What Was the Sin of Sodom?… (Taking A Closer Look)

Colorado cake artist, Jack Phillips, who recently won a Supreme Court case, in a United States freedom of religion case, that opponents say legitimizes discrimination against gay persons. (credit: Sam Brasch, Colorado Public Radio)

To bake the cake, or not bake the wedding cake?

Nothing gets a group of Christians animated like the topic of same-sex marriage. Go ahead. Try it. The next time you are in a Bible study, or share a meal with believers, just mention “same-sex marriage.” I guarantee you that for the next twenty minutes, the conversation will be anything but boring.

Ever since the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, that legalized same-sex marriage, many Christians have besieged themselves with questions as to how to reach gay and lesbian people, while still affirming the Bible’s teaching that God created marriage between only a man and a woman.

Some say that Christians have focused too much on the issue of same-sex marriage. Others are concerned that the church is gradually capitulating to the culture, in accommodating “the sin of Sodom.”  A recent Pew survey even suggests that among younger evangelicals, there is an increased acceptance of gay marriage, at least in terms of its legality, in the wider culture, if not also, in the church.

Many say that the church needs to “preach the Word.” Specifically, we should preach against “the sin of Sodom.” Every Christian should surely agree with that.

However, the problem is that we often fail to understand what “the sin of Sodom” really is. Is “the sin of Sodom” gay marriage? Would this include a society’s increased acceptance of gay marriage as normal? What really is “the sin of Sodom?”

Let us take a closer look at the biblical text, and see if the common, traditional understanding of “the sin of Sodom” actually matches what the Bible teaches.

Clearing Up Potential Misunderstandings

Before I go any further, let me clear up any potential misunderstandings, right from the get-go. This is a very hot topic in the church and the culture at large.

First, I love Chick-fil-A. I eat there all the time. The waffle fries are great. People who boycott Chick-fil-A because of the controversy over same-sex marriage are missing something.

Secondly, I also like Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, even though I understand their long held position affirming same-sex marriage. It does not conflict with my Chick-fil-A. My Christian friends who boycott Ben & Jerry’s are missing out on some good ice cream.

On a more serious level, the Bible does not address same-sex relations that often, but when it does, as in Romans 1:26-27, the New Testament is very specific in prohibiting all same-sex behavior. This would include a prohibition on gay marriage. A few scholars disagree with this conclusion, but the vast majority of conservative evangelicals, and even staunch critics of the Bible, would agree that this is indeed what the Bible teaches. A consistent 2,000 year record of interpretation stands behind this conclusion. I am tethered to this view.

And yet finally, as I have blogged about before, the evangelical church has not done a very good job, historically speaking, in providing a safe environment for people to wrestle with gender and sexual identity questions. No matter where you land on these issues, the church needs to rise up to the challenge of better loving persons, who identify as “LGBT.” A lot of LGBT people inherently distrust the evangelical church, because of our poor record in this area. We have to do better.

There are some people who are so jaded by a negative experience in the church, that anything less than unqualified support for same-sex marriage is deemed as “hateful.” Ironically, the controversy over the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, in June, 2018, shows just how “hatred” can work both ways.

Now, I got that out of the way. So, let us examine “the sin of Sodom,” to see how well, the Bible’s teaching on Sodom’s sin, fits in with the contemporary debate over gay marriage. As it turns it, what the Bible says may actually surprise you….

Dave Mullins and Charlie Craig, the same-sex couple who were offended when Jack Phillips, a Colorado evangelical Christian, and a cake baker, refused to bake a particular cake supporting the celebration of their marriage. Is it possible for Christians to offer some type of olive branch out to such men, and still stay true to their biblical convictions? (credit: Allison Sherry, Colorado Public Radio)

Revisiting the Sin of Sodom

The story of Sodom (and Gomorrah) takes place in Genesis 19, which is as far as most people go when they think about “the sin of Sodom.” The offense at Sodom at Lot’s house is well known.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door down. But the men reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the entrance of the house, both small and great, so that they wore themselves out groping for the door.” (Genesis 19:4-11 ESV)

Here is the background: Some angels, who appeared as men, came to stay at Lot’s home, when a group of the city’s men demanded that Lot bring out his angelic guests, so that they could have sex with them. Lot offered his virgin daughters instead (Different topic: Does that not strike you at least as a little strange? Anyway… moving on….)

The threat was not carried out, as the angels intervened, but the moral offense should be evident. The men of the city wrongly desired to gang rape Lot’s angelic, male guests. The cities were destroyed for their wickedness.

