Thursday, 7 May 2015

TLDR: ‘Sodom & Gomorrah’, or ‘How the Heck did That Get In My Bible?’

Ah, Sodom and Gomorrah.  The tale that launched a thousand picket lines, almost all of them in the southern states of the USA.  Yes this is THAT Sodom and Gomorrah – the one from which we get the word ‘sodomy’.   As in "What he was doing to that poor sheep was a bit Sodom-y, don't you think?"

I can feel you all bracing yourselves already.  Don’t worry, it’s gonna be fine.

(Also, for the 'Mean Girls' fans out there, you have no idea how much I wanted to entitle this "Sodom and Gomorrah: too gay to function?")

The weird thing is that, despite what you may have been led to believe, this story isn’t really about man-sex.  I mean, arguably (arguably) it features, but only as a very minor background detail.  As usual you can and should read along in a Bible, but I’ll be paraphrasing to save time and for comedic purposes.

And a quick disclaimer: People have Strong Feelings about this story and what it represents.  My telling of it will inevitably reflect what I get out of it when I read it.  When you read it, you might get something different.  We may even have… dun dun duuuuuun … Different Opinions.  If so, not to worry.  That happens all the time when people start thinking deeply about things, it’s totally fine, and we can still be friends. 


We begin with some angelic visitors rocking up to Sodom (Gomorrah is the city next door) and meeting this guy named Lot.  Lot is the nephew of God’s Friend Abraham, but the clan was getting too big so they split up and Lot moved away to the city with his family.  We’re told he spends time “sat at the city gates”, the place the elders would meet, so he clearly assimilated well enough and gained a bit of status.  Unfortunately they picked a bad neighbourhood.  Sodom and Gomorrah are variously described as wicked and corrupted to the point where the only real way forward is to demolish and start over.  Why?  Well we do get a few descriptions of the place.
Much later on a prophet -partially someone who passes on info about the future, but also someone who tells the truth about the present- called Isaiah likens another city to Sodom and Gomorrah.  His comparison is based around the fact that although they claim to follow God, justice and kindness are completely absent from their society.  Instead they chase their own wealth and power, ignoring the weakest and poorest people to the point where as a community they actually have blood on their hands.  A dude named Ezekial also says "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..."  Sound like a society you know?  On their long list of failings, Sodom and Gomorrah are described as "sexually immoral", but it’s never made totally clear what they did to each other to earn that label.  The Bible is too polite to spell it out, which is unusual for the Bible.  It doesn’t usually pull it’s punches like that.  Anyway, the point is that these twin cities are more than a little messed up, and as someone who cares for even the least important people, God cannot allow the suffering they are causing to continue.

FLASHBACK! Abraham and God have been discussing this very issue.  Knowing that he has family there, Abraham does something very gutsy and attempts to haggle God down.

Abraham: Lord, what if there are still fifty good people in there?  Surely you wouldn’t destroy the cities if you could find fifty good people?
God:  No, I wouldn’t.
Abraham: What about thirty?  It’s not as many but still quite a lot.  What if you find thirty good people?
God:  All right, if I find thirty then I won’t destroy it.
Abraham: And pardon my rudeness, but if thirty then why not twenty?
God: I’m sensing a theme here, Abraham.
Abraham: Ten then?  Final offer?  Ten, Lord?
God:  If there are ten good people left in that city, it stands.

Is Abraham actually bartering God down from a heavy judgement?  Or is God letting Abraham win to fathom Abraham’s sense of compassion?  You decide!

Cut back to our story, and our pair of visitors arrive in town.  They look just like regular guys, no wings, no halos.  And they bump into Lot who half-heartedly offers them bed and breakfast at his house.


