Monday, April 17, 2006

Was Sodomy[i] the Sin of Sodom?

In recent times certain gay activists have alleged that the famous sin of Sodom causing God to destroy it beyond recognition was a sin, not of any deviate sexual nature, but actually only a cowardly rupture of the protocols of hospitality. It is asserted that the inhabitants of Sodom who demand to “know” the two men given hospitality by Lot incur God’s wrath because they were contemptuous of the basic rules of this “hospitality.” Particularly insistent on this point is the homosexual apologist, John Boswell whose views are termed “eccentric” by Dr. Philip Jenkins, of the Faculty of Penn State University in his book on Anti-Catholicism.

However, Dr. Lynne Boughton[ii] of De Paul University does not dismiss Boswell lightly but rather seriously examines his position with respect and patience ultimately concluding that he is in error. Others like Dr. Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse[iii], theologian and psychiatrist, and Fr. Dr. Wm Smith[iv], ranking American theologian, (among others) do not treat the question as credible. Even the eminent Presbyterian Biblical scholar, Richard B. Hayes seems to reluctantly but compassionately agree with a more traditional interpretation.

Dr. Boughton makes sense to me. My position is heavily influenced by her scholarship which I find arresting. The operative word in this study is “know” (in Hebrew yada’) which though rarely used to indicate genital behavior, in Gen. 19:4-9 its use is clearly about carnal behavior. Since I am no Hebrew scholar, suffering, as I do, from the usual and minimal seminary exposure to Biblical languages, I depend exceedingly on the scholarship of those with whom I resonate spiritually. I like the Boughton interpretation which stems from an analysis of a series of events and a dialogue within those events.

That Lot does not try to appease the “screaming” crowd’s insistence to know (Gen. 19:5) his guests by arguing that travelers are entitled to privacy and that he does not try to give some kind of explanation as to why they are there at all, says much to my mind.

Lot knows that these “insurgents” are not looking for good conversation or information about the origin of the strangers. They want sexual experience. This is obvious from Lot’s offering his two virgin daughters to the crowd in place of the male visitors.

Lot blatantly speaks of his daughters’ condition---that they are virgins. He informs the lads that the girls have not known man and he uses the word “yada’ “ to describe his own kids’ virginity. The crowd yells for “yada’ “ and Lot offers his daughters to them---for what? For yada’. And, further, he offers them to the crowd with the obvious permission: “You may do with them whatever you please...” It is patently clear to me that Lot is trying to protect his visitors from sexual ravaging. Of course, the crowd violates the basic canons of hospitality in their demands but that is not the whole picture. It is much more. What does one need to see this? Or is there some kind of deliberate blurring of reality? The honest “obvious” is that the crowd is clamoring for carnal activity with the visitors who might be young and handsome. Or is there some fear that this might feed into anti-homosexual feeling?

It is further revealing that when Lot offers his daughters to the sexually aroused crowd instead of the males they really wanted, they tell him that, for his rejection, they will treat him worse (or more wickedly) than they had intended to treat his guests (cf. Gen. 19;9). In this threat, they use the scary word “ra’a’” or more wickedly. It was the same word that Lot had used in begging them NOT to do this wicked (ra’a’) thing to his guests (Gen. 19:7). This word apparently means to break or harm. It looks quite obvious that the men of Sodom originally wanted physical interaction with his guests. It would be a huge stretch to imagine that all they wanted was to discuss the weather or couture styles. To eliminate all sexual implications from this Biblical narrative strikes me as nearly dishonest research.

In my consultation with Scripture scholars, I find more buttressing of the above position in other sections of the Bible. I was told that the above two words, “yada’” and “ra’a’” are used in Judges 19:22-25 to describe men’s demand for carnal knowledge/sex with other men. The Judges story goes as follows. In a town called Gibeah, a local man welcomes a Levite man and his concubine, as guests. A crowd outside demands to know (yada’) the male, not the female. This is not some kind of tribal inferior ranking of women to men but rather a matter of the ra’a’ (Judges 19:22-23). They want to know him (carnally) and it is called wicked (ra’a’). The host offers his own virgin daughter as a substitute. No good. They do not want her. The concubine is also offered who is known (yada’) to the point of death by these Gibeonite men. Israelite soldiers avenged the sexual murder of the woman while Sodom was punished by supernatural power. The fairly parallel stories seem to suggest that the Genesis author of both stories used the verb “to know” and the word “wickedly” to surface the intention of some men to engage in genital acts with other men. This was the traditional expression of the sin of Sodomy. Is it stretching this point to suggest that the sin of Sodomy derives from the story of Lot and his guests? Does the sin of Sodomy as described in moral theology have anything to do with the lustful demands of the men of Sodom? Sodom. Sodomy. Sodomite. There does seem to be some link.

