A starting point is to look at the story in its context, and by “context” I mean the book of Genesis. We read Genesis as a single text, but of course it wasn’t composed as such. It was compiled, stitching together existing, already ancient stories, and sometimes stitching in more than one version of the same story. The story of destruction of Sodom is found in chapter 19, and it comes immediately after the story of Abraham in chapter 18, to which it forms a marked contrast.
In chapter 18, Abraham is living in a tent in the desert, with his wife and (small) household. He’s a nomad, travelling around looking for grazing for his sheep and goats, and otherwise living on what he can scrounge from the countryside. It’s a pretty basic existence, he’s getting on in years and at the start of each winter he really doesn’t know whether he will make it through to the next.
Three angels, disguised as men, come to his tent. Although they are strangers, in a culture which was suspicious of strangers, he greets them as honoured guests, and shares what little food he has with them. He even shares his water with them – an even scarcer resource. The men promise Abraham that his wife will bear a child (which indeed she does – Isaac).
Right. At the beginning of chapter 19, the same angels (though now there are only two of them – a sign, perhaps, that the editor is drawing together two previously separate stories) arrive at the gates of Sodom. The countryside around, it has already been established, is fertile, and Sodom is a prosperous and powerful city. We’ve also already been told that it has the name of being a place of great wickedness. (This has been mentioned as far back as chapter 14.) Lot meets the angels, and offers them his hospitality, much as Abraham did. In fact, he’s quite insistent, and he also insists that after saying with him they should “be on their way”. Lot, one senses, has a pretty shrewd idea of what happened to strangers in Sodom.
The men of the city surround Lot’s house and demand that he bring out the strangers “that we may know them”.
“Know” here looks like a bowdlerised euphemism for “have sex with”, and we tend to assume that it is employed by a squeamish translator. That’s unfair to the translator; the Hebrew word which appears here does in fact mean “know”. But, yes, it is a euphemism for having sex; it’s employed many times in the Old Testament in that sense.
But it also means “to know” and, remember, these men are strangers, and the culture of the time was suspicious of strangers. The citizens of Sodom didn’t know these men in either sense. I think the text raises both the literal and the euphemistic sense of the word, and the message is that “we’re going to do violence to these men; we’re going to humiliate them in the worst way we can, which is violent gang rape, and we are doing that because they are strangers, and we hate and fear strangers”.
Why would Sodom hate and fear strangers more than Abraham in the desert? Because Sodom has more to lose. Sodom is wealthy and powerful; Sodom is a target of envy. Sodom is rich, but is surrounded by poverty. Sodom is constantly at war. (We learned this in Genesis 14.) It’s only a few years since the place was sacked by the Elamites. The Elamites were driven off on that occasion, but they’re still around. Sodom is scared.
Sodom hates the fact that wealth and power doesn’t, in the end, buy security from the starving nomads of the valleys, because Sodom thinks it bloody well should.
In short, the reason the men of Sodom want to “know” these strange men is not so much because they’re men as because they’re strangers. This is the whole point of the contrast between Abraham’s reception of the strangers, and Sodom’s reception.
And this is a very long-standing reading. The prophet Ezekiel, for whom this was already an ancient story, writes that “this was the guilt of Sodom; she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and the needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things.”
“But what about the gay?”, I hear you all cry. “What about the hot man-on-man sex? What about the handbags? And the glitter? And all that pink?”
Sadly, this story is not really about that. We’re obsessed with sex, and it’s kind of hard for us to comprehend that a moral story which involves sex is not primarily about sex. But, really, it isn’t.
But hold on. Doesn’t Trinopus, back in post #4, say that the “classic interpretation” is that the sin of Sodom was, well, sodomy?
That’s true, if “classical” actuall means “medieval and modern European”. This perspective arose in medieval Europe (as indeed did the word “sodomy” - a couple of thousand years after the story of Sodom was first written down). The classic Jewish commentaries all treat this story as being about hospitality to “the stranger” (which, don’t forget, is a central preoccupation of the Old Testament moral codes). Quite why our culture came to take a different view is a subject for another discussion, but obviously it’s tied in with our preoccupation with sex.
I’m not saying that the ancient Hebrews were fine with homosexuality; they were not. They took a Very Dim View Indeed. They put it on a par with sacrificing your children to Moloch, or eating black pudding. But they didn’t share our obsession with sex; they didn’t regard sexual sin as uniquely awful, and they didn’t think “sex!” whenever they heard the word “immorality”, as we do. Consequently when the homosexual aspect turns up in this story, it doesn’t necessarily become, for the culture for which it was written, a story about homosexuality. The main focus of this story is found by reading it in context, and in its context it’s very clearly about hospitality, about the treatment of strangers, about the responsibilities of wealth and power and about the idolatry of wealth and power.
It’s not just our focus on sex as the pre-eminent moral question which hinders us in reading this story. There’s an even bigger issue and that, of course, is Lot’s treatment of his daughters; he offers his two daughters to the ravening hordes, if only they will leave the strangers alone. How can we not be revolted by this? And how can this not become, for us, a story about the oppression and abuse of women?
Just as we read this story through the lens of our emphasis on sex, so the original audience would have read it through a few lenses of their own, one of them being the attitude to women. Women, basically, were viewed as the property of men, and this was especially true of daughters.
We, of course, are horrified by this. But if we really want to understand this story - what it means, how it was intended, how it was received by its audience – then we have to note that horror, but be prepared to put it to one side and to think about what the story means given that appalling attitude to women.
One of the things that our horror prevents us from seeing is that a proprietorial attitude to one’s family can sit alongside with a strong and natural love. Yes, the OT texts show us that the Hebrew men owned their daughters, but it also shows us that they loved them, passionately. Daughters were not just another species of property; they were incredibly precious. Time and again Old Testament texts present the loss of children as the worst possible misfortune that could befall someone; as a crushing blow from which no recovery could be expected.
So Lot offering his daughters to the mob isn’t offering them money, or goods, or slaves; he’s offering them the most precious thing he has. The point of the story is not that you should be willing to sacrifice your children in order to prevent gay sex happening, or even that you should be willing to sacrifice your children in order to observe the obligations of hospitality. The point is to underline the depravity of the mob; Lot offered them the most precious thing he could in order to induce them to act as they should have acted with no inducement at all, and they preferred to stick with to their disastrous, fear-filled, hate-filled rage. Why? Because they put their trust in their wealth and power. They looked to it to save them. They would sacrifice everything, including their own decency, to defend their wealth even from purely imaginary threats, and nothing would turn them from this catastrophic course.
And that, basically, is the point of the Sodom story. We might like it to be making a point about homosexuality but it isn’t, really. We might like it not to assume horrific attitudes towards women, but it does. But it’s not about either of those things.