The Inhospitality of Sodom
In the ancient world an action valued extremely highly was what we might call "hospitality".
The intertestamental work "Testament of Abraham" depicts hospitality as being Abraham's primary virtue which makes him great in the eyes of God. In Judges 19-20 there is a story of an Israelite who instead of hospitality receives attempted rape and murder at the hands of fellow Israelites which leads to a major battle. The importance placed on hospitality in the ancient world is well-document by scholars studying its social environment. Hospitality and inhospitality were actions seen to be of major importance, to an extent that Christians often do not understand today.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah contrasts the great hospitality of Abraham and Lot with the inhospitality of the men of Sodom: Abraham and then Lot welcome the strangers that come to them, whereas the men of Sodom attempt to rape them. The story cites God's reason for destroying Sodom as being that they are "exceedingly sinful" and subsequent Jewish tradition and interpretation attributed a huge variety of sins to them (economic crimes, general nastiness, pride, violence). But one sin that Jewish and early Christian interpretation saw as being primary was the sin of inhospitality depicted so clearly in the story. In the Gospels on two different occasions Jesus and his apostles speak of the primary sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as being inhospitality:
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. (Mat 5:14-15 / Luke 10:11-12)The Christian writer of 1 Clement, ~100AD, picks up on the theme of hospitality:
On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" (Luke 9:52-54)
"On account of his faith and hospitality, a son was given to Abraham in his old age... On account of his hospitality and godliness, Lot was saved out of Sodom" (1 Clement, ch 10-11)Yet, somehow, for Christians today "Sodom and Gomorrah" seem to have become synonymous with homosexuality. There seems to be a widely assumed view that the reason God destroyed these cities was because they were full of homosexuals. I have no idea as to how or why this viewpoint arose - it is not justified by the text of the story, and has no support in ancient Jewish and Christian interpretation of the story. Yet we have the word "sodomy" (originating it seems, sometime in the middle or dark ages) that focuses on the homosexuality of the men of Sodom (I suspect the 'logic' of this link may also have originated in the dark ages!)
There is actually no particular reason to think the men of Sodom were homosexuals as we would define them. The story in Judges 19-20 is similar in that men of the city attempt to rape a male visitor, yet when that visitor gives them his woman instead they rape and kill her and leave him alone. These men are apparently not wanting sex with men so much as being aggressive, and scholars tend to analyze their behavior through the idea of that they were seeking to prove their dominance over the visitor (dominance being quite an important concept in the ancient world). By overpowering him and treating him as a woman they would dishonor him, but they also achieve the same by taking his woman for themselves. In the Sodom story a similar thing occurs, when they demand to rape the visitors Lot offers to them his daughters instead. Lot's offer would be silly if Lot knew these men to be homosexual - why not offer a male relative instead? Clearly as in the Judges case there is an understanding that it is not that these people are attracted to men but are rather acting aggressively for other reasons. In the case of Sodom the counter-offer is refused (the women being offered do not belong to the strangers and therefore raping them would dishonor Lot not the visitors. Lot's offer is an example of his hospitality - he is willing to suffer dishonor himself rather than see his visitors dishonored). The actions of the people of Sodom are consistent with seeking dominance over the strangers (aka "overwhelming pride" - Josephus Ant 1:194) not with being homosexual.
The widespread modern view that Sodom was destroyed because of its homosexuality seems to me entirely unfounded. The evidence does not indicate the people of Sodom were homosexual. Their major crime in the story is depicted as inhospitality and this is how the story was understood by early Jewish and Christian interpreters including Jesus.