The intrigues of Sodom and Gomorrah are interwoven throughout the Abraham cycle of scripture, see chapter 13 and 14 of Genesis. Narrowly speaking the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah unfolding in Genesis 19:1-29 begins at Genesis 18:1 when Abraham, setting at the door of his tent, notices three strangers. Abraham’s actions here help us understand why the actions of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah are reprehensible. Often overlooked is how the scripture carefully contrasts the welcoming hospitality of Abraham and the savage inhospitality of Sodom and Gomorrah.
At the opening of this section Abraham runs from his tent door to meet the un-known strangers. Once he reaches them he “bows himself to the earth,” and asks them to stay for a meal which consist of “three measures of fine meal,” “a calf, tender and good,” and “curds and milk”: a rather fine feast for a trio of strangers (18:1-7 RSV).
Now the hidden identities began to be revealed and to be sure we don’t miss the point the high holy name “Yahweh” (18:10) is used. During the course of the meal God promises a son to Abraham and Sarah by the spring of the year.
In this interchange between Abraham and Sarah and the heavenly strangers we begin to understand what authentic hospitality consists of. Hospitality is about the relationship between the host and guest. There is a genuine and warm welcome. There is blessing. There is an extension of friendship and wellbeing, and a provision for security through heirs and lineage.
The promise of a child to Sarah and Abraham and their response, particularly Sarah’s is a deep and rich spiritual well. For our purposes we will move on with the story.
After the meal and promise of a child the three nomads set out for Sodom. Abraham goes along to show the way. While traveling, God chooses to reveal to Abraham the destruction to be visited on the two evil cities in order that Abraham may “charge his children and his household after him” so they may keep God’s way “by doing righteousness and justice” (18:19 RSV).
Following God’s conversation with Abraham about the “outcry” against the cities Abraham begins bargaining with God: will the righteous be destroyed along with the wicked? A heavy question in and of itself and the answer boils down to God agreeing that if only a few righteous persons are found among the two cities the inhabitants will be spared (18:22-33). After this Abraham returns to his tent and God continues on. The two companions, now revealed as angels (19:1), make their way to Sodom where Lot, Abraham’s nephew, lives.
Lot sees the angels and hastens them into his house after he learns they plan to spend the night on the streets. Once at home Lot sets about hosting a meal for the strangers. The action of Lot continues to emphasize the true nature of hospitality with a genuine welcome, an extension of friendship, and providing for the security of the guests.
Following the evening meal things quickly change from hospitality to hostilities. “…the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house” (19:4 RSV). Seeking the nomadic strangers that the towns’ men “may know them” (19:5 RSV). To “know” a person is a euphemism for sexual relations. Lot offers his daughters instead – what a father! The men of Sodom will only have the strangers. It is by the intervention of the two angels that Lot’s home is secured and the men of Sodom driven away.
In the morning the two angels rush Lot and his family out of Sodom and shortly thereafter God “rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground” (19:24 RSV).
The traditional reading understands this incident to be a warning against same gender coupling. However, in the context of the broader story the narrative of Sodom contrasts Abraham’s welcome and hospitality and the hostility of forced sexual relations by the men of Sodom. The cultural background triggers a note concerning the role of hospitality and generosity in the life of nomadic societies and a concern about sexual relations with angels (see "Strange Flesh," July 2011).
The “outcry” against these cities seems, within the cultural milieu, to be one of gross antagonism where personal safety is compromised and self-determination is denied. More specifically, the inhospitality of the men of Sodom is one of aggression and grasping behavior in which the humiliation of the angels, and by extension divine powers, is the prize. In the end the action of the men of Sodom is a crude show of the subjugation they will advance over any authority the strangers may represent.
If this insight is correct, then it is not homosexuality per se that is condemned. Rather the attitude of subjugation demonstrated in the actions of the men of Sodom is what is judged and found guilty.
That we are on the right track with this interpretation is born out in further mentions of Sodom and Gomorrah.
These verses compare the leaders of Jerusalem to the leaders of Sodom and Gomorrah: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” … “I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats” (1:11 RSV). This passage suggests the “sin” of the two cities is an inappropriate understanding of what pleases the Sacred. 1:16-17, concluding the contextual envelope, states what is pleasing as “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (RSV).
This verse follows a longer passage about the leaders of Jerusalem being stripped of their “stay and staff” (3:1 RSV), yet persisting in the belief that there is still a city to rule over (3:6). The prophet proclaims “Their (leader’s) partiality witnesses against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom, they do not hide it” (3:9 RSV). In this incident the comparison is between the rulers of Jerusalem and the rulers of Sodom who in their pride did not hide their guilty ways.
