Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Sin of Sodom

Back in February, I wrote the first installment of a review of a book by David Helminiak entitled, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality.  In this first installment, I explained that Helminiak is a former Catholic priest, a Biblical scholar and a veteran of many years of ministry to the LGBT community. 

I also briefly described what Helminiak terms a “historical-critical” approach to interpreting the Bible, an approach which led to his conclusion that the modern concept of adult homosexual relationships would not have been familiar to the writers of the Bible.  “Specifically,” he points out, “in biblical times there was no elaborated understanding of homosexuality as a sexual orientation … There was only a general awareness of same-sex contacts or same-sex acts.”  Therefore, Helminiak concludes, in order to understand what passages of the Bible concerning homosexuality really mean as applied to modern society, one must understand and appreciate what the mindset was of the writers of such passages.

After being sidetracked for six weeks, I’d like to return to a discussion of Helminiak’s book, starting with a discussion of one of the most famous passages in the Bible that deal with homosexuality:  the story of the city of Sodom, found in Genesis 19:1-11.  The next post in this series will address the “abominations” of Leviticus 18 and 20.

Helminiak dates the current widely-held interpretation of the story of Sodom to about the 12th century, which coincided with a major shift in attitude within the church toward homosexuality (discussed in my previous post).  From that point in time, writes Helminiak, “the very word ‘sodomite’ was taken to refer to someone who engages in anal sex, and the sin of Sodom was taken to be male homogential acts (i.e., same-sex sexual acts).”

However, argues Helminiak, in the many biblical references to the sin of Sodom, there is no concern whatsoever about homogenitality, but there is concern about hardheartedness and abuse.  The sins of Sodom, says Helminiak, were abuse and offense against strangers, insult to the traveler, and inhospitality to the needy.  “When male-male rape becomes part of the story,” he explains, “the additional offense was sexual abuse – gross insult and humiliation [by forcing anal sex on the men] in Lot’s time and our own.  The whole story and its culture make clear that the author was not concerned about sex in itself, and it was irrelevant whether the sex was hereto- or homosexual.”

In his discussion, Helminiak points out that in the ancient world, homosexual rape was a traditional way for victors to accentuate the subjection of captive enemies and foes.  In that culture, the most humiliating experience for a man was to be treated like a woman, and raping a man was the most violent such treatment.  As Dale Martin, a professor of religion at Duke University, wrote, “To be penetrated was to be inferior because women were inferior.”

Jack Rogers, Professor of Theology Emeritus at San Francisco Theological Seminary and former Moderator (President) of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), has also written a book (Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality) about homosexuality and the Bible, which I hope to write about in future posts.  With respect to the Biblical account of the strangers in Sodom, Rogers wrote: 

“Some writers believe that the statement by the men of Sodom, ‘Bring them out to us, so that we may know them’ (Gen. 19:5), has a homosexual connotation.  That is not necessarily the case.  The Hebrew word ‘yada’, meaning ‘to know,’ appears almost 1,000 times in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is used to refer to sexual intercourse only ten or eleven times.  In each case the reference is to heterosexual intercourse.  Therefore we should be cautious in attributing any homosexual connotation to it” [pp.189-190n3].

Other passages in the Bible point out that the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality.  Ezekial 16:48-49 states:  “As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, Sodom and her daughters were never as wicked as you and your daughters.  Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door.” [New Living Translation]  According to the 19th chapter of Wisdom (the Wisdom of Solomon, which is included in the Catholic bible, but not the King James and other versions), the sin of Sodom was a “bitter hatred of strangers” and “making slaves of guests who were benefactors.”

Jesus himself makes reference to Sodom, but the context is not “sodomy”, but rejection of God’s messengers.  In Matthew 10:5-15, Jesus sends out his apostles with the admonition that if they are not received, they should shake off the dust from their feet as they leave a town, saying it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than that town.  This, again, points to the sin of Sodom being the sin of inhospitality.

Despite these clear references to the real sin of Sodom, people continue to cite the story of Sodom to condemn gay and lesbian people, which, Helminiak points out, leads to a bitter irony:

“There is a sad irony about the story of Sodom when understood in its own historical setting.  People oppose and abuse homosexual men and women for being different, odd, strange or, as they say, ‘queer.’  Lesbian women and gay men are just not allowed to fit in.  They are made to be outsiders, foreigners in our society.  They are disowned by their families, separated from their children, fired from their jobs, evicted from apartments and neighborhoods, insulted by public figures, denounced from the pulpit, vilified on religious radio and TV, and then beaten in the schools and killed on the streets and in the backwoods of our nation.  All this is done in the name of religion and supposed Judeo-Christian morality.  Such wickedness is the very sin of which the people of Sodom were guilty.  Such cruelty is what the Bible truly condemns over and over again.  So those who oppress homosexuals … may themselves be the real ‘sodomites,’ as the Bible understands it.”


  1. The irony truly is a sad commentary on the ancient mind-set of a modern-day society. In a way, it confirms my personal belief that God cares more about HOW I treat my partner than that I HAVE one.

    Sodom's sin makes way more sense when explained in the historical context of the culture and language - thanks for the insight!


  2. It is very sad that modern day people can let the ignorance and prejudice of tribal country folk who lived thousands of years ago dictate how they treat people today. Thousands of years of experience and building up of understanding and knowledge should not be ignored. It's time to mature and leave such childish things behind us forever. Some Ideas that we believed in in the infancy of our civilization have to fall away as we grow and gain wisdom. Each generation takes what the last has learned and builds on it. Each generation should be a little wiser and more knowledgable than the last. Once the wheel was invented and the horse was domesticated we didn't stop there. We don't sacrifice doves to heal our wounds, we take antibiotics. So why would we cut ourselves short with the stunted spiritual ideas and uninformed moral laws set out in ancient scripture? After all, our ancestors were just younger versions of us with a lot less experience and understanding, doing the best they could with what they had. Time to move on already.


    Don Alden

  3. Hmmm, the photo of the people with the signs looks doctored.

  4. @Trev - And, even if true, that is relevant because ... ?