What is Sodomy?

When I teach Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, students are often eager to talk about the Genesis 19 story of God’s destruction of Sodom.  Word on the street has it that God destroyed the city of Sodom because of the men’s “homosexual practices.”   But that’s not an interpretation of the story that holds up under rigorous exegesis.

In Genesis 19, God is on a mission to prove why the city of Sodom is bad enough to warrant its destruction. So God sends two angels to Sodom in the guise of strangers, in need of food and lodging.  Abraham’s nephew Lot graciously hosts these strangers.  But the men of the city soon come and “press upon” (an innuendo for rape) Lot’s door, demanding that Lot send out the guests so that the Sodomites can “know them” (i.e. have sex with them).  Lot refuses, but offers his daughters as sexual bait instead (yeah, he was a great father).  Lot and his daughters barely escape with their lives.

Fair enough, this story strongly suggests sexual acts between men.  But a) these sexual acts involve rape, not mutual relationships between consenting adults, and b) the essence of Sodom’s wickedness seems to lie not in sex, but in the humiliation of needy outsiders.  Sex is involved only as a tool for humiliation, not as a means to relationship or pleasure.

Often the Bible gives us internal clues about how we may interpret it.  Ezekiel 16:49-50 offers an interpretation of what the sin of Sodom actually is:

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it (NRSV).

According to Ezekiel, sodomy is not sex between two men.  Sodomy is idolatry of our own comfort that leads us to exclude people who are hungry and people who are outsiders to our communities.  The Sodomites in Genesis didn’t threaten to rape the angels because they were gay (who ever heard of a city where all the men were gay, anyway?).  The Sodomites became predators because they were hoping to humiliate the outsiders.  They hoped that the strangers would leave Sodom empty-handed, so that no insider to their city would have to share their hearth and their larder.

The sodomy that Genesis and Ezekiel condemn has nothing to do with rainbow flags and people committed to spending their lives loving each other. On the other hand, sodomy might have a lot to do with contemporary American political rhetoric.

Letter to My Daughter

Dear Baby Girl,

Your daddy and I haven’t held you in our arms yet (and honestly, we’re hoping we won’t for another 15 weeks).  We don’t know if the hue of your skin will be closer to your daddy’s warm brown or your mommy’s pale blush, or if you’ll have your daddy’s broad nose or your mommy’s slightly upturned one.  We don’t know if you’ll be the life of the party like your daddy or rather stay home with a book like your mommy.  But there are a few things that we know about you already, without question.

We know that God delights in you, exactly as you are.  Baby Girl, as much as it breaks my heart, there will be people in this broken world who cannot see your beauty the way we do. We know that as you grow up, you will hear stories and see images of people of color who were murdered for no reason.  You will see racism in the city where we live, in the schools you attend, and in the opportunities made available to people of color. You may ask me why people say things like “Make America White Again,” when you and your daddy aren’t white. You may ask me why all the presidents so far have been boys, and why there are fewer girls who are famous athletes, scientists, and pastors.  You may ask me why our country elected a man to the presidency who is a known predator on strong, smart, beautiful women like you. As much as I wish I could shelter you from prejudice and discrimination, I know that some people will see you as “less” because of the color of your skin and the fact that you are a woman.  And all these things may cause you to wonder if you really matter.

baby-larryBut I promise that we will tell you over and over again that you matter, exactly as you are. I believe that it was God’s intention for you to be precisely the person that you are, and that person is of inestimable value in God’s eyes. We read in Genesis that God created you “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:31).  We read in Psalm 139:13-14 that even now, before you are even born, God “knit [you] together” inside of me, that you are

fearfully and wonderfully made.

And as you grow and develop into the woman God created you to be, God doesn’t just tolerate you–God delights in you.  Zephaniah 3:17 tell us that God

rejoices over you with singing.

Baby Girl, God created you exactly how you are–as the daughter of a black man from inner-city Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a white woman from suburban Atlanta, Georgia–and those aspects of your personhood, as well as every part of your personality and character, bring immeasurable joy to him.

We know that Jesus gave his life for you.  Baby Girl, because you are precious and beloved in God’s sight just as you are, Jesus came to live and die for you, just as he did for the whole world.  His heart broke so much for the pain of the world that he gave his life for it.  Jesus beheld the way that the people hurt each other, creation, and God’s own heart, and he spread his arms wide on the cross to hold us all.  Jesus has borne the pain of every sorrow and difficulty you will ever know because he took on flesh in this broken and sinful world.  When anyone’s behavior or words suggest to you that you don’t matter, turn your eyes to the cross and see the Savior who says that you matter so much that he died for you.

We know that the One who died for you is seated on the throne. Baby Girl, when you face those times when people don’t value you, remember that they are speaking from a position of weakness.  The holder of true authority is the One who has called you precious and chosen and who has died for you.  The God of the universe, the Risen Christ, is seated on the throne above all. In the Old Testament, Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (6:1).  And in the New Testament, it is Christ who is enthroned. In Hebrews 8:1, he is

one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.

