“Sodomy” – a Biblical Word Study that Might Surprise You

Contemporary Biblical scholarship is clearly demonstrating that some of the Church’s understanding of specific aspects of human sexuality have been built on the gradual adoption of highly inaccurate cultural interpretations of specific Biblical narratives. We owe it to ourselves, as Anglicans and as Christians, to set before ourselves – and before the world – the clearest and most accurate understandings of the Biblical text. Such understandings go a long way to removing the unhelpful dichotomies of ‘biblically orthodox’ and ‘revisionist’ that have grown up around the human sexuality debate and which are so glibly thrown around – dichotomies that are not only ultimately facetious, but seriously wrong.

One such Biblical narrative that has been seriously abused over the centuries is the Genesis 19 account of ‘the sin of Sodom’, which has become a touchstone in the Anglican ‘sex wars’.

Roman Catholic scholar, Mark Jordan in his book The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (1997) shows that the term “sodomy” originated in the eleventh century as a new classification of certain ‘clerical sins’. While early church fathers such as St. Ambrose and Origen clearly associate sodomy with inhospitality, by the time of St. Augustine, cultural associations around the word, communicated through secular poetry and legend shifted both its denotative and connotative meanings.

In fact, says Jordan, this evolved definition has permanently colored how we conceive of sexuality and indeed created the hitherto unknown sexual categories of “homosexual” and “heterosexual”. In terms of the Sodom story, says Jordan,

“The bible never links the story of Sodom with homosexuality. To use the Sodom story as evidence that the Bible condemns homosexuality is totally inaccurate. It is an anachronism, projecting later Church interpretation onto the biblical text, which is essentially about hospitality….”

“Even if the story were about lust, it is about rape, not homosexuality. The Sodomites were not “gay”. They were rapists. This is why Lot could offer his daughters in replacement, why the Judges version of the tale actually has a female substitute, and why those few Biblical references to Sodom as being sexually-related speak in general terms rather than specific ones.”

As Jay Michaelson, currently as PhD student in Jewish thought at Hebrew University points out, “The Bible condemns many things in the story of Sodom (lack of hospitality, humiliation of fellow human beings, brutality and violence toward others, pride, decadence, serious breech of human ethical obligations), but homosexuality is not one of them.”

Indeed, as Michaelson explains, the story of Sodom is in a biblical section where hospitality and ethics are central themes – Abraham welcoming three strangers to his tent; Abraham and king Abimelech. “Reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe-murderer and saying it’s about an axe,” concludes Michaelson.

Ezekiel’s condemnation of Sodom (Ezekial 16: 49-50) bears this out: “Behold,” the prophet says in God’s voice, “this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty and did abominations before me, and I took them away as I saw fit.” (note: “toevah” or “abominations” is used 39 times in Ezekial – 29 times referring to idolatry, five times to female prostitution and idolatry, twice to heterosexual adultery, once to violence, and once to usury). To read “homosexuality” into this context has absolutely no basis in the text.

Again, in his reference to Sodom, the prophet Amos links Sodom with oppression of the poor, crushing the needy, and ethical wickedness:

“Hear this word, children of Bashan, that are in the mountain of Samaria, which oppress the poor, which crush the needy, which say to their masters, bring and let us drink. I have overthrown some of you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.” (Amos 4). In his ministry, Jesus similarly refers to Sodom as an example of divine punishment for social injustice (Matt. 10:15, Matt. 11:23-24, Luke 10:12). In this context, the Book of Jude’s reference to “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns (gave) themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion” refers to brutal sexual violation, not to same sex relationships.

“And since Jude’s homiletical purpose is to preach against contemporary antinomians, he obviously is not talking about homosexuality, but rather the view of some heretics that the coming of Christ had obviated the need to obey the law in general. To twist this sole linkage of Sodom and immorality into some blanket condemnation of homosexuality is, at best, facetious” (Jay Michaelson).

This kind of careful exegisis that makes use of careful word study as well as cultural, historical and spiritual context when discerning the Word of God to us in Holy Scripture needs to be acknowledged, and certainly helps us to put the writings of Augustine and Aquinas, among others, who equate “sodomy” with homosexuality, or at least homosexual behaviour, into a meaningful context.

Needless to day, careful study of Scripture that ‘rightly divides the word of truth’ is incumbent on all Christians, and might have gone a long way to stop the horror surrounding the death and burial of David Kato.

