Friday, November 20

The Poverty of Sodom and Gomorrah

One of the stories often cited from the Scriptures in relation to human sexuality is that of Sodom and Gomorrah. The two have become so associated, in fact, that the very term "sodomy" refers to a particular sexual act. Indeed, Sodom and Gomorrah has been connected with sexual acts for a long while, but I would suggest a different way of reading the text. Although the threat of sexual violence may be present in the text, Genesis 19 is not demonstrating that God condemned the cities because of homosexuality, but rather, because they did not fulfill their sacred duty of hospitality - and indeed, greatly violated it. There are other passages in Scripture which speak of Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaiah 1:9-10 and 3:9 refers to their lack of social justice, Jeremiah 23 refers to their general immorality and Ezekiel 16 refers to the lack of care in Sodom for the poor and the needy.

In fact, Ezekiel 16:49 says, "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." Later Jewish authors wrote that people of Sodom had laws which prohibited their citizens giving to charity or helping the poor. Through modern eyes, we would see this as a social justice issue. When we look at the same passage in Isaiah which speaks of Sodom's sin, it entreats each person to "Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow" (1:17). This was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah - they failed to carry out social justice and failed to help the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the orphans and the widows - and Jeremiah indicates that their leaders were unfaithful in marriage.

But this was not the only sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. Many scholars over the past few decades have put forth the idea that the cities were penalized because of their lack of hospitality. The Ancient Near Eastern practice of welcoming strangers, gifting, clothing, feeding and housing them was extremely important at the time of Genesis 19. We see this echoed in other literature in another part of the ancient world - in Greece. The Homeric tale of The Odyssey focuses on several episodic adventures wherein Odysseus and his men are welcomed, given gifts, clothed, fed and housed. The story can be read as a series of stops to those who are hospitable and those who are not hospitable to travelers. For those who were not welcoming or hospitable, they were penalized or suffered a punishment, as in the case of the Cyclops. This Greek concept of hospitality was called xenia.

Hospitality is also a theme that runs throughout the early chapters of Genesis, especially those pertaining to the Abrahamic lineage - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Bear in mind that the early Hebrews were a nomadic people roaming arid and dry regions, which made the hospitality of others a welcomed rest. It seems, then, that God had a problem with Sodom and Gomorrah not being hospitable to strangers as they should have been in antiquity. In Wisdom 19:13-14, we read that "the men of Sodom did not receive the strangers when they came among them." These strangers include Lot and his family as well as the two angelic messengers, and other. It is clear from Genesis 19 that they were not seeking to be hospitable - but to be hostile. Further, in Matthew 10:14-15 and in Luke 10:7-16, Jesus tells his disciples to accept the hospitality of others and to offer peace to their households as they enter - and he also heavily indicates that the sin of Sodom was their lack of hospitality to strangers.

According to ancient Jewish texts - the Babylonian Talmud as well as the Genesis Rabba - the citizens of Sodom were well known for their widespread cruelty, their lack of support for the poor and the needy and their lack of charity. There are also other stories wherein the Sodomites torture wandering travelers, and another story in which they burn a young woman who had attempted to share her food with a hungry family. This fulfilled the injunction of Isaiah 58:7 to "Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help." It seems evident that those in Sodom, at least, were very inhospitable to strangers. But when their moral and social behavior is compared to that of Abraham's nephew Lot or that of Abraham and Sarah in welcoming the three strangers (Genesis 18), we find the contrast of extreme hospitality and extreme in-hospitality.

A further point is worth noting. The author of the book of Hebrews cautions Christians in regard to hospitality, saying, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). This is what transpired in Sodom when Lot and his family welcomed in the two angels, but the townspeople displayed radical non-hospitality through their actions. 2nd Peter declared that in their actions, these individuals were both ungodly and lawless, and St. Jude refers to their condemnation for wanting to gang-rape strangers, specifically, angels. This is a direct violation of the later command in Hebrews. The act of intended rape would have been an act of radical inhospitality, violence, and not helping the oppressed and the marginalized - not necessarily related to homosexual activity. Instead of welcoming travelers and showing them hospitality, the people of Sodom in Genesis 19 instead - parallel to what is also seen later in the book of Judges 19 - seek to gang-rape, and seek to do violence.

Hospitality was a hallmark of the ancient world, prized above many things. For those living in such areas as the ancient Hebrews, as aforementioned, hospitality was a much-needed and much-welcomed respite from difficult journeys. But the people of Sodom - and other texts indicate Gomorrah as well - directly and consistently violated this sacred duty and became radically inhospitable, even to the point of threatening sexual violence. Their lack of hospitality and Lot's example of hospitality do indeed stand in contrast with one another, and viewing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah through the lens of social justice, one can begin to understand God's discernment over what to do concerning said cities. Let us then be reminded again of the words of the prophet Isaiah, as we go forward in our own lives, "Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.... Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help." 

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