The account recorded in Genesis 19 is examined in terms of the debate over whether or not the passage condemns homosexuality. It is stated that rejection of the interpretation of the passage as pertaining to the issue of homosexuality requires the provision of a superior interpretation which is still faithful to the text yet does not have anything to do with the condemnation of homosexuality. After considering a number of such alleged interpretations it is concluded that interpretations of the Genesis 19 passage wherein homosexuality is not condemned are inconsistent with the text while an interpretation of the passage that is relevant to the ethics of homosexuality is not.
Table of Contents
- Inhospitality Interpretation
- Wickedness Extending Beyond Hospitality
- Identity of Lot
- Compatibility of Inhospitality With Homosexuality
- Three Important Subarguments
- Lot Offers His Daughters
- Meaning Of Yada
- Homosexual Men
- Rape Interpretation
According to John Jefferson Davis, “The first reference to homosexuality in the Bible is found in Genesis 19:1-11, where Lot entertained the two angels sent to Sodom to investigate the outcry against the sins of that city and Gomorrah (cf. Gen. 18:20-22)”.1 There is debate over whether or not this account condemns homosexuality. Even the claim that the passage has traditionally been understood this way is not universally accepted. For example, Daniel A. Helminiak believes the interpretation has existed since only “about the Twelfth Century”.2 Another writer commenting on the passage rejects this history concerning the interpretation of the passage and writes, “We are hardly overstating the case to say that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has, as long as the collective memory of the Jewish and Christian people can be determined, been understood to speak directly to the issue of homosexuality”.3 There is no doubt a great deal of passion included in most presentations of the interpretation of this passage. For example Arthur Frederick Ide writes, “While many naïve, uninformed, and illiterate consider the account to be a condemnation of homosexuality – one which is not spelled out anywhere in the account – the opposite is quite the case”.4 Helminiak even takes the position that the passage has no place in the discussion of the biblical view of the ethics of homosexuality.
The point of the story is not sexual ethics. The story of Sodom is no more about sex than it is about pounding on someone’s front door. The point of the story is abuse and assault, in whatever form they take. To use this text to condemn homosexuality is to misuse this text.5
Rejection of the interpretation of the passage as pertaining to the issue of homosexuality requires the provision of a superior interpretation which is still faithful to the text yet does not have anything to do with the condemnation of homosexuality. James R. White writes that “in recent decades revisionist authors have launched a full-scale assault upon the passage, seeking to render it irrelevant to the topic of homosexuality” and that a “number of different (and often contradictory) arguments have been brought forward, the collective force of which has been to remove this incident from the biblical data upon which a decision concerning the sinfulness of homosexuality should be based”.6 Even more conservative interpreters have accepted the “revisionist” arguments concerning this passage, but there is no need to.7 Interpretations of the Genesis 19 passage wherein homosexuality is not condemned are inconsistent with the text while an interpretation of the passage that is relevant to the ethics of homosexuality is not.
In ancient societies it was of utmost importance to provide shelter and supplies to those who traveled through unsettled lands with their few cities and towns, even if those people were strangers to the land.8 Sodom was a city in the desert, and the desert might become cold at night, so hospitality to traveling strangers was an important part of the cultures of the land.9 According to Helminiak this offering of hospitality was actually a rule of society, and “a traditional part of Semitic and Arabic cultures”.10
This rule was so strict that no one might harm even an enemy who had been offered shelter for the night. So doing what was right, following God’s law as he understood it, Lot refused to expose his guests to the abuse of the men of Sodom. To do so would have violated the law of sacred hospitality.11
Helminiak poses a question as to the sin of Sodom and answers with a list of items related to inhospitality including “abuse”, “offense against strangers”, and insult “to the traveler”, considering this to be “the point of the story understood in its own historical context”.12 Greg L. Bahnsen summarizes the inhospitality theory.
The theory is this: as a resident alien in Sodom, Lot was responsible for introducing his guests to the townsmen and letting the established citizens examine their credentials; for that reason the Sodomites asked to “know” Lot’s visitors. They wished to get acquainted with them. Since in the Hebrew mind a stranger had a right to hospitable reception, the sin of Sodom would hereby be interpreted as inhospitality to the visitors.13
Wickedness Extending Beyond Inhospitality
The men of Sodom are extremely persistent in acting upon their desire to “get to know” the guests of Lot, even violently so, and this persistence is not consistent with an even semi-hospitable group of men.14 James R. White describes the fear of Lot.
