One of the more common arguments against homosexuality used to be the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We say “used to be,” because many biblical scholars and teachers today realize that there is no scriptural backing for that argument. Let us together take a clear, honest look at these cities, and let us determine who the inhabitants were, and why God destroyed them.
The first thing to realize is that it wasn’t just two cities involved. Today, people usually only remember the names of two, but in truth, God was about to destroy all the cities of the plain. In addition to Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities of Admah, Zeboiim and Zoar were also about to be destroyed. (Gen. 14:2; Deut. 29:23) Zoar was spared so that Lot and his daughters could flee there, but Admah and Zeboiim met the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah. Another interesting point is that, at least in reference to Sodom, Gomorrah and Zoar, the Bible doesn’t tell us their real names. The Hebrew word for Sodom is סדם S’dom and means “burnt.” The Hebrew word for Gomorrah is עמורה ‘Amorah, and means “a ruined heap.” Zoar צער Tso’ar means “insignificance.” (Lot pointed out that it was a small, insignificant city when asking the angels if he and his daughters could go there and be safe.) There can be no question that these names were given to the cities after they were destroyed, and were not their original names.
The inhabitants of these cities, like all the Canaanites, were worshippers of false gods. These included the god Molech, arguably the most horrible of all the idols of Canaan. According to the writing of the rabbinical scholar Rashi, Molech was a huge statue with his arms held out in front of him. A fire would be kindled between his arms, and then babies would be placed in his arms and burned alive. This was known as “passing your children through the fire to Molech.”
Other practices engaged in by the Canaanites included adult human sacrifice, cannibalism (Wisdom of Solomon 12:5), and temple prostitution. (Having sexual relations with temple prostitutes as a form of worship in fertility cults.)
Lot, Abraham’s nephew, moved to the city of Sodom with his wife and their daughters. God sent two angels to Sodom in the evening, ostensibly to investigate the rumors of the sinfulness of the city, i.e., so they could experience first hand what was going on there. A more important purpose of their visit, though, (since God obviously already knew what was going on) was to rescue Lot and his family from the impending destruction. The account of their visit to the city is found in Genesis 19. Lot was sitting in the gate. This is significant. The person who sat in the gate, that is, the gatekeeper, was entrusted by the rulers of the city to monitor all traffic in and out of the city, and not to admit anyone who could endanger the city in any way. This was a serious responsibility, and the fact that it was given to Lot, who was not a native of the city, but a relative newcomer, was unusual.
A word about the angels: Forget, for a moment, the traditional stereotypes of angels, that is, women with flowing blond hair and huge feathered wings. In scripture, angels usually appeared in the form of men. Frequently, there was nothing unusual about their appearance that would suggest they were anything other than human beings.
Lot greeted the two visitors, as was his responsibility as gatekeeper. (He bowed to the ground, which was not an uncommon form of greeting from an inferior to a superior, in this case, from a public servant to strangers whose social status was unknown.) He then evidently inquired about their business in the city and specific destination, again, as part of his job. Upon learning that they intended to spend the night in the street, Lot insisted that they stay at his house. This suggests he knew they would not be safe in the streets. The obvious aside, that there has probably never been a city where it is safe to sleep in the streets at night, the reason for Lot’s insistence becomes clear when we read certain passages in the Mishnah, which is pre-Christian Jewish Bible commentary. Those texts contain detailed information on the situation in Sodom that led to its demise.
