24 July 2020

Sodom and Gomorrah

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the most infamous tales of God's wrath in scripture. Most readers focus upon the perceived sexuality of the people of Sodom, but few wonder about the story's protagonist, Lot, and his wife, daughters, and sons-in-law. In trying to shoehorn the story into a predetermined shape, taught to us in sermons long before most of us ever read the story itself, we forego any chance of gaining new insight on the story.

This is a story about a man named Lot, the nephew of Abraham. We first meet Lot in Genesis 11:27, when his grandfather (Abraham's father) moves the whole family from Ur to Harran. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham and tells him to resettle in Canaan. So Abraham packs up his family and Lot goes with him as well (12:4). Because of a famine in Canaan, they resettle in Egypt, where they become very rich. When the famine ends, they return to Canaan. Genesis 13 tells us of Abraham and Lot that "the land was not able to bear them, that they might live together; for their possessions were so great that they couldn’t live together." They have so much livestock that the land cannot feed them all. So they decide to separate. Lot goes east to the Plain of Jordan, toward the city of Sodom, and Abraham goes west into Canaan.

In Genesis 14, there is war in the land where Lot is living. Four cities go to war with five. Sodom and Gomorrah are plundered, and Lot is taken into slavery and his possessions plundered as well. Abraham rallies his household to battle and defeats the tired armies of four kings and rescues his nephew and restores his possessions as well as the possessions of all the land of Sodom. This is the last we hear of Lot or of Sodom for some time.

The story picks up again in Genesis 18. The Lord reveals to Abraham that he is going to Sodom to "see whether their deeds are as bad as the reports which have come to me." Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the city because there may be righteous people there. Undoubtedly he is thinking of his nephew and his family. He pleads and haggles and the Lord assures him, "I will not destroy it for the sake of ten [righteous people]" (18:32). Of course, even if Lot's whole family were found righteous, they number only six.

Genesis 19 opens with the two angels of the Lord, disguised as men, arriving at the gates of Sodom. Lot in sitting at the gate of the city. As soon as he sees them, he bows to the ground and invites them to stay at his home and enjoy his hospitality. It is easy to take this passage for granted. In our own rush to get into the city and what we think is the heart of the passage, we miss the first really strange thing about this story. Lot is not only very rich, but is a shepherd. What is he doing sitting in the gate to the city of Sodom? Further, why is he in such a rush to get them to his home? When they say that they will be just fine sleeping in the city square, he insists "strongly."

Does Lot suspect what the fate of these men might be if they sleep in the square? Obviously Lot knows how dangerous the city is. Perhaps he has been a victim of its violence himself. Perhaps they have taken his sheep and possessions, leaving him to beg at the city gates. Or perhaps he has seen this too often and has leveraged his wealth to afford him the luxury of retiring by the gates, waiting for strangers to save.

When the men of Sodom gather to violate Lot's guests, Lot pleads with them that they take his daughters instead of his guests "because they have come under the protection of my roof" (19:8).

The angels save Lot and cover his escape to gather the two men engaged to his daughters, but they think he is joking and refuse to leave the city. So Lot flees the city with his family and the city of Sodom is destroyed.

There is so much strangeness in this story, and it could easily be a series of its own. However, we have a particular focus. Was the sin of Sodom homosexuality, rape, or some worse act of violence they had planned? It would all be very academic except that there is a parallel passage in Judges 19-21.

This story's events are almost identical. It takes place in the city of Gibeah and the crowd is of the tribe of Benjamin. This time, there are no angels and the crowd is satisfied by the offer of the women, though only one woman is sent out to them (Judges 19:20-24). The crowd rapes and beats the woman all night (19:25). In the morning she collapses in the doorway, where she dies (19:26-28).

When the man reaches his home, he cuts up the woman and sends the evidence of her murder to the twelve tribes of Israel (19:29). They are astounded and say "Such a deed has not been done or seen from the day that the children of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt to this day!" It is not that this brutality had never been seen in the land, but in those days, the land was not Israel, it was Canaan, in the days of Abraham and Lot.

In response, the Twelve Tribes gather their armies, eleven tribes against the tribe of Benjamin, and go to war. The eleven tribes kill everyone in the town of Gibeah, then take the fight to the rest of the cities of Benjamin, killing tens of thousands.

In this story, the brutal act for which the city is destroyed is rape. It could have been a man or a woman. This story shows that the gender is irrelevant, it is the brutal rape and murder that is condemned. For this, God destroys a city and God's people destroy a city.

These stories are far more complicated than this one simple lesson, and there are numerous lessons to take from them. However, that homosexuality is a sin is not one of them. The sin of Sodom had nothing to do with gender or sexuality and everything to do with rape and murder. Sodom and Gibeah alike brutalized their visitors, for this they were destroyed.

When people enter our neighborhoods and churches, or come as refugees, or are just passing through, do we welcome them at the gates and protect them from danger, or do we shut them out in the cold and leave to the mercy of whomever might happen upon them? Who do we consider a guest and how do we treat them?

If Lot were living today, who would he be waiting at the gate to receive? Who would he protect? This is how the church should be. Whomever comes, whoever they are, they are safe within these walls. There is food, and shelter, and family, and coming to church means you do not have to face the world alone. This is what the church can be, but not if we turn away foreigners, or the homeless, or the LGBTQ community. We need to be waiting at the gates, offering hospitality to all.

This is the last article where I will look at stories which are traditionally interpreted to condemn members of the LGBTQ community. Next week offers a message of hope. The Bible does not condemn you. God does not condemn you. Next week, be ready to receive the good news.

Until then,

Peace be with you.

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