We just hit our first major plot point.   Lot isn’t just inviting them home to be nice, he’s actually morally and socially obliged to do this.  Around that time travel was dangerous and people were very tribal.  If strangers arrived at your family campsite, you had no idea who they were, where they came from, or how big their clan was.  In order to make sure you parted on good terms, the visitors became the honoured guests of the hosts.  They were to be treated better than even the family itself and protected at all costs.  We see this in the previous chapter where the visitors stop by Abraham’s tent.  His protocol is spot on.  He offers them shelter, refers to them with an honorific, invites them to rest and talk with him, has water brought over and a lamb killed especially to feed them.  Being a host is seen as a great honour and has to be taken very seriously.
Lot seems a bit more reluctant.  It takes him a few goes to convince the men to stay with his family rather than sleep outdoors in the town square, which suggests that he was a bit lacklustre despite the fact that he should have been as eager as Abraham was.  Maybe life in Sodom is getting to him, but he’s actually being quite rude here.  We’re meant to understand that he’s still a relatively good guy, but not as good as Abraham.

Night comes, and things take a dark turn.  A big gang of men turn up outside Lot’s house (quite possibly the entire city, which wouldn't have been as many as we'd imagine) and demand that he send the visitors out so that they can ‘get to know’ them.  
By which they mean have sex with them.  
By which they mean brutally gang-rape them. 

This would be the famous homosexual reference you probably know the story for, which I and quite a few scholars think is a bit unfair.  These men aren’t wicked because they want to take the visitors out for a consensual romantic dinner, discuss mutual interests, kiss on the porch step and get joint life insurance.  They are wicked because they want to drag them against their will out of the house, with the forcibly coerced permission of the man who is honour-bound to treat them better than the members of his own family, strip them naked in the street, and take turns horrifically violating them, possibly until they die (which can happen.  In another instance, a woman is gang-raped to death).  Male-on-male rape was something of a 'thing' in the ancient world, but it was more about power and dominance than attraction e.g. after invading a town or overpowering an adversary.  Whatever your views on the Biblical validity of homosexual relationships in general, I think we can all agree that the intended violence of this particular moment is an entirely different category of awful.


And that’s it.  That’s all the gay reference you get from this story – it’s wrong to gang-rape strangers.  Despite it’s infamous reputation, these really aren’t the droids you’re looking for.  Many contemporary scholars now think that the sin of Sodom wasn’t gayness, but a severe lack of hospitality and self control (which is, quite frankly, putting it EXTREMELY mildly).  If you’re after some anti-gay cannon fodder I suggest you try that bit in Romans instead… or maybe not.  Roman sexual dynamics are even weirder than Sodom’s.

Most people stop here, with the resolve that the cities get destroyed for being full of gay rapists (as opposed to gay non-rapists, of whom there are apparently none in either city), but we're going to go a little further on, because I'm afraid it's not that simple.  Think about what this would mean for those visitors, to have that happen to them.  And think about what this would mean for Lot as their host.  And think about why that might make him do what he does next.

PART 2:  Lot offers his daughters to be raped instead. 

No one ever focuses on this bit, and I don't know why.  We probably ought to!  I’ve had it brought up before in discussion with a non-Christian friend; that the Bible is awful because Lot wants to give his two unmarried teenage daughters to a feverish mob, yet we’re still meant to see him as The Good Guy. 
But we’re not.
In this story Lot is often cast as the hero, defending his guests honour by telling the marauding mob “No homo!” but that’s too simplistic a way of seeing it.  For starters, if this city is somehow 100% homosexual (Firstly, a city that is 100% made of male homosexuals?  Really?  Even in the tolerant Western society we currently have, the number of non-straight people is generously estimated as being between 5 -10%  How are they even reproducing?), and Lot knows this since he's been living there long enough to become an elder, why would he think offering them girls is going to pacify them?  Clearly something else is going on here.

Yes Lot is described as a good man – he’s one of the ten good men left in the city – but that doesn’t make him perfect.  We’re talking about a bronze-age guy with a bronze-age sense of sexual politics, and with the best will in the world he is going to act according to the beliefs of his time.  So what are those?

