What can we learn from Sodom and Gomorrah?
August 2, 2015
First Friends Indianapolis
A few weeks ago, during worship, I was sitting over there in what I think of as my spot. I was enjoying the presentation on recycling and employing people who’ve been in prison, and I was also thinking about what message I might bring today.
It’s not easy to decide what message to bring. For one thing, I was a pastor at Valley Mills Friends, off State Road 67 in the southwest corner of Marion County, for 12 years. I gave a message most weeks, which means close to 600 messages. Might one of those be appropriate for today?
Besides those 600 or so messages I’ve already given, I have taught whole semester courses on
· Christian ethics, Christian sexual ethics (my specialty), Christian environmental ethics, business ethics, bioethics;
· religious responses to war and violence, world religions, women in religion, religion in America;
· introduction to the Bible, the New Testament, the Old Testament, and
As I sat there a few weeks ago, I wondered what 15- or 20-minute bit you might want or need to hear. What might God want me to say to you this morning? And as I sat there, Genesis 19 popped into my head. As I pondered that possibility, it seemed to be a leading. And since then, the message has become clear, so I’m bringing a message this morning on Genesis 19, known as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
As I launch into this message, though, I have to say that Genesis 19 tells kind of a weird story. I even asked Ruthie, when she emailed me about the scripture passage and title, whether the bulletin ought to contain a warning – that this scripture passage might not be suitable for younger audiences. It contains sex and violence and sexual violence. Ready? J
Before I talk in some detail about the story itself, though, I want to give a bit of context. (That’s what you get when you ask a teacher to bring a message.)
Genesis 19 is in, duh, the book of Genesis. Genesis is the first book of the Bible, and it talks about the very beginning of things. The first eleven chapters of Genesis is what some call “the Primeval Prologue,” with stories about the creation of the earth, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark, the tower of Babel, along with some genealogies to tie the stories together. The last part of Genesis 11 is a genealogy of Seth, one of the sons of Noah; and it traces the line from Seth to Abram. (Part way through the next section, Abram’s name changes to Abraham, and from here on out, I’m going to call him Abraham.)
The genealogy of Genesis 11 includes a few bits of information that are important for what comes next.
· One thing it tells us is that Abraham’s family lived in Ur of the Chaldees, an area near the southeast end of the Fertile Crescent, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, not very far from the present-day city of Baghdad, near the Persian Gulf.
· The genealogy of Genesis 11 also tells us that Abraham’s father decided to move away from Ur of the Chaldees, and he took with him Abraham, Abraham’s wife (Sarai, who becomes known as Sarah), and Abraham’s nephew Lot. The original idea was to take the family to the land of Canaan, what is now Israel/Palestine, toward the southwest side of the Fertile Crescent. That’s where they were headed, but they didn’t get there. When they got to the top of the crescent, they decided to stay there, in Haran. [Do an air-map.]
· And the genealogy tells us another important bit: Sarah “was barren; she had no child” (Gen. 11:20, NRSV).
So, at the end of the Primeval Prologue, Abraham and Sarah and Lot are living in Haran.
Then, so to speak, Genesis turns the page, and Abraham’s story begins. God spoke to Abraham and said, “Go” (Gen. 12:1). So Abraham went.
Genesis 12:5 says, “Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan” (NRSV).
The rest of Genesis, then, is the “Ancestral Story,” the back-story or prehistory of Israel. The Ancestral Story is organized around the sagas of three major figures: Abraham, his grandson Jacob, and Jacob’s son Joseph. Abraham’s saga is told from the end of Genesis 11 into Genesis 25, which puts our story, Genesis 19, pretty close to the middle of Abraham’s story.
One of the central ideas in Abraham’s story is that, from the beginning, God promised Abraham, many descendants: “I will make of you a great nation” (Gen. 12:3). “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:4).
And the big complicating factor in Abraham’s story is that he was getting old, and his wife was getting old, and they hadn’t had any children.
The part we’re interested in this morning, though, is tangential to that main story. The part we’re interested in has to do with Abraham’s nephew Lot.
We already know Lot was part of the family group that left Ur of the Chaldees, got as far as Haran, and then went on to Canaan. We also already know that the family wasn’t traveling light – they had lots of stuff, and they had lots of people.
