Friday, December 17, 2004

"The Sin of Sodom" Revisited.

[NOTE: This is another in an ongoing discussion of scripture and homosexuality between myself and a fellow 'liberal Catholic' blogger Nathan Nelson. Our correspondence has been divided into three subjects: 1) "The Sin of Sodom"; 2) "Leviticus and St. Paul"; 3) "Homosexuality & Natural Law". This is a continuation of the first.

In his response to my post ("Biblical Interpretation and the 'Sin of Sodom'", Nathan embraces the "hospitality" argument of Dr. Rembert Truluck ("Six Bible Passages").

As before, I will briefly state the points of Nathan's -- Dr. Rembert Truluck's -- argument followed directly by my responses.

The reference to "strange flesh" in Jude 7

According to Nathan, the term "strange flesh" found in Jude 7 used in reference to Sodom -- actually means "different flesh" in the original Greek (hetero sarkos) and is the root word for heterosexual; (homo sarkos meaning "same flesh"). Sarkos is never used in the New Testament as a word for "sex." Nathan asserts that if anything, the reference to Sodom in Jude 7 reinforces the argument that it had more to do with idolatry than anything else.

Actually, Jude 7's description of "going after different flesh" is commonly interpreted as an allusion to "angelic flesh." Let's look at the context:

The angels too, who did not keep to their own domain but deserted their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains, in gloom, for the judgment of the great day. Likewise, Sodom, Gomorrah, and the surrounding towns, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual promiscuity and practiced unnatural vice [literally "went after different or alien flesh"], serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Similarly, these dreamers nevertheless also defile the flesh, scorn lordship, and revile glorious beings. [Jude 1: 6-8]

Verse 6 refers to an apocryphal account in the book of Enoch in which rebellious angels had intercourse with women, and were cast out of heaven as punishment. Verse 7 compares the angels' punishment with the inhabitants of Sodom, Gommorah, and surrounding towns, who also "defiled the flesh", scorned divine authority, and reviled "angelic beings" (cf. 2 Peter 10).

This interpretation is advanced by many proponents of gay scripture interpretation, the typical argument: "one can not ASSUME that "strange flesh" means a "man going after a man", after all Lot's guests were NOT MEN but ANGELS," so I'm suprised that Nathan has omitted it. Schmidt, however, believes:

. . . such a distinction is too fine-tuned. Are we to suppose Jude was accusing his contemporaries of consorting with angels? No, and perhaps in order to show that he intends the charge more inclusively, he joins "unnatural lust" with "sexual immorality." [pp. 96-97]

For a more thorough discussion of this text and refutation of the revisionist argument as it pertains to Jude 7, see "On Careless Exegesis and Jude 7" by Dr. Robert Gagnon.

What does it mean "to know" in the Sodom account?

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them." Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, "I beg you brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters whom 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, for they have come under the shelter of my roof." (Genesis 19: 4-8).

According to Nathan/Truluck, the story of Sodom does not even imply sexual advances toward the angels. The Hebrew word YADA -- translated "to know" -- is used 943 times in the Old Testament and refers to any number of things (God, good and evil, people, places, etc.). Nathan continues:

"The men of Sodom wanted Lot to bring the angels out so that they could know who they were, because strangers would rarely have visited Sodom, and [those that did] were from enemy tribes who wanted to come in and conquer. Dr. Truluck considers Lot's response of offering his daughters to them strange, but points out that the offering of his daughters eliminates the possibility of a true homosexual orientation on the part of the men . . . the story of Sodom didn't have anything to do with homosexual behavior, but had to do with inhospitality toward strangers, which was indeed seen as a grievous sin among the Jews."

Pastor P. Michael Ukleja ("Homosexuality and the Old Testament"): "the meaning of a word in a given passage is not determined solely on the basis of the number of times it is translated that way in the Bible. The context determines how it is to be translated." (surely Nathan agrees, arguing on the basis of context with respect to Ezekiel). Of the 12 times the word "yada" occurs in Genesis, 10 times it means "to have intercourse with." Given that Lot uses the phrase "to know" in a distinctly sexual sense with reference to his daughter only 3 verses later, we can infer that the same is meant by the demand of Sodom's men "to know" Lot's guests.