However, what students of the Bible often miss is how other parts of the Bible refer to “the sin of Sodom.” Most of the time, when the Old Testament addresses “the sin of Sodom,” there is no mention of “gay sex.” If you do not believe me, go read these passages for yourself:

The only possible Old Testament exception would be in Ezekiel 16:49-50, which deserves special treatment:

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had prideexcess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50 ESV).

Now, just meditate on these verses, where the sin of Sodom is described, for which the city was declared guilty. If you believe the church needs to “preach the Word” about “the sin of Sodom,” ask yourself this: How often does your church preach against these elements of Sodom’s sin:

  • pride“: We tend to elevate ourselves, and diminish God and others. Are we guilty of that?
  • excess of food“: Think about how much food goes wasted everyday. We have an abundance of things to eat, so much so, that obesity is an enormous problem in our society.
  • prosperous ease“: In our affluence, we spend a lot of time and money on amusements. There is nothing wrong with enjoying life, but taking our pursuit of happiness to an extreme, while there is suffering all around us, is hardly something that brings glory to God.
  • did not aid the poor and needy“:  How much do we neglect to give to others in need, thinking that, “Hey, this is the government’s problem. Not mine!“?
  • haughty“:  Being haughty is related to pride, but carries the sense of vanity and being snobbish.

These other aspects of Sodom’s sin typically get neglected in many churches today. But our focus here is on the “did an abomination before me.” So, what is this “abomination?” Unfortunately, the text in this passage does not tell us exactly what this “abomination” is. 

Some scholars argue that same-sex relations are in view here. Therefore, some would see the sin of Sodom as including “gay marriage.” Here is how: The word abomination is used in two passages, Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, and they do specifically link “abomination” with male same-sex intercourse. However, there are a couple of problems with linking this to the sin of Sodom:

  • While abomination is clearly used to speak of male same-sex intercourse in Leviticus, the word is also used in numerous other passages of the Bible, even in Ezekiel (8:6;18:13;18:24), where the reference to same-sex relations is not in view, or otherwise unclear.
  • The men of Sodom threatened to gang rape Lot’s guests. There is no indication that what the men of Sodom wanted to do, namely gang rape, has any relation to contemporary understandings of what constitutes “gay marriage.”
  • The men of Sodom did make their threat, but they actually never achieved their objective.

In order for this interpretation of Ezekiel’s abomination, as condemning all same-sex relations, including gay marriage, to work, you have to use those two passages in Leviticus as a lens into Ezekiel, in order to understand an incident in Genesis 19, by extrapolating an understanding of same sex relations to include both homosexual gang rape and gay marriage into the same moral category, to describe an incident that was indeed threatened, but that actually never happened in the text.

Did you follow that?

So, is it therefore possible to link the the abomination of Genesis 19 with same-sex relations, broadly speaking? Some would say yes. However, the concern is that such a reading, while very traditional, is also rather speculative, and it requires a complex flow of logic, that is difficult to support with the available evidence. In other words, we can see how same-sex gang rape is condemned here, but does this necessarily include gay marriage? What does the evidence tell you?

Nevertheless, this ambiguity does not mean that you can simply write off Sodom’s sin as being nothing more than inhospitality, as some revisionist scholars have tried to do. The Sodomites were inhospitable for sure, but it was more than that. However, it is difficult to make a definitive conclusion about Sodom’s abomination, based on what we find in the Old Testament. We need to look elsewhere in Scripture to gain a better look.

What about the New Testament? Can it shed any light on the sin of Sodom? Actually, yes, but the answer may not be what you expect.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, by Jules Joseph Augustin Laurens. What was the sin that led to Sodom’s destruction?

The New Testament on the Sin of Sodom

There are a few passages regarding Sodom (and Gomorrah) in the New Testament, but most of them are not specific in naming the actual  “sin of Sodom.” But whatever the “sin of Sodom” was, it was bad. Really bad. And it deserved the judgment of God. See Matthew 10:5-15Matthew 11:23-24, and 2 Peter 2:6-9, for a few examples.

But if you want to grasp the specifics on what “the sin of Sodom” was, you need to go to the little Book of Jude:

And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:6-7 ESV)

We see from this verse a mention of “sexual immorality,” which might include same-sex relations, but that terminology by itself is too broad. The specific “sexual immorality” is explained in the very next phrase, as “unnatural desire.”

So, what is “unnatural desire?”  Scholars debate the meaning of this. But a clue is given in a footnote, that the English Standard Version gives for this phrase: “different flesh.”1

If you do a comparison with other Bible translations, you get a whole range of other possible translations of this phrase, such as “perversion” (NIV 2011). But one of the most literal translations, such as the venerable King James Version reads, “strange flesh.”