He is not afraid that they will simply be ignored in the city square. His actions are not those of a man worried that they will not get a hot meal or an invitation to spend the night in a home if they should continue inside and enter the city square. There is something far more than inhospitality in view here.15
Bahnsen elaborates on this point when he writes, “When the citizens later came and asked to ‘know’ his guests, Lot did not see this as simply an accepted civil routine whereby visitors have their credentials inspected; he defensively shut the door behind him and characterized the requested ‘knowing’ as a great wickedness”.16
Identity Of Lot
If Lot was no more than a stranger to the men of the city then the inhospitality theory appears to carry more weight, since the leaders of the city would be even more inclined to look into the business of this strange man who was now having guests in his home in the city without the approval of the men of the city. Believing Lot to be “a stranger in Sodom”, one author writes, “At best he was a ger – or ‘sojourner’ – someone who was neither expected to stay nor to have guests.”17 There is good reason to dismiss speculation about the residents viewing Lot in this manner. First, the men who came to check up on Lot and his guests were not notably significant figures in the life of the city, but rather as verse 4 of the passage indicates “the Sodomites were not elders; they were a mixed group, ‘both young and old, all the people from every quarter’ (v. 4)”.18 As noted by Bahnsen, “Lot was not merely an alien resident in Sodom, but a prominent social figure ‘sitting in the gate’”.19 White explains that to sit in the gate was a “position of honor” and that Lot “had come into the area a wealthy man, with flocks and herds, he would have been in the upper echelon of society”.20
Lot was also familiar with the men of the city. The character of the city and the men were known by Lot as indicated by the way he behaved when he went out to the men and shut his door behind him in order to prevent the mob from getting to his visitors.21 As Bahnsen writes, “He knew well enough the moral character of the city, so much so that he became alarmed at the prospect of these visitors spending the night in a public place and strongly urged them to accept his invitation of accommodations in his home”.22 Lot is not only a wealthy man who sits in the gate of the city, but knows the city well enough to be genuinely concerned for the well being of his guests in a place he recognizes as being filled with ill intentioned men.
Compatibility Of Inhospitality With Homosexuality
While these are strong reasons for rejecting the inhospitality interpretation of the text, it is not inconsistent to affirm that there is inhospitality on display in the passage alongside of other problems. As White puts it, “It is not denied that the inhabitants of Sodom were an inhospitable people, but it must be remembered that sin is rarely ‘alone’ in the lives of those who revel in it”.23
Three Important Subarguments
Lot Offers His Daughters
Some have attempted to use Lot’s offer of his daughters as evidence that the passage is not addressing homosexuality. Robert L. Brawley justifies Lot’s offer upon cultural grounds, asserting that “with the expectations of ancient Near Eastern hospitality, protection of strangers in one’s house took precedence over the love of one’s children”.24 Bahnsen questions why such an offer would be made simply because of an impolite request.25 Following a different line of argument, Jack Rogers writes, “The hosts do not seem to think of the attackers as primarily homosexual, or they would not offer women for them to abuse”.26 However, it was not necessary for the men to have been heterosexual for Lot to have offered his daughters, especially given the strange nature of the offer. While other interpretations gain nothing from the fact of Lot’s offer, at least two points in favor of the passage being used in condemnation of homosexuality may be made from it. First, “The implication of the text is that the Sodomites preferred to have sexual relations with the two men (virgins to them) and not with the daughters of Lot”.27 Second, “it should be noted that this verse establishes, beyond all reasonable doubt, the essential correctness of the translation of yada given in the NASB and NIV at verse 5, that of a desire for sexual contact with the visitors”.28
Lot’s daughters, he says, have not “known” man, that is, they are virgins. The same Hebrew word, yada, is used here as in verse 5. Obviously, it has the same meaning in both passages: sexual activity, sexual “knowledge.”29
The latter point is of utmost importance when it comes to interpreting the text properly.
