Genesis 19:1-29 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=132568365
As Mark Twain was known to say, “It’s not those passages in scripture I don’t understand that bother me, it’s those passages I do understand.”
I would suggest to Mark Twain that possibly it isn’t even the ones that we understand that bother us, but the one’s that we think we understand.
For some reason many of us think we understand what this story is all about without reading the entire story (so if you haven't read the story this is a good time to clink on the link at the top of the page and actually read the whole story), reflecting on the other references of this story throughout the Bible, and considering its historical context.
Sodom and Gomorrah.
I’m going to put it out there. Name the so called “elephant in the room.” We think this story is about homosexuality.
The word itself “Sodom.” Picked up in the Middle Ages by the Latin language ‘sodomita.’ It is the closest word to ‘homosexual’ in Latin or any vernacular.
Because of our associations with this word, this place, we just assume… that’s what this text is all about. Right?
Before the Latin and our current associations with the word, it was a place. It was a geographic location somewhere in the Middle East, near the Dead Sea but we aren’t exactly sure.
According to the book of Genesis it was the place where two angels came in the evening and Lot welcomed them. Through generous acts of hospitality, well initially, he welcomed them. Washing their feet, making a feast, baking the bread. In the town of Sodom Lot welcomed the two angels of God.
Hospitality is an incredibly important part of the culture, even 4000 years after the time of Lot and Abraham it remains a core value of who the people in the Middle East. I recently finished the book Three Cups of Tea in which a mountain climber named Greg Mortenson, having failed to climb one of the world’s tallest mountains Pakistan, wanders into a remote village. It has been days since he has bathed, shaved, eaten properly, or slept well.
Imagine for a minute what he probably looks like and what you would do if he wandered up to your front door. What would you do? Call the police? Hand him five bucks hoping he might go away? Call a social service agency see if they can find somewhere for him to stay?
When Greg walked into this high-altitude village he was sick, weak and injured from a series of misadventures up the mountain. When he enters village the children surround him and take him to the chief elder. The chief elder then pulls Greg into his own tiny hut, sat him down at the stove, covered him with a blanket, and prepared him some tea and porridge. They cared from this stranger with their meager resources as if he was one of the family.
In thanks for the hospitality and friendship offered to him by the Balti people, Mortinson resolved to build a school for the village children. This single commitment changed the course of Mortinson’s life, eventually resulting in the establishment of the Central Asia Institute, an organization that has been responsible for the building of dozens of bridges, roads, water projects, vocational centers, but especially schools that serve the poorest of the poor in one of the most volatile corners of the earth.
The title of Mortinson’s book comes from traditional Balti custom. When you enter a Balti home as an outsider, you are offered a first cup of tea as a stranger—because the Koran, like the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, commands kindness and hospitality to strangers. At the second cup of tea, you become a guest, the beginnings of personal relationship. A third cup of tea offered makes you family, with both the privileges and responsibilities that entails.
The acts of hospitality extended by this remote village in Pakistan mirror these same moral and religious commands to care for the stranger that Lot welcomes the angels into his home.
In fact these preliminary acts of hospitality are reinforced by the previous chapter in Genesis when three angels appear to Lot’s uncle Abraham. Abraham goes to extreme measure to welcome these strangers, and it is in the midst of Abraham’s eagerness to serve these strangers that God announces the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their “grave sin.”
I’m left scratching my chin wondering what this “grave sin” is.
We already think we know what it is, but let’s flip back a few chapters and see if this place and their sin are mentioned anywhere else.
Turns out that Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned a few times before chapter 18 and 19 in Genesis.
Each time the “sin” of this place is mentioned I find it strange that the text doesn’t say what the “sin” actually is. Just that the there is “sin” and the people are “wicked.”
I’m going to guess that Abraham is a little unnerved by this divine pronouncement because he starts asking questions of God. Abraham is a pretty persistent guy and he is really getting on God’s case about any of the “righteous” people who might be living there. There is some haggling over the number of “righteous” people God would need to find in order for the town not to be destroyed and the chapter ends with Abraham and the readers left wondering what God will find in this place.