Women at this time were essentially property, in a way we maybe can't imagine now.  Lot may have loved his daughters, but their main purpose in life was to gain security and/or wealth for the family by being married off, and then providing the new husband with babies to continue the family line.  This is almost exclusively how they earn worth in their society (which explains a lot about what they do in chapter 19).  This was a massive deal back then, and a woman’s value was very firmly linked to her virginity and then her ability to have kids (check out Rachael and Leah’s story in Genesis 29-30, or Hannah’s in Samuel 1 to see how serious the pressure was).  However until daughters were married, apart from doing chores round the house they had little use apart from being a drain on the family finances. Even when you married them off you still had to give a dowry, which was basically paying the groom to take your girls off your hands.  Since the guests have to be treated as family, and are male, these two unmarried girls (and remember, girls at this time could be wed when they were in their pre-teens) are the least important members of the household.   They are the most expendable.

Full disclosure: I am a woman.  I’m also a staunch defender of a Bible-endorsed equality for all (because of our differences, not in spite of them, very Galations 3:28) and I’m fortunate enough to live in a society that promotes gender equality to boot.  I can’t deny that this probably colours or at least permits my reading of this passage.  But even if you think about it on a purely logical basis, Lot isn’t sending the girls out because it’s better for men to rape women than other men.  Because it isn’t, we all know that.  Rape is traumatic and wrong no matter who’s doing it to whom.  He’s sending them out because these violent nutjobs surrounding his house are promising to break down the door and beat the hell out of him worse then they will his guests, he’s probably terrified and will do anything to stop them, and in the family hierarchy these are the two people he can most afford to lose.

Yes, this is a horrific call for him to make, but let’s take a look a few quick bits of contemporary data about men and women and sex and violence (sources included at the end of this blog):

  •       Worldwide, right now, more than 1 in 10 women and girls are forced into sex or sexual acts at some point in their lives. This is about 120 million girls. [1]
  •        Trafficking (the kidnapping and selling of humans) still happens today, trapping millions in modern-day slavery.  Women and girls represent 55% of the estimated 20.9 million victims of forced labour worldwide, but 98% of the estimated 4.5 million forced into sexual exploitation. [2]  No prizes for guessing the predominant gender of the people buying them.
  •        Women in urban areas are twice as likely as men to experience violence, particularly in developing countries [3]
  •       Between 40% and 50% of women in European Union countries experience unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at work. [4]
  •        It is estimated that of all women killed in 2012, almost half were killed by intimate partners or family members [5].

Even though we’re hopefully (and gradually) gradually moving towards equality, all across the world women and girls are still repeatedly treated as the least important, especially where sex is concerned, often by those closest to them.  Lot is not subjecting his daughters to anything that doesn’t happen to women right now, in 2015.

The big point I’m leading up to here is this:


When we’re young, we often get Bible stories related to us in terms of heroes and villains.  Some of them seem deliberately written that way (Esther and Hamaan, which is told at Jewish parties much like you’d perform a pantomime, with hissing and booing and “He’s behind you!”) but most of these famous (or infamous) Bible characters are just people.  Real people.  And even the best-intentioned people sometimes do the stupidest things. 

Look at the disciple Peter, who Jesus names as the foundation he plans to plant his legacy on, yet who manages to claim three times in a row that he doesn’t even know Jesus, shortly after chopping off some guys ear in a fit of panic. 

Look at Noah, who preserves humanity and the animal kingdom through his thick-skinned obedience, then either through over-celebrating or a bad case of survivor’s guilt gets so drunk at the after-party he passes out, and is discovered the next morning by his kids, stark naked.  (We’ve all had that friend…  Ok, maybe just me then).

Look at King David, the “man after God’s own heart”.  He had some guy murdered by proxy so he could steal his wife.  He also lived in a time of war, and when he asked if he could build a temple to honour God, he was told that even though the circumstances leading to all those battles weren’t necessarily his fault, it wouldn’t be right for a man with so much blood on his hands to be the one to build the temple.  David had to leave the plans to his son instead.  Also his parenting skills leave much to be desired.  One of his kids sexually assaults another, only to be murdered in turn by a vengeful sibling before David’s even caught up to what’s going on.
Even the very best people the Bible has to offer were just people, like us.  And, like us, sometimes they were idiots.

