Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Biblical Interpretation and The "Sin of Sodom"

Nathan Nelson takes the position that "Catholic and general Christian teaching on homosexuality may be based on a misinterpretation of scripture," with the apparent hope that "if such were the case, it would render the teaching on homosexuality untrue, since truth cannot be based upon misunderstanding." I had asked if he might elaborate on his case, and he has done so here.

Nathan states three arguments for why he believes the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality is mistaken. For the sake of brevity (well, I try) and my readers' attention spans, I will present Nathan's arguments and my responses in three separate posts. The first will address perceived misinterpretations regarding "the sin of Sodom"; the second, the book of Leviticus and St. Paul's writings on the subject; the third, the case of natural law.

Scripture interpretation and biblical scholarship not being my forte, I trust my readers will understand my reliance upon those far more knowledgeable than I in this field.

Argument 1: The "sin of Sodom" is not homosexuality but inhospitality

The definition of sodomy is rooted in biblical misinterpretation - According to conservative [i.e., traditional] reading of the scriptures, the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah was identified with the intent of the male citizens of Sodom to rape the angels, who were in male form. Besides the mistaken equasion of homosexuality with homosexual rape, says Nathan, "the main problem with this view of sodomy is that it is not supported by the rest of scripture, either in the Old Testament or in the New Testament."

Nathan points out that the Prophet Ezekiel provides another reason for Sodom's destruction: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy (Ezek. 16:49)." Consequently, we may judge that the "sin of Sodom" was not homosexuality, but greed and refusal to help the poor and needy.

Outside of Genesis, Sodom is mentioned only a handful of times, and in such cases it is percieved as a sign of punishment for idolatry (Deuteronomy 29:23, and again in Deuteronomy 32:32; Jeremiah 23:14 and Amos (4:11) or "indifference to the poor and oppressed" (Isaiah 1:16-17).

In the New Testament there are two references to Sodom. In the Gospel of Matthew 10:15 ("it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town") and 11:23 ("it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you") Jesus refers to Sodom again, not in conjunction with homosexuality but again, as symbolic of those who are guilty of infidelity and lack of faith in God's revelation.

Consequently, says Nathan:

It becomes clear from the rest of the scriptural witness that Christians have been misinterpreting the sin of Sodom for quite some time. There seem to have been two sins that Sodom was guilty of: indifference toward the poor, according to Ezekiel and Isaiah; and idolatry, according to Jeremiah and Amos. Considering God's harsh and swift reaction to idolatry throughout the Old Testament, and considering the emphasis put on helping the poor by the Prophets and by Jesus, I think that's plausible. The assertion that the sin of Sodom is homosexuality does not make sense, however, because four Prophets and Christ himself contradict that assertion. Not to mention the connection with idolatry that was made in Deuteronomy.


In Straight & Narrow?: Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate -- a very well-written and informative book on this subject -- Thomas E. Schmidt examines the revisionist account of Sodom and the separation of inhospitality from sexual sin in subsequent references to Sodom in the Old Testament. According to Mr. Schmidt:

  • The OT writers may very well be generalizing from a particular offense:

    "This is especially likely if, as it appears, homosexuality was rare in Israel. That is, biblical writers generalized in order to show the applicability of judgement on Sodom to people who did not do precisely what the Sodomites did. An example of this is Jeremiah 49:18, which compares Jerusalem to Sodom but specifies only adultery as sexual sin.

  • We must bear in mind that Jews were modest people who often used figures of speech to mask explicit subject matter. Schmidt cites as an example the incident in Genesis 90:27-27 where Noah's son "saw the nakedness of his father" -- in what is commonly understood in Jewish scriptural interpreation as a veiled reference to rape. "Whether or not this example applies," says Schmidt, "we cannot dismiss the possibility that general references to the sin of Sodom have sexual sin at least partially, if euphamistically, in view."

  • With reference to the citation of Ezekial 16:49, Schmidt reminds us to respect the context, for if we continue to the next verse, the meaning becomes clear: "Rather, they became haughty and committed abominable crimes in my presence; then, as you have seen, I removed them." Notes Schmidt:

    Various things were abominable, but since the word is used to describe sexual sin in the same chapter (Ezekiel 16: 22, 58), and since it refers to same-sex acts in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, the passage may imply quite the opposite of the revisionist claim [p. 88]
  • Schmidt points out that it is misleading to only cite part of the evidence, as a comprehensive survey of all Jewish literature reveals that some Jews did, in fact, associate Sodom with sexual sin:

    The fact that the author of Judges shows evidence of dependence on the Sodom story demonstrates that the tradition began very early. In the Greek period the tradition merely became more specific in its response to Gentile homosexuality. The second-century Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs labels the Sodomites "sexually promiscuous" (Testament of Benjamin 9:1) and refers to "Sodom, which departed from the order of nature" (Testament of Naphthali 3:4). [Ibid.]