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16 Responses to “Sodomy” – a Biblical Word Study that Might Surprise You

  1. Steve Schuh says:

    When we we read this text more closely we also notice, from the very start, that the visitors to Sodom are directly identified as angels, not human males. In the vocabulary used to describe them, in their conversation, in the respect offered them by Abraham and Lot, and in their display of supernatural powers, the figures are clearly other-worldly. It is the first thing the writer tells us (18:1, 19:1). Their celestial identity also drew the attention of later Biblical writers (Jude 5-10; 2 Peter 2:4-12; Hebrews 13:2 NIV) and became the subject of Jewish legend.

    Sexual intercourse with angels, whatever their gendered appearance, violates the orders of creations, but it is not homosexuality. It is not same-flesh but, in the words of Jude, “different flesh” sexuality.

    As you’ve shown, there is no biblical evidence for describing the sin of Sodom as homosexuality. Indeed, the Bible does not tell us whether the people of Sodom EVER engaged in homosexual acts. A close, conservative reading of the text undermines its traditional interpretation.

  2. Janet says:

    I feel compelled to comment on a larger issue that came to mind as I read this article. You make it clear that you’ve drawn your conclusions about the ‘sin of Sodom’ based on your reading of the scripture and disturbingly, your logical conclusions.

    It is biblically reiterated again and again that the mind of man cannot discern the mind and ways of God. As such, the desire of all Christians should be to seek such answers from God Himself by praying for revelation through the Holy Spirit. The New Testament makes it clear that the Holy Spirit was sent to be our guide; to reveal the heart of God to His children, because we cannot fathom the heart of God on our own.

    The bible does not exhaustively discuss everything that God considers sin. As you noted, the sin of Sodom is discussed in broad rather than specific terms. “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns (gave) themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion”. When you explain the meaning of this phrase, you do so based purely on your logical interpretation of context. And that is extremely dangerous, because you risk misleading God’s people. By stating the conclusions of your own flawed, human logic, rather than asking God to reveal the truth of what was meant to you, you’re endangering the spiritual development of everyone who reads your article.

    I don’t know if you prayed for God to reveal His truth to you as you considered this question. But from your article, it is safe to assume not because you make no mention of having prayed for God to speak His truth through you.

    God alone is the final authority on the truth. God alone, having spoken through the writers of the bible, is the ONLY one who can conclusively state the meaning of ANY passage of scripture. I urge anyone who reads your article, to ALWAYS pray that God reveal the true meaning of His word so that we His children do not stumble (as we inevitably will) by relying solely on the conclusions we draw through our human logic. I pray that God makes His truth known to you and teaches you to always depend on Him for understanding of His word.

    • Nicole. says:

      Janet: It seems to me that you are doing the very thing that you are accusing the author of this article of doing: “drawing your own conclusion based on a lack of knowledge as to what was done prior to the writing of said article.” You can’t ASSUME there was NO PRAYING involved simply because it wasn’t mentioned. That just ludicrous.

    • I agree with Nicole. I sincerely doubt most–if any–Christians have gone to God and asked him to reveal his truth to them when they’ve killed people identified as homosexual because those people were “abominable.” I sincerely doubt most Christians see themselves as being affected by the judgment of the Bible on the topic of homosexuality, so it’s really easy to say that group is wrong and should be judged by mankind (whether through legal punishment or deprivation of rights or isolation from society).

      I, however, have. I prayed nightly for 20 years to understand the path to salvation from my sinful ways–thus adopted because of Church decrees and discussions. Nothing. Still gay. Then I decided to read the Bible and ask questions and do research, and I feel at peace with what I am finding out. What I am seeing is stuff that lines up more to what the writer of this article is saying more so than what modern Christians think.

      It’s always easy to say “the Holy spirit said X” when making decisions. How do you know it’s not Satan influencing you towards intolerance and hatred? At some point, we all have to rely on faith to decide how we interpret the world around us. Jesus said nothing about the gays. Cultures of the world have (so far as I’ve researched) never even had a word “gay.” Yet here we are thousands of years later saying they did by incorporating the word homosexual into the Bible. That word doesn’t even mean what we think it means. We’ve changed its meaning to match modern assumptions roughly around the 1950’s.

      Yes, we absolutely should review cultures and context to decide what the Bible is saying. Otherwise, you end up with the problems surrounding the world prior to the 1500’s. The fact that we’re having this conversation, and that you’re most likely not Catholic are both indicators that you’re as much a heretic as anyone saying the Bible didn’t single out gays. Just ask the Catholics.

      Humans are incapable of being true advocates and diplomats to God. We are too biased and self-interested. Dare I say that I trust someone who has struggled with this “affliction” their whole lives and has researched it extensively and prayed about it almost their entire life than I do some judgmental trendy Christian jumping on the hot topics of heresy in modern society. Let’s talk about lust. Let’s talk about divorce. Let’s talk about all the things that keep all the people pinned down in sin. Yet if two gay people get married, they’re going to hell because they are flagrant sinners?

