Wednesday, February 20, 2008

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)

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)
The Christian writer of 1 Clement, ~100AD, picks up on the theme of hospitality:
"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.


Blogger Bryan L said...

Andrew I'm not so sure the passages from the Gospels support you in the way you think they do. After all if you look at a similar verse in Matthew 11:20-24 it sounds more like Jesus is denouncing the cities for unbelief and lack of repentance and he uses Sodom to contrast the unbelieving, unrepentant cities with. In this passage it doesn't seem to make hospitality an issue of Sodom at all.

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent.
21 "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.
23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.
24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you."

Do you have any other verses that specifically mention inhospitality as the primary sin of Sodom and Gomorrah?

I don't think God judge them because it was a city full of homosexuals but it does seem that the inhabitants were pretty wicked in the eyes of God, beyond just being inhospitable.

Also do you have any other examples in the ANE of men raping other men as a sign of dominance? I just don't see it being that natural that a man would just want to rape another man to prove his dominance. Either way in both stories (S&G and Judges) it just appears that the men were sexually perverse and willing to do anything to have their desires satisfied and really could care less whether it came from a man or woman.


Blogger paulf said...

In Ezekiel, chapter 17 I think, God himself is quoted as saying that he destroyed Sodom because of social injustice.

All this just proves one thing -- people will interpret things to support their particular biases, and that includes the authors of Genesis, Ezekiel, Matthew and modern commentators. It says absolutely nothing about whether there was a place called Sodom, aperson named Lot or what may have happened there.

Blogger Bryan L said...

Even in Ezek 16 it also says because Sodom did detestable/abominable things before God.

Here's the full section:

46 Your older sister was Samaria, who lived to the north of you with her daughters; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you with her daughters, was Sodom.
47 You not only walked in their ways and copied their detestable practices, but in all your ways you soon became more depraved than they.
48 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done.
49 "'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.
50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.

In the OT, Sodom often just appears to be a sort of example of God's judgment on the wicked; a place he over-threw and utterly and completely destroyed so that there was nothing left. When it is mentioned it is often in the sense of 'I will over throw you wicked nation just like I did Sodom', and that even appears to be the way it's used even in the gospels.


Blogger Andrew said...

Both passages I cited from the gospels bring up Sodom or its punishment in contexts of inhospitality - "not welcome you" / "did not receive him". This is typical of the majority of Christian and Jewish interpretation which link Sodom's destruction with inhospitality. Other passages in the gospels, as you point out, mention Sodom but have nothing to say about the nature of their sins. These passages simply treat Sodom and Tyre as examples of cities that were judged by God for extreme wickedness.

I'm not at all saying that inhospitality was the only sin of Sodom. They are said to be "exceedingly wicked" and deserving of destruction and as I mentioned, later interpreters speculate wildly about the sins of Sodom. The most common types of wicked that are attributed to them in Jewish and Christian use of the Sodom story are inhospitality, economic wrongs, and heterosexual immorality. Some of the most amusing speculations include:
1. That they had a bed for travelers to sleep in and would cut off pieces from the person or stretch them in order to make them fit precisely in it.
2. That they marked the coins they gave to beggars so that when the beggars tried to spend them the coins were not honored but returned to their owners.
3. That the men would rape their neighbour's wife and then take her to be their own.

The common modern assumption that "God destroyed Sodom because they were homosexuals" is simply unfounded. It lacks evidence, and also lacks support from Jewish and Christian interpretations.

There is plenty of material on the ANE's view that taking a "womanly" role in a sex act is one of the greatest dishonors, and plenty of material regarding the importance of status and the level of competitiveness for status. The concept of deliberately dishonoring a man by having sex with his wife is well documented. Putting two and two together it's obvious how raping a man would be viewed, but I don't know of specific passages on the subject.

You seem to be imagining "if a person who lived today and had my values performed those actions what could we infer about their intentions and desires be?" That's natural, but not valid reasoning because it doesn't take into account cultural differences. I can recommend plenty of books on ancient culture if you want. David DeSilva's Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture is the best one to start off with.

Blogger Bryan L said...

Andrew I've read DeSilva's book. It's even listed as one of my favorites in my profile. I'm aware of honor and shame cultures.

What I was looking for is specific bibliographic info stating it was a common ANE practice for men to show their dominance over other men by raping them.