According to the Mishnah, Sodom was unfathomably cruel to strangers and the poor. For example, a visitor to Sodom would be offered a bed for the night... but if the bed were too long or short for the visitor, it was the visitor they altered: A person who was too short would be stretched on a rack until he fit the bed. Someone who was too tall would have his feet and enough of his legs amputated, until he fit the bed.1
In regard to the poor, the people of Sodom were happy to offer a coin or two to a beggar. But the coins they offered had a mark on them... and no merchant in town would accept those coins in payment for anything. When the poor beggar finally starved to death, the coins would be reclaimed, and would be given to other poor people.2
Once the people of Sodom had found out that P'lotit, Lot’s daughter, had secretly given food to a stranger who was near starvation, and they burned her in public. Another time, when they discovered that a teenage girl had fed a starving beggar, they smeared honey all over her and placed her upon the city wall, so that she died from the stings of the bees and/or wasps attracted by the honey.3 Some traditions hold that it was the "cry" of the young girl hung from the walls which reached God. This was the "cry" of which He spoke to Abraham, and which ultimately led to the destruction of Sodom and the other cities. Behavior like this would most certainly qualify as grievous. "Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous..." (Gen. 18:20)
These and many other similar hideous acts of cruelty by the people of Sodom and the other cities had aroused God’s anger, and He decided to destroy them completely.
Understanding, then, how the people of Sodom treated visitors to their city, it can readily be understood why Lot was so insistent that the two men not stay in the streets, and why he urgently propelled them toward his own house for the night.
Lot did insist, and the two visitors went to his house and he made dinner for them. Later that night, a mob formed outside of Lot’s house, demanding that he bring out the guests. Traditionalists would have us believe that the mob was made up of homosexual men wanting to have sex with the angels. But a careful reading of the verses shows clearly that this was not the case. Gen. 19:4 tells us “But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter.” At first glance, it does appear to be a crowd of men. But let’s look deeper. The phrase “the men of the city, even the men of Sodom” is a bit misleading. In Hebrew, אנשי העיר אנשי סדם “anshei ha’ir, anshei S’dom,” could also be translated as “the people of the city, the people of Sodom.” But is that a more correct translation? The rest of the verse will answer that for us: “...both old and young, all the people from every quarter.” There is no question, then, that the entire population of Sodom gathered outside Lot’s house: men, women and children. This alone tells us that the traditionalists were wrong about the intent of the mob: If you are planning a homosexual orgy, you don’t invite the wife and kids!
Of course, this begs the question, how did this mob come to form, and what did they really want? The Bible doesn’t tell us, so we have to read between the lines and in so doing, backtrack from the mob scene outside Lot’s house to where the crowd first gathered. First, the fact that the entire population of the city was involved tells us that this was, to them, a matter of some importance. They evidently felt that the visit of these two strangers was something that affected every person in the city in some way. So logic suggests that the gathering would have begun at whatever public place Sodom used for such things, such as a City Hall or public square or the King’s palace. Here was the situation as they would have seen it: Lot, a foreigner who had moved here and had been given a position of some responsibility, had invited two strangers of unknown origin into the city and into his home. But his job as gatekeeper did not include sneaking strangers into the city. Sodom had an established way of dealing with visitors to the city, as horrible as that way was. So the crowd devised a plan: They would go to Lot’s house and politely ask to meet the strangers and know who they were. They even had their words chosen: “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out and let us know them.” It should be noted that this was phrased as a request, using a polite form of the verb “to know,”4 and was not phrased in a hostile, demanding way. And so the crowd began to move toward Lot’s house.
There are those who claim that when the crowd said “let us know them,” they meant “have sex with them.” There are even translations of the Bible that say “let us have sex with them,” or “let us know them carnally.” Let us state categorically, that the Hebrew text will NOT support such “translations.”
Some would say that Hebrew has more than one verb for “know,” and that the one used here means “have sex.” Let’s set the record straight on this: There is no separate Hebrew verb that means “know” in a sexual sense. The root of the Hebrew verb for “know” is ידע yada. A form of yada is used here and hundreds of other times in scripture. Only about ten of those times refer to sex, and in each case, the sexual meaning is made clear by the immediate context. (Example: Adam knew his wife and she conceived.) To try to make this word mean sex everywhere will get us in a lot of trouble, because the scripture tells us that God knew David, and uses a form of this word. We don’t think anyone would be foolish enough to try to attach a sexual meaning to that. When the crowd outside Lot’s house said they wanted to know the visitors, they meant exactly that: To know who they were. Of course, given their history in regard to visitors, it wasn’t likely to end with them learning the identity of the men, and Lot knew that.