The angels of God find Lot. They find what started out to be generous acts of hospitality. Lot provided the same protection for these strangers he would like to receive if he were the visitor in a strange land – even if it meant going to extraordinary lengths to do so.
And Lot’s “extraordinary” lengths are extremely questionable as “all the men of the city” surround the house and demand that Lot bring out the guests so they “may know them.” Now that can be a pretty loaded term in the Bible and you can read into it as you would like, but its meaning becomes pretty clear when Lot offers up his daughters “who have not yet known a man” as some sort of substitution.
Granted, that in Lot’s time female children had a very low social status in the culture, the very notion that Lot would offer his daughters as sexual objects (which will play out in its own twisted way if you read to the end of chapter 19) is atrocious.
Reading the story of Sodom and Gomorrah it paints a very graphic picture of sexual violence, focusing on the communal nature of this sin. And while our culture and religious traditions have focused on the one aspect of “homosexuality” being the sin, it is important to note no other biblical references to this story lift that up as being the “sin” that characterizes this story and the focal point of God’s judgment.
When we go through the Bible and carefully look for the references to the sin committed by the people of Sodom what we will find most often is the sin of inhospitality.
The prophet Isaiah, for example, compares the people of Judah to Sodom because they practice inhospitality and they are proud of it.
Ezekiel defines it as “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (NRSV 16:49).
Even Jesus talks about the sin of Sodom. He says:
“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.” (NRSV Matthew 10:14-15)
Those two verses are from the larger narrative in Matthew when Jesus is sending out the disciples to proclaim the good news of the gospel. Jesus says that a town would wish is was Sodom and Gomorrah, if it isn’t offering hospitality. Yikes.
A later reference in the New Testament the book of Jude is the only reference cited to support the theories that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is about sexuality at all. And this reference is made in the context of the Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian culture that was increasingly concerned with sexual purity. This is a shift that takes place thousands of years removed from the time of Lot and Abraham. And while this is the only verse in the Bible that makes any connection to the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah to sexuality, it still does not refer to homosexuality.
Everyone in this room has their own thoughts and beliefs about homosexuality. Regardless of what those beliefs are, it doesn’t make this particular story in the Bible about something, just because it makes the story easier to understand or we can explain the story away as not having anything to do with "us."
The acts of hospitality extended to the angels by Abraham and initially by Lot become a vivid contrast to the townsfolk who are the very antithesis of hospitality. Rather than welcome the stranger into their community, (as they would like to be welcomed?) they threatened the one thing they would least like to have done to themselves.
Their insistence that the strangers be turned over was in itself a rejection of everything that is holy and honorable, just and good. Their intention was to denigrate and humiliate and defame these “men” in a way that would deny their humanity and dignity. They threatened to abuse these men with violent and abusive sex as a sign of their own power over the visitors. This was not about homosexuality; it was about power and domination, hatred of the stranger and violent abuse.
This story is about the polarization in communities and the extremes groups of people can go to exclude others who are not like themselves. Communities, that not only denies hospitality but go to great lengths to have power over and dominate the “other.”
In this story the two communities are the Sodomites and the strangers. In our context… there are many examples.
Latino vs. African American gangs in Detroit, native- born American farm workers vs. Mexican immigrants, gays and lesbians vs. evangelical Christians, Americans and the Islamic world.
The “us” and “them” and the great lengths one group will go to dominate the “other.” Taking scripture stories as proof that God wants us to exclude when God is inviting us in. God is inviting us to include ourselves in this story and ask what is our responsibility when strangers are treated not just inhospitably but often despicably?”
Are we like Lot? Do we just throw out our daughters, that which is most convenient, to appease growing violence of inhospitality and to protect ourselves?
Do we believe we are standing alongside Abraham and Lot that early morning, watching as the sulfur and fire rain down assuming God’s justice has been rightly served against “them?”
Are we able to separate ourselves from what we think we understand about this story and ask the questions that challenge who we believe God is calling to be as a community of faith?
End Note: This question... I left it hanging out there at the conclusion of the sermon. Following worship we gathered together as a congregation to talk about this text, the sermon and our questions about it. We never really "answered" the question I ended the sermon with, but it was a faithful exploration of one community willing to engage the question. Thanks be to God.