This article is part of the Outreach Guide to the Bible and Homosexuality.

Richard J. Clifford, S.J.: Is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah about homosexuality? No.

Views Richard J. Clifford, S.J. / March 14, 2024 Print this:
“The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,” from 1852, by the English painter John Martin (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Most of us know the Old Testament from brief excerpts. We seldom have the time for extended passages, still less for entire biblical books. It’s good to read the Bible, of course, but snippets alone can deprive us of the contexts that provide depth. The Bible often communicates its message through stories, which require lots of space. 

An example of the danger of cursory reading is Genesis 19:1-11, the attack of the men of Sodom on the two angelic servants sent to protect Lot and his family. Interpretation for centuries has been over-determined by the name of the town where the incident took place—Sodom—which has given us the name of the sexual act, sodomy. Dictionaries routinely define sodomy as “sexual intercourse involving anal or oral copulation.”

Frank and accurate, to be sure, but terribly misleading as a label for a single scene in a 71-verse story that begins with Abraham in chapter 18 and ends with Lot in chapter 19. The one-dimensional label keeps readers from appreciating the whole story. 

Readers should take account of the context of all Genesis stories and trace their links to other episodes in the book.

The context of Genesis

Readers should take account of the context of all the Genesis stories and trace their links to other episodes in the book. A good example of meaning deepened by context is Genesis 22:1-10, when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, for whom he long waited. Like Genesis 19, this episode is misunderstood if we read it without considering similar divine commands.

The shocking command in Genesis 22 is not unique. God’s command to Abraham near the end of the larger story to give up his son Isaac echoes his command at the beginning of the saga to give up his homeland (Gen. 12:1). To emphasize the parallel, Genesis 22 reprises the earlier command (“Go to a land . . . that I will show you”) in 12:1, and in 22:2, “go to the land of Moriah . . . on one of the mountains I will show you.” The parallel commands make it clear that Abraham must be ready to surrender to God what he most values —his homeland and beloved son—to receive them back as God’s gift.

The theme of a father giving up his beloved son appears twice more in Genesis. In chapter 38, Judah gives up his only son, Selah, to Tamar; in chapter 43, Jacob gives up Benjamin, the remaining son of Rachel, by allowing him to go to Egypt. Both fathers receive back their sons along with other gifts. The explanatory value of the contexts from Genesis 12 and 22 remind us to appreciate the connections of Genesis 19 to 18.

Abraham contrasted with Lot

Returning to our main topic, Genesis 18-19, we note that almost from the beginning of the Abraham saga (chapters 12-25), the patriarch is contrasted with Lot, his nephew. Both men are married, but their prospects of continuing the family line differ decidedly. Lot, young and already with children, is by any natural standard the right choice to continue the family line. Abraham is 75 and his wife Sarah long ago passed child-bearing age (18:11).

God’s command to Abraham near the end of the larger story to give up his son Isaac echoes his command at the beginning of the saga to give up his homeland (Gen. 12:1)

In the hidden purpose of God, however, Abraham and Sarah will become the parents of Isaac, the promised child. Lot, alas, will turn out to be “the nephew from hell,” forever requiring his uncle’s bailouts and rescues. For example, when both men’s flocks grow beyond the pastureland’s capacity to feed them, Abraham exercises his authority as family head in a surprisingly generous way. He invites Lot to choose any pastureland he wants: “If you prefer the left, I will go to the right; if you prefer the right, I will go to the left” (13:9).

Lot, of course, should have deferred to his uncle, but he instead looked across the Jordan River to the Jordan Plain, at that time green and abundantly watered, leaving the land of Canaan to settle in the city of Sodom. (Its exact location is unknown, but located somewhere in the southern Dead Sea area.)

Unfortunately, the Jordan Plain turned into a war zone fought over by two coalitions of petty kings. The victorious coalition seized Sodom, and Lot’s family was among the captured. Word of his nephew’s capture reached Abraham, who marched out with 328 of his men to rescue Lot and recover all his possessions.

When the victorious Abraham returned, a local king, Melchizedek of Salem (another name for Jerusalem, meaning “peace” in Hebrew) celebrated his victory and blessed “God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (14:20). Abraham, however, refused to take the spoils of his victory (to which he had a perfect right) lest anyone say, “I made Abraham rich.” 

With tact and boldness, Abraham succeeded in persuading God not to destroy the entire city for the sake of as few as 10 righteous (18:32).

Time passed. Lot had two daughters while Abraham and Sarah had only hope for the promised child. Then, at noon on a blistering day at Mamre, south of Jerusalem, Abraham dozing at the entrance to his tent awoke to find three men standing before him. Awed by their presence, he rushed to welcome them with extravagant hospitality. His wife and his servants joined.

Two of the men turned out to be angels, and the third was revealed very gradually to be the Lord himself. (The number of men, three, probably reflected the popular belief that a god was typically accompanied by two angelic servants.)

In the course of the elaborate meal Abraham served them, the Lord promised, “At the appointed time, about this time next year, I will return to you, and Sarah will have a son” (18:14). Abraham and Sarah laughed in delight (in Hebrew, ṣāḥaq) at the prospect of a son within the year.

As the three men rose to leave, accompanied by Abraham, they looked down at Sodom, Lot’s city in the distant plain. The two servants peeled off to journey to Sodom, leaving Abraham alone with the Lord. In an intimate and tender reflection, the Lord recalled his promise that Abraham would become a mighty nation in whom all the nations of the earth would find blessing.

