Adventures in Biblical Interpretation: Sodom

The biblical story of Sodom from Genesis 18 and 19 is a popular story for many people. Biblical skeptics argue that it shows that God approves of rape. Conservative Christians use it to show that homosexuality is one of the greatest sins. Searching the internet for “Sodom”, “Lot”, and “rape” yields many results. Many of the comments about the text are absurd, both from Christians and non-Christians alike. Some of this is highlighted in the following completely absurd paraphrase of a section of Genesis 19.

Two men, angels in disguise, arrived at Sodom in the evening. Lot was waiting at the city gate and invited them to stay at his house. The men declined, saying, “We’ve heard the reputation of this town and wish to take our chances on the street. Maybe we’ll have a good time.” Lot begged them to come to his house for their own safety and they relented. Soon every man in town, every last one of them a homosexual, came to Lot’s door and demanded access to the guests so that they could gang-rape them. Lot replied “No my closest friends, the laws of hospitality forbid it! Please, I have two virgin daughters. Please gang-rape them instead.” The gay men had no interest in having sex with any woman and got angry. “You are a stranger to our town, how dare you judge our hospitality!”

Let’s ask the following questions: Were the sins homosexuality and lack of hospitality? Was the rape condemned? Was the Bible merely reporting Lot’s actions or approving of them? Do either the traditional explanations or the skeptical objections make sense?

Steve Wells, author of The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, writes of this passage under the title “Lot Offers His Daughters For Rape”, condemning the Bible for advocating rape. In response to a criticism by National Catholic Reporter Thomas L. McDonald On Genesis 19:8, Steve writes:

Mr. McDonald sums this one up this way: “We don’t have to believe that Lot is in the right to understand the point of the story.” But he’s wrong about that, if you believe the Bible anyway.

How can this be? How can the Bible sanction Lot offering his daughters up to be raped, calling him righteous? Yet, 2 Peter 2:7-8 reads:

7and rescued righteous Lot, worn down by the unrestrained manner of life of the lawless 8(for that righteous man while living among them day after day, kept torturing his righteous soul by what he saw and heard concerning their lawless works); (Revised English Version)

The numerous times that Christian apologists claim that the Bible wasn’t approving of Lot’s actions are simply wrong. Steve explains:

Lot was a just and righteous man; the only one in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that was righteous enough for God to save.

What to do with this? How could God declare righteous a man who advocated rape of his own daughters? There are two possible explanations.

The Trolley Problem Explanation

The trolley problem is a well known thought experiment in ethics. A runaway train is headed towards a group of 5 strangers who will certainly be killed if you do nothing. You, standing next to the lever, can choose to do nothing or redirect the track to kill a single person, your own child, standing on the other track. Assuming there are no other options, which is the most ethical and moral choice?

According to the traditional view, Lot was faced with the following problem: if he gives up the guests to the men in the town, the following sins would have been committed: rape, homosexual acts (a crime punishable by death under the later law), and a violation of hospitality. If he gave up his daughters, then only rape of betrothed women would have occurred (a crime also punishable by death under the later law). Given the choice between the two, he chose the one with fewer laws broken, the lesser of two evils.

It has also been pointed out that since he called them “brothers” in the text, he presumably knew that they would reject his daughters, so he was really just bluffing in an attempt to distract them and make them see their sin and leave.

This explanation has the advantage of making sense of both the immediate text and the 2 Peter text declaring Lot to be righteous, but it is still uncomfortable, like killing your own daughter to save five lives in the trolley problem. Offering your own daughters to be raped is not something many would be comfortable with, no matter the alternatives.1 Other alternatives might include fighting a losing battle against the men to defend both the guests and his daughters. That probably would have meant the death of himself and perhaps his whole family, but he would have not sullied himself.

The point of this explanation is that there was no good way out of it. Lot attempted to peacefully negotiate his way out of the situation, but ultimately he was forced to choose between all bad choices. That doesn’t make him unrighteous or God immoral. The explanation also has a ring of truth: It’s the kind of no-win situation that we have all experienced from time to time.

The Hospitality Explanation

The other option is much more reasonable, but it requires readers to abandon the notion that this was about homosexual acts or virgin gang-rape.2 We know from the wider passage that Lot had not been living in the city for long. Even though he called them brothers, they accused him of being an outsider. The word “know” is ambiguous. It is sometimes used to mean “have sex with”, but this is not the most common biblical use. It is also never used in the Bible to describe homosexual acts. Some have suggested that when the village men wanted to “know” the visitors, what they meant was “interrogate”, that is, “get to know them and their motives”. Why? Because the men of the city thought that the visitors were spies or troublemakers.

Lot objected to the violation of hospitality. The visitors were his guests, and turning them over to the city to be interrogated was offensive. As a member of the community, he was willing to vouch that the visitors would cause no harm. So he offered up his daughters as hostages, to act as surety that the visitors were harmless. At this point the men become angry, saying they will treat Lot in the same way as the visitors: as outsiders.3

The advantage of this explanation is quite clear: It adequately explains everything that happened and is completely consistent with the Bible’s broader teachings. The ‘disadvantage’? Christians can’t use this particular explanation if they want Sodom to represent the ultimate evil of homosexuality.

Conclusion

What seems plain from the discussion of Sodom is that many sides, both skeptic and Christian alike, are most interested in using this passage of Genesis to further their own agendas. The result is a lot of intellectual blindness. I’m not sure which of the explanations is the correct one, or even that there are not other explanations. I don’t know if this will satisfy the skeptics, perhaps not, but the explanations do seem both logical and morally satisfactory.

In all the discussion of homosexuality and rape, the purpose of the passage seems to have been completely missed. Lot was a righteous man and God protected him. The city of Sodom was destroyed for the choices that they made. There are still many lessons that can be learned.

1 Is is then perhaps ironic that Lot was eventually raped by the very daughters he had offered up to be raped.

2 Sodom’s crimes are not explicitly stated in Ezekiel 16:49-50 as being homosexuality and rape, while a number of other explicit reasons are given. See the discussion by Dr. Benjamin L. Corey.

The great irony is that the men of the city were absolutely correct: the angels were troublemakers; sent there by God to save Lot and destroy the city.

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