Sodom and Gomorrah were two cities which the Bible says were in ancient Canaan and were noted for their wickedness. Over the centuries and based on the text in Genesis, chapters 18 and 19, many Christian churches have taught that their wickedness was homosexual. This is so common that the word sodomite has become a synonym for homosexual, and sodomy has become a synonym for anal intercourse.
Most Christians are familiar with the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as being the epitome of sexual sin, but they were also part of an earlier incident prior to their condemnation which involved the assistance of Abram, before he was renamed Abraham. The account is found in Genesis, chapter 14, and records that Abram’s nephew Lot was taken captive during a war in which a coalition of five cities, including the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, rebelled against their ruler, king Chederlaomer of the Elamites. Verses 8-12 describe how Chederlaomer defeated the coalition and took their possessions and people as spoils of war, including Lot.
The account describes what Abram did in response to his nephew’s capture. He goes to war with Chederlaomer, defeats him and returns with everything Chederlaomer had captured. He then restores it to its original owners, including the new king of Sodom, refusing to take even a shoelace. From this it is clear that both the inhabitants of Sodom and its king were in debt to Abram and, since he was Abram’s nephew, to Lot as well due to their family connection. The people of Sodom had lost everything and Abram had restored it as a consequence of freeing his nephew, Lot.
We now pass on to Chapter 18 of Genesis, where a meeting takes place between Abraham, now renamed, and three men who turn out to have been angels sent by god. Due to that, when this account refers to the Lord as saying something, it is usually understood to mean that one of these angels was speaking on god’s behalf. The subject of Sodom was raised and they told Abraham they were going to visit Sodom to see if the reports that it was a thoroughly wicked place were true and, if it were, that they would take care of it, that is, they would destroy Sodom. Two of these men then went to Sodom while the third remained to represent god in the famous argument with Abraham as to how many righteous men needed to be in Sodom to stop it from being destroyed. Verse 23 onwards describes how they started at 50 and ended by agreeing that 10 would be enough.
In chapter 19 the focus shifts to Sodom and the two men who left to judge the city. In this chapter, verse 1 explicitly described them as being angels, and it says that they met Lot at the city gate during the evening. Lot offers them hospitality and the use of his home for the night and they accept.
Before long the people of Sodom congregate around Lot’s house and demand that the two men be brought out and given to the crowd for sexual purposes. Lot refuses, but offers the crowd his two virgin daughters as replacements. Verses 12-14 also mentions that Lot had other children, sons, married daughters and sons in law, but it is noteworthy that he did not offer any of these to the crowd as replacements, only his young, virgin daughters.
To keep everyone safe, the angels blinded the people of Sodom and the next morning took Lot outside the city with his wife and two daughters, but any sons, married daughters and sons in law he had were not removed with him. In fact, verse 14 makes it clear they did not believe god would destroy the city, but that is what happened. His wife died during their escape, turning into a block of salt, so only Lot and his two daughters survived.
There is nothing in the account itself which explicitly states that the sexual activity the people of Sodom wanted the angels to participate in was homosexual in nature. That is simply an interpretation that has been made for so long that it has assumed the status of incontrovertible truth. The account itself specifies sexual activity, but not whether it was heterosexual, homosexual or both.
It is the offering of his daughters to replace the angels which casts doubt on this usual explanation. If Lot had understood that the sexual assaults were to be homosexual, why would he offer his daughters as replacements? He pointedly draws attention to their being virgins so it is obvious that he must have known they would be used sexually, and it must be equally obvious that, as females, the activity would be heterosexual. If he believed that the activity was to be homosexual, why did he not offer his sons or his sons in law? Surely, they would have been more appropriate substitutes for that.
Nowhere in the Bible is the wickedness of Sodom specified to be homosexuality. There are not many references to Sodom apart from the original description, but those that are emphasise its destruction and use it as a warning without saying why it was destroyed, except in the most general terms.
There is a similar episode to the account of Sodom and Lot recorded in Judges, chapter 19, regarding hospitality extended to a male traveller. Verse 22 onwards tells how some pagan worshippers surrounded the house demanding that the traveller be given to them for sexual use. Instead the householder gave the men his concubine, a young woman, who was raped throughout the night by the mob and died in the morning on his doorstep. This firmly puts it in the proper context, the context of violence and rape.
