Stonewalling Social Justice: Sex, Sin and Family Values in Sodom and Gomorrah

By Sherry Morton  

On June 28, 1969 the New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, a mafia run basement bar in Greenwich Village known as a haven for homosexuals.  

In an effort to root out this “undesirable element,” Stonewall was a too often the target of police raids. On this particular sultry summer night, the desperation of a people oppressed for no reason other than their sexual orientation (the police seem to have no particular issue with mafia run establishments), boiled to the surface.  Gay patrons and onlookers stood their ground, refusing to tolerate brutality and unjust treatment at the hands of the police. Patrons of Stonewall stopped dancing and started resisting; the police were trapped inside the Inn and days of rioting followed.  Instead of containing the “social ill of homosexuality,” the Stonewall raid provided the necessary fuel to set the gay pride movement in motion. 

The LBGT community has not only experienced legal oppression but sadly, it has also suffered theological oppression.  Practitioners, from a variety of religious traditions, often interpret their sacred texts as condemning homosexual acts and the people who engage in them.  One of the most widely cited examples of sacred condemnation of homosexuality is the Sodom and Gomorrah account found in Genesis 19 of the Hebrew Bible.  

The debate around this passage centers on a vague insinuation of same-gender sex.  While some argue this is evidence of strong Biblical condemnation of homosexuality there is a resounding silence around issues of social justice, most striking, a disregard for the care and well-being of young girls. 

As the story goes, two travelers (angels) arrive in the city of Sodom and meet with Lot, one of the righteous citizens of the city.  Lot, convinces the travelers to take shelter in his home for the evening.  A mob comprised of every remaining male in the city gathers at Lot’s door, demanding that he send the strangers out “so that they may know them.”  Lot begs the mob to leave his guests unharmed and offers in their place his two daughters; telling the mob they may do with them as they please (Genesis 19:1-8).  

The subsequent destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is often used in conjunction with this passage as proof that the God of Abraham strongly condemns homosexuality, but there are challenges in interpreting Genesis 19 as the definitive condemnation of homosexuality.  

First, if there is a reference to sexual action in this passage, it is most probably a reference to some type of sexual assault and not equivalent to modern notions of homosexuality.  Also, considering the passage in context with other Biblical passages on Sodom and Gomorrah, there is a case to be made that the destruction of the cities was more closely related to a disregard for the hospitality codes of the age, issues of social justice, and denigration of the sacrificial system. 

Those who hold the position that Genesis 19 is concerned with homosexuality commonly use one particular phrase, Genesis 19:5, as central to their argument.  The passage reads:   

Where are the men who came to you tonight?  Bring them out to us so that we may know them. 

As an angry mob of one social group proposes this in relation to another foreign social group, it is likely a reference to some type of assault.  If sex is implied, it would be within the bounds of sexual assault and as all parties (mob and travelers) are male, it would more specifically be same-gender sexual assault.   

Sexual assault is not equivalent to our modern understanding of homosexuality.  Contemporary homosexuality extends far beyond the boundaries of simple same-gender sexual intercourse and is not synonymous with sexual assault. It includes the full spectrum of behaviours associated with committed relationships:  love, joint property, child rearing, and all manner of responsibilities for health and welfare.  

Genesis 19’s veiled reference to what might be same-gender-sexual assault appears to be more concerned with the establishment of social dominance of one group of people over another more than sexual gratification.  If sexual gratification were the goal, the mob would have accepted Lot’s offer of his daughters.  While the passage may condemn abusive same-gender-sexual assault, it does not make a coherent moral statement about the contemporary understanding of homosexuality, which is often comprised of partners engaged in mutually loving relationships.   

Given Lot’s focus on protecting his guests, this passage is likely to be a statement on the strict observance of hospitality laws rather than on sexuality.  The mob may have intended to disregard the traveler’s rights to safe harbour in a foreign land. The harsh climate of the ancient world of the Hebrew Bible made strict hospitality codes necessary.  There were no Super 8 Motels to leave the light on for you or Waffle Houses to provide corned beef hash and biscuits for breakfast.  In the ancient world, an open threat against the lives of foreign travelers was as an egregious offense and one that would have warranted the harshest judgment.  The phrase “so we may know them” is vague and it is possible that the mob only intended to talk with the strangers to determine whether or not they were a threat to their community.  Both issues—the incongruence between ancient and modern understandings of homosexuality and the challenge of hospitality laws—have been heavily debated by scholars.  Oddly, many who engage in the passionate debate around this passage pay relatively little attention to the treatment of Lot’s young daughters. 