      Please. Give us a break.

  3. In the story of Sodom it says in genesis 19;4-8 it says in nkjv 4-now before they lay down,the men of the city,the men of Sodom,both old and young,all the people from every quarter,surrounded the house. 5-and they called to lot and said to him “Where are the men who came to you tonight?bring them out to us that we may know them carnally” 6-so lot went out to them through the doorway,shut the door behind him. 7- and said “Please, my brethren, do not do so wickedly! “See now, I have two daughters who have not known a man; please, let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you wish; only do nothing to these men, since this is the reason they have come under the shadow of my roof.”
    now lets look at verse 5 the men say “bring them out to us that we may know them carnally” ok now look up the definition for carnally Definition of CARNAL
    1
    a : relating to or given to crude bodily pleasures and appetites b : marked by sexuality
    2
    : bodily, corporeal
    i believe god was referring to homosexuality there

    • The New English translation of the Septuagint, (the Bible translation I’m currently studying), translates the nkjv “carnal” as “have relations with them”. The purpose of this described ‘carnal relation’ is clearly to dishonour and disgrace those who are the ‘object’ of the insult and intended violence. The word ‘object’ is important, because the powerful sin against humanity here is the objectification of people. It’s a denial of their humanity, a rape. The passage has nothing to do with what we identify as ‘same sex attraction’ or ‘same sex relationships’ today. The contexts – both historical and cultural – are clear – and quite different from our societal or spiritual contexts.

  4. Lemonte says:

    Thank you for shàring your thoughts in this article. While I welcome you reflection on Biblical teaching, I believe it is inaccurate. I agree that the historical, literary and Biblical account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah iwas based on much more than sexual perversion (to include homosexuality). They were destroyed as an example of God’s wrath because of their pride, greed, neglecting the poor and needy, idolatry and more. However, you claim in your article that the Bible does not link the destruction of Sodom to homosexuality. That is a very inaccurate statement. Simply read the account of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. Or, read Jude 1:7 or many of the other references. My friend, as a Christian, we must be very careful what we teach others. God will hold us accountable for every word that comes from our mouth and will judge those that teach even more harshly. Ask God to reveal His true intent, purpose and Truth to you and not simply what you wish to believe. I have been guilty of that myself, but we must renounce that kind of thinking and desire God’s truth, not what makes us comfortable based on the culure and times we live in. Thanks again for sharing.

  5. Gary P. V. says:

    Look I dont know how I feel about homosexuality I would say that it worng based on what the law in Exodus and what is said in the first chapter of Romans. However I believe that what you are saying concerning Sodom is correct. Now I have a question if someone cares to answer. What is the term used in the story of the angels visiting Sodom when the men come to have sex with them? ( chapter 19 verse 5 NIV : They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have SEX with them.”) I have read that it was refering to anal and oral as well as or instead of intercourse is this true?

  6. Jennifer says:

    I am SO glad to find a Christian openly exploring Biblical text about homosexuality. I personally struggle with the topic. Im not really sure where I stand just yet but God is leading my heart on the topic. He has written on my heart that my job as a Christian is to love my neighbor in everything I do. I am responsible for my actions and how I treat others. If I condemn others, I condemn myself because I am not perfect. If I hold a positive space, then God can work through me to save more souls.The atheist, the homosexual, the rascist, the christian–we all have souls and everyone one of them is equally important.

    “This kind of careful exegisis that makes use of careful word study as well as cultural, historical and spiritual context when discerning the Word of God to us in Holy Scripture needs to be acknowledged..” I think so many times, Christians see the english words and think that Jesus and the disciples spoke in modern times and in English. We have to remember the cultural, historical, spiritual context and the origins of the word. If you condemn the soul that you are commanded to love you better understand everything there is to know about the subject.

  7. Pingback: My main (and only, really) objection to "gay marriage." - Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Conservatives, Liberals, Third Parties, Left-Wing, Right-Wing, Congress, President - Page 15 - City-Data Forum

  8. Trish says:

    Have you ever considered the possibility that the phrase “so we may know them carnally” means exactly what it says…. ” so we may know them in the flesh”…. in other words they want to just meet them in person, in the flesh, bodily with NO SEXUAL purpose whatsoever???? It is a saying that has been used for centuries with no sexual connotations at all. You still hear people to this day saying “I would like to meet them in the flesh” and it means only that they want to meet this person. The word CARNAL (flesh) has been twisted and interpreted over the centuries just as the word SODOMY and countless other words also have deviated from their true pure forms. It does not say they want to conduct carnal sin or have carnal knowledge of them. it is obvious they have ill intentions towards the “angels” (derived from the Greek ANGELOS meaning messengers) Lot is hiding… angry, violent intentions, but not sexual punishment as has been interpreted by many.

