What is this dissertation about?
My thesis addresses three primary questions in relation to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as presented in Genesis 18–19:
Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the best known stories in the Bible. In the minds of most people it deals with naughty things. Among these, dissolute or violent forms of homosexuality are likely to play a prominent part. Indeed, they are omnipresent in the numerous literary and scholarly works that include discussions of Sodom and Gomorrah.
For centuries the story of Sodom has been used to intimidate and punish gay and lesbian people. In the penal codes of some countries, the non-biblical concept of “sodomy” is employed to classify various sexual behaviours that fall outside the established norm of heterosexual vaginal intercourse. However, given that this term is only a thousand years old, it is of interest to verify to what extent the current use of the sodomy word has to do with changing interpretations of the biblical narrative over time. I address this question below.
Subsequently I will explain my reasons for seeking a potential alternative approach to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Finally I suggest a fresh reading based on literary analysis of the Hebrew text. I conclude that the main focus of the narrative is legal. The story may have been written amid a major biblical debate about the rights of immigrants.
1. The place of Sodom in the Bible
The biblical narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah begins in the book of Genesis, chapters 10, 13 and 14. The best known and longer part of the story spans chapters 18 and 19. This central position in Genesis, which is remarkable, makes Sodom and Gomorrah the cornerstone of the longer saga of Abraham and his descendants. It seems to indicate that the drama of the two cities has something essential to say about the main characters, namely, Abraham, Sarah, Lot, Lot’s wife and children, their unusual visitors, and the authorities of Sodom.
In the Hebrew Bible (First Testament) the name of Sodom occurs 41 times. Outside Genesis Sodom is mentioned repeatedly in the prophetic writings. Over and over the prophets voice their protest against what they describe as idolatry, selfish behaviour on the part of the powerful, social injustice, oppression, violence, and murder. At times these prophets express red hot indignation; at other times the texts reveal shock, grief, and despair. Obviously the prophetic writers are revolted by what they observe, and they often use Sodom and Gomorrah as a metaphor.
In the Greek Second (Newer) Testament this biblical tradition lives on. In Revelation and Paul’s letter to the Romans, the role of Sodom is similar to the prophetic discourse. In the gospels Jesus refers to Sodom and Gomorrah as the emblem of objectionable inhospitality. Only in the brief letters of Jude and Second Peter the Hebrew tradition on Sodom comes to an end (see below).
In post-biblical literature a series of new angles on Sodom and Gomorrah emerge. Here the names of these cities are used as ammunition in social and theological controversies to such an extent that the original concerns expressed in Genesis 18–19 are displaced. In other words, interpretations of Sodom are adapted gradually to address post-biblical concerns, particularly in the countries in which Christianity holds a spiritual monopoly. Today the effects of these historical reinterpretations of Sodom are omnipresent, including in most current English versions of the Bible.
2. Historical shifts
At least seven major phases of interpretation can be traced with some accuracy. Between several of these phases there is no clear break but rather a chronological overlap. Phase One represents the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew narrative of Genesis 18–19 appears as a sophisticated work of art with a powerful theological, political, and social message. In several ways the original text links with some of the major concerns expressed in the book of Exodus, in particular, the vulnerability of foreigners. The prophets are acutely aware of the social dimension of Sodom. The book of Ezekiel (chapter 16) provides a fairly detailed commentary on the drama and its significance for posterity.
Phase Two begins during the Hellenistic period in the third century BCE. The first major shift regarding the interpretation of Sodom emerges in the so-called pseudepigrapha, which is a diverse collection of Jewish literature on biblical subjects. In the pseudepigrapha theological issues play a minor part. Instead, the writers focus on a new area of concern, namely, the destabilizing effects of intermarriage. This literature has a direct impact on two short writings included in the New Testament, namely, the letter of Jude (primary) and Second Peter (secondary). As he mentions Sodom, the author of Jude quotes several pseudepigraphal works. Second Peter is clearly indebted to Jude.