Then, thinking perhaps of the victims of Sodom’s wicked inhabitants, the Lord reflected: “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave, that I must go down to see whether or not their actions are as bad as the cry against them that comes to me. I mean to find out.”

Abraham correctly guessed that the Lord would punish Sodom severely. Here was an exceptional opportunity for Abraham to rescue his nephew from the impending destruction. Relying on the promise that he would bring blessing to the nations, and aware of his responsibility for his kinsman, Abraham asked the Lord:

Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will you then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? …Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?

With tact and boldness, Abraham succeeded in persuading God not to destroy the entire city for the sake of as few as 10 righteous (18:32). Lot’s family will be fewer than 10, though even those few will fall short by disregarding the messengers’ command to leave the city before it was destroyed (19:12-23). 

Avoiding misinterpretations

Genesis 19:1-11 has given rise to a misinterpretation of the entire story: the encounter of two angelic visitors with Lot and the citizens of the city. Though Lot is not a full citizen of the doomed city (19:9), neither he nor his family behave righteously, for they accept only grudgingly the angels’ directives meant to save them.

Lot’s reception of the angelic visitors suffers in comparison with Abraham’s reception of the Lord.

Moreover, Lot’s reception of the angelic visitors suffers in comparison with Abraham’s reception of the Lord. Abraham rushes to serve them an extravagant meal and involves his wife and servants, whereas Lot welcomes them alone with what seems to be an ordinary meal. 

After the meal in Lot’s house, “the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house and called to Lot” to bring his two guests into the town square to be gang-raped (Gen. 19:4-5). Conscious to a foolish extreme of his role as host, Lot offers the mob a shocking counter-offer:

I have two daughters who have never had sexual relations with men. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please. But do not do anything to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.

The mob scorns his proposal and moves in closer to break down the door. 

Given our interest not to allow the terms Sodom and sodomy to take over our interpretation, it is important to note that Lot’s offer to surrender his two daughters to the mob’s lust implicitly reveals his own take on what the men of Sodom really intended.

In Lot’s eyes, the men of Sodom were not intent on homosexual rape specifically, but rather on humiliating Lot, whom they despised as an immigrant (19:9), and his two guests. Recent accounts of warfare make clear that systematic sexual assault on non-combatants is an all-too-common means of demoralizing and defeating enemies. Lot’s words seem to indicate he is referring to that very practice. 

Lot’s two guests rescue him by pulling him back into the house and shutting the door. The guests rescue the host! When the messengers tell Lot to lead his sons-in-law out of the doomed city, they laugh off his warnings. The passage uses same Hebrew verb—ṣāḥaq—that describes Abraham and Sarah expressing delight at the prospect of a son. Even Lot, along with his two daughters, “lingered,” and the messengers had to seize them and lead them by the hand out of the city.

In Lot’s eyes, the men of Sodom were not intent on homosexual rape specifically, but rather on humiliating Lot and his two guests.

Once outside the city, Lot delays leaving for the safety of the hills using an excuse so foolish that it must be a humorous putdown of Lot. He asks the messengers permission to go to a little town, Zoar (from the Hebrew, ṣō‘ār, meaning “small”). Does Lot think that a small town would escape God’s notice? The silly excuse seems to echo the lighthearted interplay between Sarah and the Lord in Abraham’s tent (18:11-15).

Here, however, Lot’s foolish behavior displays his inability to care for his family. Lot’s folly extends even to his wife who, despite warnings, looked back at the rain of sulfur and fire and turned into a pillar of salt (19:26), the kind visible even today on the southern shores of the Dead Sea. Why the constant contrast between Abraham’s family and Lot’s family? The British literary critic Tony Tanner has an answer.

What Tanner wrote of Jane Austen’s novels can be said of Lot and his family. “Jane Austen helps to make us appreciate the value of the real thing by juxtaposing a travesty or parodic version of it,” he wrote.

Not a warning against homosexuality

There is one last reference to Abraham in 19:27: “As he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and the whole region of the Plain, he saw smoke over the land rising like the smoke from a kiln.” What was he thinking as he looked? We are not told, just as we are not told what Abraham was thinking in chapter 22 when he walked with Isaac toward the mountain to sacrifice him. Abraham’s silence in both instances is a reminder that the Bible leaves much unsaid, inviting the reader to imagine the thoughts of the character. 

The sexual assault on the two angelic servants is certainly not a warning against homosexuality.

The coup de grâce of Lot’s story comes at 19:30-38, when Lot’s two daughters, whose husbands were apparently killed in the destruction, attempt to beget children through incestuous unions with their father. The acts will be revenge on their father for exposing them to the mob’s lust. Getting him drunk, they lie with him on successive nights. The firstborn was Moab, the ancestor of the Moabites, and the second born was Ben-ammi, the ancestor of the Ammonites.

Again, it can hardly escape readers’ notice that the daughters’ immoral and aggressive actions contrast totally with the faith and obedience of Abraham and Sarah.

In conclusion, the sexual assault on the two angelic servants is certainly not a warning against homosexuality, and all attempts to interpret the narrative in that direction seriously misread the story. Rather, the story gives us a portrait of Abraham and his wife as they were, both in their own actions and in contrast to Abraham’s nephew Lot. It displays Abraham’s ability to bring God’s blessings to the nations, offer hospitality to strangers, care for his family and live trustingly by God’s promise. 

Richard J. Clifford, S.J.

Father Clifford, a leading Old Testament scholar, is the founding dean of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and the former dean of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology from 1983 to 1987. A past president of the Catholic Biblical Association, he began teaching at the former Weston College in 1964 and retired from Boston College in 2023.

All articles by Richard J. Clifford, S.J.

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