Genesis 13 tells us that, once they got to Canaan, Lot and Abraham split up. How come? Well, livestock was involved. Abraham had some. Lot had some. They had so many “flocks and herds and tents,” says Genesis 13 (vs. 5-6), “that the land could not support both of them living together.” Besides the problem of the land, Lot’s herders weren’t getting along with Abraham’s herders, so something had to give. Abraham and Lot talked about the problem, and Abraham said, “Look. Here’s all this good land. You go this way, and I’ll go that way. Or you go that way, and I’ll go this way. You choose.” So, says Genesis 13:10, “Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord” (NRSV). So that’s what he chose – Lot went that way, and Abraham went the other way. “… Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom” (Gen. 13:12).
About now, you might imagine music signaling danger rising in the background. That’s because, despite the well-watered plain, things weren’t all coming up roses in Sodom. It was kind of like one of those planets on Star Trek where it looks like the Garden of Eden, but something is terribly wrong. Genesis 13:13 says, “Now the people of Sodom were wicked.” Hear that music? J
Abraham’s story moves along, with that big problem – a promise of lots of descendents but no children.
· Maybe we should adopt? Nope. (Gen. 15:1-6)
· Let’s try surrogate motherhood. Not such a good idea. (Gen. 16)
God finally told Abraham, “Look. You’re going to have a kid with your wife, Sarah. The kid’s name will be Isaac, and he will be born within the year. Everything is going to be cool” (Gen. 17:15-22).
One afternoon, not long after that, Genesis 18 says, Abraham was hanging out in the shade near the opening of his tent, when he had a visitor. The text sometimes says God visited. Sometimes it says three men visited, or maybe they were three angels. The text isn’t clear.
Abraham’s response to the visitors is clear though. He went out to meet them, bowed, offered to bring water to wash their feet, and offered them some food.
“Sounds good,” said the visitors. So Abraham hurried off, and told Sarah to whip up some biscuits, while he went to some meat and have someone cook it. Over the meal, the men (or God or angels) predict that Sarah will have a son. Soon.
After the meal, the men (or God or angels) head toward Sodom, and Abraham goes part of the way with them.
Genesis 19 begins, “The two angels came to Sodom.”
Lot went to meet the visitors, and, like his Uncle Abraham, offered them hospitality.
They said, “That’s OK, we’ll just spend the night in the town square.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Lot said. “I really don’t think that’s a good idea at all.”
The visitors got the message and accepted Lot’s offer of dinner and a place to sleep at his house.
After dinner but before bedtime (danger music rising), the men of Sodom banged on Lot’s door. “Hey, Lot! We want your visitors.”
Lot went out, closing the door behind him. “That’s no way to treat visitors. Hey, I’ve got an idea. How about my two daughters? I’ll bring them out, and you can have your way with them.” I know!
The men of Sodom were having none of it. “Who does this Lot think he is, moving into town, telling us how to live? We’ll teach him!” Then they surged forward so ferociously that they almost broke the door down.
The visitors inside quickly opened the door, grabbed Lot, pulled him into the house, slammed the door shut, and struck the men of Sodom blind. Inside, the visitors told Lot to get out of town because they were going to destroy the city. “You have anyone you want to take with you? “ Maybe…. Lot checked. Nope, no one wanted to go.
In the morning, things were set, ready to go, but Lot dawdled. “Get going!” the men/angels urged. And finally, Lot left with his wife and daughters.
Sulfur and fire destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters went on and lived in a cave in the hills. Then, as one scholar put it, “Mistakenly assuming that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was so total that there is no one else on earth by whom to have children [and so secure for them a future], Lot’s daughters get their father drunk so that he will conceive with them” (NOAB, 39n).
That’s the story. What lessons can we learn from such a story? [Pause a moment.]
Some people say that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah gives scriptural support for condemnation of homosexuality. One denominational document says, “There can be no doubt of the moral judgment made [in Genesis 19] against homosexual relations” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” 5).
But is that what’s going on here? I say no, it isn’t.
For one thing, it would be hard to believe that every single man in Sodom was gay.
