusiasm than the pagans. Sodom as a pagan town is believable. Jerusalem as a homosexual town is not. Ezekiel cites a second sin that Sodom committed—lack of concern for the poor and needy.
Jesus said that all the Law and Prophets could be summed up in two laws: Love God, and Love your neighbor as you love yourself. If Jesus was right, and if He stated these principles in the order of importance, then the sin of Sodom was indeed very grave. They committed the two greatest crimes, which are violations of the two greatest laws: They committed idolatry, and thus did not love God; and they neglected the poor and needy, and thus did not love their neighbors. Jude and Ezekiel concur on this.
The writer of 2 Peter agrees with us that the main point of Genesis 18-19 is the rescue of Lot.
No biblical writer uses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to condemn any form of sex. Jewish tradition, in the form of the Talmud and the Mishna, never applied a sexual interpretation to the story of the rescue of Lot. The current sexual interpretation of Genesis 18-19 originated after the time of Christ and became dominant only after several centuries. One of its original proponents was Josephus, who has a strong influence on Christian fundamentalist doctrine today.
The Importance of Correct Interpretation, According to Jesus
There is no biblical basis for interpreting the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as having anything to do with homosexuality, except because of a fairly recent tradition. And about such religious traditions which obscure the Word of God, Jesus has the following to say:
...Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.
—Mark 7:6-8, RSV
Sexual Sin in the Bible
Before we begin: The word “homosexual” is relatively recent. The first documented use of the word is in a private letter in German from Karl-Maria Kertbeny to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in 1868. It first appeared in English in 1895 in the translation of a German publication. Some people used it to mean “of the same sex,” such as in describing an all-girls school. It went on to become a medical term, but it turned out not to be a medical disorder. so it became a psychological term, but then psychiatrists and psychologists discovered through research that homosexuality does not meet the criteria for being a disorder at all.
Paul’s Letter to Rome
Paul wanted to go to Rome: it was his stated ambition to convert the emperor. Phoebe, an unmarried Christian businesswoman, was traveling to Rome on business and offered to take a letter with her. (Lydia in Acts 16 was also an unmarried Christian businesswoman.) Paul jumped at the chance. His letter served as a letter of introduction for Phoebe, a means of keeping in touch with his good friend Priscilla and her husband Aquila, and as an advertisement for his preaching services. Constantly throughout the letter he tells the Romans how he would preach. The congregation in Rome was mixed Jewish and gentile.
So we see that Romans is the exposition of Paul’s gospel. He demonstrates the need for salvation, he demonstrates that the means of salvation can only be by faith, and he demonstrates that Jesus is the answer. Mindful of his audience, and wishing to show his broad appeal, he does this in both Jewish and gentile terms. He goes on to show the consequences of his gospel in everyday moral living. He answers objections and refutes rumors. He concludes with blessing and greetings.
In the very beginning, Paul demonstrates the need for salvation; first in gentile terms and then in Jewish terms. To the gentiles he shows that religiosity produces the opposite of the goal. To the Jews he shows that following a moral code produces little but frustration and fatigue. No one can reach God on his own efforts; we are inadequate to the task. This preliminary argumentation sets the stage for his real message: First he demonstrates the need for his product and then he presents the product itself: salvation through faith in Jesus.
Zooming in closer on our objective, let’s examine what he says about the futility of the gentile’s religious approach to God:
- Any adult of reasonable intelligence knows that if there is a God, he must be transcendent and powerful; invisible and omnipresent.
- Just common sense tells you what to look for when shopping for a god. (Romans 1:18-21)
- Despite this, people worship idols. Not the Sunday pulpit idols of power, lust, and greed; no: idols made out of wood or stone, fashioned in the shapes of animals and people. They know it’s dumb, but they do it anyway. (Romans 1:22-23)
- We live in a permissive universe, because if we did not, we could not make free choices, and without free choices, we cannot be responsible for our sins. If we aren't responsible for our sins, we cannot repent; if we cannot repent, we cannot be forgiven, and if we cannot be forgiven we cannot become righteousness.