Phase Three is introduced in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a first-century Jewish philosopher. In his description, Sodom becomes a hothouse of pederasty in which adult men seek sexual adventures with teenage boys. The text underlying Philo’s reflections is the first known translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, the so-called Septuagint. One of Philo’s primary concerns is to make Judaism accessible to a non-Jewish readership. His writings have had little impact on Jewish tradition. The latter has cultivated a diversity of approaches to Sodom, many of which are non-sexual. By contrast, Philo’s version of Sodom influenced several Christian Church fathers. For their reading of the Septuagint, they picked up Philo’s sexual imagery and turned the story in Genesis into a stark warning against homoerotic relationships.
Phase Four commences in the Middle Ages. Increasingly Sodom is depicted as the epitome of dangerous male–male sexual relations. During this phase the Roman Church adopts Latin as its official language. The most important translation of the Bible is the Vulgate (ca. 400 CE). It becomes widely accepted and receives official status within Roman Catholicism in the sixteenth century. It retains this privileged position until the 1960’s. In the eleventh century a new, extra-biblical term is coined, namely, “sodomy”. It makes its first appearance in the monastic world of Italy in the Book of Gomorrah, a work authored in Latin by Peter Damian. Despite its impreciseness, the concept of sodomy has become permanently embedded in the life of the Christian Church, particularly Roman Catholicism. In the thirteenth century it is elevated to the status of Catholic doctrine by Thomas Aquinas, who writes in Latin.
Phase Five covers the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. This phase is heralded by the publication in Europe of the First (Older) Testament in Hebrew and the Second (Newer) Testament in Greek. This breakthrough provides the Protestant Reformers with an opportunity to distance themselves from large strands of Catholic tradition given that Bible translations no longer depend entirely on the Septuagint and the Vulgate. Increasingly the book of Genesis is translated directly from the original Hebrew. In these new surroundings, the wording of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is partly modified. Yet, biblical commentators of this period introduce no significant innovations. Indeed, the sodomy concept has remained unchallenged until very recently. In other words, the most common Protestant interpretations of Sodom are deeply rooted in Roman Catholic tradition.
Phase Six comes about during the second half of the nineteenth century. The new word ‘homosexuality’ is widely accepted, eclipsing during the twentieth century the older sodomy concept. Even within Catholicism this new trend is felt, particuarly following Vatican II (1962). However, the use of the word homosexuality does not reflect any innovation in Catholic discourse on human sexuality. On the contrary, the Vatican— in alliance with a series of Protestant churches—remains hostile to any social acceptance of same-sex relationships. At the same time, sodomy continues to appear in the penal codes of a number of countries. In this connection it should be pointed out that in legal terminology, sodomy does not necessarily apply to male–male sexual intimacy. In some places, the term refers to bestiality while in others it signifies anal intercourse in heterosexual relationships.
Finally, Phase Seven has taken shape in recent decades. Following an intense debate most commentators today agree that the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah is irrelevant for any discussion of same-sex intimacy. Along with this recognition, the traditional image of male homosexuality has been discarded. Instead, the main issue in Genesis 19 is thought to be sexual violence. The latest label for the plot of Sodom is ‘attempted gang rape’.
Unfortunately modern Bible readers tend to ignore these seven phases. Many take the common view of Sodom for granted. In practice this entails reserving a place of honour for post-biblical voices. The loser has been Phase One, i.e., the Hebrew Bible, at least within the Christian tradition. By contrast, most Jewish scholars have continued to study the First Testament in the original language. Over the centuries, this has enabled them to retain a considerable part of the ethical and theological reflections inherent in the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah and throughout the Hebrew Bible.
In recent decades, the thinking of Jewish theologians seems to have become increasingly attuned to the omnipresent sexual approaches adopted by the entire Christian tradition, i.e., Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant. For example, the concept of sodomy has appeared in the writings of several Jewish scholars. Within Jewish tradition, however, the characteristic idiom in relation to Sodom and Gomorrah is unrelated to sex, namely, ‘the yardstick of Sodom’, in Hebrew middat Sedom. This legal term applies to certain forms of petty-mindedness. Primarily it describes a refusal to grant a fellow human being a favour even if such a favour entails no cost.
