Friday, October 21, 2016

Sin of Sodom: A Case of Denial

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, 1852

Folks will tell you that the Biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19) is about the "sin of homosexuality." In fact, the word "sodomy" even comes from this interpretation.

Many do not question this interpretation at all. It is treated like it's built into the law of nature: Birds fly, fish swim and the sin of Sodom is homosexuality.

Easy peasy, right?

There is no shortage of commentaries on this subject with scholars exploring all angles. I'm going to risk looking at it from a simpler perspective to make this case: Sodom fits right into themes of denial and cognitive dissonance that I've been exploring on this blog lately.

Take a look at this:

Ezekiel 16:49-50 (NSRV)
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. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

See also: Genesis 18-19, Jeremiah 23:14, Amos 4:1-11 and Jude 1:7

The Bible is full of brain-teasing parables and puzzling narratives. It's hard enough to figure out what a good many passages might mean. In fact, I hold that the Bible invites us on a multi-layered journey of introspection, growth and discovery. It's about a people who are in varying stages of that same journey. Good folks can reasonably disagree about many things. However, in the case of these texts above, Scripture does us a favor: Bible authors tell us point-blank where to direct our attention. 

The Ezekiel passage specifically lists the sins of Sodom. It even prefaces it to be as clear as possible:  "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom," followed by an actual list. I don't know how you can get any clearer than that. For those who take the Bible literally, this should be an even simpler matter.

Yet, people will insist that Sodom is about something other than what it actually says. I respect if people don't agree with the Bible here, but let's at least be honest about what it says.

The Book of Ezekiel very clearly writes that pride, haughtiness and hoarding riches at the expense of the poor are among those sins. It also lists "abominable things." What does this last point mean? You could argue that those "abominable" things could include homosexual acts, but it does not specify.

There were all sorts of "abominable acts" in the Old Testament, and the passages from Jeremiah and Jude seems to suggest those acts relating to Sodom were adultery. You could argue further that "homosexual acts" could be considered a form of adultery, but then you would have to bend and stretch the text all sorts of ways to get it to read that way. Even worse, you would be ignoring all the other possible ways to interpret it, especially those that have far more evidence to support them. In addition to the verses mentioned above, the original Genesis reading looks like the sin in question was gang rape of houseguests by a violent mob. Amos affirms that the sins were greed and a corresponding lack of charity. And so on.

Nothing that seems to match our modern understanding of same sex partnerships seems to be described in any of these verses.

It seems like the people of Sodom were violent and focused on partying and rowdy pleasure-seeking while the poor suffered. They were treated each other in outrageous displays of selfishness and meanness--these are the "abominable acts."

Why would people take the Ezekiel passage above, ignore the first three very clearly stated points, and then focus all attention on a questionable interpretation of the fourth point?


Even if the sins of Sodom were to include a general indictment against all "homosexual acts" (which I highly doubt), anyone preaching on this text should still give the most time and emphasis to the sins of pride, greed and haughtiness.

Preachers should be pounding the pulpit over and over again about pride and greed if they want to be consistent with Scripture. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Bible passages condemning greed, for example. By contrast, there are a total of six that many claim relate to homosexuality, and even those have come under some serious doubt in light of recent scholarship (including the story of Sodom).

Are pride and greed no longer major problems in our world today? The United Nations claims that around 21,000 people die every single day from hunger and hunger-related causes. How do we sit with that given that many of us have time, talent and treasure that we spend pursuing pleasures of all kinds? That's the sin of Sodom. But we can't face the truth of that statement, so we redirect our attention to "those homosexuals." Regardless of your beliefs about homosexuality, how is this even an honest read of this particular story?  How can we justify the monumental attempt to distract attention from greed, pride, lack of charity and violence?

This blog post is not about homosexuality. Neither is the story of Sodom, but people have neutralized its meaning this way. It could powerfully critique the greed and pride in all of society. It could be a warning to all who are going down that path that God is going to blow us all to bits (figuratively, let's say). Leave that lifestyle and don't even look back. It's not the path that leads to love, goodness and wholeness. Just look at the classic painting at the top of this post--it's a fierce condemnation.

Given the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, climate change and endless wars, it is easy to see how this path of consumerism and world power will also end in ruin for us all, just like it did for the people of Sodom. We need to hear this story with new eyes today. Look at that painting again and see nuclear war, not homosexuality.

We've been robbed of the power of the story of Sodom. It should be a strong companion to Matthew 25:31-46, which also gives dire warnings for those who do not serve Jesus by feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger and the other Works of Mercy. It's a path that ends in destruction.

It's so tempting to bring the explanation we want to the Bible, rather than let the Bible teach us. We are afraid of the power of the Bible. If we don't already have a preconceived idea, a preacher tells us what to find in the Bible, and lo and behold, that is exactly what we find. It's the power of suggestion.

When a passage does not fit our preconceived notions, our brain simply discards it. It's how we deal with cognitive dissonance. People do it all the time. We've been told so often that Sodom is about homosexuality, so when we find lines about greed and pride we simply gloss over and discard them.

Thomas Merton in Opening the Bible says that the Bible tells us about ourselves. In other words, if we go to the Bible and ask, "What is this book about?" the response from the Bible is, "Who are you?"

The story of Sodom is a perfect example of this. The subjects in the story are not the people of Sodom. No, the true subjects are the people reading it. How you interpret the story and what you find says more about you than it does about the people living in that doomed city thousands of years ago.

As a closing, the fact that the "good guy" in the story named Lot offered up his virgin daughters to appease the violent mob from attacking his houseguests should make it pretty obvious that we should not be taking every detail from this story as direct instruction about morality. It should also make us wonder if this story is an allegory about some other spiritual truth. Or maybe the story does the very thing Merton proposed--we think it's telling us about something else but it is really tells us about ourselves.

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NOTE: Thanks to this article for help in identifying verses which relate to Sodom.

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