Revisiting Sodom


Text: Genesis 19:1-29

Traditional viewpoint: God destroyed the city of Sodom because the men of the city wanted to have sexual relations with the angels who were staying in Lot’s home. In other words, God judged and ultimately wiped out the city because of rampant homosexuality. This viewpoint is so prominent that homosexuality has become known as the “sin of Sodom,” male homosexuals are called “sodomites” and the sexual act is “sodomy.”

This understanding of the passage is based primarily on the Hebrew word “yadah” (“to know”) in verse five. The men of Sodom came to Lot’s house and demanded the guests (angels of God) be brought out for the purpose of “yahad-ing” them. In the King James version (KJV), it’s translated “that we may know them.” The New American Standard Bible (NASB) has it as “that we may have relations with them” and the New International Version (NIV) is more succinct with “that we can have sex with them.” (I love the “Message” translation: “so we can have our sport with them!”)

Obviously there’s little doubt about the meaning of the word and the intended meaning. It’s the same word used in the early section of Genesis to describe the physical relationship of Adam with his wife Eve. (“Adam knew Eve”) It is commonly (though not always) used to mean intimate, physical knowledge (i.e., sexual intercourse). Clearly, the men of Sodom wanted to have sexual relations with Lot's visitors. But to make this story a condemnation of homosexuality is a bit shortsighted and violates the traditional rules of biblical interpretation.

I’d like to offer six reasons why this interpretation of the “sin of Sodom” is not very…reasonable:

1. If we take the story literally, that would mean the entire city was gay, since the text plainly says “all the people” came to the house, “both young and old.” (cf: v. 4) We are told that “all the men from every part of the city of Sodom” were part of this threat. In that case, then the “sin” of homosexuality would certainly be an easy conclusion. But wouldn’t it be a stretch of any statistical probability to think this city contained a 100 percent homosexual population?

2. Undoubtedly some kind of mob action was involved. (cf: v. 5) So while they said they intended to “have sex with them” (NASB), anytime a gang of people seek to impose their physical/sexual will over an individual by force, we can be sure the intent is not pleasure. I’m certain affection is not the motivation, nor attraction either.

3. Lot, who had been a long-time resident of the city (some even see him as a leader of the city, since he was sitting at the gate in the first part of the story), apparently didn’t deem the action as homosexual, because he offered his daughters as a alternative “solution” to the mob’s request. (cf: v. 8) He knew the people of this city and he knew this custom. Think about it: if a gay man desires sexual relations, would offering a woman be a logical alternative?

4. From the details of the story, it was apparent that the ultimate intent of the mob was violence. (cf: v. 9) Homosexuality is about same-sex attraction and same-sex affection; it is not about violence any more than heterosexuality is about abuse or rape.

NOTE: As any rape counselor or rape victim will confirm: the act of rape has nothing to do with affection or attraction. By its very definition, rape is an act of violence against another person; it’s asserting control and imposing physical domination over someone. It is not associated with a loving, supportive and intimate physical/sexual act.

5. From similar passages of Scripture and parallel stories, this was not an uncommon practice in that culture. (cf: Genesis 34:1-31; Judges 19:20-30) Much like the culture in prisons today, these events…and the actions of the mob…wasn’t about sexual activity, sexual expression or sexual orientation; it was about control, domination, violence and power. The leaders of a city wanted to rape the foreigners to make sure they were clear about who was in charge! In other words, it was social and cultural dominance, not an expression of physical need and certainly not an outpouring of welcoming affection.

6. Using one of the traditional method of Biblical Interpretation—which says whenever possible, allow Scripture to interpret Scripture—we also see that this explanation is not supported by other passages:

  • The prophet Ezekiel actually defines for us “the sin of Sodom” in clear and certain terms: oppression, injustice, arrogance, failure to help the poor, greed. (cf: Ezekiel 16:46-56) How could it be any clearer?
  • Jesus spoke about Sodom four times, three times making the point that on the day of judgment Sodom would receive a lighter judgment than the cities where he taught and was rejected, reinforcing the traditional idea that the sin of Sodom was inhospitably and the rejection of God’s message and messengers. (cf: Matthew 10:15; 11:23-24; Mark 6:11; Luke 10:12; 17:28-29) In the fourth instance, he merely cited Sodom as an example of total destruction (Luke 17:29).

There is no doubt that Sodom was an evil city, with transgressions clearly defined as oppression, injustice, failure to help the poor, greed and lack of hospitality to strangers. At best, what can be deduced afrom this story involves a prohibition of homosexual rape (and the corresponding violence). But to use this story as an indictment against same-sex orientation is a disservice to the passage, a break in traditionally accepted methods of Biblical interpretation, a misrepresentation of facts and (too often) a willful attempt to oppress the homosexual, which ironically, IS the “sin of Sodom.”

Additional/Related Biblical Questions:

What about the “Sodomites” in Old Testament?

cf: Deuteronomy 23:17; I Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; II Kings 23:7; Job 36:14

The key is understanding the Hebrew word which is translated in the King James Version as “sodomite(s).” In the original language the word is “qadheshim” and it means holy, sacred ones. It was a reference to temple attendants—who used their body as part of worship of cultic deities. (i.e., “temple prostitutes”)

The use of this word in the KJV was more of an interpretation imposed on the passage than an attempt to give the intended message of the Biblical authors. Most modern versions have a better translation. (e.g., the NASB uses "male cult prostitutes" while the NIV translates it as "male shrine prostitutes."

It did not refer to male homosexuals.
Unfortunately, the word had become part of our language today, so sodomy is considered an act between two men and is a crime in many states. Also, in today’s usage, a sodomite is a male who engages in same-sex activity, usually anal penetration. Since the word exists, and people know what it means, some will still infer (wrongly!) that it has to prove that the sin of Sodom was, in fact, homosexuality.

What does the passage in Jude 7 mean and how is that related to the reason for their destruction?

The phrase rendered "going after strange flesh" obviously refers back to the incident in Genesis 19 when men of Sodom apparently wanted to rape two angels who were in Lot's home. The context makes it clear that the subject was “angels.” (v. 6)

The meaning of the verse is somewhat ambiguous, but there are two obvious facts which we can surmise:

  1. The intent of the mob was to rape the angels. Rape is a clear perversion of God-given sexuality, whether the crime is perpetrated on a person of the same sex or opposite sex.
  2. The angels were created beings, but were not humans, which could possibly explain the use of the term “strange flesh.”  From our study of the story of Sodom, it is obvious that homosexuality is not the issue in the story and was not the motivation for the destruction of the city.