Ask almost anyone who believes that the Christian Bible condemns homosexuality where the Bible says that, and you’ll likely be told right away about Sodom, a city that, the story goes, was destroyed by God. After the foundational stories of the Creation, the Flood and patriarchs such as Abraham and Moses, the story of Sodom’s destruction is one of the most well-known tales in the Book of Genesis.
Sodom was first city after the Flood to be destroyed by God, according to Genesis, along with the nearby city of Gomorrah. We’re told almost nothing about Gomorrah’s destruction, while the account of Sodom’s destruction is far more involved and includes Abraham negotiating with God to save Sodom if enough righteous people could be found there.
In the story, God (or specifically Jehovah) threatens to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah after hearing that they had committed “very grievous” sin. Concerned in part because his nephew Lot and Lot’s family were in Sodom, Abraham bargains with God, eventually getting Him to promise to save the city if 10 righteous people could be found there.
At this point, there is nothing in the story to suggest what kind of sin the people in the cities had committed, only that it was serious enough to lead to their destruction.
What happens next is likely what led to the city’s association with homosexuality. Two angels or divine messengers, who also are referred to as men, whom Abraham had hosted earlier as his honored guests, entered Sodom to look for at least 10 righteous people and to warn Abraham’s nephew Lot so that Lot and his family could flee the city. As the men/angels were in Lot’s home, the men of the city, young and old from all over, surrounded Lot’s home and begged for Lot to let his two guests outside so townsmen could have sex with them. Lot offered his two virgin daughters to appease them, but without success. The clamoring men eventually left when those near the door to Lot’s house were blinded and unable to figure out how to get in. The next morning, Lot and his family fled, and then God rained sulfur and fire on the two cities.
Those tying this incident to homosexuality assume that the angels were wanted for a bout of gang rape because they were in the form of men. But there likely was another reason those particular two beings were wanted, which we’ll look at later.
In any case, the divine decision to destroy Sodom came before this incident, so the story leaves the reader familiar with only this account to guess what was so evil about the city. For all we know, Sodom’s great sin may have been a lack of hospitality, which was seen as reprehensible behavior in that culture.
While the Genesis account is incomplete in telling us the nature of the Sodom’s sin, that information gap is filled in later in the Bible — and it’s not because all the town’s men were homosexuals, a statistical extreme improbability in any case.
The first clue we get comes from the writings of Isaiah, one of the best-known prophets of the Christian Old Testament. Like most other prophets, Isaiah saw part of his mission as one of warning the people of Israel of what they were doing wrong. In doing so, Isaiah wrote to the Israelites as if they were from Sodom and Gomorrah (see Isaiah 1:10), thus suggesting that their sins were the same as the sins of those two cities.
Isaiah then goes on a tear about the hypocrisy of the Israelites, telling them that their sacrifices and other rituals were worthless considering how they behaved in general. Then he tells them (Isaiah 1:15ff):
Your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
In other words, the sin of the Israelites Isaiah preached to, and thus of Sodom and Gomorrah, was a hypocritical failure to take of the people who needed society’s help the most, such as the oppressed and the widows.
The other prophet of the pre-Christian era to refer to the sins of Sodom was Ezekiel, and he was even more direct (Ezekiel 16:49):
Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.
(Note: The Hebrew word for “pride” in this verse is sometimes translated as “majesty”; in context, it probably indicates that Sodom had reason to be proud of its material wealth.)
In other words, Sodom’s sin was having the means to take care of the city’s needy but unwillingness to do so. The following verses characterize these tendencies as an abomination.
Sins of Sodom are referred to in the New Testament only in the short epistle of Jude (verse 7):
Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.
The meaning of this verse isn’t instantly clear, although of the three selections we’re looking at it is the only one that has a connection with sexual behavior. The Greek word for “fornication” here, ekporneuō, is used in the New Testament only in this verse and refers to especially lustful sexual immorality.
But what kind of immorality? The surrounding verses refer to relations with angels, which was strongly condemned in the culture at the time. Inappropriate actions with angels aren’t something Christians talk about today, but for the original writers of the Bible it was a real possibility. Remember that God’s displeasure leading to Noah’s flood was over activities that included the taking of wives by “sons of God,” which is alluded to in Jude 1:6.
The phrase “strange flesh” uses the Greek word heteros, typically translated as “other” or “different.” In other words, Jude here is suggesting that the lust seen in Sodom and Gomorrah was over something other than or different than those who were acting in sin. In other words, the lust most likely was after something other than human.
Jude’s words here don’t make a slam-dunk case the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah had to do with angels, but they strongly suggest it. In any case, Jude’s words aren’t suggestive of homosexuality at all except to those who are predisposed to believe that’s the reason for the cities’ punishment. And, in context, the focus of Jude’s writing isn’t so much on why the cities were destroyed as of them being an example of where false teachers abounded.
Looking at the Bible’s mentions of Sodom and Gomorrah makes it clear that ascribing the city’s destruction to homosexuality was a development that came after the Bible was written. The story should be seen, then, as a cautionary tale against material excesses coupled with greed and ignoring the needs of widows, orphans and those who are otherwise outcast and excluded from the wealth that a society generates. That message is as relevant today as when Genesis was written some 3,000 years ago.
All Bible quotations are from the King James Version. The painting is “The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” by John Martin, 1852.