Even though the crowd assembled more or less peacefully, and delivered a polite request to know the identity of his guests, Lot knew that wasn’t the end of it. He had lived in that city long enough to know what they did to overnight guests. His guests might not survive having their feet and part of their legs violently amputated. And being stretched on a rack could leave them permanently crippled. Lot couldn’t allow that.
There was, at the time, an unwritten “law of hospitality,” something Lot undoubtedly had learned from his uncle Abraham. That law stated that if visitors came to your home, you were responsible not only to feed and house them, but also to protect them, even at the cost of your own life and the lives of your family. So Lot took his responsibility very seriously, and wasn’t about to turn his guests over to the crowd.
Of course, a tiny family like Lot’s couldn’t hope to fight off such a mob. The only hope in such cases is to try to talk them out of it, or, failing in that, to try to distract them in some way. Lot tried both. He went out to them and asked them not to behave so wickedly. The hostile intentions of the mob were clear to him, despite the polite words they used. It was also clear immediately that talking was not going to work. In fact, his attempts to dissuade them only served to enrage them.
Lot, in desperation to protect his visitors, did what the law of hospitality required: He was willing to sacrifice the lives of his daughters to protect the guests. A word about the two daughters: These girls were engaged to two men from Sodom. An engagement was much more binding in those days than it is today. In fact, it was as binding as a marriage, and even gave Lot some authority over his daughters’ fiancés. Lot offered his two daughters, still virgins, to the crowd in place of the strangers. If he could distract the men of the crowd, then they, as the leaders of the city, might have disbanded the mob, or at least have been distracted long enough that he could get his guests out of the city to safety.
Think about this: If the men of Sodom had been homosexual and wanted sex with his guests, there is no way Lot would not have known. He would have known it would be pointless to offer women to homosexual men. He could, and would, have offered them something they would be more likely to accept: He could have offered his future sons-in-law, since the engagement of his daughters gave him that right, or, he could even have offered himself. But if the crowd outside Lot’s house really had been interested in raping the men inside, though, it hardly seems plausible that they would politely ask permission to do so, using a mild euphemism for sex. A rape gang would be far more likely to use crude and vulgar language. Rapists don’t ask permission, and they don’t use mild euphemisms for sex!
Lot’s offer was refused, and the crowd seized him, and said they were going to do worse to him than they were planning to do to his guests. Did they attempt any type of sexual contact with Lot? No, they tried to kill him.5 There was no sexual situation here at all. But, just for the sake of argument, if the intent of the crowd had been to force the angels to have sex, their crime would have been rape, not homosexuality.
It also bears mentioning that whatever happened, or did not happen, at Lot’s house had no bearing on the destruction of Sodom or the other cities. Their fate had been sealed before those angels ever came to the city.
Ezekiel recorded the sins of Sodom: Ezek. 16:49-50 - pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness. They did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy, they were haughty and committed abomination. A note about this unspecified abomination: In the Law of Moses, many things were called abomination, including such things as eating pork and shellfish, having sex with a woman during her period, etc. But the word abomination simply means “a hateful thing.”6 Certainly, the way Sodom and the other cities treated the poor and strangers to the cities, and even their own people, was a hateful thing. Outside the Law of Moses, the word abomination was often used to refer to practices associated with idol worship, some of which were enumerated earlier. And as mentioned earlier, the Mishnah is clear that Sodom was destroyed because of their cruelty to strangers and the poor. There is no suggestion there that homosexual activity was a factor. In fact, historically, the first religious text to suggest such a thing was the Quran (c. AD 600).7
What about sodomites? In modern times, the word sodomy was incorporated into many states’ laws in the U.S. But it did not mean the same thing in each state. In some states, sodomy referred only to anal intercourse. In other states, it also included homosexual oral sex, and in some states, it even included heterosexual oral sex. For some, anything other than heterosexual vaginal intercourse was sodomy.8, 9 These definitions all go back to the incorrect notion that Sodom was destroyed for “unnatural” sexual activity. As we have seen above, that simply wasn’t the case.
