30 December 2013


The popular imagination has it that in Genesis, Ha’Shem judges and destroys Sodom because of the practice of homosexuality there.

I've long grumbled that the story doesn't really say that. Here's the passage, Genesis 19:1-5, in which we see life in Sodom.

And the two angels came to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom; and Lot saw them, and rose up to meet them; and he fell down on his face to the earth; and he said: “Behold now, my lords, turn aside, I pray you, into your servant's house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your way.”

And they said: “Nay; but we will abide in the broad place all night.”

And he urged them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both young and old, all the people from every quarter.

And they called unto Lot, and said unto him: “Where are the men that came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.”

Ha’Shem sends some messengers to nuke Sodom because of unspecified “sin”. When they get there, Lot meets them and offers them a place to stay, then a mob shows up to rape them. Many other stories in the Tanakh show a preöccupation with hospitality, so I have long read that as an indictment of Sodom horrifically failing to welcome strangers properly.

But Doug Muder offers a bit of lore I didn't know.

The only place where the Bible explicitly states the sin of Sodom is in Ezekiel

How interesting.

So I have a few translations for you of Ezekiel 16:49.

I like the clarity of the New American Standard translation:

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.

That said, I usually reach for the New Jewish Publication Society of America Tanakh when possible (as I did with the first passage from Genesis) since Christian translators have a tendency to project from the “New Testament” an interpretive frame on the text of the “Old Testament” which I find fishy. But yeah, that's essentially the same:

Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom: pride, fulness of bread, and careless ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.

Young's Literal Translation, which tries to represent the idioms and other verbiage of the original language as directly as possible has it as:


this hath been the iniquity of Sodom thy sister,

Arrogancy, fulness of bread, and quiet ease, Have been to her and to her daughters,

And the hand of the afflicted and needy She hath not strengthened.

Well then.

Update: In lively discussion on Twitter, Mike Dwyer points me to Jude 1:7. The New International Version, translated by evangelicals, renders that verse in a way that suggests that sex was the cause of the destruction of Sodom.

In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.

What's up with that? I have two hairs to split looking at Jude.

First, “sexual immorality and perversion” is unhelpfully vague; does it mean homosexuality, or raping angelic houseguests, or what? Second, though the translation makes a strong implication that the destruction of Sodom was a result of “sexual immorality”, it doesn't make the connection as explicitly as Ezekiel does.

Second, a lot hinges on the translation here. Let's pull up Young's Literal Translation again. (I've inserted some breaks, to make the Greek grammar easier to parse.)

as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them, in like manner to these,

having given themselves to whoredom, and gone after other flesh,

have been set before — an example, of fire age-during, justice suffering.

There are interesting things in there.

One is that we have reached the limits of what we can discern without real expertise into the koine Greek of the Epistle of Jude. We could see this as a description of causes: “having had nasty sex, Sodom has been destroyed”. Or we could read this as a parallel construction: “having given …” and “have been set …” could be taken as two comparable aspects of Sodom, with an implied relationship but not an explicit line of causation from one to the other.

How are we to reconcile Jude with Ezekiel telling us “the failing of Sodom was that it was rich but did not give to its poor”? I read Ezekiel as making a stronger connection, but I wonder.

If we do take Jude as telling us that nasty sex in Sodom was a cause of the city's destruction, can we get more specific about it? “Whoredom” and “gone after other flesh” are oblique. Was it homosexuality? Houseguest rape? Angel sex? What?

Let's take a close look at the Greek. I'm not a real scholar of Koine Greek, but a little nosing around on the web reveals a great deal.

“Gave themselves up to sexual immorality” and “having given themselves to whoredom” are both translations of the Greek word ἐκπορνεύσασαι, which appears nowhere else in the Bible. The root word here is πορνοε (pornos!), meaning prostitution. Okay, that's a classic. The Tanakh and the Epistles counsel against visiting prostitutes. (Though I must note that in the Gospels Jesus can be easily read as speaking in prostitutes' defense.)

And what of “perversion” or “other flesh” (or “strange flesh” as in the King James Version)? The Greek is σαρκὸς ἑτέρας — sarkōs heteras. Yes, heteras is the same root as heterosexual! So it is impossible to resist asking why if the Bible wanted to condemn homosexuality would this not read sarkōs homos, “same flesh”, instead?

This reading of the Greek is certainly consistent with my reading of the story in Genesis as a story about hospitality — “going after other flesh” meaning attempting to rape strangers or visitors. It could be an allusion to ἑταῖραι, the courtesans of Hellenic society. Or Jude might even be talking about sex between humans and angels — angels being of a different kind of flesh than humans. This is not so fanciful as it sounds, since we have not only the episode in Genesis 19 but a description of sex between angels and humans in Genesis 6:2, as well as other references in apocrypha not included in the Bible today but which likely were known to Jude. It's even plausibly a condemnation of bestiality, though there's no other Biblical reason to suspect that in reference to Sodom.

But I find it impossible to read either ἐκπορνεύσασαι or σαρκὸς ἑτέρας as describing homosexuality.

Update: A brief review of midrash.

1 comment:

happydog said...

Which means that the Republican Party have been Sodomites for a long time...