Meaning Of Yada
Lot offers his two daughters to the men of the city as a substitute for two men, stating in verse 8 that they have not “known” any man. The Hebrew word translated “know” is yada and is used a majority of times in the Old Testament to carry the general meaning of “to know something or someone”.30 However, the word may also carry a sexual meaning, as explained by Wold when he writes, “According to G. Johannes Botterweck (TDOT 5:464), in the sense of ‘acquaintance’ or ‘love,’ yd‘ then comes to mean sexual intercourse of a man with a woman (Gen. 4:1, 17, 25; 38:26; Jgs. 19:25; 1 S. 1:19; 1 K. 1:4) or a woman with a man (Gen. 19:8; Jgs. 11:39 …); for homosexual intercourse, see Gen. 19:5; Jgs. 19:22”.31 In the case of the men desiring to know the visitors of Lot in Genesis 19.5 the text will not allow for any other than a sexual meaning of the term, for it is used “in a sexual sense at 19:8” with respect to the daughters of Lot which establishes “the context as sexual”, entailing that it must be understood this way in verse 5 also.32 The term yada certainly carries this meaning earlier in the book of Genesis when Adam “knew” Eve and Eve then bore a child as recorded in Genesis 4 and the term has been translated in such a way as to necessitate this sexual meaning in the Septuagint, NASB, NIV, and NKJV.33
Some have argued that the text does not address homosexuality because “Genesis 19:4 specifically says that ‘all of the people, from every quarter’ ‘young and old’ were in the crowd: the implication is that the city was composed of both sexes, not just one sex”.34 However, prior to the account recorded in Genesis 19, Genesis 13.13 mentions the exceeding wickedness of specifically the men of the city of Sodom as opposed to the wickedness of the people.35 White writes, “We simply note in passing that the writer elsewhere used the more generic term ‘people’ when referring to groups of people (Genesis 11:6, 14:16, 21), but here he specifically focuses upon the men of Sodom, not just the people of Sodom”.36 Verse 4 of the Genesis 19 passage makes it clear that men are in view as it repeats itself to this end.37 Finally, in verse 7 Lot refers to the men as “brothers”, confirming both his aforementioned relationship to the men and their status as men.38 Thus it is the wickedness of the men of Sodom which is in view, and this wickedness was in the city prior to the events of Genesis 19.
The conclusion of what has been considered thus far is that Genesis 19 condemns homosexuality. White summarizes, “Although a general wickedness characterized Sodom, the fact cannot be suppressed that the Sodomites’ desire to ‘know’ Lot’s guests is the manifest sin set forth in Genesis 19 and the specific confirmation that the city was worthy of devastation”.39 It appears that revisionist attempts presented so far in order to reinterpret the account of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 as condemning something other than homosexuality are not faithful to the text. Therefore, Genesis 19 does serve to show, on its own, an ethical point concerning homosexuality; namely that homosexuality is wickedness for which God has punished a people in history. Another interpretation of the text has been set forth in addition to the inhospitality and homosexuality interpretations of the text.
Daniel A. Helminiak, along with many others, has offered another interpretation of Genesis 19 that would indicate that it does not condemn homosexuality. Helminiak makes the case that even if it is granted that there is really a sexual meaning to yada in both of its appearances in Genesis 19, “what is at stake is male-male rape, not simply male-male sex”.40 Helminiak attempts to make this consistent with the inhospitality interpretation by hypothesizing that the Sodomites may have also wanted to have forced sex with Lot’s visitors in order to humiliate them as victors of war allegedly did to their defeated enemies.41
Among people of the ancient world, anal intercourse, or sodomy, was a way a victorious opponent proved superiority over a conquered enemy – by treating them with the greatest possible contempt.42
The commentator who still believes that the account refers to homosexuality rather than rape must answer this interpretation of the text as well, setting aside whether or not the interpretation is actually consistent with the earlier inhospitality interpretation. The contention is that, “Genesis 19 cannot be used as an illustration of homoeroticism as a sin” for “Homosexual gang rape does not define homosexuality any more than heterosexual gang rape defines heterosexuality”.43
Indeed, the passage is not about homosexuality in general. It is certainly not about homosexual love. Rather, it is about rape, specifically same-sex rape. It is about gang rape. It is about violence. It is about the violation of a code of hospitality. It is about wickedness in general.44
This interpretation of the text appears to be based upon an assertion without argument, however.