This verse falls in the midst of God’s accusations against false prophets. “But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his wickedness; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.” Here we have a partial list of wrong doings which include adultery, lying, and empowering evildoers.
This passage speaks the clearest as to the specific wrongs that the two cities of the plains engaged in. “As I live,” says the Lord God, “your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; there I removed them, when I saw it” (RSV).
Taken together these passages indicate that the ascribing of homosexuality as “the sin” of Sodom and Gomorrah is a later interpretation. An earlier understanding placed the sin of the two cities in the realm of hostility and inhospitality and includes dynamics as injustice, pride, empowering evil doers, and withholding aid from the poor and needy.
The parallel story found in Judges 19:1-30 makes explicit the contrast between sexual dominance and humiliation, and the issue of proper hospitality. In the Judges story it is a “certain Levite” who is traveling with a servant for the purpose of reclaiming the Levite’s concubine who earlier ran off to her father’s house. Like Abraham the concubine’s father shows all the right and fitting hospitality due to the Levite. After spending some time at the father’s house the Levite, his servant, and reclaimed concubine head home stopping in Gibeah to spend the night. An “old man” returning home from his work spot the trio in the town’s square and invites them into his home and blesses them, “Peace be with you” (19:20 RSV), mirroring the marks of the authentic hospitality shown by Abraham and Lot.
Like Sodom, following the evening meal “the men of the city, base fellows, beset the house round about,” saying “Bring out the man who came into your house that we may know him” (19:22 RSV). As did Lot, the old man offers his “virgin daughter” and the concubine for the pleasure of the town’s men who refuse the offer. This time there are no angels to intervene and the Levite seizes his concubine and throws her out to the men, “and they knew her, and abused her all night until the morning” (19:25 RSV), when she appears on the door step. The Levite simply says “Get up, let us be going” (19:28). By the time the trio reaches home the concubine is dead. The Levite cuts her into twelve pieces and sends them “throughout all the territory of Israel” (19:29).
It is a gruesome scene, which proves prelude to the great inter-tribal war which concludes the book of Judges. For our purpose we need to focus on both the actions of the men of Gibeah and the actions of the Levite. The sin of Gibeah is confirmed by the contrast of the blessing of peace by the old man and the action of domination and humiliation by the men of Gibeah, the same contrast encountered between Abraham/Lot and the men of Sodom.
The Levite is also indicted in this story. He is part of the liminal tribe of Israel whose purpose was to be a buffer between God at the center of the community and wider Israel. His actions here seem anything but God informed. His coldness and inhospitality toward the concubine while she is alive prefigures his actions after her death. This indifference toward the life of others is the psychological trigger for his subsequent dismemberment and distribution of the concubine’s body. Far from bringing life to Israel he is responsible for the near genocide wrought against the tribe of Benjamin (20:1 ff).
As in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah we find in the story of Gibeah a great contrast between righteousness/justice and hostility/wickedness: the very issue which Abraham was to teach his children and household about.
Eventually, for the christian, the bible speaks of a third city which appears as a reversal of these two stories. At the end of Luke (24:13-25) two disciples are returning from Jerusalem to the nearby village of Emmaus. Talking about the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus they are joined, like Abraham, by a stranger. This stranger engages them in a conversation of the events which so recently occurred in Jerusalem.
The stranger turns out to be Jesus, but, as in the Abraham story, his identity is unknown at first. Jesus instructs the two disciples about what the scriptures say concerning the messiah. Once again we arrive at a village just as evening begins. Once again the stranger is invited into a home for a meal. This time however, in the fullness of the hospitality of God, Jesus breaks the bread and comprehension of who and what he is dawns on the two disciples. Instead of subjugation and death life fulfilled, that is righteousness and justice, is the outcome of the story.
Unlike the Sodom episode or the Gibeah rape, we encounter in Emmaus a true extension of the relationship between host and guest. There is friendship, blessing, and provision for security (experience of the resurrected Christ). Furthermore, through his actions, Jesus demonstrates that the great Host is none other than God: an echo of the reversal of blessing from guest to host during the Abraham episode. Whereas Sodom, Gomorrah, and Gibeah are marked with cruelty and judgment, Emmaus is a place of discovery and fulfillment.
In comparing the dynamics of hospitality and hostility of these three cities the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah is an outcry against closed hearts. The cities of the plains prove a tragic story of those who demean and humiliate others for the purpose of subjugation. The contrast between the men of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Gibeah and the two disciples of Emmaus is a distinction between those who live open to the presence of God in the stranger, and those who live as if no god existed and strangers are to be trifled with.
If we queers have a lesson to learn from the tale of these three cities it is that we too are at risk of demeaning others for selfish purposes. May we, like the two disciples, be open to God dawning in our consciousness enabling us to become centers of welcome and generosity for our time.