3. The role of language for the understanding of Sodom
In recent years some scholars have pointed out that the common Christian interpretation of the book of Genesis in several important ways in indebted to the Septuagint and the Vulgate. For example, the Septuagint version of the creation story includes nuances in the Greek that are not present in the Hebrew original. Similarly, it is obvious that the translator has struggled to render significant Hebrew puns into Greek.
If a Bible text is read in Latin or Greek, the wording will often lead the reader’s thought processes in a certain direction. When the same text is read in Hebrew, a somewhat different experience may ensue. The two reading exercises will never be one hundred per cent identical. Certain words have resonances and nuances that may become lost in translation. At the same time, the target language holds words and terms with a different set of nuances and resoncances that may place the translated text at quite a distance from the cultural horizon of the original.
Concepts such as ‘fall’ and ‘original sin’ play a major part in Christian theology. It is remarkable that they never had an impact on Judaism. One of the reasons for this discrepancy may well be that these religions have lived within separate linguistic universes. According to Jewish tradition, the creation story and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is an allegory of the journey of every human being from the innocence of childhood into the adult world, in which we learn the hard way to face the consequences of our actions.
Also in the case of Sodom there are indications that language is a major factor for our interpretation of the story. As already mentioned, it is characteristic that medieval Christian theologians have limited their focus to sex, while Jewish scholars have produced an impressive literature of commentary and lore in which sex is but one of several possibilities.
In other words, if anyone wishes to reach the deeper strata in a complex, sophisticated text of the calibre of Sodom and Gomorrah, it makes a difference whether it is read in translation or in the original language. For example, reception history shows that if this story is read exclusively in Latin, there is a latent risk of jumping to conclusions unwarranted by the spirit of the Hebrew text. In the case of Sodom, it is worth noting that Peter Damian had the Catholic clergy of his own time in mind as he wrote Liber Gomorrhianus (Book of Gomorrah), in which the sodomy concept is launched.
For such reasons, it is clearly advisable to engage with the original Hebrew text to become closely acquainted with the biblical story of Sodom. A meticulous literary analysis reveals that it was written by an inspired, highly educated narrator. In addition, it is more than likely that, over time, several talented redactors contributed to its current shape. The narrative style is subtle and refined to the point of being minimalist. Yet this laconic character is perfectly capable of carrying the plot forward in very effective ways. A number of the Hebrew expressions in the story echo various parts of the book of Genesis while other words and phrases provide a significant link with crucial legal passages of the book of Exodus.
Several modern commentators regard the Hebrew text of Genesis, including Sodom and Gomorrah, as one of the literary masterpieces of antiquity. Such a view is undoubtedly well-founded. Given the unpleasant reputation acquired by the story over the centuries, it may come as a surprise that it contains a series of hidden treasures. Yet the treasures are there. What it takes to unearth them is effort, patience and perseverance.
4. The meaning of ‘know’
For a Bible-based interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Hebrew text itself offers valuabe clues. From a literary perspective, an intriguing example is the Hebrew verb yāda‘, ‘to know’. For a long time this has been regarded as a sexual euphemism. However, a close inspection reveals that this is only one among several possibilities—and perhaps not the most likely. At any rate this tradition has narrowed the scope for interpreting the plot of the drama. Alternative approaches to yāda‘ are virtually non-existent, to which 35 modern English Bible translations bear witness. From a linguistic point of view, the situation is problematic.
The overlooked aspects of yāda‘ have challenged me to study the roles of this verb in the story of Sodom. Many commentaries leave the impression that yāda‘ occurs twice: Gen. 19:5 and 19:8. However, the text holds four additional occurrences (see below). In each case the context allows for several interpretations. A wider search of the book of Genesis shows a total of 53 occurrences of yāda‘, all of which may be classified into seven semantic categories. Sex does not really come into the picture. This shows that there is no pressing need for letting the popular sexual approach to yāda‘ in Gen. 19,5 + 8 exclude all other options.
