Genesis / Judges
Genesis 19 (Sodom) and Judges 19 are near identical stories. Therefore, they are coupled. Both stories deal with townspeople who wish to rape a male visitor.
From “Torn” by Justin Lee (Chapter 12)…
In Genesis 19, we’re told that God has already decided to destroy the wicked city of Sodom. In Genesis 19, we’re told that God has already decided to destroy the wicked city of Sodom. At this point, the Scriptures don’t specify what’s so wicked about it, only that it’s a city so wicked that it deserves annihilation. But there is one righteous man, Lot, who lives in Sodom with his family. So God sends two angels to Lot to warn him of the impending destruction.
The angels arrive and decide to spend the night in the city square. Lot warns them that this is not safe and ushers them into his own house. It is there that these mysterious travelers reveal to Lot their true identities and intentions. And then something strange happens. We’re told that every man in the entire city surrounds the house and threatens these angels with gang rape.
Ultimately, the angels blind the crowd and escape. If the angels had taken the form of women, we would be horrified at the wickedness of the city and then move on. Because the angels were in the form of men, however, later readers of the story assumed that the men of Sodom must have been gay. After all, why would straight men threaten to rape other men?
And if Sodom truly was a “gay city,” it seemed natural to assume that must have been the reason for its destruction. Soon, words like “sodomy” and “sodomite” crept into the language based on the idea that Sodom’s sin must have been homosexuality. As I considered the passage, though, numerous questions immediately sprang to my mind.
For one thing, how was it possible that the entire city could have been gay? The text was very clear that every man in the city, young and old, participated in the attack. I already know that people can’t choose their sexual orientation. I couldn’t make myself straight even when I had been desperate to… so I seriously doubted that any straight man could voluntarily turn himself gay. But, that being true, how could so many gay men end up in one city? Was there something in the water? Were gay people traveling to Sodom in droves to settle there? If so, how did they find out about it? Even today, in the age of airplane travel and the internet, there are no entirely gay cities. And if that had been the case, why would Lot and his family have moved there?
Something about the whole concept just didn’t make sense. That wasn’t all. As I quickly discovered, Sodom wasn’t alone. The city of Gibeah (Judges 18) was eerily similar to the Sodom story in almost every respect. In that story, a male traveler comes to the town of Gibeah and, like the angels, plans to spend the night in the square. A kind man warns him that it is not safe to do so and brings him into his house instead. Once again, an angry mob forms, and once again, they threaten to gang-rape the traveler.
What was going on here? Was the ancient landscape dotted with “gay cities” everywhere, populated entirely by men who raped other men? The end of the Gibeah story held an important clue. In that story, the man’s concubine— a woman— is finally sent out to the crowd, and the mob rapes and murders her instead. So maybe the crowd wasn’t gay after all. They might have been bisexual, but that was even less likely than all of them being gay. The most likely explanation was that at least most of them were straight. But why would straight men threaten to gang-rape a man?
As I was thinking about this, I remembered one of my history classes in school; we had discussed how rape had been used at times as a symbol of domination, with armies raping the (male) leader of a conquered enemy. I thought, too, about stories I had heard in the news of men being beaten and violently sexually assaulted with broom handles or other objects during fights.
Clearly, in some cultures and contexts— whether in ancient times or in modern-day prisons—male/male rape had been used or threatened as a method of violent humiliation and domination. The perpetrators in these cases were usually straight men, not gay men, and their interest wasn’t sexual; it was to do harm. dThe perpetrators in these cases were usually straight men, not gay men, and their interest wasn’t sexual; it was to do harm. Could this be what was happening in Sodom and Gibeah ?
I read through the passage again. Could it be that this was the ancient equivalent of a lynch mob? I considered the evidence. Everyone in the city participated in the attack. It was a lot easier to believe that everyone would be whipped into a frenzy of hate than to believe that everyone in the town was gay. Their tone also suggested this was about violence, not sex. I read through the passage again. Which made more sense: that the entire town was gay, or that the entire town was participating in an angry, violent attack against unwelcome outsiders?
This was clearly a threat of rape, not a request for consensual sex, and the threat to treat Lot “worse” suggested that the mob’s goal was to inflict harm, not just to satisfy a sex drive. Lot offers his virgin daughters to the crowd as a distraction, something that (in addition to raising a lot of moral questions) wouldn’t make sense if he knew the men were gay. In response, the crowd points out that Lot came to Sodom as a foreigner and therefore has no footing to judge them… suggesting that the angels’ outsider status was the real issue and that Lot should feel grateful that they had even allowed him into the city.
Clues like these, combined with the Gibeah story, made it seem likely to me that this was a story about a violent threat, not a story about a gay city. It certainly wasn’t a story about consensual relationships. Some Bible scholars have argued that Sodom’s sin was “inhospitality.” I laughed the first time I read that because in light of passages about gang rape and murder, to say that the real problem in these cities was about not being hospitable sounds like a ludicrous understatement.
Here’s what I think they mean.This was a culture where travelers really did depend on the kindness of strangers. Throughout the Bible, we see that one of the signs of God’s people is that they are generous with what they have. For instance, when Jesus tells the story of God separating out the righteous “sheep” from the unrighteous “goats” on Judgment Day, the sheep are those who use their time and resources to help those who are less fortunate. They clothe the naked; they feed the hungry; they visit those in prison.
Jesus often entreats his disciples to be more generous than people expect, giving more than asked for and not expecting repayment. Likewise, Job cites his treatment of travelers as evidence of his own righteousness, saying that “no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler” (Job 31: 32). What we see in the stories of Sodom and Gibeah is the opposite extreme.
These cities are not generous and welcoming to strangers; they are cities full of hate, mistrust, and prejudice toward them. These are cities that say to outsiders: You’re not welcome here! We don’t want your kind here! If people like you set foot in our town, we will do the most violating things to you we can think of, to send a message to anyone else who might dare to come onto our land. It’s the same sentiment that underlies racism, hate between nations, and many other kinds of prejudice. And in Genesis 19, God is having none of it.
The prophet Ezekiel reinforces this image of Sodom as a city without compassion. Speaking on God’s behalf, Ezekiel says: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (Ezekiel 16: 49– 50). There are a number of important messages in the Sodom story, but none of them helped me decide what to do about my sexuality.
I wasn’t trying to choose between celibacy and threatening people with gang rape! I was trying to find out if it was okay for me to have a romantic relationship someday, and if so, what it might look like. These two stories can easily be discarded in terms of informing us about anything regarding homosexual orientation.