It is more than a bit na├»ve to suggest that because there is a lack of mention of homosexual conduct in Gen. 19, scriptural authors, in other biblical references, do not regard the demand for such activity as one of the sins of Sodom. I have discovered that Scriptural authors often (even generally) assume that their readers will be familiar with narratives and recognize the sins for which people or communities were punished. For example in 2 Samuel 12, David obviously commits adultery but that word (na’aph) doesn’t appear in the text. I found out that the sin of Cain isn’t mentioned even when Jude 11 and Hebrews 11:4 refer to him. My consultants tell me that Prophetic writings rarely recapitulate events or actions described in older texts. There is a kind of reminder to readers of obvious sins/punishments from the past. Even Midrash points out that Sodom was destroyed not only because of the crowd that sought to molest Lot’s guests but also because of the cowardice of the community that failed to object to the crowd’s licentious behavior. (Genesis Rabbah 50.9). To delete the homosexual content in favor of an exclusively inhospitable fault could not then justify the destruction of the whole city.

Jewish and Christian moral views of the sinfulness of homosexual behavior are based not only on the story of Sodom. The immorality of same sex behavior is posited on a larger set of “Revelations.” There is no single proof text for the position that homosexual behavior is an evil. Formal statements of the Catholic Church are based on what is called “contextual exegesis” and natural law reasoning. Nor can one facilely dismiss official teaching of the Church as just some old men’s “homophobia.” In the Catholic view, homosexual behavior violates the will of the good God.

There is a misleading interpretation challenged by Boughton in which Boswell suggests that the frightening word Toevah (abomination before God) applies to cultural and ritual contamination and not to homosexual behavior. Boughton notes that the texts Boswell cites do not use toevah but shequet (or filthy). Wherever toevah is used relative to food laws, it is in relation to the animals themselves who eat carrion. This causes humans to experience revulsion. Further such behavior is “inconsistent with their physical identity.” Toevah is always used (according to Boughton) with a being’s true identity in mind—and not for actions that are ritually unclean for the children of Abraham.

But why the big fuss over Sodomy? Because, even apart from moral norms, such behavior is toxic for humankind. Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, psychiatrist/researcher cites this finding[v]:

“A significant number of these men (nearly 5,000 homosexual subjects in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study))……69-83 percent reported having 50 or more lifetime sexual partners and over 80 per cent had engaged in receptive anal intercourse with at least some of the partners in the previous two years……”

A 1982 study revealed that only 2 percent of homosexuals were monogamous or semi-monogamous, generally defined as ten or fewer lifetime partners. In 1978 one study[vi] found that 43 percent of male homosexuals estimated having sex with 500 or more partners. 79 percents said that more than half of these partners were strangers and 70 percent said that more than half were men with whom they had sex only once. It is asserted, then, that many homosexuals are in relatively polygamous relationships and engage in anal intercourse frequently. The risk factors seem to be extremely dangerous. No wonder God destroyed Sodom if these behaviors were rampant. No wonder reflective people in our own day are concerned and anxious to spare society the ravages of Sodomy. Genesis 19:1-26 should be studied more seriously than Boswell implies.


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[i] Generally viewed in this paper as same sex anal intercourse
[ii] Irish Theological Quarterly Vol.58, No. 2. 1992:2
[iii] cf. Her book “Homosexuality: A Symbolic Confusion.”
[iv] Classroom lectures at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Yonkers, New York
[v] Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth; Baker Books, Michigan.
[vi] Bell and Weinberg Homosexualities…Simon and Schuster, New York

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