But what about biblical references to sodomites? In the King James Version, this word can be found in a few places, including Deut. 23:17 and 2 Kings 23:7. In some translations, the word is even found in the New Testament. But if we look at the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, that is, if we look at the Bible in its original languages, we will never see such a word as sodomite in there. So when we see it in an English translation, we must acknowledge that the translators lied.
Let us look at the above two verses in more detail: In the King James Version, Deuteronomy 23:17 tells us that there will not be a “whore” of the daughters of Israel, nor a “sodomite” of the sons of Israel. Now, if we look at the verse in the Hebrew text, it tells us that there will not be a קדשה kadeshah of the daughters of Israel nor a קדש kadesh of the sons of Israel. Even if you don’t know a word of Hebrew, you can see that the words are very similar. In fact, kadeshah is simply the feminine form of kadesh, so whatever it is that the daughters were not to be, is exactly the same as what the sons were not to be. So which is it, whore, or sodomite? Actually, neither. A kadeshah is not a prostitute in the usual sense, that is, not a “street hostess” who plies her living by having sex for money. Rather, kadesh and kadeshah were temple prostitutes. These were a feature of Babylonian, and later Canaanite, fertility religions. The temple prostitutes usually lived in or near the temple, and having sex with one of them was a form of worship of the goddess of fertility. The money paid was put in the temple treasury, rather than given to the prostitute. It should be noted that both men and women would visit the temple prostitutes to “worship” in this way. It should also be noted that because this was part of a fertility cult, temple prostitution was ALWAYS heterosexual. Israel ignored the prohibition of temple prostitution fairly early in their history. In 1 Samuel 2:22, we read that the two sons of Eli the High Priest, Hophni and Phineas, who were themselves priests, were having sex with the women of Israel in the doorway of the Tabernacle. (This public location proves this was temple prostitution, and not just the two men cheating on their wives).
Let’s look now at 2 Kings 23:7. The translation in the King James refers to sodomites again, but also has errors in other parts of the translation, so the verse is reproduced here translated directly from the Hebrew text: “And he broke down the houses of the temple prostitutes (Hebrew: קדשים kadeshim) that were in the house of the LORD, where the women wove houses (i.e., shrines) for Asherah.” (Note: Asherah was one of the names given by the Canaanites to the Babylonian fertility goddess.)
One final thought about the cities of the plain, that is, Sodom, etc.: Jude 7 talks about the people of these cities giving themselves over to fornication (definition: any sexual activity outside of marriage, including temple prostitution) and “going after strange flesh.” (King James Version). What does that last part mean? The truth is, no one can say for sure. But the translation isn’t correct. The Greek does not say “strange flesh,” but rather “other flesh.” The word for other is ἑτέρας “heteras”. Exactly what the phrase means is uncertain. But given the fact that the word translated as flesh is also the word for meat, it is quite possible that it is referring to the practices of cannibalism associated with early Canaanite culture.
1Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a
2Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b
3Isaacs, Jacob. “Our People.” Brooklyn, NY. Kehot Publication Society. 1946.
4Adding the letter ה to the end of a future tense verb changes it from an ordinary future to a polite request. נדע = we will know; נדעה = let us know.
5Gen. 19:9 ויפצרו באיש בלוט מאד – “and they pushed the man Lot extremely.”
תועבה6 – to'evah – a hateful thing
8Phelps, Shirelle. “World of Criminal Justice: N-Z.” p. 686. Farmington Hills, MI. Gale Group. 2001.
9Scheb, John, John Scheb, II. “Criminal Law and Procedure.” p. 185. Boston. Cengage Learning. 2013.