What Sodom and Gomorrah is Not About

15 11 2010

Genesis 19 has a parallel story in Judges 19.  In both, there are visitors to a city who are taken in by a citizen.  In the night, the other inhabitants surround the house as they clamor for the visiting foreigners.  Their demand is for their fellow citizen to let them rape the aliens, which is resisted by the host.  The stories deviate at this point, but both lead to their respective city’s destruction.  In the Genesis account, Sodom and its surrounding area are destroyed by God’s wrath.  In Judges, Gibeah is destroyed by the 11 non-Benjamin tribes of Israel.  Since the stories have such pronounced parallels, their differences become much more emphasized.  These differences demand recognition that traditional interpretations and conventional, heteronormative biases being brought to the texts blinds us to what the stories’ anthropologies, narrative structure, and canonical references tell us Genesis 19 is actually about.

Genesis 19 opens with two “angels” (according to the NRSV) entering Sodom in the evening.  The Hebrew (ha-mal’akim) is used in various contexts meaning something more akin to “messenger” (in this case, messengers of God).  Brown, Driver, and Briggs point to this usage as contextually the same usage as Genesis 28:21 and 32:2 where these are theophanic messengers or even avatars of Yahweh (521).  This is differentiated from mere human messengers or prophetic characters who bear messages of or for God, but the narrative still refers to them as men.  Thus they are men of God in a metaphysically different way, which emphasizes the NRSV’s use of the term “angel” (from the Greek equivalent angelos) as opposed to simply “messenger” or “herald.”

Lot, who was residing in Sodom, invites the angels to stay the night with him.  After a meal, but just before going to bed, the text tells us that every man comes and surrounds the house.  The men demand Lot brings out the angels so that they “may know them” (v. 5, NRSV).  The cohortative of yada without euphemism here is the men of Sodom demanding Lot give up his visitors in order to gang-rape them.  Lot attempts to placate his fellow citizens by offering his virgin daughters, women who have not yet “known a man” (v. 8, NRSV).  This does not seem to interest the men who press in ever closer.  The angels strike the assailants blind and then urge Lot to take his family and escape.  After some negotiation, Lot finally takes his wife and daughters and escapes to Zoar (his wife not actually making it).  Yahweh then rains sulfur and fire down from heaven, destroying not just Sodom, but also Gomorrah, the Plain, and the inhabitants.

The alienness of the visitors in both narratives deserves structural attention.  The residents of the respective cities (Genesis 19: Sodom; Judges 19: Gibeah) surround a house wherein a foreigner is being housed.  The initial demand in both narratives is for the man/men within.  If only this much was read, it would seem that gender could very well be an important quality, but the narratives continue.  The critical component becomes how and why the respective hosts deny the demand (Genesis 19: Lot; Judges 19, the old farmer).  In Genesis 19, the NRSV has Lot saying, “Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please” (v. 8a).  Similarly, Judges 19’s host attempts a placation by saying, “Here are my virgin daughters and his [the visiting Levite’s] concubine….  Ravish them and do whatever you want to them” (NRSV, v. 24).  Both vocal placation attempts fail, although the Levite does abruptly puts his concubine outside, which allows for carnal satisfaction to succeed.  These could seem to suggest a dualism of gender wherein the men forsake sex with women for men.  However, these are attempts to divert the assailants’ attention from their primary target: the foreigner, not merely a man.  This dualism of resident and alien is the primary catalyst for both the assailants’ siege as well as the hosts’ protection.  If the concern were merely one of wrong gender desire, the men of Sodom could have turned to one another for satisfaction (this is further evidenced by the men of Gibeah being satisfied by gang-raping the female concubine).  Conversely, consider how verse 8 of Genesis 19 continues, “… only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof” (NRSV).  Similarly, Judges 19 has this preface for the host offering his daughters, “Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing [rape him]” (NRSV, v. 23b).  In both narratives, the structural focus is not upon the gender or sexual acts, but instead upon the status of one being a resident or a foreigner.  The sexual acts are merely vehicles for emphasizing how blatantly the residents disregard hospitality shown to visiting aliens.  In both narratives, the residents surround a fellow resident housing aliens.  In both narratives, the reason the hosts offer up women as distractions/deterrents is because the aliens residing within are guests and therefore should not be treated so (property of the host/visitors notwithstanding).  Structures of sexuality and gender being read into the texts are glossing the texts’ inherent focus of insider/outsider or, as aforementioned, supernatural/natural.

Although Sodom and Gomorrah play a prominent role in various contexts throughout the Scriptures (Jewish as well as Christian), the Genesis 19 story has managed to be appropriated for arguments against the GLBT community especially within the Church.  This rhetorical usage of the narrative found in Genesis 19 seems to run contrary to how the canon itself treats the conduct and subsequent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  It is only in the letter to Jude that we find our closest-to-explicit association of the sister cities’ demise and sexual immorality.  In Deuteronomy, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is justified “because this people abandoned the covenant of the LORD… he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt.  They went off and worshiped other gods”  (29:25-26).  Ezekiel explains the sins of Sodom as, “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).  Jeremiah pronounces “They [prophets of Jerusalem] commit adultery and live a lie. They strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his wickedness. They are all like Sodom to me; the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah” (23:14), which includes sexual immorality (adultery) as a remarkable sin, but this applied to prophets of Jerusalem and is one amongst many other offenses.  Jude’s unique association of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction with their sexual immorality demands a brief linguistic analysis. Jude accuses the sister cities of desiring “other” or “strange” flesh (sarkos heteras, v. 7).  Considering the above observations regarding the “anthropology” of Lot’s guests, it is no wonder that Yahweh would rise against humans threatening to rape his theophanies/avatars.  Understanding the “otherness” or “strangeness” of the flesh of Lot’s visitors as referring to supernatural beings is buttressed by 2 Peter 2: 6-11, verse 10 in particular.  These are the only etiological passages regarding Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction.  Jeremiah merely incorporates adultery as a generic offense and Jude is more concerned with the mixing of metaphysically different beings.  Readings that pull out gay sex as prominent, primary, or even pertinent in Genesis 19 are proof-texting heteronormativity.

