Editor’s note: This discussion of this disturbing biblical account contains terminology that may not be appropriate for sensitive readers. Parents are cautioned.
While most Orthodox Jewish and Christian scholars have held the position that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of their rampant homosexual behavior (namely, sodomy), there are others who believe that those cities were destroyed because of their pride.
Surprisingly, both appeal to Scripture to support their positions, most notably Ezekiel 16:49 and Jude 1:7. Therefore some critics have pointed this out as a Bible contradiction. But is it? Can this apparent contradiction be explained? For those who uphold biblical inerrancy and authority, the answer is obvious—yes!
What was the primary sin of Sodom (and Gomorrah and the nearby cities of the plain)?
But what was the primary sin of Sodom (and Gomorrah and the nearby cities of the plain)? There appear to be four main sins espoused, but only two by conservative Jewish and Christian theologians and scholars. A third and fourth “sin explanation” has gained popularity in recent years, primarily in liberal Christian scholarship, but it is not deduced from an exegetical reading of Scripture.
Was Sodom’s Primary Sin Rape? Or Lack of Hospitality?
Some have argued that rape was the primary sin of Sodom. So let’s start with examining that position. One such example is listed below:
Arriving at the crux of the narrative in Gen 19:9 we see the true intent of the Sodomite men coming to the fore. In v. 9a the men forcefully order Lot to stand back, since they are unsatisfied with his daughters as a counter-offer. The men then call Lot’s immigrant status into account (lit.: this one came in as a foreigner); לגור-בא האחד by accusing him of severely condemning their behavior (lit.: and he will surely judge; שׁפוט וישׁפּט), suggesting that if Lot was a sojourner, then he was socially inferior to the native-born Sodomite men. One should notice at once a connection with the honor/shame value system mentioned in the previous section, suggesting that Gen 19:1–11 might be working with the concept that same-sex intercourse was a tool of the state for political violence. The virulent intensions of the townsmen become all the clearer in v. 9b when they proclaim לך נרע עתה” (now, we will violate you!”), to which the men attempt to break down Lot’s door. Simply put, the Sodomites were not promiscuous men looking for intercourse—they sought to violently assault Lot and rape his guests.1
Another recent hypothesis about the main sin of Sodom (and one which is often taught in concert with the “rape” hypothesis) is the lack of hospitality position.
In this article, I argue that the view of the Sodom and Gomorrah story held by the Christian Right as well as conservative biblical scholars overlook the presence and role of women in the entire narrative about the cities, beginning in Genesis 13. As this presence and role are acknowledged, I further assert that it is more logical to assume that the sexual orientation of the men and women of Sodom and Gomorrah is heterosexual rather than homosexual. In arguing this, I wish to undercut the dangerous understanding that the “sin” of Sodom is homosexuality in need of annihilation in our society. Instead I assert that the wickedness of these cities is the inhospitable treatment of resident aliens and sojourners at its worst, through the sexual humiliation of rape, linked with the wickedness of idolatry.2
From the text of Genesis 19:4-9 though, if rape was the primary sin of Sodom, then the men of the city would have been just as willing to take Lot up on his suggestion to sexually abuse his daughters. If the men of Sodom were using rape as a means to humiliate “outsiders,” then wouldn’t Lot’s daughters have qualified since Lot was considered an outsider (verse 9)? Some have even postulated that this may be one reason Lot didn’t offer his wife—she was most likely from Sodom, therefore an “insider.” To address the potential question that the rape of the women would not have been as humiliating as the rape of men during this time period and in the Middle East, we need to keep in view what happened about 100 years later in Genesis 34. In that chapter, Simeon and Levi killed all the men of Shechem because of the rape of their sister Dinah. The narrative in that chapter makes this claim a weak one. The fact that the men of Sodom so quickly (and unanimously) refused Lot’s offer of his daughters shows that rape could not be the primary sin of the men of Sodom.