    As for his “offering his virgin daughters to be raped by them” I also believe it has been misinterpreted as to the true purpose. To understand the proper context of what was written in the BIBLE (biblos: book) we have to put ourselves in that time and place with their way of life and thinking. We cannot interpret with today’s frame of mind, ethics and morals. He offered his “virgin daughters” (Virgin is Greek, meaning “young, unmarried female. Also, unlike today, girls were not sexually “known” until after marriage for the most part). He is offering his daughters to them with good intentions….for them to “use in a way that they see as good, put them to good use, which doesn’t necessarily mean to rape them!! They could be serving girls or take them as wives if they saw that to be fitting. It was polite, hospitable, and morally correct to treat strangers under your roof with the utmost manners, respect and courtesy and make sure no harm is to come to them while under your care. It is only reasonable in that time frame, and context, to treat the “aliens” in that manner.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’ve found a very helpful way to put this Biblical incident into an over-all context of Biblical teaching. If you can, have a read of Jennifer Wright Knust’s excellent book “Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Contradictions About Sex and Desire” (Harper One Publishing, 2011). Knust is a professor of religion and an ordained American Baptist pastor. She is a gifted Bible scholar.

  9. gatwin says:

    Simple reply is if we stay in the confines of what God is commanding the believer to do. we wouldn’t be so confused. The Lord created male/female. Anything outside of what the Creator created the creation to do is outside of it’s purpose. A rock was created to be a rock, not a tree. A male was created to be with female. Everything was created with a purpose in mind. God intended for the earth to be replenished. Jesus curse the fig tree because it was created to produce figs. The Creator went to get figs and it did not produce what it was implying that it produced by only having leaves. So if you are male and you not producing what you were created to produce you deny the Creator and vice versa for female. It is like having two male adaptors or two female adaptors it will never work. It will never produce what it is suppose to produce. Example a plug need a socket or you will never get power. Perversion is simple it is man that make it hard. All creation speaks to the Creator or answers to the Creator. Jesus is Lord.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I would urge you to read, as I urged Trish, to read “Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire” by Jennifer Wright Kunst. This Baptist Bible scholar gives a tremendous amount of insight into the context of the Biblical writers. Keep reading and studying the issue. There’s lots out there to consider. And Jesus is Lord indeed! Just returned from the Christianity 21 conference in Denver, Colorado. Wonderful inspirational speakers on what God has for world Christianity if we’ll open our hearts and minds to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

    • Bob says:

      The problem with people who think everything has a God-given purpose is that you have to ignore the many centuries of history during which people just like you proclaimed the acceptability of practices that we now find abhorrent. Human history clearly establishes that our ability to discern the mind of God or understand the purpose of anything is minimal at best. If we allowed custom to dictate our beliefs about God and morality, we would still be practicing human sacrifice and enslaving or murdering anyone who did not agree with our views. The Old Testament patriarchs, who form the foundation of what we believe about ancient Judaism, all accepted and embraced polygamy, religious warfare, slavery and the subjugation of women. Religious fundamentalists have been on the wrong side of history on almost all moral and scientific issues for thousands of years. The question of gay marriage is just the latest attempt to support a biased view of human nature by appealing to an established practice. No different than attempting to justify the practice of slavery 150 years ago by claiming that slavery had always existed and that it was ordained by God.

  10. Dillon says:

    I find it very telling that at judges 20:5 the victim, THE VICTIM HIMSELF doesn’t even accuse the Benjamite mob of a homosexual charge of any kind. Rather he accuses them of trying to KILL him. This is made all the more interesting in that this is the ONLY biblical account in the Hebrew scriptures were the two parties (the mob and the male victim) are both human and are both the same-sex. Whereas the Sodom account involves humans and materialized angles, where the possibility of a homosexual encounter isn’t even plausible and yet churches still use “sodomite” to denote homosexuality when in sodom the elements to conclude such aren’t even there. “Benjamite” would have been less of a lie than “sodomite”.

    I shake my head at these religious leaders who parade prejudice in the name of god, when scripture itself does no such thing. The more I study scripture, the more I realize that it isn’t god or his word that’s anti-gay (for lack of a better word), it’s religion’s man-made traditions that are. And I accurately and blasphemously so at that.
    Thanks for your article. Very informative. And most importantly u used the facts of scripture itself to make your point. Who can argue with that?

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