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Sunday, 10 May 2009

Sunday Study: Sodom and Gomorrah Part I

Something I've been deeply disturbed about since childhood is the Sodom & Gomorrah tale - specifically, the offering of the virgin daughters to satisfy the hordes of men outside the house. On the face of it, this looks like a negation of the daughters' autonomy (mind you, I've never seen this passage interpreted - Matt may have some insights). There are lots of Biblical instances where we're exhorted to curb our autonomy for others or the greater good - eg turning the other cheek - but the Sodom & Gomorrah incident doesn't seem like one of them.

In response to these comments let me begin by examining a little of what is going on in the passage Anna cites. The passage occurs in the 19th chapter of the book of Genesis,

1The two messengers arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground.2 "My lords," he said, "please turn aside to your servant's house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning." "No," they answered, "we will spend the night in the square."3 But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate.4 Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom--both young and old--surrounded the house.5 They called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them." 6 Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him 7 and said, "No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing. 8 Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof."9 "Get out of our way," they replied. And they said, "This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We'll treat you worse than them." They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door. 10 But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door.

Lot offered his daughters to the mob in exchange for the mob not having sex with his guests. Analysing various legal and mythical writings from the ancient near east, Robert Gagnon argues that in the ancient near eastern context “it was apparently regarded as degrading and shameful for a man to be penetrated as if he were a woman regardless of whether the passive partner was a voluntary participant. To be routinely penetrated by other men was to be treated as a “man-woman” and hence made inferior in honour and status to those doing the penetrating.”[1] This is reflected in the middle Assyrian laws which stipulated that the punishment for slandering a man of the same social class by claiming he had sex with men was castration.

Similarly having sex with a man of the same social class carried the punishment of “they shall turn him into a eunuch.”[2] I noted in an earlier post that penal sanctions of this kind serve a kind of ironical hyperbolic function; however, the point of the law is clear, “the principle of lex talionis explains the punishment: just as the perpetrator deprives the penetrated man of his manhood, so to the penetrator will be denied his manhood by being castrated.”[3] The Egyptian myth of Horus and Seth has similar motifs; when Seth sodomises Horus in his sleep it is stated that the gods “screamed aloud, and belched and spat on Horus’s face.”[4] Ancient near eastern mores apparently did not condemn sex with a man of lower social standing than oneself as this person’s standing was already lowered relative to oneself.

The men (messengers) in the passage entered Sodom as strangers. Lot showed them the required hospitality and hence brought them “under the protection of his roof” the men of Sodom’s actions, therefore, are an attempt to symbolically castrate his guests, to humiliate and degrade them and lower the social status of the outsiders relative to the community. Lot who is responsible for showing hospitality to his guests’ attempts to avert this outrage, offered his own virgin daughters to the mob. This makes some sense given the mores of the time; clearly a woman cannot be emasculated, nevertheless Anna is correct to find this deeply disturbing. After all is not handing your daughters over to be raped by men also outrageous? Who would deny that women are humiliated and degraded and treated as inferiors when they are raped by men? Lot’s priorities here are clearly selective.

On numerous occasions I have had interlocutors point to this passage and argue that the scriptures teach that rape is permissible. This text is cited to show that the canonical scriptures teach a misogynistic morality whereby women are seen as inferior to men. This response is too quick; for starters, those who reason this way make a straightforward error in interpretation. That of conflating what scriptures records with what it prescribes.

Some examples can demonstrate this; in the book of Acts the martyrdom of Stephen is recorded. The passage tells us that at Stephens’s trial, “They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law.’” And the text goes on to record what happens after this event,

they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul…. And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem.

The text records perjury and judicial murder yet no one would sensibly infer from this that Acts teaches that perjury and judicial murder of Christians is justified. Similarly, the gospel of Matthew records Herod ordering the murder of John the Baptist, this does not entail that Matthew’s gospel teaches that we should kill John the Baptist. The same is correct here; the text records Lot offering his virgin daughters to a mob. It does not follow from this that the text teaches that this kind of conduct is permissible or good.

In fact, I want to suggest that a careful reading of these narratives gives a different picture. I think one important feature of the patriarchal narratives is that they record the mistakes and failures of Israel’s patriarchs. A good example is the case of Abraham. In Gen 15 Sarah is childless. God promises Abraham that “a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” Abraham tries to get a woman other than Sarah (Hagar) pregnant and succeeds in doing so. The result is a whole lot of domestic strife and rivalry much of which continues in the Jewish/Islamic struggles in the middle east today. What we note later in the text, however, is that God gives Abraham a child through Sarah. It is interesting that when Moses delivers laws in the Torah, of which Genesis is a kind of extended preface, he proposes laws that condemn the kind of treatment Abraham gave Hagar and Ishmael.

Noah is another. Noah experimented with alcohol and got drunk. The result is he was shamed, possibly raped. Later passages in the proverbs warn about intoxication and again drunkenness is implicitly condemned in the Torah.

