I.  How sure are you?

Sometimes I can be so sure of something I “know” to be true that if you asked me to bet my house on it, I’d say “Sure.”  But I’d be homeless if I did.  The sin of Sodom is a case in point.  I used to think it was about homosexuality and felt for years that those who were claiming that the sin was different than homosexuality were just bending the text to be “politically correct.”  Men seeking to gang rape other men seemed like a pretty clear argument against these other interpretations.  Their sin was written in black-and-white!  Or so I thought.

Speaking of black-and-white surety, I would have been willing to bet my house (or at least a lot of money) on my ability to count the number of “f”s in the statement below a few years ago, too.  Let’s have a little fun before moving on to Sodom and Gomorrah. I invite you to read the statement below enough times that you are POSITIVE you have the right answer – so positive, in fact, that if you can be proven wrong, you will hit the Donate Button on the Darkwood Brew page and make a contribution.  This is not a trick.  Really, just count the “f”s (i.e., the letter “f”) until you are positive, then scroll down to the bottom of this post where I will reveal the answer.  No cheating!

Count the “f”s in the statement below:

In the final analysis, all interpretations of Scripture are subject to the “Rule of Love.”  This rule finds its origin in the commandments Jesus identified as being first and foremost: (1) To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; and (2) to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Are you POSITIVE you know the right answer?  Then scroll below to see how well you did – and I invite you to hit DONATE if you have found that you have been proven wrong without being tricked in any way!

Ahhhh, I can already envision the new camera we will be able to purchase for the Darkwood Brew studio this week!  Thank you.

It is rather amazing, isn’t it, how wrong you can be when you are so positive you are right?  If it makes you feel any better, I got it wrong, too – and I have heard that the more intelligent you are, the higher the likelihood that you will miss count.  (Hope that helps.)

II.  Back In the Day …

This story cannot be understood properly if you assume that life 4,000 years ago was the same as life is today.  While no one claim to make this assumption, subconsciously, we all do it to a certain extent (Just as, in the “Count the ‘f’s Challenge,” our brain subconsciously converts the “f”s in the word “of” into a “v,” causing us to mis-count the statement I opened with).  What is critically important to wrap our heads around if we are to understand the sin of Sodom is how the ancient custom of hospitality functioned in the Near East.

These days we think about hospitality as providing tea and cookies after the committee meeting, or we gossip about an “inhospitable” host who failed to provide a non-sugar sweetener for their coffee.  That’s roughly the kind of hospitality I was thinking of years ago when I heard Old Testament scholars claiming that the sin of Sodom was a failure of hospitality.  I thought, “And God would destroy a whole city for failure to put out cookies after dinner? Really??”

In the ancient Near East, however, hospitality played a key role in the survival mechanisms in society.  Hospitality was so important, in fact, that it played a foundational role in preventing crime where no government existed to enforce laws and preventing people from dying who were travelling.  To this day, similar hospitality customs are practiced around the world in remote areas where government is sparse and people are either poor or nomadic or both.

I actually experienced a taste of a remnant of similar hospitality practices closer to home – in modern, rural Texas in 2006 while walking across the country with CrossWalk America.  In no other state in the country did we walkers encounter such a constant barrage of people who would pull over on the freeway and ask us if we needed help of any kind.  Even when we respectfully insisted that we did not, they would often give us food or donate money to our organization!

Why did this happen in Texas?  The practice is a remnant from the days when, if you were stranded out in the middle of rural Texas, you could die.  Thus, even today people pull over and ask if they can help.  It’s just what you do.

Now imagine Texas hospitality on steroids – probably as it would have been in the early 1800s. In the desert environment of the ancient Near East, if you were travelling and ran out of water, or food, or had no shelter, you were doomed.  There were few places to find water or food to begin with, and there were no Seven Elevens, Motel 6s, or even so much as a public water fountain.  Add to these dangers, the risks of bandits and nasty critters, and you just plain did not travel very far unless you had a clear reason to.

