The theme of Genesis is clearly the perfect design of God’s creation, how man’s sin ruined it, and that God put into motion a plan to redeem it. Genesis emphasizes certain themes:
God creation established order and a functioning system.
The disobedience of Adam and Eve brought sin into the world and alienation from God.
The covenant is God’s program of revelation of himself. No obstacle will prevent him from revealing himself and from creating a covenant relationship with mankind. (In Gn. 18, the match-up to this story, we find that those who belong to the covenant are characterized by a particular sort of conduct: “so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (v. 19).
The main problems brought forth are the Eden Problem (separation from God by sin), and the Babel Problem (making God what we want him to be instead of what he reveals himself to be). God makes a covenant with Abraham and his descendants to deal with both problems.
Sodom has a context in Genesis, so chapter 19 must be interpreted in that context. The city first shows up in 10.19, after the flood story. Ham, the father of Canaan, we are specifically told (with Canaan obviously being the person of interest here, more so than Ham), “saw his father’s nakedness.” It is unclear what happened here, but three of the guesses are sexual
(castration, sodomy, or incest) and one is that of human dignity. The sexual guesses are more likely in the minds of many, because of Ham’s interest in sharing the event with his two brothers (Gn. 9.22). See also the similarity of Hab. 2.15, where those who induce sinful behavior are regarded as worse than those who “merely” behave that way. Obviously, something about it was shameful, and it was most likely some kind of sexual sin. (That’s no surprise, though. Throughout the OT, sexual sin of often a metaphor for godlessness.) Oddly enough, when Noah becomes sober, he curses Canaan in addition to Ham, which lets us know there is more to the context than we are being told. The curse is that the descendants of Israel will one day subjugate the descendants of Canaan. In contrast, the descendants of Shem are blessed. The upshot is that Shem represents God-followers, and Canaan represents the godless.
Then in Genesis 10.15ff we learn about the descendants of Canaan and the land in which they dwell. They settle in the area around the Jordan River, Dead Sea, and Sea of Galilee, and further north into Lebanon and Syria. Some spread into the Mesopotamian region, and even possibly as far east as China. For the purposes of this study, it is specifically mentioned that they settle the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (few other cities are mentioned in the list, so this must be a point of significance). The author wants us to know the association of those particular cities with the “godless” descendants of the Canaan.
Sodom is mentioned again in Gn. 13. Abraham is wandering in the land, where he builds an altar and calls on the name of the Lord, as his ancestors had done (Gn. 4.26). A character comparison is brought into the story in v. 4: “Now Lot…”. Hm—interesting. The land cannot support both of them (a symbol of some deeper point), so they need to leave the Promised Land or part ways. In other words, the Promised Land is only for God’s Promised People. “Lot looked up and saw… the garden the Lord…toward Zoar” (in the region of Sodom and Gomorrah). There’s no reason to accuse Lot of greed or stupidity. In the sense of the narrative, he makes a logical decision, given the alternatives. But the storyteller has a more weighty point to make, as he is building a case. Lot moves to Sodom, outside the borders of Canaan. Now Abraham is inhabiting the Promised Land, and Lot has chosen what looked better but is not the Promised Land. The setting in the story is a symbol: Sodom’s strong moral identity in this story is that it is a moral monstrosity, a quagmire, and the anti-type of God’s people and the Promised Land. Sodom is quickly becoming the archetype of godlessness. Gn. 13.13 says it plainly: “The men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord.” The author is setting up a contrast: The Promised Land where God-followers live and call upon the name of the Lord, and “Sodom,” where people are wicked and sin greatly.
To me, chapter 14 is amazing. If God wanted Sodom judged, this is the perfect occasion. Conquering armies enter the land, subdue the cities, and carry off the inhabitants. Perfect: Military judgment, just as God used many times through Israelite (and ancient Near Eastern) history—but that is not what happens.
In this period of time the political structure of the area was in turmoil. Who was conquering whom could be the daily headlines. The cities are indeed subdued: Sodom, Gomorrah, and three other cities are besieged and conquered by four kings from the north. We are informed that Lot is a survivor, though is now a prisoner of war.
We are specifically told that Abram’s act of salvation was specific to his nephew, Lot (14.14). He didn’t take action to save the city, but to save his relative. We find out subsequently in 14.17 that the city was not destroyed, and that the remnants of the population were in survival mode but going to make it. They could use more people, but have enough resources to get by (21). In the end, the event doesn’t satisfy the judgment of the Lord.