If your toaster burns your toast, it can’t repent. This is why.
- God allows us to do what we will—and suffer the consequences. If you drive your car off a cliff, God will give you over to your misjudgment to the destruction of your body1. Likewise the false worshipers. If that’s what they want then God will allow it.
- Because they traded common sense for a lie, God allowed their willful decline into all sorts of immorality. (Romans 1:24-25)
- They even went so far as to engage in strange sexual practices.
- Men and women even abandoned their heterosexual practices and took up homosexuality for the sake of their religion! (Romans 1:26-27) Please note that this passage makes absolutely no sense at all unless we affirm that Paul is speaking about people who begin doing this when they are mature adults.
- And again, if that’s what the people want, that’s what they’ll get.
- God isn’t manufacturing any robots here, and will humor them until their time is up. (Romans 1:28)
- They fall further into all sorts of vices. Presumably these are worse vices than changing their sexual practices, since Paul places that in the middle of their fall! They get involved in intrigue and deceit and murder and all sorts of filth. You can see this in the sort of dealings, petty fights and squabbles any religious cult exhibits. (Romans 1:28-32)
Then Paul turns to the now smug Jewish members of the congregation and obliterates their trust in the Law as well, but that lies outside the scope of this essay.
It is apparent at this point that Paul is talking about mature, heterosexual adults who were committing homosexual acts as a part of their religion.
What about Nature?
Today, we think of nature as an ideal; something good and pure, but to Paul, nature is simply the raw material that the Spirit of God transforms. To put a permanent end to any debate over the meaning of “nature” and “natural” in Paul’s letters, consult the following passages in his epistles:
- Romans 2:14
- Romans 2:27
- Romans 11:21
- Romans 11:24
- 1 Corinthians 2:14
- 1 Corinthians 11:14
- 1 Corinthians 15:44
- 1 Corinthians 15:46
- Galatians 2:15, 4:8
- Ephesians 2:3
- 2 Timothy 3:3
In every case, nature is base, sinful, and bestial. When Paul argues from nature or talks of people being devoid of natural affection, the context shows that he is emphasizing that they do not even meet the very lowest of possible moral standards. It would be very un-Jewish and very anachronistic for Paul to exalt unregenerate, unspiritual nature as we do. All through his epistles we read about how the natural is lower than the spiritual. When Paul says that the sexual relations were natural or against nature he could not possibly have had the twenty-first-century meaning in mind! He simply meant to state that these people, in pursuit of idols, went so far as to abandon their natural sexual practices for practices that were against their natural proclivities.
Similar things happen today: in the nineteenth century, some Mormons abandoned monogamy to embrace polygamy for the sake of their religion—a practice they had abhorred only months before and denounce today. The Shakers abandoned sex altogether, working out their passions in rigorous dancing. The Moonies married total strangers in mass weddings as a part of their religion. Practitioners of Witchcraft reputedly engage in group nudity and perform sex acts as a part of their rituals. The People’s Temple of Jonestown fame swapped children between families to integrate the races, and members of both sexes had sex with Rev. Jones—these things went against their natural practices as well. Does it not seem that, more often than not, cultism and bizarre sex practices go hand in hand?
Paul is expounding on the need for salvation, not upon the evils of sexual sin. For Paul’s present purpose, sexual sin is just one of intermediate stages one passes through in the course of practicing false religion. (Notice again that the sexual sin is in the middle of the decline and is not the culmination of it!) Paul speaks of heterosexual adults who knew better but worshiped idols anyway, got involved in homosexual practices contrary to their inner nature and descended further into all sorts of personality disorders. If he were talking about homosexuality, he was wrong. Homosexuality begins long before adulthood, has nothing to do with idol worship, and does not involve any other character disorder. If Paul was wrong, then this passage is not inspired. If this passage is suspect, we can never be sure of the Bible. However, if Paul was describing the futility of pagan fertility cults, then he was right. The picture he paints fits what we know about religious movements of his day like a tailored glove. The history of Mormons, Moonies, Shakers, the People’s Temple and many others corroborates it.