    According to Schmidt, both Philo and Josephus "plainly name homosexual relations as the characteristic vice of Sodom." And in the endnotes to this chapter, he refers to additional passages: "See also 2 Enoch 10:4-5 and 35:1-3 ms. P, which may represent early Christian revision;Jubilees 20:5-6; Testament of Levi 17:11; Epistle of Aristeas 152; probably Wisdom of Solomon 14:26 ("confusion of sex"). In addition, the Septuagint of Genesis 19 uses terms that imply that the translators understood the same-sex connotation of the passages, see J.B. DeYoung, "The Contributions of the Septuagint to Biblical Sanctions Against Homosexuality" Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 34 (June 1991): 161-65.

New Testament references to Sodom not only include the words of Jesus in the gospels; the book of Jude (1:7, 1:8 and 2 Peter 2:4-7 also mentions Sodom with the reference of sexual conduct.

Unfortunately, Schmidt does not go into any detail about Jesus' brief reference to the punishment of Sodom in Mathew 10:15 and 11:23. But in my investigation I came across this Zenit interview with Robert A.J. Gagnon, author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics on "The Bible and Homosexual Practice: An Overview of Some Issues", who states with good reason why one cannnot infer from Jesus' alleged "silence" on homosexuality that he was not opposed to it:

Jesus' alleged silence has to be set against the backdrop of unequivocal and strong opposition to same-sex intercourse in the Hebrew Bible and throughout early Judaism. It is not historically likely that Jesus overturned any prohibition of the Mosaic law, let alone on a strongly held moral matter such as this. And Jesus was not shy about disagreeing with prevailing viewpoints. Had he wanted his disciples to take a different viewpoint he would have had to say so.

On the contrary, Gagnon points out, Jesus spoke out against porneia, "sexual immorality" (Mark 7:21-23) and accepted the Decalogue commandment against adultery (Mark 10:19) -- which, in his day, was understood in Judaism to include same-sex intercourse and any activity outside the male-female model of relationships, realizing its divine purpose in the covenant of marriage. Gagnon cites as evidence of such: "[Jesus'] back-to-back citation in Mark 10:6-7 of Genesis 1:27 ("God made them male and female") and Genesis 2:24 ("For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh")."

So what about Jesus' reference to Sodom? -- Again, Schmidt's point about generalizing from a particular offense would apply here: Granted that Sodom and Gommorah had by Jesus' time become "synonymous with impenitent sin, and their fall with a proverbial manifestation of God's just wrath," it makes perfect sense that Jesus would refer to Sodom in a general sense and without mention of its specific crimes. There are a lot of sins that Jesus did not mention specifically (paedophilia, for example), but we can correctly assume that he would not have approved them and most definitely opposed them.

Finally, that the "sin of Sodom" may refer to homosexual rape as both Nathan and Thomas Schmidt believe ("they attempted what we call male rape as a means to humiliate suspected spies") does not invalidate later interpretation of Sodom as a general rebuke of homosexual activity:

The word Sodom simply became a kind of code over time . . . for the kinds of same-sex relations common in the Gentile world." The fact that people in NT times pictured Sodomite activity and motivation differently from historical event in Genesis does not invalidate their objection to same-sex relations. They objected similarly to the worship of Jupiter and Apollo, quoting Old Testament passages about Canaanite worship, which differed greatly in form and motivation from the practices they observed among the Gentiles. Indeed, today we quote the same passages about idolatry to object to the "worship" of money or leisure. Whether the issue is idolatry or sex, the form is secondary to the act itself. [p. 89]

In light of which, it is understandable that later references to Sodom by the Church Fathers (such as Clement of Alexandria and St. Augustine would make the same connection.

This debate over scriptural prohibitions may strike some readers as tedious but is however unfortunately necessary, in the interest of countering various arguments that would lead one astray. As Thomas Schmidt notes: "The proper starting point for a consideration of homosexuality is not a list of prohibition texts but an understanding of what the bible affirms in heterosexual monogamy" (and, I may add, of marriage."

End of Part One

Related Links


  • Nathan has posted a rebuttal (largely to the positions of Thomas E. Schmidt here.
  • My response to Nathan and last post on Sodom can be found here.

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