In other words, the various non-sexual options for yāda‘ open up a series of avenues for interpretation: know, acknowledge, be aware, distinguish, examine, interrogate, establish a contract, marry. Several of these options have legal connotations. If yāda‘ is read as a technical term, the plot of Sodom changes in decisive ways. First of all, in the so-called Simple Conjugation, also known by the Hebrew term qal, yāda‘ has an unmistakably legal side. This may be deduced by the way in which YHWH, the God of Israel, chooses to describe his pact with Abraham in Gen 18:19: ‘I have known him’.
Another legally binding covenant is the ancient marriage contract which was important in all corners of the ancient Near East. Viewed in this light, in 19:8 yāda‘ may be read as a technical term by which Lot describes the nubile status of his young daughters: they have not 'known' a husband. The translation 'husband' is just as accurate as 'man' given that the Hebrew word ’īš means both. Such technical usage of yāda‘ is archaic and attested in pre-biblical literature of a legal nature, including treaties and law codes from Babylonia, Assyria and the Hittite empire. Generally speaking the subject of marriage terminology in the Hebrew Bible is under-researched.
Second, two occurrences of yāda‘ operate in the Hebrew verb conjugation known as Cohortative. In such cases the verb implies a judicial enquiry or investigation. It is first used by YHWH in Gen. 18:21, as the deity sets out to verify the nature of the ‘outcry’ of Sodom that has come before him: ‘let me know’. In the same conjugation—and probably in the very same sense—yāda‘ is employed by the king of Sodom and all his men in 19:5. Given that Sodom has just suffered defeat in a war (as described in Gen. 14), they are clearly anxious at any sign of espionage and keen to establish the identity of the two strangers. So they proceed to investigate the nature of this unnannounced visit and set the stage for a public inquiry: ‘let us know them’. The subject of judicial terminology in the Hebrew Bible is another under-researched area.
Third, the Simple Conjugation of yāda‘ reappears towards the end of the story, which describes mythological incest (Gen. 19:32–35). On this occasion the whole sentence in which yāda‘ is embedded is repeated verbatim. Lot’s two daughters want life to continue following the destruction of their hometown Sodom. The fact that Lot does not ‘know’ what his daughters are doing reflects not only his lack of awareness, but possibly also the absence of legal responsibility on his part. At any rate, the Hebrew narrator emphasizes twice that Lot did not know that he was having sex. In other words, there is a semantic opposition between 'knowing' and 'having sex'. The overtly sexual action in the story of Sodom takes place through seven occurrences of another common Hebrew verb, namely, šākhav, ‘lie down’.
While the ancient pre-biblical legal traditions were still in place, it is fair to assume that the technical usage of yāda‘ for covenants and contracts was readily understood, as well as its role in enquiries. However, as social institutions changed—particularly in the wake of the Babylonian exile—so did the Hebrew language. The early technical aspects of yāda‘ are likely to have become incomprehensible to speakers of Late Hebrew. In the case of Sodom the void was gradually filled by sexual interpolations which began during the Hellenistic period and then snowballed to the point of becoming exclusive of any other approach.
5. The message of Sodom
In its biblical context, Sodom and Gomorrah is part of a longer, very complex biblical narrative. The protagonists are two immigrants who left Mesopotamia to arrive together in the land of Canaan (Abraham and Lot). Their different destinies are illustrated: one remains faithful to his covenant with YHWH and is richly blessed (Abraham). The other abandons the ways of YHWH to seek integration with the Canaanites of Sodom, whereby he loses everything (Lot).