Suppose I wrote a letter advocating prison reform. I could say that some things about society are just obvious: that laws are necessary for the common good, but some men abandon that knowledge. God allows them to do what they choose, but they experience the consequences of their acts, that is, they commit crimes and end up in jail. There, deprived of their natural sexual outlets, these men turn on each other, performing unnatural sex acts and bearing in their personalities the consequences of their sins. They become hardened criminals, dirty dealers, swindlers, without compassion or sympathy for their victims.
Don’t you agree with that statement? Doesn’t it sound like Paul? If my paragraph above became part of Holy Writ, wouldn’t some nitwit quote it to prove that homosexuality is evil and unnatural? Would I be advocating that position? Is Paul?
Paul’s Letters to Corinth and to Timothy
1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 contain the Greek gutter word arsenokoites, which is a compound word composed of arsen meaning man in the sense of male adult, and koites meaning bed. The word koites comes to us through Latin as “coitus,” which immediately conveys the proper flavor of the Greek word. Thus the literal meaning of arsenokoites is “manbedder.”
The New Testament was written in a rugged, blue-collar, call-a-spade-a-spade Greek. It has smelly armpits and a dirty face from honest labor. Most translations tend to obscure that, especially those that are beautiful and comforting because their language has become antiquated, such as the King James Version. This is a real problem for translators, one which is generally not known. The Old Testament has graphic references to bathroom functions and sex acts which must be cleaned up for modern sensitivities. In the Greek text of Acts 8:20, the apostle Peter tells Simon the Magician to go to hell. If you think the Bible is for sissies, think again.
Is a French teacher a teacher of French, or a teacher from France? If we are talking to a child, is a lady doctor a gynecologist or a doctor who is a woman? What exactly is a “manbedder?” Are they people who bed down a lot of men or a men who like to mess around in the sack a lot? Arsenokoites means one of two things: either we’re talking about your garden variety homosexual or we’re talking about a heterosexual man who’s a sex maniac. Either a “bedder of men,” or a “man who beds” a lot.
It is dangerous to base a doctrine on an ambiguous word, because if the meaning were that all-fired important, the Holy Spirit would have preserved it. By putting a finer point on the text than God does, we are making ourselves out to be more inspired than the One who inspired the Word of God. That sounds dangerously close to blasphemy. However, let us continue.
It is always difficult to determine the meaning of compound words, especially in this case because usage doesn’t give us much of a clue. Arsenokoites appears only three times in only two documents over a period of three centuries! Two of these are in the New Testament and one is in the Sibylline Oracles. In all three cases, the word appears in a list and so the meaning of the word cannot be readily derived from the context. The meaning of the word in a later historical epoch may be misleading: casket no longer means jewelry box, coitus no longer means bed, gay no longer means happy, and lasagna no longer means chamber pot!
We can do some detective work to puzzle out the probable meaning of arsenokoites. The first component (arsen) has a variant form (arren). A study of ancient Greek reveals that when the man is the recipient of the action, the compound is normally formed with arren, as in the Greek compound word meaning to give birth to a male child, which incidentally does not appear in the New Testament. Compound words formed with arsen indicate that the arsen is doing the action. Therefore we must conclude that the word more likely means heterosexual sex maniacs, not homosexuals. This conclusion fits the context quite well, because all the other sinners in the list are sins of excess and not kind. Nevertheless, it is only a clue. It remains ambiguous and we can’t build on it one way or the other. Let’s be satisfied that it means some sort of sexual misbehavior that is part of the damage that a person suffers by participating in pagan fertility cults.
It is interesting that the Revised Standard Version had homosexual in 1 Corinthians 6:9 in the 1952 edition but the word was removed in the 1972 edition.
Many people feel that Leviticus 18:22 contains the final answer on this matter, and that it forms the basis for Paul’s alleged unconditional condemnation of homosexuality. As we shall see, Paul’s own theology does not allow such an easy vindication of present social prejudices.