This is Lot’s great idiot moment.  “Don’t rape my (male) guests, rape my (female) kids instead, because that’s so much better.”  At the time, in the heat of the moment, this is genuinely the best plan he can come up with to take the least amount of loss possible.

What is God’s response?
The angels step in.

I love to imagine this moment.  The crowd outside, shoving and threatening.  If this were set in 1920s Chicago they’d probably be wielding tyre irons or something.  Lot is on the doorstep, making his terrible offer, his wife and daughters huddle behind, knowing what’s coming.  And then BOOM.  The visitors step out, and the crowd of would-be attackers is struck instantly blind, rendering them unable to continue with their assault.
“That is IT!  Nobody is raping ANYBODY.  Everyone get back in the house!”

Lot thinks his daughters are expendable.

God disagrees.

The visitors sneak the family out the back and get them away from the city.  As they leave (remember Abraham’s deal with God about the ten good people?  Well, four of them just crossed the city limits) Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed in a rain of hot sulphur, not unheard of during earthquakes in that region.  The story focuses on Lot’s family, so we don’t know the overall population or exact survival rates of the cities (sometimes when the Old Testament says 'everybody died' it means 'it may as well have been everybody but wasn't actually everybody'), but it’s safe to assume there aren’t enough streets left for marauding gangs of rapists to wander through them any more.  Judging by their reputation for wickedness, lack of compassion, and fondness for organised en masse sexual assault, we can be pretty certain that their manhunt for Lot’s guests wasn’t a one off but something common in their local culture.  Knowing what they did to people, vulnerable travellers they should have treated as family, do we still disagree with God’s decision to demolish?   Do we think they deserved it, or should they have been left to carry on? 
This all happens very early on in the Bible, when the human race is just at the beginning of it's journey towards justice and love and equality and compassion and all that good stuff- a journey we're still a long way from completing.  Where do we stand now on wanting that kind of retribution for such violent acts?  Is it for us to step in?  Or for God?  Or for some combination of the two?

I don't know the answer, by the way.  I’m just telling the story.

So that’s Sodom and Gomorrah.  Possibly not the Damnation and Hellfire tale of gay debauchery that you were hoping for, but rather a story about culture, how what we surround ourselves with can seriously affect our sense of morality, and a harsh look at the value we place on the lives of individual people when the chips are down.

One final note: Lot’s wife.  We never learn her name.  As the family is running away from the crumbling city she looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt.  It’s a bizarre detail to include and we hear nothing else about it.  That may seem a little random to you, and quite unfair as that place had been her home and it was only a backward glance, but think about the symbolism here.  The idea of leaving behind a part of your life that would have eaten you and your children alive, and yet still looking back.  In the act of glancing over her shoulder for one last look, she’s effectively refusing to really move on, and is consequently stuck there forever.  Unable to look away, unable to move forward, because she was unwilling to let a destructive past go.  Maybe you know someone like that.  Maybe you have been someone like that.

Incidentally there are fields of salt pillars around the southern end of the Dead Sea, one of which is referred to as ‘The Wife of Lot’.  We have no idea if that was actually the location of the cities or just a nice anecdote about a natural phenomenon, but it’s something to think on.  Maybe she’s still there.

I'm now going to ruin that poignant moment by leaving you with this little brain-puzzler.

[1] [6] Hidden in Plain Sight: A Statistical Analysis of Violence against Children (UNICEF)
[2] Figure derived from data based on a 2002-2011 reference period. International Labour Organization, 2012, “ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour: Results and Methodology,” p. 14, Geneva.
[3]  F. Vanderschueren, 2000, “The Prevention of Urban Crime.” Paper presented at the Africities 2000 Summit, Windhoek, Namibia. Cited in UN-HABITAT, 2006, State of the World’s Cities 2006/2007, p. 144, Nairobi.
[4] Directorate-General for Employment, Industrial Relations and Social Affairs, 1998, “Sexual harassment at the workplace in the European Union,” p. iii, Brussels, European Commission. Cited in UN General Assembly, 2006, “In-depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women: Report of the Secretary-General,” A/61/122/Add.1, p. 42, New York.
[5] UNODC Global Study on Homicide: 2013

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