The encounter at Sodom is part of a larger cycle of incidents involving Abraham and Lot. To understand this particular segment, the reader should study it in its larger setting.
By the time we reach the end of chapter 18, God has already decided to destroy Sodom (Genesis 18:17–21). Before the decision is carried out, two messengers are sent to Sodom to see if there might be good reasons to reconsider (18:21).
The two messengers plan to spend the night in the street. Lot persuades them to be his guests instead.
Lot is not a citizen of Sodom. He is only a sojourner there himself, a resident alien (19:9). When the men and boys of Sodom become aware of the presence of the foreign visitors, they surround Lot's house like thugs. The mob insists that Lot "bring out" his guests so that they may "know" the strangers (19:5).
Lot is so upset over their request that he offers to let them molest his two virgin daughters, if only they will leave his two guests alone (19:8). When the crowd threatens to become violent, Lot's two guests intervene just in the nick of time. The messengers have seen enough. God's earlier decision to destroy Sodom will stand (19:12–13).
A Levite, escorting his run-away concubine back home to Ephraim from her father's home in Bethlehem, has to spend a night in Gibeah. He is prepared to camp out of doors in the open square of the city. An old man, himself a native of Ephraim and now a resident alien in Gibeah, invites his compatriot to be his overnight guest (19:15–21).
The peaceful scene is rudely interrupted when the men of the city demand that the old man bring out his guest to them, in order that they might "know" him. The old man is so upset about their request that he offers to let them molest his virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine, rather than abandon his guest to the unruly mob.
The men of Gibeah persist until the man pushes the concubine out the door. They "know" her and abuse her all night. Next morning she is dead. The abomination (20:6) arouses such a furor that the people of Israel go to war against Gibeah over the incident (20:19–20).
What do these two stories have to do with the subject of homosexuality? That is the main question before us. But before attempting an answer to that question, we need to clarify two others.
What is meant by "to know?"
In Homosexuality and the Western Tradition, D. S. Bailey has come up with a novel reading of this biblical story. He first presents some convincing statistics. In the vast majority of instances (933 out of 943) the verb "to know" (Hebrew yd') means just that "to know, to get to know."
In only 10 instances does the verb "to know" refer to sexual intercourse at all, and nowhere does "to know" refer to homosexual relations, except possibly in these two stories. The men of Sodom and Gibeah, argues Bailey, did not demand sexual gratification at all. They wanted to know who these guests were. They wanted to determine whether it was appropriate to admit the foreigners to their town.
Bailey's point is that Lot was not a citizen of Sodom, nor was the old Ephraimite a citizen of Gibeah. Both Lot at Sodom and the old man at Gibeah were resident aliens. As such the two had no right to admit strangers into their town. Yet these two Ephraimites had taken it upon themselves to offer lodging to other foreigners like themselves without first asking the permission of the citizens of the town.
In the eyes of an Israelite, Bailey points out, the demand of the townspeople was scandalous since it shows disrespect for visitors. It was an obligation in Israel to be generous to strangers. The inhospitality of the townspeople toward these sojourners constituted the supreme wickedness of the men at Sodom and at Gibeah. These two stories, says Bailey, have nothing to do with homosexuality. They deal with the subject of hospitality and the refusal of it.
In the ancient world, and especially in Israel, one of the most important social obligations was to offer hospitality to strangers. John Boswell illustrates this point by alluding to the story of the destruction of Jericho in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. According to Joshua 6, only one person was spared when Jericho was demolished, and this one person was a prostitute. Although prostitution is frowned upon (cf. Leviticus 19:29), the prostitute of Jericho was honoured and rewarded. For what? For offering hospitality to those whom Joshua had sent ahead to scout out the country.
On the other hand, the Amorites and the Moabites were later excluded from the assembly of the Lord. Why? Precisely because they had failed to act hospitably toward the Israelites who were passing through the region on their way out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 23:3–4).
Bailey is no doubt correct when he emphasizes how serious an offense it was in Israel's eyes to refuse hospitality to strangers. But one must ask whether hospitality was the issue in the two incidents we are examining.
Marti Nissinen is convinced that Bailey is on the wrong track. In Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, he writes: "Although Bailey's interpretation of the verb yãda' has met with some approval, the theory ultimately fails." Nissinen's chief evidence is this, "In this context the verb yãda' is used with an explicitly sexual meaning—only a couple of lines after the previous similar use."
One can also present the following observations that appear to contradict Bailey's explanation. In both the Sodom and the Gibeah incidents, the host offered women to the mob which had demanded to "know" the male strangers. In Gibeah the Levite's concubine was actually abandoned into the hands of the townspeople who promptly ravished her and abused her all night ("they knew her"). This suggests that what the men originally had in mind when they demanded to "know" the male guest was to have sexual relations with him. The verb has been translated that way in the New Revised Standard Version at Judges 19:22, but not at Genesis 19:5.
Not so, answers Bailey. The idea to offer sex with virgin daughters rather than deny hospitality to their guests originated with Lot and with the old man at Gibeah, not from the men at Sodom and Gibeah. Up to this point in each story the issue had to do with hospitality, not with sex. Lot at Sodom and the old man at Gibeah would have done anything rather than go back on their offer of hospitality. At that time the honour of a woman was not as important as the sacred duty of hospitality, the Jerusalem Bible explains in a footnote. This illustrates graphically how high a premium was placed on hospitality as a social and religious value.
Others are not convinced by Bailey's line of reasoning. Marvin H. Pope concludes, "there can be little question that … the Sodomites' offense, like that of the men of Gibeah … was the demand for carnal knowledge of a neighbour's guests."
In The Bond That Breaks, Don Williams agrees. He insists that the Hebrew word for "to know" must be understood in these places as a reference to sexual intercourse. He writes, "Word count proves nothing, the context proves everything."