Behind the literal translation of “strange flesh,” which could also be literally translated as “other flesh,” is the Greek word “heteras,” which ironically is the same root for our word today, “heterosexual.”  If Jude was really thinking about same-sex relations as the sin of Sodom, you would think he would use something like the word “homosexual,” or “same flesh,” and not its opposite, “other flesh” or “strange flesh.”

Let that sink in for a moment…

Within the context of the passage, it should be evident that the “other” or “strange flesh” that Jude is writing about here are those whom the men of Sodom were trying to gang rape, namely the angels. Jude specifically mentions “angels” in this passage, making it likely that Jude had sexual relations with angels in mind, as the sin of Sodom, and not homosexuality. The angels were “other” than humans; or as the King James Version puts it, “strange flesh.”

Some scholars still try to associate the “strange flesh” of Sodom, as told by Jude, with same-sex relations, broadly speaking, to include same-sex marriage.2  The problem with this interpretation is that it relies more on tradition than the evidence at hand.3

Given all of the evidence looked at in this study, at best, you might arrive at same-sex gang rape as at least one aspect of the sin of Sodom, along with pride, excess of food, etc. But trying to link this with monogamous, covenantal relationships, as advocates of gay marriage try to argue for, identifying the “sin of Sodom” with gay marriage is a bit of a stretch.

Why Getting the “Sin of Sodom” Right Matters

Therefore, what kind of conclusion can we draw from analyzing “the sin of Sodom?” While there are some good arguments from Scripture for rejecting same-sex marriage as being within the intended purposes of God, the argument from “the sin of Sodom” is not one of them. 

The story about Sodom most clearly addresses other moral issues, such as pride, excessive indulgence, abuse of the poor, and haughtiness, in additional to what we have focused on here, namely gang rape. With respect to Genesis 19, there are other clearer passages in the Bible that address same-sex relations, particularly with respect to same-sex marriage. For example, those passages from Leviticus, in the Old Testament, and Romans 1:26-27, are sufficient enough to detail God’s perspective on same-sex relations, which would include gay marriage, as being outside of God’s intended purposes. From a more positive angle, Genesis 2:18-25 gives us the Bible’s framework for understanding Christian marriage to be between a man and a woman.

When we overstate the case, by lumping together both same-sex gang rape and same-sex marriage, in the same category as “the sin of Sodom,” we are not doing anyone any favors. Of the friends that I have who affirm same-sex marriage, none of them would dare throw gang rape into the same category as consensual, monogamous, life-long supportive relationships. Same-sex marriage advocates are looking for an equivalent to traditional marriage, between male and female, that works for them. They are not looking for a social excuse to abuse others sexually. It surely has nothing to do with wanting to have sexual relations with angels!

Using the wrong text to make the right argument may not seem like such a big deal, until you consider the negative consequences of mishandling Scripture. Even if you think Genesis 19 includes an implicit condemnation of gay marriage, there are still unintended consequences to guard against.

Imagine a 15-year old kid in your church youth group (or perhaps, even a daughter or a son). If they were to discover that they had these strange feelings of attraction for members of the same-sex, and they did not know what to do with them, how would it feel like for them to hear their preacher from the pulpit thundering about “the sin of Sodom?” Might they become fearful that they could become some homosexual gang-rapist? Might they feel guilty for something that really does not apply to them? This type of fear happens sometimes. Is that the type of message they need to hear?

On the extreme, other side of the debate, there are folks in the LGBT community who are so upset with the traditional, Christian view against same-sex marriage, that they are willing to use political pressure to silence Christian defenders of that view. These are the loudest voices in the culture now, but most people, who do struggle with same-sex desire, primarily fear ostracism, and the loneliness that results from not feeling loved and accepted, by those closest to them, particularly those in the church. Linking a desire for intimacy, even if that attachment is wrongly directed, with homosexual gang rape, does nothing but reinforce such feelings of ostracism and loneliness. Is it any wonder why same-sex marriage looks so appealing, despite the spiritual risks?

Trying to find a middle-way path on how to care for folks experiencing same-sex desire is very difficult in today’s cultural climate. A growing voice says that the church has failed to adequately minister to people in this area. Therefore, an acceptance of gay marriage is the only alternative. This is misguided. On the other side, there is still a loud traditional voice, that oversimplifies, and even misrepresents the issues, among those who are more interested in trying to “fix” other people, instead of seeking to listen, and walk a difficult journey in friendship with those who are struggling.