Since time immemorial, therefore, the custom of hospitality to strangers developed as a safety net for travelers.  It also functioned as a safety for settled inhabitants since communication with the “outside world” was scarce and developments in places just a few days journey away could negatively impact unaware residents (i.e., warnings of roving bands of marauders, spreading insect infestations that could kill crops, and so on).  It wasn’t all about safety, either, though safety was of primary concern.  Out of town visitors tended to be full of news, and stories, and songs from distant places.  In an age without most any of the entertainment mechanisms we have today, visitors tended to lighten the burden of everyday life and spark people’s imaginations.

Here are a couple rules that were considered sacrosanct in the ancient Near East:

(a) In rural areas: If you do not recognize someone passing by your habitation, invite them in for a meal.  If it is getting late in the day, invite them to spend the night.  Do not embarrass the visitors by asking if they “need” anything.  Make it clear that you would be honored by their company and this is the only reason why you are making the offer.  Make them feel like they are doing YOU a favor by being their guest.

(b) In cities: If strangers enter the town and set themselves up in the town square, they have no accommodation and are in need of help.  They must be accommodated.  Even though they are making it clear they are in need by sitting in the town square, rule (a) above applies in terms of offering help.

(c) For travelers: If offered aid, you should not instantly accept lest you appear like a beggar or other freeloader.  Insist that you will be fine – even if you won’t be.  Only after the host insists that you receive hospitality do you accept.

(d) For hosts: Once a visitor crosses the threshold of your house (or tent), they are in your care and are to be treated as honored guests.  You will bring shame on yourself and your family if strangers are offered your hospitality and you fail to provide for their needs and protect them from harm.  Your failure means that the safety net has broken.

III.  A Model Host

 There were many other hospitality customs and expectations, but the four above are enough to provide a clearer window into our story.  The story starts, actually, not in Genesis 19 where most people assume it starts, but in Genesis 18 where the angels who later travel to Sodom first come into the area and are greeted by Abraham.

Bear in mind: angels in the Bible – especially the Old Testament – are never obvious.  They have no wings and look like ordinary people.  So as these men approached, Abraham absolutely would not have considered them angels, but travelers he did not recognize.  Abraham is clearly depicted in Genesis 18 as a model hospitality provider which the storyteller will later contrast with the Sodomites.  Note the hospitality customs operating in the story:

(1) When Abraham notices the visitors, he not only goes out to meet them, but runs out and bows down before them.

(2) Rather than causing potential embarrassment by asking if the visitors need anything, Abraham insists, “If I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.  Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.  Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on.”

(3) So dramatically has Abraham insisted that he would be honored by their company, the visitors consent without even trying to refuse.  Then Abraham rushes back to his tent and asks Sarah to prepare an enormous quantity of bread (enough for the visitors to take with them after the meal).  He then runs to his herd and has a choice calf slaughtered by a servant who hastens to prepare it.  Then he sets a feast before the visitors and stands by to attend like a waiter to any need that might arise during the meal.

(4) When the visitors leave, Abraham accompanies them to ensure that they are set in the right direction.

If Abraham were being scored on an ancient Near Eastern hospitality scale, he get’s an A.  He might get an A+ if it weren’t for his wife, Sarah, spoiling things by laughing at the angels from behind the tent curtain when she hears them predict that she’ll have a child in her old age …

IV.  Another Model Host

When the angels come to Sodom, they are greeted by Abraham’s nephew, Lot, at the entrance of the city.  Like Abraham, Lot is a model of hospitality – in fact, as we’ll see soon, he’s an extreme model:

(1) Lot greets the visitors just as Abraham did, bowing down before them and begging the visitors to allow him to provide them hospitality.  Since it is evening, he immediately asks them to spend the night in his home.

(2) The visitors do the customary thing – “No, we will spend the night in the square” – which is like saying, “We’d totally love to … but we don’t want to seem like beggars by giving in too easily … though we will make our need obvious by staying in the city square.”

(3)  The visitors finally consent when Lot “urged them strongly.”  Lot then prepares “a feast” for them like Abraham did.