The answer to Leviticus is in Galatians 3 and all of Hebrews. Some people have still not read all of the New Testament. They feel burdened to obey the Law of Moses, which is traditionally defined as consisting of the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, even though these laws do not apply to gentile Christians (Acts 15:1-29). Most of these people are very selective: certain laws are very important to them, such as the laws having to do with sex in Leviticus 18, and others they disregard completely, such as the ones about eating pork chops or touching dead bugs in Leviticus 11. However, the Law is not a buffet—either you obey all of it or you are guilty of all of it (Leviticus 26). Come to think of it, that is the very nature of law: whoever heard of a verdict of law-abiding citizen? It’s either guilty or not guilty, and however much you may assiduously obey, it takes only one transgression to cause a judge to pronounce you guilty.
Unenlightened people abound who go about citing Leviticus 18:22 to prove that God hates homosexuals with a vengeance. If this is true, then people who eat pork chops are in real trouble—there is one verse popularly applied to homosexuality, but in total five verses prohibit eating or even just touching pork. Leviticus has more up its sleeve than pork chops, which we will find out if you bear with me.
Leviticus 18:1-30 Prohibits Pagan Orgiastic Worship
Leviticus 18:1-20 deals with sexual sin. Sexual sin is not called abominable here or anywhere else in the Old Testament. Abomination simply means a ritual offense: goat herders were an abomination to the Egyptians; dead bugs, pork chops and stale sacrificial food were specifically listed as abominations to the Hebrews. Often, an idol is called an abomination. Sexual sin is immoral. Religious irregularities are abominable.
Leviticus 18:21-30 deals with Molech worship, which involved prostitution, bestiality and a form of infant sacrifice: the idol, being hollow, was actually a furnace. The infant was placed in a carrier and drawn through the idol—thus the odd phrase “pass through the fire to Molech” in some translations. The will of Molech was divined by the condition of the infant afterwards. The Bible, despite its detractors, is evenhanded in its treatment of the sexes, and yet female homosexuality is not mentioned here. If this is a sexual sin oddly placed out of context in the middle of a discussion of pagan worship, it is the only time in the entire Bible that a sexual sin is abominable—except for cult prostitution, which was an irregular religious practice. This is why Tamar, who deceived Judah by dressing up and playing the role of a prostitute, was not punished (Genesis 38:24-26). She was not a cult prostitute. As a result of her liaison with Judah, she gave birth to Perez, who is an ancestor of Jesus in Matthew 1:3 and in Luke 3:33. The Old Testament makes distinctions that are lost on us.
Leviticus 18:21-22 Closes a Loophole
In Genesis 18:19, God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son named Isaac, who would be the heir of the promise to Abraham. However, Ishmael, the son of Abraham but not of Sarah, was born before Isaac. According to law and custom, the inheritance would have been misdirected from Isaac to his older half-brother. Sarah enforced the prophecy by forcing Abraham to throw Ishmael and his mother out, leaving Isaac to inherit.
Now we see the problem of men having sex with cult prostitutes. The prostitutes might produced male heirs that would take the family and the property out of the community, which would diffuse and destroy Hebrew ethnicity. Men living in that society would realize the problem, and would come up with the idea of having sex with male prostitutes as a safe alternative, because men cannot become pregnant. With this simple substitution, they could have the same fun but not endanger the community. Leviticus 18:21-22 closes that loophole.
Nevertheless, we cannot conclude that the prohibition of homosexual prostitution constitutes a prohibition of homosexuality any more than we can conclude that a prohibition of heterosexual prostitution constitutes a prohibition of all heterosexual behavior.
The Origin and Purpose of Heterosexuality
Genesis chapter 3:14-19 fairly well sums up what most people feel is God’s will for a proper heterosexual relationship, mandatory for all. Yet God said it was a curse, the penalty for Adam’s disobedience! The original purpose of heterosexuality is companionship and mutual help according to Genesis 2:18-25. Nowhere is there a commandment to marry or even to be heterosexual.