For another thing, what the men in the city of Sodom had in mind wasn’t same-sex marriage. What they had in mind was gang rape.
For yet another thing, if we take this story to condemn same-sex relationships, then does the story say it’s OK to give one’s daughters over to a mob for gang rape? Really? And incest is OK too? Really?
So if that’s not the lesson, what lesson might we learn from this story?
Here is one possibility.
About 1200 years after the time of Abraham and Lot, the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel talked in explicit terms about what was wrong in Sodom. Ezekiel was writing in a time when the whole nation of Israel had been destroyed, and he was explaining what had gone wrong. Ezekiel’s message from God to the people of Jerusalem was that they were worse than Sodom. How so? Ezekiel 16:49 says, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
Pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease with no compassion for those in need. According to Ezekiel, the lesson we should learn from Genesis 19 is that we ought to walk humbly and practice mercy.
Here’s another possibility.
The Gospel of Luke mentions Sodom in chapter 10. There, Luke describes Jesus sending out pairs of his followers in traveling ministry. Jesus told the pairs not to provide for their journey: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals” (Luke 10:4).
Instead, they were to depend on the hospitality offered them: “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:8-9). If no one in a town offered hospitality, they were to walk away. And, Jesus says, “I tell you, on that day [that is, when God holds people accountable], it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.”
The suggestion in the Gospel of Luke, then, is that the sin of Sodom has to do with their lack of hospitality to the visitors. The men of Sodom should have offered food and lodging rather than abuse.
According to Jesus in Luke’s account, then, the lesson we should learn from Genesis 19 is that we are to offer hospitality rather than, as someone put it, “callous disregard for human dignity” (Grippo, “The Vatican Can Slight Scripture for Its Purpose” in The Vatican and Homosexuality, 34).
Even if we were to take Genesis 19 fairly literally, it doesn’t condemn same-sex relationships. And our insistence that it does, as one Christian ethicist suggests, “has obscured the witness of the passage against sexual violence” (Patricia Jung, “The Promise of Postmodern Hermeneutics,” in Sexual Diversity and Catholicism, 81).
So that’s another lesson we could learn from Genesis 19: we ought not practice or condone sexual violence.
One book, which came out in the late 1970s, is titled, Is the Homosexual my Neighbor? The authors assert with some conviction, “… the Sodom story says nothing at all about the homosexual condition” (62). Rather, it applies to all of us, suggesting that we “should show hospitality to strangers, should deal justly with the poor and vulnerable, and should not force … sexual attentions upon those unwilling to receive them” (ibid.).
If we assume Genesis 19 is about same-sex relationships, we miss these other lessons. And, by the way, the answer to the question is, yes. LBGTQ people are our neighbors, sometimes literally. And what do we owe our neighbors? Love. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I want to say somewhat firmly that being a Christian does not require us to take a moral stand against same-sex relationships. Being a Christian does require us to love our neighbors (maybe even to those who take a moral stand against same-sex relationships, just sayin’), to show hospitality to strangers, to deal justly with the poor and vulnerable, and to treat people with respect.
Besides these lessons, I have to say something about Lot’s daughters. In this story, when Lot offers his daughters to the men of Sodom, he is treating them like property, not as persons deserving of respect. To be clear, such attitudes toward daughters and toward women are part of our tradition – not so much the Quaker tradition, but definitely part of the Christian tradition.
And, as President Obama said recently, “Treating women as second-class citizens is a bad tradition. … There’s no excuse for sexual assault or domestic violence." —President Obama in Kenya: http://go.wh.gov/Ko3xvP
Yes, the way those daughters treated Lot wasn’t good either. I tend to give them some slack because, in that culture and their situation, they believed they didn’t have any other options. To a great extent, they were right. The only way they had to provide themselves a future was to have children. That’s part of what happens when we treat women as second-class citizens – we take away options that would otherwise be available for full human flourishing.
Daughters matter. Women matter. LBGTQ people matter.
What can we learn from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah? We need to love our neighbors, show hospitality to strangers, deal justly and mercifully with the poor and vulnerable, and treat people with respect.
In the spirit of John Woolman, let us examine our hearts and lives, and try whether the seeds of oppression have nourishment in us (allusion to BYM, 23.16).