You spoke of putting two and two together yet it's not clear that those two things you mentioned would obviously be put together and it seems to be the same thing you criticize me of by appealing to what was "natural" (BTW I was using natural in both of it's senses; common or predisposed). Why would you think to put those two things together and assume that if (1) a man takes womanly role in sex with his wife (I don't even know what that means); and (2) men would rape another man's wife to show dominance; that obviously (3) men would also rape another man, treating him like a woman to show dominance (and on top of this also not be connected to homosexual tendencies)?

I don't see it natural because not only have I not heard of it in my culture, I haven't heard of it in other cultures around the world either (I'm not saying it doesn't happen I just don't know of any).

So maybe you could provide some references because I would find that very interesting to read about.

BTW I don't think it's completely lacking evidence to say that God destroyed S&G because of sexual perverseness (which may have included homosexual acts although probably more than just consensual sex), since Jude does refer to that as the reason God destroyed them and I don't think you can dismiss that as evidence of early Jewish or Christian views (it doesn't even mention hospitality in that passage).


Blogger paulf said...


What is "detestable?" You seem to assume it is sexual because of the bias (and I'm not saying that in a bad way) you have inherited, but it seems more likely based on the text that it is just a intensified reference to haughtiness and lack of social concern.

Once again, the idea that God will destroy cities is a reflection of the belief of the author, not anything real. No Christians (at least no sane ones) believe that God orchestrates the overthrow of nations based on their collective morality. And if God has such a standard, he either abandoned it after Jesus or applies it very arbitrarily.

Blogger Bryan L said...

All I said is that it not only speaks about social justice but about detestable/abominable things. I don't know what it has in mind. That could just be referring to social issues as well, but maybe it's more. The word for detestable/abominable is used of a lot of different sins so I'm not sure what it's talking about. I really don't think you know what my biases are or what I've inherited so I wouldn't just assume.


Blogger Andrew said...

In the ancient world honor centered around masculinity and in particular the male sex organs. Woman had no honor and neither did male eunuchs. A “womanly role” in a sex act is being penetrated by the male organ. Thus the taking of a womanly role in a sex act was basically the greatest dishonor possible. Honor-shame cultures tend to judge the role participants take in sex acts rather than the acts as a whole. Thus, for example, plenty of Arab men today are happy to admit they have at some stage in their lives taken a masculine role in a homosexual act, but no one will publicly admit to having taken a womanly role in such an act.

Your questions inspired me to do some research to attempt to test my thesis on the subject of male-male rape as being relatively common in the ancient world due to their concepts of sexuality, honor and dominance. With the help of Google and their Books searching system, here is some material:

"It would appear that within an historical context, the rape of the male was more common in ancient times. Greek mythology for example, provides many legends involving the abduction and sexual assaults of males by other males or gods. Moreover, in times of war, the rape of a defeated male enemy soldier was considered to be the right of the victor and signalled the totality of defeat. It was widely believed that a male who was sexually penetrated, even if it was by forced sexual assault, lost his manhood and thus could no longer be a warrior or a ruler ( Jones (1992) maintains that male rape by soldiers was also evident in China. He finds evidence of the occurrence of male rape in specific laws that were put in place in order to protect Manchu soldiers. These laws included detailed legal dispensations for soldiers who committed acts such as abduction and gang rape, rape and murder, rape aggravated by a non-fatal injury, rape of an adult male, rape of a boy under ten years of age, rape of a boy between ten and twelve years of age with and without consent and consensual sodomy. In ancient times, rape was also used as a form of punishment by some societies. The Romans for example used gang rape as the ultimate form of punishment for crimes such as adultery. The Persians and Iranians used this form of punishment when the sanctity of the harem was violated ( It therefore appears that the existence of male rape is evident across a wide variety of cultures. Jones (1992) maintains that within these cultures, these acts are more likely to manifest themselves within the realm of power relations rather than sexual ones. This notion can be correlated with more modern thinking around male rape, particularly around homosexual rape in institutions, where the acts are best seen as acts of dominance and power.” (From ch2 of this thesis on "Describing Non-Institutionalised Male Rape")

“The idea of phallic aggression as a manifestation of male dominance is well known in the ancient world (as it is in contemporary prisons and ethnic warfare). Indeed it is not unknown to occur among the gods, as the Egyptian tale of Seth and Horus makes clear. In that tale too, Seth seeks to demonstrate his dominance of Horus through anal rape and nearly succeeds, save for a trick played by Horus. His defense includes dismemberment (his own hand, which had caught the semen), and he winds up getting his semen into Seth, who then appears to be feminized (made pregnant indeed) by Horus.” (Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative In The Literature Of Ancient Israel by Theodore W. Jennings pg 49)