Then we have (14.22-23) what is, in my mind, the key to the chapter as far as the study of Sodom is concerned. Abraham distances himself from any association with Sodom, though he had just expended resources and energy to align with Salem. Again, the point seems to be the separation of the godly (22, 18) and the godless (23).
Genesis 18 records the last mention of Sodom before we get to the city of godlessness itself. The questions of Abraham give definition to the point of the text: “Shall not he who judges the earth not give right judgment?” We see similarities all over the segment from 18.16-26 with chapter 19. To isolate a very few examples, in both units it is some kind of noise that provokes YHWH: Sarah’s laugh on the one hand, and Sodom’s groans on the other (20). Even the setting gives us a clue, as he meets Abraham at noon, but Sodom at night, in every sense literarily and spiritually contrasting light and darkness—the godly and the ungodly. In verse 19, Abraham is instructed to do what is “right and just.” Sodom, on the other hand, is beset by grievous sin (20). At this point there is no mention of what the sin is, for what matters is its quality and depth. The impression seems to be that they are steeped in so many sins to an abominable magnitude: heinous moral and social corruption on countless levels. Again, God’s concern is to give right judgment (21), acting in righteousness and judgment, but exercising mercy as well.
And so we come to chapter 19. Without encumbering my point with all the details of the story (though I strongly would like to go into all that), I should talk about the point. Sodom lives up to the literary and spiritual build-up, and the story is painted in the most sordid depravity the writer could muster. In so many words, the portrait of the city is depicted in a way that is supposed to come across as wicked, unrighteous, and as godless as possible. Elements of the story are brought to the fore to create the epitome of evil: Lot’s fear for his guests at the outset, the terrifying mob, the demand for homosexual sex (explicitly stated and identified by Lot as “wicked” ), the threats of mayhem, disregard for hospitality protocol (8), betrayal and accusation of friendship, morality, fair play; despising justice (8), violent anger, uncontrolled indulgence of lust, property damage, family discord and disintegration, and coarse mockery of God’s work (15). The story is intended to be charged with “almost every element” of wickedness imaginable, to paint the portrait, similar to chapter 6, of sin out of control and worthy of utter judgment. The angels assess that the city has moved from “evening” to “night,” just as the clock has. They plan to rescue whatever is worthy of rescue: Lot, and his family (Lot’s family is rescued because, (1) Abraham interceded for him and, (2) Due to his inner righteousness [2 Pet. 4.7], there is hope for his family, even despite their obvious impiety). The city is completely and unsurvivably destroyed, and Lot is rescued, but we find that the sin of the city lives on as a remnant (in his daughters and their offspring) to rise another day.
To me that is the point of the story. I believe that the story is told (and later referred to) as historical, but it has a far deeper meaning than mere description, so that its narrative elements take on a spiritually symbolic function. The city of Sodom represents godlessness (Isa. 1.10-25, esp. 21), and that godlessness is most graphically represented through its sexual immorality. This is to be expected, for the other two cities that come to represent godlessness, Babylon and Rome, will also be Biblically represented through sexual immorality. Sexual union in the Bible is deeply metaphorical, and there’s no reason to think that isn’t in play here. Sexual relations are a sort of bodily language in which meaning is enacted and conveyed. This chapter is deliberately marking out a nadir that will last through history of sexuality and spirituality.
Babylon = Sodom and Gomorrah in Isa. 13.19. In Revelation 17 & 18, Babylon is the adulteress of the world system, exemplifying godlessness in her pride (Isa. 14), greed, and injustice. She is “The Mother of Prostitutes,” and of the “Abominations of the Earth” (the same intensity of term used in Lev. 18.) Babylon, as Sodom, represents the antithesis of God. She will be consumed by fire (Rev. 18.8-9).
By the same token, Rome, as Babylon, also symbolizes all that is godless (Rev. 17.9-18) and is portrayed in the same chapter as a whore. In addition, even Israel, throughout the Old Testament, when they are acting godlessly, are said to be adulterers. Godlessness is portrayed as sexual sin, and sexual sin is portrayed as godlessness.