The episodes in Sodom and Judges are fundamentally similar, yet there is no tradition of describing the mob referred to in the Judges’ episode as being homosexual. Clearly, they were heterosexual since they raped the concubine. If we say that the Sodom episode was a condemnation of homosexuality, surely we would have to say that the episode in Judges was a condemnation of heterosexuality, since both episodes describe a crowd of people wanting to force others to have sex with them, i.e. what is now called gang rape.
In order to properly understand why Sodom was considered to be so wicked it is necessary to understand a little about the religion of ancient Canaan. Among the deities worshipped there were Moloch and Ashtoreth. The worship of Moloch was noted for sacrificing children by burning them alive, what the Bible refers to as “passing through the fire”, and Ashtoreth was a fertility goddess whose followers practiced sacred prostitution, both heterosexual and homosexual, as an inherent part of her worship. This was outrageous to those who worshipped Yahweh and was later strictly forbidden in the Mosaic law.
According to Strong, the Hebrew words which referred to sacred prostitutes were “kadesh” if a male and “kadesha” if a female. These refer to religious devotees, that is, those who practiced prostitution as an act of worship and gave the proceeds to the temple. There is another word for a secular prostitute who makes a living by selling sexual services. That is “zanah”.
In the law given to Israel before they took up residence in Canaan, restrictions were laid on them as to what they could and could not do. Deuteronomy chapter 23 verses 17 and 18 contains a prohibition that an Israelite woman may not be a kadesha, nor may an Israelite man be a kadesh, and the money earned from being a zanah or from selling a dog may not be donated to god.
Translations of these verses vary and give different inferences as to what is prohibited. The King James translation is quite typical, but the International Standard version presents it differently, making it clear that it is religiously motivated prostitution that is being prohibited. However, you will note that it also makes an interpretive substitution, using the term “male prostitute” to translate the Hebrew word for “dog”. Some interpreters believe that is what the “price of a dog” refers to. Please compare the translations you prefer.
Many translate kadesh as “sodomite” or “homosexual” rather than “sacred prostitute” or something similar, and give the impression that the text refers to homosexual acts. However, the original text refers to sexual services for hire as a form of worship to the pagan gods involved without specifying what kind of sex it involved. The male temple prostitute could as well have been hired by a woman as by a man, i.e. for heterosexual intercourse. There is nothing inherent in the word kadesh itself to suggest that it referred to homosexual prostitution.
While this passage shows the ancient Israelites rejected sacred prostitution, we can get some idea of what it included from Leviticus chapter 18, verses 6-20. Laws usually forbid things which people are familiar with because they are being done rather than forbidding things that nobody has ever considered. For that reason, these forbidden practices must have been familiar to the Israelites even though they did not practice them. The context is given with the reference to Moloch in verse 21 and the comment in verse 27 at the end, in parenthesis. Moloch, you will recall, was the god worshipped in Sodom and Gomorrah. Verse 6 lays out the basic prohibition, that they are not to “uncover the nakedness”, i.e. have sexual relations with, close relatives. The text then gives a list of these forbidden sexual relationships,
It prohibits sacrificing children to Moloch in verse 21, prohibits homosexual intercourse and intercourse with animals and concludes with an explanation of why these things are forbidden in verses 24-27:–
“Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled;)”
To repeat, these prohibited practices were all linked to the worship of Moloch and Ashtoreth, and the intent was clearly stated as being to ensure that those worshipping Yahweh were kept away from that, so all forms of sexual worship were forbidden.
Remember that the people of Sodom practiced sacred prostitution, and visitors to their city would be expected to participate in this worship of their gods. Lot may have been excused due to the debt the people owed his uncle, but they would see no debt owing to the two strangers, and this may explain why they rejected the two virgin girls and insisted on the men. They simply wanted the angels to prostitute themselves in some fashion, donate the money to the temple and worship the pagan gods of the city. The angels, who had been sent by Yahweh, could not do that, of course.
One further point needs to be made, and that is the time line. When did god decide to destroy Sodom? Certainly, its destruction must, at the very least, have been contemplated before the angels entered the city since it was discussed with Abraham while they were on their way there and he had an argument with god in which he tried to preserve any righteous people. In other words, the city’s destruction was decided before the episode of the mob demanding the angels for sexual use. It follows that the treatment of the angels was not a factor in the decision since it had already been made. At the most it would have just confirmed the decision.
Those who hold that it was the mob’s demands for homosexual relations with the angels which led to the destruction of the city have to ignore much of what the account says in order to reach that conclusion. We should understand the Bible based on what it actually says rather than decide what we think it means then select passages to support that contention. Looking at what it actually says leads us to conclude that:
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