Notice the wording of this passage in Genesis 19:4–9,3 they wanted Lot to offer them the men (angels in the form of men) as sexual playthings. They had no interest in sexual relations with women; only after Lot offered them a heterosexual alternative did they then decide that they would now forcefully seize and rape Lot (“deal worse with you”), and this would have been in contrast to the way they had desired to "deal with them." In other words, in threatening to now rape Lot, they were admitting that their desire for the angels was pure lust, not dominance in the form of rape. There were likely many cases of rape in Sodom, but it seems clear that all the men of the city (except Lot, and perhaps his sons-in-law mentioned in verse 14) had become bisexual or preferentially homosexual.
Furthermore, if the sin had just been men of Sodom wanting to rape, then why judge the women of the city? Why were they not counted among the righteous when Abraham pleaded for Sodom (Genesis 18:23-33) and stopped at 10? Simply put, even the women of the city were unrighteous and wicked, so the blame cannot simply be on the actions of these men.
Therefore, the reference to their wickedness and ordained destruction by God beforehand (in Genesis 13:13 and 18:20) is entirely appropriate, because it was sexual sin (in this case homosexuality) which God considered “grievous” or “grave,” then later condemned and destroyed Sodom (and the other cities of the plain) for. The propensity for violence, rape, and adultery (which must have also been occurring in Sodom, since there were no women present at this mob scene) are all factors here though. God considers all sexual sin abhorrent in his eyes (Galatians 5:19-21).
The Bible is clear that sexual sin and homosexual behavior, in particular, was the outward sin for which they (Sodom and Gomorrah) were destroyed.
From a biblical inerrancy standpoint, the primary outward sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is definitively settled in the book of Jude which states in Jude 1:7, “as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire”. Other versions, such as the ESV use the terminology “pursued unnatural desire” here. So, the Bible is clear that sexual sin and homosexual behavior, in particular, was the outward sin for which they (Sodom and Gomorrah) were destroyed.
What About Ezekiel 16:49?
Now it must be admitted that homosexual behavior was only the outward manifestation of their true sin. They were a prideful people and delighted in cruelty and neglected any form of social justice. While this latter sin is mentioned in the second half of Ezekiel 16:49, it is not (as posited in the second quote above) the primary sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. Even in that passage, inhospitality is ranked behind pride—indeed, inhospitality is only a subset of the greater sin of hating our neighbor. Seeing a neighbor in need and having the ability to help with that need and refusing to do so is showing malicious hatred (Luke 10:30–37, 1 John 3:15–19). All of these are manifestations of pride itself. This is alluded to in comparisons with Israel when it was deep in sin.
When you look at passages such as Deuteronomy 32:32-33, Isaiah 3:9-16, Jeremiah 23:14, and Ezekiel 16:49, you see multiple references to Sodom’s (and Israel’s) sin of pride and hatred. Words like haughty, bitter, venom, wanton, idleness, (when they could have been helping others) leap out of the verses as a description of a self-absorbed, hedonistic people who cared nothing for others. So, some theologians and scholars have claimed, especially based on Ezekiel 16:49, that the real sin of Sodom was not homosexual behavior, but that God judged them for pride. Biblically, one could see the initial validity of making this argument—but it is placing all the emphasis on verse 49 and ignoring verse 50. Contextually, that is poor exegesis. And the reason for doing so is usually apparent rather quickly. Liberal theologians and scholars and biblical critics have turned the tables on Genesis 19 and conclude that it is actually teaching homophobia.
For Genesis 19, the ideology is homophobia; the existence of the words 'sodomy' and 'sodomite' testify to its sorry career in Christianity. The fate of these cities is held up by religious conservatives to justify the suppression of non-heterosexual people and to fan hatred of same sex eroticism and gender fluidity. The story represents, for Christianity, a tale "of homophobic genocide" signifying the "culture's desire that gay people not be".4
Thus, even if the angels had been consenting, it is wrong to read the Sodomite's demand as anything else but an act of abuse of outsiders. The threatened rape of the angels is an attempt to inscribe outsiders as queer and therefore not real men… But in attempting to inscribe the outsider as queer the Sodomites are also attempting to inscribe the queer as outsider. Thus the tensions of homosexual panic amongst the men of Sodom are relieved in a way that confirms their own heterosexuality. Rather than reading the attempted rape of the angels as an instance of homosexual violence I believe it should be more accurately read as an instance of homophobic violence.5
Pride Mixed with Sexual Sin in Sodom & Gomorrah
But as mentioned above, much of this is based on reading Ezekiel 16:49 in isolation (neglecting the rest of the Bible) and comparing Genesis 19 with other ancient Middle Eastern cultures, ancient Greek cultic prostitution, and even modern Middle Eastern countries. They highlight the phrase, “neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” in Ezekiel 16:49 but completely fail to address Ezekiel 16:50: “And they were haughty and committed abomination before Me; therefore I took them away as I saw fit.” The Hebrew word תועבה tow‘ebah is most often used in the O.T. of something morally repugnant and is most frequently translated as “abomination” or a “detestable” act or thing. It’s also the same word used in Leviticus 18:22 when addressing homosexual acts.