So know this, whenever somebody questions your worth: They are wrong, and their “authority” is meaningless compared to the sovereignty which the Christ who died for you holds over the world.

We know that we will fail at times as your parents, but we will never stop trying to mirror God’s love for you.  Baby Girl, before you were even conceived, we prayed for you to come into our lives. The morning I found out I was pregnant with you was one of the happiest moments of my life. The moment I told your daddy he was going to be a daddy, tears of joy rolled down his face.  But I have a confession: We don’t know how to be your parents yet. I don’t know how to raise a young woman of color to be confident and compassionate in this world that can be so unjust and unkind.  I fully anticipate messing up in spite of my best intentions. But I look to God as the ultimate and perfect parent, of whom the Psalmist says,

“If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up” (Ps. 27:10).

When my attempts to mirror God’s love for you fail, please forgive me, and know that God will not fail you as your heavenly parent.

Baby Girl, the love we have for you is more instinctive, deeper, and broader than anything I have ever known. But it is only a drop of water compared to the ocean of God’s love for you.  I pray that love defines every moment of your life as you walk through this broken and beautiful world.

Your Mommy


Silence, Shame, and Rape

King David may have been a man “after God’s own heart,” but his family life was dysfunctional at best.  I’ve heard the story of his affair with Bathsheba mentioned in sermons fairly often.  However, the story of his daughter’s rape by one of his sons, and his own complicity in it, rarely gets mentioned.

Princess Tamar appears briefly in the biblical narrative in 2 Samuel 13.  The text only tells us that she was beautiful and that her half-brother Amnon was obsessed with her (he claims to “love” her).  Amnon was heir to David’s throne.  Even though Tamar was a princess, her status couldn’t compare with Amnon’s within David’s court.  So Amnon has an easy time engineering a situation in which he can get Tamar alone.  Amnon enlists the help of Jonadab, a courtier, who concocts a scheme in which Tamar must go to Amnon’s room to “care” for him.

desolation_of_tamar_by_j-tissotNo sooner does Amnon get Tamar alone than he “seizes” her.  The Hebrew verb here is hazaq, which is the root that the noun “strength” comes from as well.  He literally overpowers her–both physically and socially through his position as heir to the throne.

Tamar’s protest is one of the most plaintive and evocative passages in the Old Testament.  Tamar knows that what is happening to her is wrong, but she has no power to freeze the action.  Courageously, she protests to Amnon anyway. She cleverly refers to Amnon as “my brother,” appealing to the taboo against incest, and claims that “such a thing is not done in Israel.”  She calls his action a nebalah, which literally means a “senseless thing.”  She accurately describes the rape as a senseless act of violence.

But the most moving point of her appeal is this question:

And I, where will I carry my shame?

Tamar know that the rape, even though it is not her fault, will be a burden that she alone will bear.  She, not Amnon, will pay the price of the violation of her physical and emotional space.

What she says doesn’t matter to Amnon. He rapes her anyway.

Immediately after the rape, Amnon feels only hate for Tamar, whereas before the rape, he claimed that he “loved” her.  Here, the biblical writers perceptively anticipate what modern psychology tells us about rape: Sexual assault is not about sexual desire or love.  It’s about power. And when the rapist has exhausted their thirst for power over the victim, the victim can be discarded.  Accordingly Amnon sends Tamar away screaming.

Tamar takes her lament to the halls of David’s palace. She lets her grief, fear, and maybe even rage be heard.  Absalom, another of her brothers and supposedly her ally, intercepts her and immediately knows what has happened. (We ask ourselves, how did he know? And if Absalom knew that Amnon was a threat, why didn’t he act sooner?)  But instead of helping her, Absalom responds first with these words:

Be silent.

King David is no better. David is angry when he hears that his son has raped his daughter, but he does not punish Amnon because Amnon is his firstborn and his heir.

The rape sets the course of Tamar’s life.  She remains a shomemah, literally a “desolated woman,” all the days of her life. The social stigma of rape buries Tamar in a shame from which, at least according to what the biblical text tells of her, she never escapes.

Tamar’s story is terribly difficult to read, but I’m grateful it’s in the Old Testament.  The story bears witness to the story of a woman whose experience is similar to that of many women even today.  Just as Amnon, Absalom, and David ultimately collude to silence Tamar–even though at least Absalom is ostensibly well-meaning–so many women today find themselves silenced if they dare to speak up about the sexual violence they’ve experienced.

Tamar doesn’t get “justice.” Even the death of Amnon (which, by the way, happens at Absalom’s hands just a bit later in the story) can’t restore her wholeness.  But in telling the story of Tamar today, we can literally begin to re-member her…to return her body to her again.

And if we can re-member Tamar, maybe we can re-member ourselves, too.