By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
Traditionalist Christians on the LGBT issue argue that there can be no legitimate same-sex relationships because they are banned by the Bible. Thus even where traditionalists acknowledge the existence of enduring same-sex orientation, they enjoin lifetime celibacy for gay and lesbian Christians. Revisionist Christians who adhere otherwise to a traditionalist sexual ethic suggest that a covenantal, monogamous same-sex relationship should be considered permissible for gay Christians.
I said last week that the traditionalist position is grounded in a pattern of connecting the biblical dots that looks like this:
Genesis 1-2 + Genesis 19 + Leviticus 18:22/20:13 + Judges 19 + Matthew 19:1-12/Mark 10:2-12 + Romans 1:26-27 + 1 Corinthians 6:9 + 1 Timothy 1:10 [+ all biblical references to sex and marriage assuming or depicting male + female] = a clear biblical ban on same-sex relationships.
In the next several weeks I want to look at the most important issues raised by examining these texts, and especially consider the relative merits of traditionalist and alternative interpretations.
Let’s begin by tackling the Genesis 19/Judges 19 pair, and related echoes in Scripture. The two stories are remarkably similar. Both involve gangs of men wanting to violate visitors being sheltered in a local household in accord with ancient Near Eastern hospitality standards. Both involve the offer of women as an alternative to the baying crowds. In Genesis 19 the women (daughters) are refused, while in Judges 19 the woman (a concubine, who is also a guest, but not protected) is accepted by the gang, tortured and raped either to death or near to death, and then dismembered later by her own master. According to Gerhard von Rad these texts probably have at least a “distant dependence” on each other. Both are “texts of terror,” as Phyllis Trible so devastatingly called them, among the most disturbing in Scripture.
I will focus on the Sodom and Gomorrah story because of its far greater impact in the rest of Scripture and Christian tradition and its role in the LGBT discussion.
The broader outlines of the story are familiar to most readers of Scripture. It stretches at least from Genesis 18:16-19:38, though the first references to Sodom and Gomorrah begin in 13:10. Historical-critical biblical scholars are convinced that several narrative strands are edited together here. As the text stands in final form it is in part an etiological story meant to explain the catastrophe that wiped out the cities that once existed on the plain near the Dead Sea (cf. 19:24-25). In part it’s a story about the contrast between the character of a holy God and wayward humanity at its worst. Its most interesting dimension, as Walter Brueggemann emphasizes in his commentary on Genesis, is in the revelatory power of the story of Abraham negotiating with God to save these cities from destruction. Here we see the extraordinary role that Abraham is beginning to play as covenant and dialogue partner with God, embodiment of justice and righteousness, and bearer of blessing to humanity. There are notes of grace here that point to Jesus and the gospel.
Abraham is famous in this story for negotiating with God to prevent divine judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. If only 50/40/30/20/10 righteous people are found in these wicked cities, will not the God of justice spare the city? (18:22-33). God repeatedly says yes. Divine retribution on the many will be prevented due to the righteousness of the few.
But when they get to Sodom the two emissary-angels do not find even 10 righteous. Abraham’s nephew Lot, who lives in Sodom, offers exemplary hospitality to the two “men.” But late at night “the men of the city” surround and attack Lot’s house en masse. They want to “know” the visitors whom Lot is sheltering. Lot refuses, leaving the safety of his house to beg the crowd to relent, and even offering his virgin daughters to appease the crowd. But the men refuse, saying, “Stand back! This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them” (Gen. 19:9). Their attack is repelled only with miraculous angelic help. Sodom and Gomorrah are incinerated the next day, after Lot’s family is led away by the angels to safety.
It was once common to interpret this story as a clear indictment on “homosexuality.” Fatefully, of course, the term “sodomy” comes from this story (a term introduced in the 11th century, according to Mark Jordan). The cultural impact of both the story and the term have been enormous. But now few serious biblical interpreters think this story is about “homosexuality” at all. It has certainly receded in the traditionalist argument.
We know before chapter 19 starts that Sodom and Gomorrah are legendarily sinful towns, though we don’t know why. But after the harrowing attack on Lot and his visitors the reader now knows quite a bit about the nature of that sinfulness. This is a horrifying tale about the attempted gang rape of strangers, the shocking violation of Israelite and ancient Near Eastern standards of hospitality, Lot’s willingness to sacrifice his own daughters to the crowd, and the depravity of an entire city — all exacerbated by the fact that the intended targets happen to be angelic emissaries of a holy God. The story is filled with violence and the threat of harm. Notice that when Lot protects his guests, his “brothers” expand their threat to Lot himself: “We will deal worse with you than with them.” The parallel story in Judges makes absolutely clear that it was violence the men wanted, including sexual violence, and violence they inflicted (cf. Judg. 20:5).
Sodom and Gomorrah, their sin and God’s punishment, became resonant symbols. When cited within the rest of Scripture, even the names of these towns become a byword for total human evil and devastating divine judgment (Dt. 29:23, 32:32; Isa. 1:9f., 3:9, 13:19; Jer. 23:14, 49:18, 50:40; Lam 4:6; Ezek. 16:46-50; Amos 4:11; Zeph. 2:9; Mt. 10:15/Lk 10:10-12, Rom. 9:29, 2 Peter 2:6-10, Jude 6-7; cf. Ps. 11:6). The starkest way to warn Israel or the Church of impending judgment was to drop in a Sodom reference. But never once in these intra-biblical Sodom references is their evil described as same-sex interest or behavior. In Isaiah 1:9-23 a host of sins are named but mainly related to abuses of public justice. In Jeremiah 23:14 it’s adultery, lying and unwillingness to repent. Ezekiel 16:49 describes their sins as pride, excess food, prosperous ease and lack of care for the poor. In Amos and Zephaniah the issues are pride, mocking and oppressing the poor. Intertestamental works Sirach (16:8), 3 Maccabees (2:5) and Wisdom (19:15) still talk about Sodom and Gomorrah, and still don’t connect their sin to sexuality at all.
The only biblical references to Sodom with any possible suggestion of same-sex behavior are Jude 6-8 and the parallel text in 2 Peter 2:6-7, with their references to unholy interest in “other flesh” (Jude 7). In the context of an interpretation of Genesis 19 that was already convinced the story is about same-sex behavior, these two late New Testament texts were read as confirmation. But look closely. They represent fragments of tradition referring to unholy human interest in sex with angels, a theme derived from the book of Enoch, with reference back to the mysterious Genesis 6 story about the Nephilim.
The most illuminating comparison to the Sodom and Gomorrah story is to wartime or prison rape. Think about how one of the first images that comes to mind when thinking about prisons is the fear of getting raped there.
The men of Sodom want gang rape. They are more interested in men than in Lot’s daughters because (as Matthew Vines has pointed out) in a patriarchal society men held greater honor, and thus their violation was viewed as a greater offense than violating a woman. I would also suggest that the men wanted to dominate, humiliate and harm the male visitors precisely by treating them like defenseless women. In sexist social systems, the most outrageous thing you can do to a man is to treat him like a woman. The Sodom story is about the attempted gang rape of men, because they are strangers, because they are vulnerable and because they are a juicy target for humiliation and violation. It is about a town that had sunk to the level of the most depraved battlefield or prison.
Genesis 19 and Judges 19 are narratives with huge implications for the ethics of war, prison, gender, violence and rape. But they have nothing to do with the morality of loving, covenantal same-sex relationships.