Christians need to find that way, that both reaches out in love to the hurting, while affirming the timeless truths of Scripture. Having a more nuanced understanding of “the sin of Sodom,” is not going to convince everyone, on either side of the debate. It does not solve the issue of whether to bake the cake, or not bake the cake. It does not really solve emotionally-charged, political discussions or constitutional issues in 21st century America. But it may just open up opportunities in conversations that hitherto remain shutdown and closed.

For more analysis of the biblical texts, relevant to this argument, I highly recommend Preston Sprinkle’s People To Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just An Issue, reviewed here on Veracity. For a video summarizing the ACLU’s case against Jack Phillips and his Masterpiece Cake Shop, go here. Focus on the Family took a bus trip to Masterpiece Cake Shop after the Supreme Court victory favoring Jack Phillips. But north of the border, there is a very different story playing out with such issues in Canada.

Notes:

1. The ESV’s main choice of “unnatural desire” is, at the very least, odd, when compared to the footnoted translation choice of “different flesh,” which is an improvement. The notes of the ESV Study Bible try to associate the “unnatural desire” of Jude 1:6-7 with Romans 1:26-17, but it is not clear from the text how this is accomplished, other than to suggest that just as the angels in verse 6 lusted after women, the men of Sodom (v.7) lusted after men; i.e. “different flesh.” However, in his Word Biblical Commentary on Jude-2Peter, Richard Bauckham notes that the second clause of verse 7, which is literally “strange flesh,” does indeed explain the first, “sexual immorality.”  Yet contrary to the ESV study notes, Bauckham says, “as the angels fell because of their lust for women, so the Sodomites desired sexual relations with angels.” (Location 2552, Kindle). In other words, Jude’s critique is about angels having intercourse with humans, and vice-versa. Same-sex relations is not the concern of Jude here. Verse 6 refers to the odd episode of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1-4, a theme taken up by the Book of Enoch, where the “sons of God” were understood to be fallen angels, an interpretation of Genesis 6, that was “universally understood (so far as our evidence goes) until the mid-second century A.D.” (Location 2470), which would have been within the time frame in which Jude was writing. This interpretation is contrary to that taken by most Bible commentaries, but it is the most literal and consistent with the original Greek text. 

2. Kevin DeYoung has written a very important and helpful book, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?  However, on this point about the sin of Sodom, his argumentation falls flat, following his article at the Gospel Coalition. See Preston Sprinkle’s review of DeYoung here and here. The second article addresses the claim that the “sin of Sodom” would implicitly include same-sex marriage. DeYoung makes a strong case against same-sex marriage, but he sadly compromises his case by saddling the story of Sodom and Gomorrah with an overly broad reference to same-sex relations, which would include same-sex marriage, in his critique. DeYoung’s case does not require this, and his general identification of all same-sex relations as “sodomy” needlessly complicates an already difficult conversation between historic, evangelical Christians and LGBT advocates. 

3. Part of the problem is embedded in our very word “sodomy.” A standard etymology of the word suggests that the word entered the English language in the 13th century, related back to the Genesis narrative, though there appears to be some scholarly dispute as to how the term was originally understood. But even Merriam-Websters adopts this current definition for “sodomy”:  anal or oral copulation with a member of the same or opposite sex; also : copulation with an animal.  This is a much broader understanding of “sodomy” than is commonly used today, in colloquial speech, which is generally restricted to same-sex relations. The situation is not helped by the colloquial use of the phrase, “like Sodom and Gomorrah,” that connotes wickedness, in general, but with a strong connection with sexual immorality, in a very broad sense. But contrary to the dictionary definition of sodomy, there is no mention of bestiality, or sexual relations with animals, in Genesis 19. The possibility can not be ruled out, but without further information in the Bible, we do not have much more to go on. Furthermore, there is nothing in the Genesis 19 text that describes the sexual relations as being consensual in nature. Some even contend that angels possess no gender, so even the connection with maleness is not relevant here. However, it must be conceded that the biblical text does specially refer to Lot’s guests as “men,” by the men of Sodom. Whether or not the men of Sodom mistakenly thought Lot’s angelic guests to be simply “men,” and not angels, is difficult to say with certainty. The point here is that the traditional association of sodomy with same-sex relations, including same-sex marriage, is difficult to argue definitively. The association is fraught with a myriad of problems. Those who would argue against same-sex marriage are better off making a positive case for marriage, as being between a man and a woman, without an appeal to Genesis 19.  

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About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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