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The Sin of Sodom

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United States’ history has proven that most of its presidents, congressional leaders and Supreme Court justices have been guilty of the sin of Sodom. Many of the religious leaders today, specifically conservative evangelicals, are also guilty of Sodom’s sin. If truth be known, this writer is also guilty of the sin of Sodom. So are most readers of this column.

This leads us to ask, what exactly is the sin of Sodom? According to the story in Genesis 19, Lot, Abraham’s nephew, received unknown visitors. Upon hearing of the strangers, the men of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house and banged on the door, crying out, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Send them out to us that we may abuse and rape them!”

If we believe most conservative preachers and biblical commentators, the sin of Sodom has been linked to homosexuality. Probably no other passage throughout all of Scripture has been so consistently used as a proof-text in condemning same-sex relationships.

The biblical references to Sodom, however, dispute such an assertion. Commenting on Sodom’s sin, the prophet Ezekiel (16:49) wrote that Sodom’s iniquity was the city’s unwillingness, due to pride and haughtiness, to share their abundance with those who were poor and marginalized.

Amos (4:1,11) prophesied the destruction of Israel for following Sodom’s example of “oppressing the needy and crushing the poor.”

Likewise, referring to Israel as Sodom and Gomorrah, the prophet Isaiah stated: “Hear the word of Yahweh, O rulers of Sodom, listen to the law of our God, O people of Gomorrah! What use is it to me your many sacrifices?… Your palms are full of blood. Wash yourselves, purify yourselves, remove the evil of your doings before my eyes. Cease doing evil. Learn to do good. Seek justice, reprove the oppressor, be just to the orphan, contend for the widow (1:10-17).”

Nowhere in the Bible where Sodom’s wickedness is mentioned is homosexuality ever listed as being the cause for God’s wrath. The crime of Sodom and Gomorrah, as elucidated by the scriptures themselves, is described as being a lack of justice done in the name of the “orphans and widows,” the biblical euphemism for the disenfranchised.

The non-canonical books comprising the Apocrypha also attest that throughout early Judaism, Sodom’s sin was regarded as demonstrating a lack of hospitality to strangers (Book of Wisdom 19:13-17), and excessive pride (Ecclesiasticus 16:8).

Also, the early rabbinical writings which developed in the Talmud fail to make a connection between Sodom’s sin and homosexuality (i.e., Sanhedrin 109a; Baba Batra 59a; and Erubim 49a).

Among the first to actually make such a direct connection between homosexuality and Sodom’s sin were Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE?-50 CE?) the Jewish philosopher (On Abraham, XXVII:137-141), and Josephus (37-100?), who was commissioned by Roman authorities to write the history of the Jews (Antiquities of the Jews, XI:3).

The sin of Sodom, when defined by the biblical text and the early rabbinical writings, does not refer to a loving relationship between two individuals of the same sex. Instead, it refers to the townsfolk’s unwillingness to express hospitality to the visiting strangers.

This could be why Jesus, when giving instructions to his disciples who were about to embark on a missionary journey, stated that those cities which refuse them hospitality would face a worse fate than Sodom (Lk 10:1-12).

The same xenophobia demonstrated by the Sodomites, who sought to physically rape the foreigners within their midst, is present today by those who economically rape the poor and the undocumented alien. Both in ancient Sodom and in the modern U.S., the residents in power desire to subordinate the stranger, the undocumented and the alien within their midst.

Rather than using this passage to condemn homosexuality, today’s conservative preachers would be more biblically sound if they used Genesis 19 to show how so-called First Nations economically treat the peoples of so-called Third Nations, which is not so different from what the Sodomites hoped to do with the aliens within their own midst.

Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at IliffSchool of Theology in Denver.

Click here to order Miguel De La Torre’s Doing Christian Ethics From the Margins from Amazon.com