Keeping in mind what has already been discussed concerning the text, it is sufficient to state that there is no textual reason for assuming that rape is a part of the account at all. Not only is there nothing in the text to indicate that the men of the city thought they were going to encounter resistance or that they intended to sexually assault the guests of Lot,45 but there is no violence or violent intent present in the passage until after Lot accuses the men of wickedness and they react by accusing him of judging them.46
It is surely no mere coincidence that the writer uses the same word for “wicked” here that he used in Genesis 13:13 when the sinfulness of Sodom was first introduced. There cannot be any doubt that the sinfulness known in Genesis 13, the wickedness of which God speaks in Genesis 18:20, is here seen in its full expression in the lustful, homosexual desire of the men of Sodom for these visitors.47
While there has been much debate concerning the correct interpretation of the Genesis 19 account and its relation to the ethics of homosexuality, there is no reason for dismissing it. It should be mentioned that two further revisionist approaches to the text are to argue from other texts in the Bible that address Sodom and Gomorrah and to qualify the kind of homosexuality that Scripture supposedly does not condemn, but addressing these arguments is beyond the scope of this post. Instead it has been argued that the Genesis 19 passage taken on its own can be shown to condemn homosexuality and attempts to interpret the passage differently are inconsistent with the text itself. Therefore Genesis 19 should not be abandoned in the discussion of what Scripture has to say about homosexuality.
1John Jefferson Davis. Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today 3rd Edition. Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing. Phillipsburg, New Jersey. 2004, 122.
2Daniel A. Helminiak. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality: Recent findings by top scholars offer a radical new view. Alamo Square Press. San Francisco, CA. 1994, 36.
3James R. White & Jeffrey D. Neil. The Same Sex Controversy: Defending and Clarifying the Bible’s Message About Homosexuality. Bethany House Publishers. Bloomington, Minnesota. 2002, 27.
4Arthur Frederick Ide. The City of Sodom. Monument Press. Dallas, Texas. 1985, 17.
5Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says, 39.
6White, The Same Sex Controversy, 40.
7 Michael Hill. The How and Why of Love: An Introduction to Evangelical Ethics. Matthias Media. USA. 2002, 184.
8White, The Same Sex Controversy, 30.
9Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says, 38.
10Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says, 38.
11Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says, 38.
12Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says, 39.
13Greg L. Bahnsen. Homosexuality: A Biblical View. Baker Book House. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1978, 32.
14Donald J. Wold. Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East. Baker Books. Grand Rapids, MI. 1998, 88.
15White, The Same Sex Controversy, 31.
16Bahnsen, Homosexuality, 32-33.
17Ide, The City, 39.
18Wold, Out, 82.
19Bahnsen, Homosexuality, 32.
20White, The Same Sex Controversy, 30.
21White, The Same Sex Controversy, 30.
22Bahnsen, Homosexuality, 32.
23White, The Same Sex Controversy, 42.
24Robert L. Brawley. Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, Kentucky. 1996, 21.
25Bahnsen, Homosexuality, 33.
26 Jack Rogers. Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, Kentucky. 2006, 71.
27Wold, Out, 88.
28White, The Same Sex Controversy, 34.
29White, The Same Sex Controversy, 34.
30White, The Same Sex Controversy, 32.
31Wold, Out, 82.
32Wold, Out, 85.
33White, The Same Sex Controversy, 32-33.
34Ide, The City, 18.
35White, The Same Sex Controversy, 28.
36White, The Same Sex Controversy, 28.
37White, The Same Sex Controversy, 31.
38White, The Same Sex Controversy, 33.
39White, The Same Sex Controversy, 32.
40Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says, 38.
41Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says, 38.
42Ide, The City, 19.
43Brawley, Biblical, 22.
44Brawley, Biblical, 22.
45Bahnsen, Homosexuality, 34.
46White, The Same Sex Controversy, 50.
47White, The Same Sex Controversy, 34.