Quick trivia question: For what sins was the Biblical city of Sodom condemned to destruction?
If you lean toward a populist understanding of this Genesis 19 story, your immediate reaction might be to say, “For being homosexuals!” due to the fact that the angry mob of men outside Lot’s door demanded to have forcible sex with his two visitors, angels in disguise. If you’re more influenced by current Biblical scholarship, your answer might be, “For violating the ancient laws of hospitality, because any injustice to strangers is seen by God as a horrific act!”
I submit that a reasoned response to both those approaches should be: Slow down, cowboy, and read the question again.
For what sins was the Biblical city of Sodom condemned to destruction?
The simple fact is, when Sodom was condemned, no acts of forced angel rape or violations of sacred hospitality against those angels had yet taken place. The decision to destroy Sodom had been made before the angels arrived there. God had already sat with Abraham and announced his intentions, and Abraham had already negotiated with the Lord, convincing Him to spare the city if one hundred righteous men could be found, or even fifty, or even thirty, or even, in the end, ten. That caveat notwithstanding, the destruction decision had been made already. Anything involving the angels who visited Sodom was a secondary incident, and any conclusions drawn from their story by either populist or progressive Biblical scholars is simply inference.
For my part, I take neither view. I prefer a stance far more conservative than those of the progressives or even of the traditionalists. More on that below.
As a linguist, I’m intrigued by the origins of words we adopt; as a Christian, I’m especially intrigued by those with etymologies rooted in Scripture.
Take the word “onanism,” for example. It’s fallen out of fashion recently, but the word derives from the story of Onan, an Old Testament character who “spilled his seed on the ground” during sex with his brother’s widow, refusing to provide his dead brother an heir. This act of defiance sounds a lot more like the Roman Catholic Rhythm Method of birth control than anything else, but “onanism” took on a life of its own in the late 1700s and started to refer exclusively to male masturbation. Since the Bible has no direct spiritual legislation about male masturbation, the term “onanism” became a handy tool for preachers keen on suppressing it. Presumably, female masturbation was not a pressing concern of the era.
Like “onanism,” our current use of the term “sodomy” as referring to anal sex also might be only tangentially connected to its source story. Even if one accepts the populist interpretation of the text, “sodomy” would literally be an act of desiring (although not actually having) sex with angels (think nephilim and the days before Noah). It might also refer to the other atrocities tied to the text (e.g., to offering one’s own daughters to be raped, or to drunken incest, which Lot’s daughters performed soon after).
But if I really wish to redefine the term “sodomy,” I’d be better served investigating what the Lord originally found so vile about the people of that city … male and female, not just the guys. I could spend all day drawing conservative vs. liberal inferences from Genesis 19, but why do that when I have other parts of Scripture that tell me directly what the Lord says it means to “be like Sodom”? Permit me to abandon modern liberalism, to abandon modern conservatism, and to get downright reactionary on you. Let me travel back to the days of Ezekiel and Isaiah.
Being Like Sodom
The destruction of Sodom left a lasting imprint on the Hebrew culture. The prophets used Sodom as an example of wickedness for scores of centuries after the story was first told. Interestingly, the prophets never used it as a symbol of homosexuality or violations of hospitality. Let’s listen to Ezekiel’s take on what it meant to be like Sodom:
“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)
Holy smokes, sulfur, and brimstone! Right there, the Lord reveals his exact motivation for destroying Sodom! The Lord slew them to a person because they were:
- arrogant – they were awash in their own sense of superiority and self-esteem
- overfed – while the rest of the world was on tight rations, they stuffed themselves
- unconcerned – they presumed no retribution for their arrogance and gluttony
- did not help the poor – their wealth stayed with them, and the poor languished
- did not help the needy – the oppressed, the handicapped, the sick, the lame, they all went unnoticed
What made them haughty? What acts made them detestable? The very ones listed above, with nary a mention of inhospitality or angel rape.
How does one escape being like a citizen of Sodom? Isaiah joins Ezekiel by telling us clearly in his prophecy’s first chapter, where God urges Israel to turn from the ways of Sodom by doing those things Sodom wouldn’t do:
“Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom … Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:10, 17)
So Scripture does, in fact, tell us the sins of Sodom, at least the ones worth mentioning explicitly: arrogance, being overfed, being unconcerned, not helping the poor and needy, being haughty, not doing right, not seeking justice, not defending the oppressed, failing to take up the cause of the fatherless, not pleading the case of the widow. Add to that a reference in Jude 7 about sexual immorality, too, and you have an exhaustive list, and a powerful condemnation. It leaves nothing to inference, nothing to guessing. It is the word of the Lord.
Our Modern Sodom
When I hear U.S. evangelical preachers claiming that America is becoming a modern-day Sodom, I agree with them. Sure, they make that declaration for all the wrong reasons … they assume they’re talking about gay marriage, background checks on guns, socialism, and other modern horrors. But in Scriptural reality, we become more like Sodom every time we or one of our leaders makes a move to hurt the poor, the fatherless, and the oppressed. Worse, we become as blind as the residents of Sodom every time we buy into the anti-Biblical notion that a nation should not strive to provide social justice and welfare to its most vulnerable inhabitants.
Ignore the poor? That is a Sodom Mindset. Despise the hurting? That is a Sodom Heart. Go through life with the assumption that the less fortunate must deserve their plight, somehow, some way? That is the same error made by Job’s friends, and Isaiah and Ezekiel see it as the mark of a Sodomite.
Please, America, know this:
- Every time a U.S. politician makes cuts to programs that feed the hungry … we see a true Biblical act of sodomy.
- Every time a legislative body moves to hamper a minority’s freedom to vote and participate in government … we are seeing sodomy.
- Every time a well-fed person of power works to limit school lunches for the needy, we are seeing sodomy.
- Every time a candidate berates the poor as lazy at her 3,000-dollar-a-plate fundraiser, we are seeing sodomy.
- Every time a politician says that private charities and not public largess should care for our elderly, our veterans, our disabled, our mentally ill, and our starving children in fatherless families, we fall deeper into the errors of history’s most sinful city.
I hear the pushback. There are those who would say, “But welfare makes people lazy!” And I will answer, Yes, there are poor people who cheat, just as there are rich people who cheat, just as there are working class and middle class people who cheat. But I ask you this: If there are even one hundred people on public assistance who are there righteously, would you spare them your wrath?
What if there were only fifty such people?
And please, don’t be angry if I continue, but what if there were only ten such people? Would you spare the system your wrath if there were only ten such righteous people being saved by the public generosity of our nation? Or would you destroy the righteous with the wicked?
I pray you, Lord, that we save our nation from modern day Sodomizers.
Cosmic Parx / YoYo Rez