Note that no adultery took place in the Genesis 19 account (making Jeremiah’s reference difficult to apply directly).  Despite the host offering his virgin daughters to the men of Sodom, no sexual act ever took place.  Contrarily, in Gibeah (Judges 19) there was a brutal act of adultery, but Gibeah is not conjured as a paradigmatic example of wrongdoing.  In Judges 19, sexual immorality is actualized whereas in Genesis 19 it is only threatened.  This is not to downplay the horror of what was taking place in Sodom, but in terms of narrative intensity, an actualized gang-rape leading to the death of the Levite’s concubine is far more demanding of justice than Lot’s visitors being threatened but escaping.  This contrast of intensity points to the likelihood that the parallel passage of Judges 19 is probably a redactional retelling of the Genesis 19 account.  Consider, too, the arguments used to give Markan priority amongst the Gospels (shorter, less embellishment, rougher around the edges) and it seems assured that Genesis 19 is a well-known tradition that is reused and exaggerated in Judges 19.

Judges 19 opens with a Levite man taking a concubine for himself.  While there are debates about what the tribe of Levi actually did (Holman, 1029), generally the Levites were the tribe without territory since they were designated as carriers of covenantal lore for Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 10:6-9).  They were wandering priests or transient men who carried God’s message.  Thus, while the Levite is a messenger of God, this is very clearly a human who is a part of the priestly tribe of Levi.  Instead of divine messengers beset by residents, Judges 19 has a disturbingly human Levite as the threatened alien.

After a scene where the Levite (unnamed) has to reconcile himself with his concubine (also unnamed) and the concubine’s father, the Levite and his concubine stop to rest in the city of Gibeah.  An old man invites them to stay with him.  Again, the men of the city surround the house.  They demand the host send out the alien so that they may “have intercourse with him” (v. 22, NRSV).  Curiously, the NRSV translates the same verb from Genesis 19:5 differently here, but the message is the same: the men of Gibeah seek to gang-rape the foreigner.  The host seeks to placate the besiegers by offering his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine.  In horrific fashion, the Levite abruptly gives up his concubine.  The men of the city proceed to rape her throughout the night.  Apparently this satiates them, for in the morning the Levite leaves via the front door, takes his concubine (the Greek text resolves the ambiguity of her condition by stating she is dead, the Hebrew leaves it uncertain), and goes home.  He proceeds to cut her into twelve pieces, sends them to the 12 tribes, and demands a consortium to determine what to do about Gibeah’s crime.  It is concluded that a military campaign is the proper recourse.  After a couple losses, the 11 tribes defeat the Benjaminites and destroy Gibeah, other towns, the animals, and the people.

While the crimes of Sodom and Gibeah are parallel in some ways, another difference to be noted is the rhetorical use of the two destructive events in the rest of the canon.  Gibeah, despite the more atrocious crimes committed, is rarely invoked as a warning or paradigmatic example of wrongdoing.  Only in Hosea 9:9 do we have a reference to the “corruption” (NRSV) of Gibeah, which God will remember.  In Hosea 10:9, Gibeah is referenced as the beginning of Israel’s sinfulness.  But these are the only two rhetorical references.  In contrast, Sodom (and Gomorrah) is rhetorically referenced many times as indicative of utter sin and subsequent utter destruction (cf. Genesis 18:20; Deuteronomy 29:23; 32:32; Isaiah 1:9; 13:19; Jeremiah 49:18; Matthew 10:15; 2 Peter 2:6; Jude 1:7).  The canon elevates Sodom as a paradigmatic example of not sinfulness per se, but of destruction.  Most likely because, as argued above, Yahweh destroys Sodom and Gomorrah himself, which heightens the import of the destruction despite Gibeah’s crimes being more heinous.  The sin of desiring the “flesh” of an angel is, apparently, far more deserving of divine wrath than the sin of desiring a mere human foreigner’s flesh (or actually gang-raping one).  The Old Testament as well as the New attest to this by referring back to Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction far more often than Gibeah’s when rhetoric regarding destruction due to sin is used.

The Judges account is far more grotesque of a tale than its Genesis counterpart.  In Judges, the men of Gibeah not only rape the concubine all night, but the Levite then uses her carved up body to instigate civil war.  However, the manner of retributive destruction is far less grandiose.  While perhaps arguably comparable in its totality, the destruction recounted in Judges is by human hands sanctioned by Yahweh whereas the Genesis account has Yahweh himself destroying everything supernaturally.  Since the embellishments of the Judges account outweigh those of the Genesis account, what reason would Yahweh have for taking it upon himself to destroy Sodom, Gomorrah, the surrounding cities, and the Plain instead of using an opposing human force as done in Judges?  It would seem that the opening of each story speaks to its conclusion.  In Genesis, the visiting aliens are angels of God understood in this context to be superhuman.  Therefore the response to their being threatened is a superhuman one.  In contrast, the visiting Levite shows himself to be all-too-human, which explains why the destruction of Gibeah takes place in an all-too-human manner.  Furthermore, the themes of the narratives themselves, in conjunction with canonical silence on the issue of sexuality, indicate strongly that hospitality, violence, and pride are germane issues; not the usual concern over homosexuality or homosexual acts.  To read in commentary on homosexuality or gender issues in sex ignores the pervasive evidence within the narratives, the larger canon, and between the narratives that point us away from such heteronormative hermeneutics.


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