Sexual sin is not the only Old Testament way to portray godlessness, however. Later in Israel’s history, during the time of the godless kings, child sacrifice occupies that infamous place, and is repeatedly referred to as an abomination (“detestable”: 2 Ki. 23.13; Jer. 32.35), and even “prostitution” (Lev. 20.5) as the two images converge into one nefarious interconnection.
Almost every commentator has noticed and written about the comparison and contrast of Genesis 19 with Genesis 18, and how clearly the two are meant to stand side by side in the lessons they are written to express. At least some of these are covenant blessing vs. covenant failure, righteousness vs. moral failure, and godliness vs. godlessness.
I just can’t get around that Genesis 19 portrays homosexuality as a sin.
Now, to address the comments of those who hold other opinions. Richard B. Hays, in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, says “there is nothing in the passage pertinent to a judgment about the morality of consensual homosexual intercourse,” and that “the notorious story of Sodom and Gomorrah is actually irrelevant to the topic of homosexuality” (p. 381). I must disagree. While we are never told anything about the sexual ethics of Babylon (and she is held up as “The Great Prostitute”), Sodom is recorded for us differently. It is their sexual ethics that we are told about, not as a metaphorical picture (until later), but as the primary piece of evidence (“Exhibit A”) in a swamp of godlessness. And while it was the magnitude of Sodom’s sin that is the largest part of the story (and the real point of it), the type of sin is not just a casual reference. The story is the meaning. While the writer could have used rampant idolatry or horrific child sacrifice as the image of depravity in Sodom, he used homosexual relations as the picture of sin’s horrors.
But what does the text comment about the issue of “consensual homosexual intercourse”? Granted, the point of the story is to show the sordid life of the godless: sexual immorality, drunkenness, and incest. Not to be a smart-aleck, but no one seems to ask the question, “What if it’s consensual incest?” The story elements add up to a picture of human sin and evil, and divine judgment against it. By the intertestamental period, there is a strong belief that the sin of Sodom was indeed consensual homosexual intercourse (thought I know that’s not Scripture). In Jude 7, which is Scriptural, their sin was not just rape, but porneia: sexual immorality, unchastity, and prostitution.
Hamilton, in his commentary on the book of Genesis (pp. 34-35) adds: The question still arises whether the issue is of homosexual relations per se or homosexual rape. The answer depends whether you translate yada as “get familiar with” or “so that we may abuse.” There are at least four problems with the view that the prohibition here is only homosexual rape:
1. Nowhere in the OT does the verb yada have the nuance of “abuse” or “violate.”
2. The OT uses unmistakable language to relate rape incidents (Gn. 34.2; 2 Sam. 13.14; Dt. 22.25-27).
3. This interpretation forces one meaning on “know” in v. 5 (i.e., “abuse”), but a different meaning on “know” three verses later (i.e., “have intercourse with”), for it is unlikely that Lot is saying: “I have two daughters who have never been sexually abused.”
4. Such an interpretation forces these incredible words in Lot’s mouth: “Do not rape my visitors. Here are my daughter, both virgins—rape them!”
Clearly, then, the incident frowns on homosexual relations for whatever reason.
Another opinion-holder is James Brownson in his book Bible Gender Sexuality. Similar to Hays, Brownson says that the story illuminates the antipathy the Bible shows elsewhere to sexual relations between men, but “that this story is of no more value in assessing lifelong, loving, committed same-sex relationships than stories of heterosexual rape can be used to morally evaluate loving heterosexual relationships. The failure to distinguish between consensual, committed, and loving sexual relationships and violent, coercive relations represents a serious case of moral myopia. … While the story of Sodom and Gomorrah graphically portrays the horror of rape, it simply does not speak to committed same-sex intimate relationships” (pp. 268-269). Again, my analysis of the story of Sodom, from Genesis 10-18, is not a story of one night’s violence, but of habitual, continual, and consistent sin which is portrayed climactically on a night visit. Their judgment by God was not for a night of perversion but for years of “sinning greatly” (Gn. 13.13; 2 Pet. 2.6-10).
I will conclude with this, brief though it is: Those who make the story out to be a story about homosexuality miss the point. The story is about sin, alienation from God, and depravity, and God’s judgment of it. But those who make the story have nothing to do with homosexuality miss the point. Homosexuality is the symbol and expression of alienation from God and sin’s depravity. The particular sort of conduct is definitely to the point.