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.