The Jewish historian Josephus looks at all these factors (pride, homosexual behavior, hatred) in describing the sin of Sodom.
About this time the Sodomites grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth: they became unjust toward men, and impious toward God, insomuch that they did not call to mind the advantages they received from him: they hated strangers and abused themselves with Sodomitical practices.6
Now, when the Sodomites saw the young men to be of beautiful countenances, and this to an extraordinary degree, and that they took up their lodgings with Lot, they resolved themselves to enjoy these beautiful boys by force and violence.7
The Apostle Peter, echoing what Jude would also say (Jude 1:7), pins their destruction upon living ungodly (clearly having in mind their being “given over” to the physical act of sexual immorality in the form of homosexual lust).
“and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds)” (2 Peter 2:6-8).
While it is true that all sin begins in the heart and then works its way outward (James 1:14–15), the outward sin reflects the inward desire. If you covet in your heart, that can lead to stealing. If you hate someone, that can lead to murder, if you lust after someone, that can lead to sexual immorality (in whatever form) that dominates one’s thoughts and existence. Jesus taught his disciples this very thing in Matthew 15:18–20.
Pride is a fountain of many sins because it effectively is saying, “I want what I want, and I will have it regardless of what God says or the cost to someone else because I am better than they are and deserve it.”
Pride is a fountain of many sins because it effectively is saying, “I want what I want, and I will have it regardless of what God says or the cost to someone else because I am better than they are and deserve it.” If that lustful passion is for “strange flesh” or “unnatural desire” as Jude 1:7 terms it, then that can lead to homosexual behavior. So yes, Sodom was judged for homosexual sin—which flowed from pride, which also led to cruelty and exploitation of their fellow men and women.
The Bible is not contradicting itself when it states that Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin was sexual immorality and pride (and its related lack of concern for others). The first was an outworking of the second. God can and does judge upon the motives of the heart, but he can and does also judge on the physical actions. But we must keep in mind that God was also ready to show mercy. Had there been even ten righteous people in the city, God would have spared it (Genesis 18:32). As it was, only four left Sodom alive, and only three made it to safety.
“Against You Only Have I Sinned”
Rather than compare Sodom and Gomorrah to other ancient cultures and seek to justify their sexual immorality, Sodom and Gomorrah should be compared to Nineveh during the time of Jonah. The people of Nineveh were also wicked (Jonah 1:2) and violent (Jonah 3:8) and yet they were spared because they repented of their evil ways and called on God for forgiveness (Jonah 3:10).
The men and women of Sodom had known and been physically rescued by Abram (Abraham) in Genesis 14:14-16. They had seen him worship God with Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17-20) and refuse to financially benefit from Sodom’s riches (Genesis 14:21-24). And they also had Lot living among them, who though weak was described as a righteous man by the Apostle Peter. The people of Sodom ignored all of these things, and rather than be forewarned by them and repent, they continued sinning. While their sexual sins again were highlighted in Genesis 19, the real object of their sin is revealed in the pre-destruction polemic against them several chapters earlier: “But the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the LORD” (Genesis 13:13; cf. Psalm 51:4).
We need to keep in mind that it was God, the righteous judge (2 Timothy 4:8) who condemned Sodom, Gomorrah, and the other cities on the plain. Although their sins of pride, sexual immorality, inhospitality, and cruelty were committed against other people—ultimately, they were a direct offense against God. All sin is an offense to God and demonstrates mankind’s rebellion against him. But there is hope for all mankind because God has provided a way of salvation and is patient with us “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9).