Warning: this is may not be about what you think.
In ancient Israel, to call a place Sodom was a major insult. I want to know why? So, as best we can let’s clear the deck of our assumptions and trace what this place/theme means in the Old Testament. We may quickly set aside 19 of the 39 O.T. texts that mention Sodom because they do not provide any clues about Sodom’s great sin: references to the location or king of Sodom (Gen. 10:19; 13:10, 12), the story about Abraham rescuing Lot (Gen. 14:2, 9, 10, 11, 12, 17, 21, 22), and comparative statements in which Sodom simply represents the epitome of God’s judgment (Deut. 29:23; Isa. 1:9, 13:9; Jer. 19:18; 50:40; Lam. 4:6; Amos 4:11; Zeph. 2:9). Twenty references to Sodom remain (and occur in seven texts):
- Genesis 13:13 tells us that the “people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (NRSV), but does not identify their great sin.
- Deuteronomy 32:32 reads: “Their vine comes from the vinestock of Sodom, from the vineyards of Gomorrah.” Here, the reference is to the foreign nation that will conquer Judah, a foolish nation who has a different “rock” (32:32b), and whose fruit (that Judah will eat) is poisonous and bitter (like the bite of an asp, 32:33). Again, nothing in the text helps us understand what is so terrible about Sodom.
- Isaiah provides our first clues. Soon after the book begins, the prophet addresses the people: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!” (1:10a). As we continue to read this address we find that God has had enough of their sacrifices (1:11), is sick of their holy days (1:12-14), and won’t listen to their prayers any longer because they have hands “full of blood” (1:15). They need to wash and become clean, to remove their evil from before God (1:16). Specifically, Isaiah calls on them to “do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17). In this text, these practices appear to be the reason the prophet calls Israel’s leaders “rulers of Sodom” (1:10a).
- A little later in the book of Isaiah, the prophet claims, “The look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom they do not hide it” (Isa. 3:9a). As a result, Isaiah declares that: “what their hands have done shall be done to them” (3:11b). In other words, what will happen to them is roughly the same as what they have been doing to others. Isaiah then explains: children will oppress them and women will rule over them. (3:12). Or, if we look earlier in the chapter, boys will be their princes and babies will rule over them (3:4). Verse five summarizes the point: everyone will be oppressed (3:5). These few clues align with Isaiah’s earlier statement. The powerful (Sodom) have had a field day oppressing those on the outskirts of society who lack access to power. But now, the prophet warns, there will be a great reversal and the weak will oppress the strong.
- In Jeremiah 23 the Lord calls attention to the prophets and priests who are ungodly and wicked (23:11). The prophets follow Baal and lead the people astray (23:14a). But even more shocking, these leaders “commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers”—all of them “have become like Sodom to me” (23:14b). They support those who do what is wrong, and to reach back for an earlier sentence: “Their course has been evil, and their might is not right” (23:10b). To be “like Sodom” suggests a misuse of might or power (against the powerless).
- Ezekiel 16 offers six additional references to Sodom within two paragraphs. (16:43b-56). Here, Jerusalem and the nation of Judah are personified as a woman who’s older sister was North Israel and who’s younger sister was Sodom (16:46). Ezekiel claims that Jerusalem/Judah is much worse than Sodom and her sisters (16:48). In time, the Lord promises to restore the fortunes of Sodom, North Israel, and Jerusalem (16:53). They will all return to their former states (16:55), before the time that Jerusalem in her pride used her sister’s name, Sodom, as a byword or insult (16:56). In the middle of all these references to Sodom, Ezekiel speaks in detail: “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. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it” (16:49-50). What Isaiah and Jeremiah have suggest, Ezekiel specifies. When the prophets heard or read the story of Sodom, they saw beyond what we typically see or hear. Instead of a narrow issue (homosexuality), the prophets saw a larger, more systemic problem: great wealth and prosperity, pride, and little concern for the outsider or “other” person in need. Instead of helping or taking care of the most vulnerable in their society (e.g., women, children, or travelers in need of hospitality), they took advantage of and used them for their own selfish purposes. This activity caused the prophets think of Sodom.
- Finally, our study leads us to reconsider Genesis 18-19. The perspective of the prophets leads us in a different direction than we might typically go. To begin, we can now understand who was crying out to the Lord and why (Gen 18:20). It’s the poor, the widow, the orphans or children, and immigrant. It’s those who have faced down the many forms of oppression the powerful residents of Sodom have inflicted on the weak and vulnerable. We can also understand Lot’s actions a little better. He knew the nature of the city and the danger both “men” (angels) faced if they stayed in the square (19:1-3). Lot’s extension of hospitality is a counter-cultural act. He tried to protect those who had no power or legal standing in his community from being raped and most likely killed (see Judg. 19), even if it meant sacrificing his two daughters (19:3b-8; a feature of the story that still turns my stomach).
Now for a reflection or two (or three).
- It is undeniable that the threat in Genesis 19 is homosexual rape (and most likely death). However, Genesis 19 does not in itself condemn homosexuality—nor do the prophets who use “Sodom” in their oracles. Instead, the “outcry” of Sodom is the result of a wealthy, prosperous class of citizens who abusing those who are vulnerable: women, children, the poor, the resident alien, or traveler.
- It’s not as easy to preach about Sodom through the eyes of the prophets because we no longer get to talk about “those people” and their terrible sin. None of the secondary texts that mention Sodom have anything to say about homosexuality; it’s simply not in the texts. Yes, the form of the attempted rape in Genesis 19 was homosexual. However, based on what the prophets see, the issue isn’t sexual or gender identity but the violent oppression of the vulnerable.
- If anyone in this world has wealth, excess of food, and prosperous ease (not to mention pride), it’s us: you and me. Like it or not, no one on earth has more wealth, more food, more time on our hands, or pride. So like it or not, if the Lord or prophets are going to call anyone Sodom today, we are the most likely candidates. Not because we are gay or lesbian or support various gender identifications, but because of the way we treat others, especially others who “don’t belong” in some way: the poor, the vulnerable, the immigrant, or migrant.
I’m well past my word limit, so I leave further reflection to you. To be honest, I knew about Ezekiel’s statement before we started, but only in preparation did I come to see the consistency of the prophets. I don’t care to be called “Sodom,” but I must confess that I fit the prophets’ definition far better than I would like.
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.