What Do You Think?
What does the verb 'to know' mean in this context?
Do the townspeople in these two stories demand sexual gratification or do they object to the admission of foreigners?
Which position do you agree with? Why?
According to Genesis 19, God had decided to destroy Sodom before the incident involving Lot and the citizens of Sodom. What had Sodom done to bring the wrath of God down upon itself? What sin had the people of the city committed? D. S. Bailey points to an amazing fact. Although the Old and the New Testament refer to Sodom's wickedness in several places (namely Jeremiah 23:14; Ezekiel 16:49–50; Matthew 10:14–15; 2 Peter 2:6–8), in none of those passages does one detect a specific reference to homosexual behaviour.
Bailey concludes that the sin of Sodom must not be identified with homosexuality. In any case, in the Sodom story, no homosexual intercourse actually took place.
Against Bailey one can argue that there is at least one place (Jude 7) where an oblique reference to homosexual behaviour can be detected. A literal translation of the Greek text of that verse states that Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities "went after other flesh." Although this phrase is by no means a specific reference to homosexual behaviour, in the context of the Sodom and Gomorrah story such an interpretation remains at least a possibility. Nevertheless, it is true that wherever the sin of Sodom is alluded to in the other biblical passages, other evils, such as adultery, lying, pride, gluttony, prosperous ease, failure to aid the poor and needy, and haughtiness are given greater prominence.
What Do You Think?
What brought Sodom and Gomorrah down?
Was it any one thing or was it a combination of things?
Was homosexual behaviour at least part of the sin of Sodom?
Do the men of Sodom in our story actually engage in homosexual behaviour or do they only desire to?
Do these two stories betray a deep aversion against homosexual behaviour?
Now we can return to the central question. What do these two stories actually say about the subject of homosexuality as we understand the phenomenon today? One thing is clear. These stories do not speak about a "committed relationship of love freely entered into by two gay or two lesbian partners." In fact, such an idea would have been incomprehensible in antiquity. Certainly no one had ever heard of homosexual behaviour between equal partners, nor did they have any inkling of such a thing as homosexual orientation.
Many commentators have pointed out that, even if the men of Gibeah and Sodom were seeking homosexual gratification, they did not actually get the chance to engage in homosexual acts.
What is more, their potential sex partners were in no way willing subjects. This story has more to do with rape than it does with a committed relationship. Rape is a violation of one's sexual partner and rape is rejected among homosexuals, just as it is among heterosexuals.
Martti Nissinen observes, "Gang rape of a man has always been an extreme means to disgrace one's enemies and put them in their place." This has nothing to do with sexual orientation or lust for erotic pleasure. "Rape—homosexual or heterosexual—is the ultimate means of subjugation and domination." The stories are about hostile aggression toward strangers, not about sensual lust, to say nothing of a loving and caring relationship.
Richard Hays, who can hardly be said to harbour liberal attitudes toward homosexuality, goes even further. As far as he is concerned, the story is "actually irrelevant to the topic." The gang-rape illustrates the depravity of the people of Sodom, but "there is nothing in the passage pertinent to a judgment about the morality of consensual homosexual intercourse," he writes in Awaiting the Redemption of Our Bodies.
Furthermore, both biblical stories evidently assume what was commonly assumed at the time, namely, that all people are heterosexual (although there was no word to express that). The visitors to Sodom and to Gibeah, as well as the citizens of those cities, were evidently considered to be heterosexuals, not gays. Thus the stories are about people presumed to be heterosexuals willfully and perversely desiring to resort to homosexual acts.
The Gibeah story is really about heterosexual rape. The Levite is portrayed as a coward. In his eagerness to avoid getting raped himself, he pushes his concubine out into the street and so abandons her to the hoodlums who abuse her until she dies. Nissinen expresses surprise that this story is traditionally employed to condemn homosexual sex (which did not materialize in it) but no one seems to have used it as a basis for condemning heterosexual rape and cowardice, both of which feature prominently in the story.
Homosexual intercourse freely engaged in by loving homosexual adults is nowhere in view in either the Sodom or the Gibeah story. These stories are silent regarding the subject. One cannot extract from them either a positive or a negative comment about committed homosexual relationships. In fact, the society of the day would no doubt have scoffed at the suggestion that there could be such a thing as homosexual orientation.
Is there any evidence that homosexual behaviour on the part of people presumed to be heterosexual would have been approved? Absolutely, says John Boswell. On the basis of a thorough survey of Greco–Roman practices, he concludes that homosexual activity on the part of consenting adults was very widespread and readily tolerated in that society. Only cases of homosexual rape were ever taken to court. On the other hand, homosexual love was prized and extolled by poets, just as was heterosexual love.
In Roman law, says Boswell, it was not the gender of the parties which made a sexual act questionable. He goes even further, claiming that this Greco–Roman attitude is reflected in the societies of the Near East generally. We must not assume, says Boswell, that what offends our Western sensibilities today would also have offended people then, or indeed would offend God.
One example will suffice to illustrate Boswell's point. Although we today would find the practice of taking a concubine morally reprehensible, it was tolerated without qualms during Israel's patriarchal period, in the age of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even later. Is it possible that homosexuality at one time enjoyed a similar status? By necessity, answers to that question are largely speculative.
This is not to say that homosexual behaviour on the part of gay and lesbian partners would have been approved. It is futile to speculate what people would have done if they had known what they did not know, namely that not all people are heterosexuals. All we can say is that in a world where all people are assumed to be heterosexual, every instance of same-sex behaviour will be seen as perversion.
What Do You Think?
Do these two stories deal with the subject of homosexual love?
What do these two stories contribute to the discussion of homosexuality?