“The phrase “homosexual rape,” for instance, which is often used by uninformed persons to designate male-male rape, camouflages the fact that the majority of the rapists as well as of the victims are generally heterosexual…In some societies the rape of a defeated male enemy was considered the prerogative of the victor in battle, and served to indicate the totality of the former's defeat. Even in ancient times, we find the widespread belief that a male who is sexually penetrated, even by force, thereby "loses his manhood," and hence can no longer be a warrior or ruler. What is even more surprising to the average man is that, according to several studies, most rapes of males are committed by men who are heterosexual in their consensual sexual preference and self-identity; only 7 per cent of the rapists of men in the Groth-Burgess study were homosexual. (Indeed, it has been reported that homosexual men are far less likely to engage in rape than heterosexual men.) Half or more of these rapists choose victims from both genders...Theorists have sought to explain this as rooted in the nature of rape as primarily a crime of power and domination through violence rather than a sexually motivated act, though it is clear that sexuality has something to do with it.”
(‘Rape of Males’ in “The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality”)

Something a bit different, yet the same – an essay on ancient Viking views on homosexuality:
“The evidence of the sagas and laws shows that male homosexuality was regarded in two lights: there was nothing at all strange or shameful about a man having intercourse with another man if he was in the active or "manly" role, however the passive partner in homosexual intercourse was regarded with derision… it was felt that a man who subjected himself to another in sexual affairs would do the same in other areas, being a follower rather than a leader, and allowing others to do his thinking or fighting for him. Thus, homosexual sex was not what was condemned, but rather the failure to stand for one's self and make one's own decisions, to fight one's own fights, which went directly against the Nordic ethic of self-reliance. (Sørenson 20). Being used homosexually by another man was equated with cowardice because of the custom of sexual aggression against vanquished foes. This practice is documented in Sturlunga saga, most notably in Guðmundar saga dýra where Guðmundr takes captive a man and his wife, and plans for both the woman and the man to be raped as a means of sexual humiliation (Ok var þat við orð at leggja Þórunni í rekkju hjá einhverjum gárungi, en gera þat vi Björn prest, at þat þaelig;tti eigi minni svívirðing.) (Sørenson 82, 111; Sturlunga saga, I, 201). In addition to rape, defeated enemies were frequently castrated, again testified to in several places by Sturlunga saga. Grágás records that a klámhogg or "shame-stroke" on the buttocks was, along with castration, a "major wound" (hin meiri sár), ranked with wounds that penetrated the brain, abdomen, or marrow: the klámhogg was thus equated with castration as "unmanning" the victim, and classed with wounds that cause major penetrations of the body, strongly suggesting that the term refers to rape or forced anal sex such as was inflicted on a defeated combatant (Sørenson 68). It is not known how widespread the practice of raping defeated foes actually was, or if it existed before the advent of Christianity, but in other cultures which have had as strong an ethic of masculine aggression as existed among the Vikings, the rape of defeated foemen was obligatory. The attitude that homosexual usage of an enemy was a means of humiliation in turn would have weighed heavily against men in homosexual relationships: if it was a shameful humiliation of an enemy, performing intercourse with a beloved friend would have been regarded as a the worst sort of betrayal or lack of loyalty (Sørenson 28)”

Blogger Bryan L said...

Thanks for those interesting citations Andrew. I appreciate you taking the time to look those things up.

Bryan L

Blogger elessar-elfstar said...

Two things. One, I agree with your post. I have explored this a great deal (both in and out of school). I think that the church uses this today in opposition to homosexuality is crazy. Two, you mentioned that the view of Sodom and Gomorrah being used against homosexuality began in the middle ages or dark ages. The first place that it seems to show up is in Augustine, and with in heavy influence it stuck.

Normally I wouldn't care, but I'm sure you would agree with me that in discussions like these it is incredibly important to not give opposition any point of weakness to poke at.

Again, I agree that in the Bible there is really no evidence that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality. And that the only place that it's sin is specifically mentioned is by Ezekiel (being rich, comfortable, and not taking care of the poor amongst them - which is seen as an abomination).


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