The obvious difficulty is that Nathan's explanation simply doesn't warrant the kind of behavior that Lot exhibits. If the men only wanted "to know" the strangers -- to interrogate them -- why did Lot beg them not to behave wickedly and, in a state of obvious panic, offer his own virgin daughters as substitutes? (That Lot does so doesn't necessarily eliminate the distinctly homosexual intent of the men of Sodom, since they adamantly refused Lot's offer of a substitute).

Writing on "Hermeneutical Issues in the Bible to Justify Homosexual Practice", Guenther Has of Redeemer College, Ontario, also notes another incident in the bible:

Similarly, in Judges 19:23, when the men of Gibeah demand to "know" (yada') the stranger, his host offers them his own virgin daughter and the visitor's concubine. The concubine is given over to the men who "know" (yada') her all night. The clear meaning here is rape. Thus, the obvious conclusion is that yada' is used consistently in both instances to refer to sexual intercourse.

Ezekiel and the Prophets

Nathan reiterates his position that Ezekiel's reference to Sodom did not have sexual connotations because the overal aim of Ezekial 16 is a condemnation of idolatry. Where Ezekial refers to Sodom, he does so in a non-sexual manner and is quite specific that Sodom's crime (according to Ezekiel) was their refusal to aid the poor and needy (Ezek 16:49).

To my charge that the next verse mentioned Sodom's crime as well ("they became haughty and committed abominable crimes in my presence") Nathan responds:

Ezek. 16:50 must be taken in the context of all of Ezekiel 16. The entire chapter refers to abomination, and the abomination referred to is idolatry -- the making of male images that Israel worshipped and made offerings to, including offerings of human lives. Ezekiel primarily mentions Sodom's neglect for the poor, but the "abominable things" he mentions in the next verse, if not also referring to their neglect for the poor, must refer to the rest of the abominations referred to throughout this chapter.

Responding to a similar charge made by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, Robert Gagnon asserts Ezekiel's familiarity with the Holiness Code (Lev 17-24) and states that: "When Ezekiel 16:49-50 describes the sin of Sodom as "not aiding the poor and needy" and "committing an abomination," it refers to two different offenses, as the list of vices in Ezekiel 18:12 makes clear when it distinguishes these two phrases."

As we noted, the destruction of Sodom was employed as the chief example of God's judgement and punishment upon sinners. Accordingly, Schmidt's explanation that later writers generalized from a particular offense -- "in order to show the applicability of judgement on Sodom to people who did not do precisely what the Sodomites did, [as in] Jeremiah 49:18, which compares Jerusalem to Sodom but specifies only adultery as sexual sin" -- still stands. Acknowledging Nathan's point that the focus of Chapter 16 is on idolatry, it has not been disproven that this was Ezekiel's method.

Can one argue for multiple reasons why Sodom was destroyed? -- Certainly. Nathan's argument is partially correct in this sense: homosexuality may very well be a part, or symptom, of the wickedness of its inhabitants. But it is impossible to deny in the face of the evidence the sexual nature of the crimes the citizens of Sodom intended to commit against the strangers under Lot's protection. Gordon J. Wendham explains how one can apply both readings to the biblical story:

As commentators have realized the demand to 'know' the visitors to Sodom must be a demand that they submit to homosexual intercourse. That Lot offers his daughters instead and the Levite his concubine shows that the demand was for sexual intercourse (Gen 19:5-8; Jdg 19:22-26). Given ancient oriental attitudes it is by no means strange that the men of Sodom asked to have intercourse with men in Lot's household. What is surprising and deeply shocking is their total disregard for the accepted principles of eastern hospitality. Visitors, whether anticipated or not, must be treated with the utmost courtesy and kindness. Here the men of Sodom show utter disregard for the rules of hospitality, and suggest Lot's visitors submit to the most demeaning treatment they can devise, a treatment elsewhere used on prisoners of war. So the sin of Sodom is not primarily homosexuality as such, but an assault on weak and helpless visitors who according to justice and tradition they ought rather to have protected (Ezk 16:49).