Abraham’s children display similar flaws. One example is the seduction of Dinah. Gen 34 records how “Shechem son of Hamor … was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and he loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her.” This is elaborated in the next passages as involving pre-marital sex with her. After this Shechem asks his father Hamor to, “Get me this girl as my wife.” The response of Dinah’s brothers is to negotiate in bad faith, deceive the men of the city into getting circumcised and then when they are still recovering from this (imagine circumcision of adult males prior to the development of anaesthetics) they attack the city and kill the men in it. This action is again implicitly condemned by Moses when he passed a law in Deut 22:28 that states, “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and seduces her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay the girl's father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her.” This law actually enjoins the very opposite of what Dinah’s brothers did; moreover, the language of Deut 22:28 alludes to that of Gen 34, it is almost is if the law is commentary on the actions of Dinah’s brothers.

Examples could be multiplied; the point is that if one reads Genesis in context with the Torah it is evident that not everything the patriarchs did is held out as a paradigm of just conduct. Frequently they serve as object lessons of errors to avoid and their conduct is implicitly condemned elsewhere in the text. I think it is plausible to see Lot’s actions in Gen 19 as a graphic example of this. In the next Sunday Study I will elaborate on this more fully.

[1] Robert A Gagnon The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001) 46.
[2] Ibid, 45.
[3] Ibid, 46.
[4] Ibid, 52.


  1. Thanks Matt. Enjoying these Sunday Studies!!!

    Recent blog post: Miss you Honky!

  2. Glad you realised it was Matt's work - I accidentally posted it as me after I finished editing it LOL!

    Recent blog post: Mother's Day

  3. sorry. didn't even look at the aurthor. Just assumed as he had done the others!!! :)

  4. You'd be right!

    He leaves me things to edit and put up and I am supposed to remember to ensure I am logged in as him before posting his edited posts *ahem*.

    Recent blog post: Dr Glenn Peoples on Religion in the Public Square

  5. The Angels staying with Lot did not reprimand him for being willing to hand his daughters over to the mob and considered him worthy of being rescued. Just how bad must the townsfolk have been if a man who is willing to hand his daughters over to be raped is considered to be better than them?

  6. Excellent explanation Matt, thanks for that.

    Recent blog post: You don’t need a gun to be a dangerous psycopath

  7. That's very interesting ... one of the features of my own religious upbringing was that certain passages of the Bible were avoided (unsurprisingly - they're not all readily accessible or relevant to kids).

    What this means, though, is that kids who go ahead and read by themselves don't know what to make of certain passages - and kids tend to look for straightforward morals, as if every chunk is a parable. (Or this kid did, anyway.) Hence my discomfort with this bit, and rape of Lot (?) by his daughters.

  8. Mark, Several things here. First, I think your comment that The [messengers] staying with Lot did not reprimand him for being willing to hand his daughters over to the mob is not entirely accurate. The text tells us that they reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door. (Gen 19:10-11) Second, you seem to be working with a hermeneutical principle that suggests that if something in the text is not explicitly reprimanded then its condoned. For the reasons I spelt out in the post I think this is mistaken. You can't infer acceptance from silence.

    Third, you note Lot was considered "worthy" to be saved. I agree, the reason which the text stresses(here and elsewhere) is Lots attitude to homeless strangers, he gave them a roof, showed them hospitality, protected them from the elements and mob etc. All pretty important in a middle eastern desert environment.Just how bad must the townsfolk have been if a man who is willing to hand his daughters over to be raped is considered to be better than them? very bad, the text however notes this, it states that the outcry against sodom was great, it stresses their depravity several chapters earlier before Lot entered the city etc.

    Recent blog post: The Illiberality of Abortion

  9. "Noah might have been raped????"

    What crazy commentator said this???

  10. “"Noah might have been raped????"

    What crazy commentator said this???

    The issue is the ninth chapter of Genesis where it states <blockquote>When he [Noah] drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside.”(Gen 10:21-22) </blockquote> The phrase rendered lay uncovered by the NIV can plausibly be translated was uncovered the phrase saw his … nakedness is a phrase which elsewhere in the torah is used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Leviticus 18 for example repeatedly uses this phrase to refer to sexual intercourse.(which the NIV translates as have sexual relations with).

    These factors, alongside Noah's response to the incident, which seems disproportional if Ham had just accidently seen his dad in the nude, leads some commentators to suggest that the text teaches that Ham raped Noah. The interpretation has been defended by Conservative commentators like Norman Geisler and also by those who use more ‘liberal’ methods like Robert Gagnon. Neither seems to me to be "crazy"

  11. They are only crazy in this instance...and Gagnon seems to have politics driving a lot of his exegesis so I would not trust him.

  12. loved the entry, the discussion too... i'm gonna proceed to the second part and see how you expound/end this entry... perhaps join the discussion there and make a more meaningful comment :P...

  13. Fair enough. I have read Gagnon's work and reject his ideas based on the arguments... but I will not go into that here. I just think these "noah was raped"/"david and jonathan were lovers"/"Ruth was a lesbian"/"the centurion's PAIS was his gay lover" etc. views tend to be more for shock value than based on exegesis of the passage.Ie. they search for evidence for a view they have already decided upon,rather than letting the text speak for itself


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