In addition, the narrator manifests a passionate concern for the plight of the socially vulnerable, specifically in the guise of foreigners (Lot) and, indirectly, widows and orphans (Lot’s under-age children). This attention to social justice is echoed in the book of Exodus, with which the story of Sodom has strong textual and thematic links. In general it is worth noting that the Hebrew Scriptures make no clear distinctions between theology, ethics, politics, and history. Everywhere these categories are interwoven.
One of several under-researched areas in relation to Sodom is the interface between Bible translation and theology. If a text is translated with humility and sensitivity, it may challenge but also enlighten the reader. If a dubious translation occurs, it may give rise to non-biblical theology. The above overview of the changing interpretations of Sodom and Gomorrah provides a telling example of the way in which a purely sexual reading of yāda‘ is capable of eclipsing the concerns expressed by the prophets.
Indeed, what was originally a dramatic contribution to an ethical and ethnic debate on immigrants and Canaanites later became a text of terror used against gay men. The more recent emphasis on attempted gang rape has undermined the traditional prestige of the concept of sodomy interpreted as male homosexuality. In this respect progress has been made. However, the current tendency among biblical scholars to present Lot in an extremely unflattering light is unmatched in any of the Bible texts in which his name is mentioned. It would seem that more work on the plot of Sodom is needed in order to bridge this gap.
The overlooked legal side of the Hebrew verb yāda‘ is worth highlighting. It shows the extent to which theology and Hebrew linguistics are intimately connected. If yāda‘ is treated as a technical term, the common picture of Lot and his young daughters changes significantly. In fact, Lot in Gen. 19:8 may be trying to propose a temporary deal with the city authorities of Sodom. Viewed in this light, he is willing to hand over his two under-age children to the king as a pledge to guarantee that nothing untoward will happen to the city because of the two visitors. In return Lot is requesting permission to exercise his hosting duties without interference. In this manner, Lot the immigrant is trying his level best, in a situation of acute distress, to achieve two goals: (a) to present the local authorities with a tangible token of his loyalty; (b) to carry out the ancestral traditions of hospitality with which he has been familiar throughout the years he spent next to his uncle Abraham.
This interpretation connects the episode in Gen. 19:4–9 with a series of situations in Genesis in which vulnerable immigrants feel threatened. Time and again they place their wives and sometimes even children in the front line to defuse tension or to serve as goodwill ambassadors. Such emergency tactics are employed at different moments of their lives by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
A number of biblical writings use Sodom as an image of religious, social and political decay, while others attach it to the problem of idolatry in the form of polytheism. Given that Sodom is a Canaanite city, the story may also be interpreted as a politically motivated diatribe against the people of the land of Canaan.
What makes the scriptural approaches to Sodom so rich is the fact that the Hebrew Bible resists the temptation to settle for a single interpretation. Instead it moves along, almost restlessly, in search of new insights. Several prophets—notably Isaiah and Ezekiel—are deeply committed to this continuing quest for broader horizons. It leads them to embrace a theology of inclusiveness and universality.
The book of Ezekiel chronicles a process of growing awareness of the nature of the divine. Following an initial state of shock caused by his forced departure from Jerusalem and months of grief and anguish under his Babylonian exile, the prophet slowly reaches a new insight: YHWH cares about all people. This leads Ezekiel to draw a stunning conclusion: if restoration is promised for Jerusalem, in spite of all her transgressions, a similar merciful destiny awaits other cities that have sinned. Even the reviled Sodom will be given a second chance.
If post-biblical traditions are put aside and the original text is placed at the centre, the powerful voice of the Hebrew narrator becomes audible. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah spans chapters 18–19 of Genesis whereby it becomes the centrepiece of the longer Abraham narrative (Gen. 12–25). The Hebrew text highlights a series of theological, social and legal concerns: the importance of trusting YHWH in the face of impossible odds (Abraham, Sarah); the obligation to act with fairness and justice (Abraham); the virtue of welcoming the stranger (Abraham, Lot); the problematic issue of intermarriage (Lot & his wife; Lot's daughters); and the extent to which YHWH is stirred to action when the socially vulnerable are mistreated (Lot the immigrant and his children).