Before the evening is over, however, the townspeople show up at Lot’s house to meet the visitors.  In the ancient Near East, it would not have been unusual for others to stop by and greet visitors to hear news of their travels and perhaps share a meal at the host’s home.  But according to the story, “the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man” stop by not to greet the visitors, but to gang rape them.

This is hardly a story about homosexual love and intimacy.  Recently, much news has surrounded the gang rape of a woman in New Delhi, India.  In its wake, no one is talking about the “sin of heterosexuality.”   They’re not even talking about lust.  No, they are talking about cultural misogyny and the way degradation of women has become socially acceptable.

The same goes for Sodom.  Gang rape is not an act of lust, but an brutal act of hatred meant to degrade the victims in the worst possible way.  The fact that EVERY man and male child of EVERY age shows up to get in on the act further underscores that this is not in any way a case of same-sex attraction.

(4) Back to Lot and his hospitality: It may seem inconsistent with the high moral character of Lot to offer his two virgin daughters to the men of Sodom to be gang raped in place of his visitors.  What kind of loving father would do this?  In order to make “sense” of this nonsensical scenario, one must understand that the storyteller is not trying to illustrate how much of a loving father Lot was.  The storyteller is trying to show us that Lot has taken the ancient Near Eastern hospitality expectations that a host protects his visitors above and beyond the highest degree conceivable.

The fact that Lot offers his own daughters to protect his guests would have sickened the ancient reader like it does us, but their focus would have been on the townspeople more than Lot.  The story would have told them that Sodom had gone so far off the scale of humanity that they would not only abuse vulnerable visitors they were supposed to care for and protect, but they would press anyone offering aid to visitors beyond the breaking point.

V.  The Sin of Sodom

Since hospitality expectations towards visitors were connected to a network other hospitality customs that ensured that the inhabitants of a given area treated each other with respect and dignity, without cheating, stealing from, exploiting, or otherwise harming each other, the “sin of Sodom” was even more vast than we guess. It had implications not just for visitors, but for all of society.

The sin of Sodom was the a complete breakdown of a system meant to care for and protect the most vulnerable in society and provide justice for all, be they residents or non-residents, . 

This interpretation is confirmed by the Bible itself.  As Ian Lynch observed in a previous post on the Darkwood Brew blog, the story made an impact on later biblical writers, many of whom mention Sodom (or both Sodom and Gomorrah).  In each of the cases where a writer names the sin of Sodom, it has nothing to do with homosexuality:

Isaiah 1:10-17 (Sin = Acting religious without doing justice by protecting the most vulnerable in society)

Isaiah 3:9-15 (Sin = Injustice toward the poor)

Jeremiah 23:14 (Sin = Strengthening the wicked and adultery toward Yahweh)

Ezekiel 16:48-50 (Sin = Arrogance and failing to help the poor)

Luke 10:1-16  (Sin = Failure to provide hospitality to the visitor)

Jude 1:6-7 (Sin = Sexual immorality, defined as sex with angels)

The only passage above that sees sexual immorality in play is Jude, whose problem is not homosexuality but human beings seeking sexual relations with angels, which he reminds us are something God forbade (in Gen 6:1-4) when angels sought sexual relations with human beings.

No, the Scriptures speak powerfully about the sin of Sodom, and when they do, they consistently name it as failure to care for and protect the most vulnerable in society.  In other words, it is exactly what we would expect from anyone familiar with the expectations of ancient Near Eastern hospitality.  What would the authors of scripture expect of us in our day?  Would they not wonder what motivates us to scapegoat homosexuals when the actual sin of Sodom is labeled as failure to care for and protect the most vulnerable in society and ensure justice for all, resident and non-resident alike?

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ANSWER to the “Count the “f”s” Challenge: There are seven “f”s, as shown below.

In the final analysis, all interpretations of Scripture are subject to the “Rule of Love.”  This rule finds its origin in the commandments Jesus identified as being first and foremost: (1) To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; and (2) to love our neighbor as ourselves.

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