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.