Yet having said this, undoubtedly the homosexual intentions of the inhabitants of Sodom adds a special piquancy to their crime. In the eyes of the writer of Genesis and his readers it showed that they fully deserve to be described as 'wicked, great sinners before the LORD' (13:13) and that the consequent total overthrow of their city was quite to be expected. It is often noted by commentators that the destruction of Sodom parallels the destruction of the world by Noah's flood. In both cases we have a complete population being obliterated and only one family escaping thanks to divine intervention. There are many verbal parallels between the stories too. It may also be noted that the motive for divine judgment is similar in both cases. The flood was sent because of the great wickedness of man demonstrated by the illicit union of women with supernatural beings, 'the sons of God'. In the case of Sodom another type of illicit sexual intercourse is at least contributory in showing it deserves its destruction.

Final thoughts on the Scriptural Interpretation of Sodom

  • To take general references to Sodom from later biblical sources, isolate them from other sources which do relate Sodom to a specifically sexual offense, and then attempt to reason back to the original account that the general references "prove" that the men of Sodom did not commit a sexual offense, or that homosexuality had nothing to do with Sodom's destruction, strikes me as a very dubious way of reasoning.
  • The account of Sodom may be a part but is by no means the fundamental source for the condemnation of homosexuality in Jewish and Christian tradition: for that one must look at the creation account in Genesis and the prohibitions in Leviticus, and St. Paul's reliance on Leviticus and Jewish tradition in the New Testament.
  • The story of Sodom, as Dr. Gagnon asserts, must be read contextually -- taking into account the repudiation of homosexual acts in biblical Judaism as being contrary to the Divine will. To close with a citation from Dr. Robert Gagnon:

    As it is, the case for an antihomosex reading of the Yahwist's Sodom narrative is overwhelming. It is a "kitchen sink" story of Canaanite depravity: not just about rape, but about gang rape as severe inhospitality to travelers seeking temporary lodging; and not just about this but about treating males not as males but as though they were females with an orifice for male penetration. That male-male intercourse per se is a significant compounding factor in the story is evident from many considerations:
    • The Yahwist's story of the creation of woman in Genesis 2:18-24 and its clear portrayal of woman as the one and only sexual "counterpart" for man.
    • The Yahwist's story of Ham's incestuous, same-sex rape of Noah in Genesis 9:20-27, with its ideological links to the laws against (non-coercive) incest and male-male intercourse in Leviticus 18.
    • The probable antihomosex interpretations of the Sodom story in Ezekiel 16:49-50 (Ezekiel interprets the Sodom narrative through the lens of Holiness Code or something very much like it) and in Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:7, 10, to say nothing of a number of antihomosex interpretations in early Judaism.
    • The parallel story of the Levite at Gibeah in Judges 19:22-25, told by a narrator (the "Deuteronomistic Historian") who elsewhere abhors the receptive homoerotic associations of the qedeshim (literally, "holy ones," but referring to "homosexual cult prostitutes").
    • The absolute prohibitions against male-male intercourse in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
    • The ancient Near Eastern context, which often disparages males who willingly play the role of females in sexual intercourse.
    • The implications of the rest of the Old Testament canon, which in any material dealing with sexual relations always presumes the sole and exclusive legitimacy of heterosexual unions.

    For the documentation behind the claims made above, I refer readers to The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 43-157 (esp. 63-110) and Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views, 56-68.

    I'll have to take Gagnon's word for it, since he's a biblical scholar and I'm not. Since his has received postive recognition by biblical scholars from every denomination (a truly ecumenical endorsement), praised as a "definitive exegetical treatment [of the Bible and homosexuality]."

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