The rest of us have read Galatians 3 and the Epistle to the Hebrews. We know we already stand condemned by the Law and because we are dead in a legal sense, the Law does not apply to us. Like any other prisoner on death row, no amount of obedience can undo our fate; and no amount of disobedience could possibly make things worse. For the Law provides us no hope, no method of improving our lot, once we sinned our way out of the system; in fact it doesn’t even promise salvation. We have been saved from the curse of the Law by our reliance upon Jesus Christ, who raises us to a new spiritual life. We live moral lives, not because we are bound to a mechanical and unfeeling legal code, but because we are grateful to our Savior; we love Him and we wish to please Him.
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
— —Romans 3:19-24, NIV
Do as I Say, Not as I Do
In my secular job a few years ago, I had a co-worker who frequently asked my advice about things, including religious matters. He attended an independent, fundamentalist church. He was divorced and remarried, but he had custody of his children from his first marriage. One day he came into my office and started railing against homosexuals, for no reason I could discern. Perhaps his pastor decided to get everyone riled up the previous Sunday. If so, he certainly succeeded in my coworker’s case. My coworker ended his impromptu diatribe by saying, “My church preaches biblical sexual morality.”
I chuckled when he said that. I told him with some amusement that the fact that he is a member in good standing of this church is proof positive that it does not preach “biblical sexual morality.” He looked at me with a hurt expression and asked in a small voice, “Why do you say that?” I reminded him that he had been divorced for reasons other than adultery.
I cited these Bible passages:
It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
—Matthew 5:31-32, NIV
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
—Matthew 19:8-9, NIV
When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
—Mark 10:10-12, NIV
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
—Luke 16:18, NIV
Apparently the gospel writers were so struck by the importance of this teaching that they recorded it no less than four times!
So not only does his church fail to preach “biblical sexual morality,” they violate it! They go beyond that by avidly supporting people who are living in sin! They are apparently so deep in sin that their consciences are seared—for the very people who say Scripture is so important are ignoring Scripture themselves. It wouldn’t be so bad if they were wrestling with these passages in an earnest attempt to please God within their own social context, but they pretend these verses don’t even exist! So if my coworker wants to quote Paul against gays, then gays can quote Jesus against him. I am not being melodramatic here, because Jesus was speaking in a context in which the laws of the Old Testament had the force of civil law. According to the Old Testament:
If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.
—Leviticus 20:10, NIV
Can you imagine this? The very people who invoke the wrath of God against gays are themselves tainted with a capital sin and are guilty of the worst sort of religious hypocrisy. They have no excuse, because it is a scriptural principle that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander:
…if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?
—Romans 2:18-22a, NIV
Incidentally, this isn’t Jesus talking to Pharisees, this is Paul talking to Christians in the church.
After that, each time my coworker started off on his diatribe, I gently reminded him, “but of course, according to the plain words of Jesus, you are willfully living in a state of perpetual sin.” That brings him back down to earth, and he didn’t bring up the topic much after that. I reminded him that he is no better than other sinners, and that since Jesus is patient with him, he must be patient with others. In the words of our Lord:
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
The servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”
But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.
—Matthew 18:23-35, NIV
What About Sexual Sin?
Unlike God, we are sexual beings, and so we are titillated, excited, enraged, and inflamed by sexual passions and jealousies. Much of human indignation about sexual sin rises from envy that the culprit is getting away with something that we secretly want to do, but can’t. As a result, we lash out, reading our jealousy, queasiness, and prejudices into the Biblical text to cloak them with divine backing.
God, on the other hand, has none of those passions. From the standpoint of God, sex is one of the many gifts He gave us that we can abuse. Throughout the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament writers, we see that God is primarily concerned when the very strong and overriding passions of sex are misdirected towards false gods.
Our sexual behavior is important to God, as are all our interactions with each other. However, God doesn’t share our passion and outrage. He is concerned that we relate to one another in love and not in exploitation, in sex as in all other ways, and that we relate to Him, not to nonexistent gods we might invent.
The best thing to do is to live upright and decent lives, as God gives us grace to do so, and to be more concerned with our own sins than with the sins of others.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
—Matthew 7:2, NIV