This is the second installment of a series of posts inspired by the legislators of Indiana, who apparently believe that the Bible condemns love between people of the same gender. Among critical biblical scholars, this matter was largely settled more than a decade ago. In this series, which originally appeared in The Fourth R, I share with you the results of that scholarship. SP
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Sodom and Gomorrah. When you think of all the evil places on this earth, you think Sodom and Gomorrah, as in “that place is a real Sodom and Gomorrah.” For Connecticut moms, it’s New York. For Mormons, it’s Vegas. For evangelical Christians, it’s San Francisco—San Francisco, the birthplace of gay rights, Queer culture, gay pride, the capital city of sodomy.
How did gay sex come to be called sodomy? It all goes back to the Bible and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The story, in chapters 18 and 19 of Genesis, goes like this. When the patriarch, Abraham, is camped near the Oaks of Mamre, God sends three messengers to tell him that he is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, for the sin of these cities had been very grave. But Abraham bargains with God: would he spare the cities if 50 righteous souls could be found there? How about 40? 30? 20? How about 10? Ok, 10 – if 10 righteous souls could be found there, God would spare the cities. So off the mysterious messengers go to Sodom to find 10 righteous souls. When they arrive at Sodom, they find Lot, Abraham’s nephew, sitting at the city gate. He welcomes them into his home with gracious hospitality and prepares a feast. One down, nine to go. But before the dishes are cleared, the men of Sodom—“both young and old, everyone to the last man”—show up at Lot’s door and demand that the strangers in his house be handed over to them to be raped. Lot tells them no and, being a righteous man, offers his virgin daughters instead. But it is not virgins they’re after, so they storm the house. Lot is rescued at the last minute as the angels of the Lord pull him into the house and strike the attackers blind. The next day, Lot and his family flee the city as God destroys it with fire and brimstone. Only Lot’s wife is lost when she gazes back at her beloved city and turns into a pillar of salt.
One might well say, no wonder they call it sodomy. Sodom was an entire city of gay men! But wait. Really? An entirely gay city in the Ancient Near East? The Biblical imagination is larger than life, but this is too much. No, it turns out that something else is going on in this story, something more at home in the Ancient Near East than big mean gay cities.
The story actually turns on two common realities from the days of the patriarchs: the code of hospitality and the fear of strangers. The first derives from the hostile landscape of the desert. When sojourners pass by, you must welcome them, for one day it might be you wandering in the desert without food, water or shelter. In this story, both Abraham and Lot do their duty to the stranger.
But strangers can also bring trouble. They are, after all, strangers, among whom pass murderers and thieves undetected. That is why when you gaze upon the ruined gates of these long-disappeared cities, you will sometimes see some peculiar symbols. A common one is the all-seeing eye. Pass through these gates, it says, but we will be watching you! Another common symbol is the erect penus. This symbol is really more common in Greece, but it exposes an important ancient sentiment. Like the all-seeing eye, the big erect penus is an apotropaic symbol to ward of evil and evil-doers. It says, enter, you stranger, but if you f#%k with us, we will definitely f#%k with you!
The phallic welcome sign tells us what any study of male sexuality in the Ancient Near East will reveal: that male rape is not gay sex. It is phallic aggression. Lot, it seems, was a stranger in town. And now he had brought other strangers into the city with him. Who were they? Why had they come? The men of Sodom surround Lot’s house not because they are horny, but because they are suspicious and aim to put the strangers in their place. And for this, their city is destroyed.
People still call gay sex sodomy. But it is a misnomer. If modern usage were true to its ancient origins, sodomy would mean something like phallic aggression. Sex as violence. The violent side of sex is, of course, still with us. But it is not associated primarily with gay sex. In fact, violent sex is almost always heterosexual sex. Even when the violence is male on male, say, in a prison setting, the structure is still heterosexual. “Watch out,” the warden says to the new arrival, “or Bruno here will make you his girlfriend.” What is it they call men who become passive sex objects in prison? “Wives,” I believe it is. Why? In heterosexual sex, the man penetrates, the woman is penetrated. Male rape places a man in the role of a woman. The horror men feel about this is the horror of emasculation. The hetero-sexist underpinnings of this feeling need no comment.
The biblical story of Sodom is not about gay sex, but sexual violence. Sodom is destroyed not because it is the San Francisco of the Ancient Near East. It is destroyed because it is consumed with sexual violence—heterosexual phallic aggression. The Sodomites are not men who love men, but men who fear and hate the stranger, the outsider. Ironic, is it not, that the infamy of Sodom is associated today with men who love men, while those who hate and fear people who seem strange and different to them claim a refuge in the Bible for their bigotry.
Note: Most of what I know about any of this comes from Martti Nissinen’s excellent book, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Fortress, 1998). I know of nothing better on the subject. This post originally appeared in The Fourth R. To subscribe to this informative publication, visit the Westar Institute on-line.