Following the portion of the passage that may or may not condemn some type of same-gender sexual assault is:  

I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly.  Look I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, they have come under the shelter of my roof. (Genesis 19:7-8)  

Using the Sodom and Gomorrah account to condemn homosexuality while ignoring the failure of family values in Lot’s treatment of his daughters is a glaring omission.  If this Genesis account is a strong argument for the immorality of homosexuality then it is a scandalous argument regarding the treatment of young women.  

Religious historian David Carr points out that, Biblical sexual morality was directly shaped by the harsh and unpredictable living conditions of the desert agricultural life of the Israelite people.  A minority of live births survived past the age of two and for this minority the life expectancy was only twenty-five to thirty-five years (49). Carr also asserts that, Genesis 19 is specifically concerned with the maintenance of hospitality laws and supports this claim by citing Judges 19, which states that a man might choose to offer his daughter’s or concubine’s to be raped in order to provide protection for a guest (186-187).   

However, the Biblical position on the treatment of women, like its treatment of many important subjects, is ambiguous.  Scholars  K. C. Hanson and Douglas Oakman highlight the Bible’s assertion that with rulership comes responsibility, while women must submit to the authority of fathers, brothers and husbands; only an obedient woman was worthy of love, care, and respect (25).  

With a life expectancy of thirty-five years, it is easy to assume that if Lot’s daughters were still unmarried they were probably young teenagers.  Lot was willing to and justified in sacrificing his young daughters for the protection of adult men.  When I read the account of the damnation and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah what is most vivid, in a long sad discussion of condemnation, is that a father begs potentially violent rapists to do as they will with his young daughters to save the life of grown men.  Lot’s family values were such that he could dispose of his daughters as he pleased, even if that meant their death and disgrace, and still be the “most righteous” man in the city.  Hopefully this is a morality that most could not sanction.  

When considering the judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah further, another salient fact emerges that may better explain why God destroyed the cities—aside from their uncertain sexual behaviour.  God has grown tired of the wickedness in Sodom and Gomorrah, according to Isaiah 1:10-17; the tiresome sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was worship divorced from social justice.  

Hear the words of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!  Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah !  What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says. the Lord;  I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;…..When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? …Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed defend the orphan plead for the widow.  (Isaiah 1:10-17) 

This is the longest passage speaking directly to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah outside of the Genesis 19 account. In the remaining six passages, the two cities are mentioned as exemplars and modes of comparison for the wicked life.  This passage from Isaiah supports a reading of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah not as the final judgment on contemporary homosexuality, but on grounds that they repeatedly defiled the sacrificial system—a system critical to the Hebrew God’s relationship with the Israelite people—by living in ways that were unjust to those most vulnerable in society.   

Some interpreting Genesis 19 are so narrowly focused on the vague insinuation of what might be same-gender-sex assault that they miss the social injustice that motivated the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  A contextual reading of the Genesis 19 narrative shows that what was of utmost importance at the time was maintaining strict hospitality codes and the integrity of the sacrificial system.  Unfortunately, the social justice necessary to maintain these systems did not appear to include concern for the wellbeing of young women.  

Using the Sodom and Gomorrah account to condemn homosexuality without addressing the issues of social injustice, particularly the disregard for the welfare of young women, is a case of theological stonewalling.  How ironic that the Stonewall Inn was the place where those so greatly oppressed by the interpretation of Genesis 19, as the definitive Biblical condemnation of homosexuality, finally defied that oppression.  

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About the Author

Sherry Morton completed her MA in Religious Studies at GSU in 2010.  Her interests lie in the intersection of cognitive science of religion, particularly the impact of religious ritual on the brain. 

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