You may have heard rumors about a story in the Bible concerning two towns called Sodom and Gomorrah. Those rumors claim that the story gives religious justification for being against our LGBTQ siblings.
I want to be very clear: those rumors are false. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do with homosexuality as we know it. That story is really about a form of actual human violence – gang rape.
Two angels came to Sodom. They had nowhere to stay and so a man named Lot invited them into his house. Lot did the right thing – he showed these strangers hospitality. He gave them a feast and they all ate together. Lot is a model in the story for how to love your neighbor, including the stranger, as yourself.
But the men of Sodom saw the angels and demanded that Lot open his door so that they could “know” the two angelic men.
Every middle schooler is aware that to “know” in the biblical sense is to have sex with someone. But what happens in the Sodom story is *not* homosexuality. It is not about two men in an intimate, committed same-sex relationship based on love.
Sodom and Gomorrah is about one thing: rape.
Rape is a sexual perversion that is a violent abuse of power. The men of Sodom had a wicked desire to humiliate these strangers by raping them, thus showing these strangers that the men of Sodom were the boss of their town.
The sin of Sodom was not about homosexuality. The sin of Sodom was that the men refused to show hospitality to strangers. Instead of loving the strangers as themselves, they engaged in gang rape.
The prophet Ezekiel wrote about the sin of Sodom and her daughter Gomorrah. Interestingly, Ezekiel never mentions anything about sex – homosexuality as an orientation wasn’t even on Ezekiel’s radar when discussing the sin of Sodom.
Ezekiel wrote that Sodom “and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (16:49-50)
The warning of Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do with homosexuality. This story never mentions two men living in a committed same-sex relationship. It’s about the men of those towns refusing to show hospitality to strangers and refusing to meet the needs of the poor and the marginalized.
Indeed, the story of Sodom is also a warning. It tells us that when we unite violently against vulnerable people we are going against the will of God.
Today, our LGBTQ siblings are vulnerable. After all, 28 states in the US do not have explicit laws that protect our LGBTQ siblings from discrimination when it comes to employment, housing, and public accommodations. If they are anyone in the Sodom and Gomorrah story, they are the angels in our midst.
When Christians misuse this story as yet another way to unite against our LGBTQ siblings, we become the Sodomites who refuse to show hospitality.
Christians who misuse this story by making it against our LGBTQ siblings need to repent. Otherwise, Christianity will deservedly go the way of Sodom and Gomorrah. But if that happens, it won’t be because of God’s violence. It will be because of our own violence.
The only thing that has the potential to soften hearts is divine compassion.
The problem in the Sodom and Gomorrah story is human violence, but I think God’s violence is also problematic.
One could argue that God’s violence against Sodom and Gomorra was completely justified. After all, those cultures created many victims, so many that the story says that God heard a great “outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah” from their victims. Wouldn’t God be justified in destroying such oppressive cultures?
The problem with that justification is that it makes God into the biggest bully of all. As we saw in the first part of the series on Noah and the flood, the
character of God in this story only knows how to solve the problem of violence with more violence. But divine violence never actually solves the problem of human violence. Sure, Sodom and Gomorrah are gone forever, but other nations in the Bible and in our present day, are just as violently oppressive towards those who are vulnerable. God’s violence didn’t solve the problem of violence. In fact, it merely reinforces the false idea that violence is an appropriate way to solve our problems.
Is there an Alternative to Violence?
Throughout the Hebrew Bible there is a tension between a God who justifies violence against our enemies and a God who invites us to love our enemies through nonviolence. For example, one of the great enemies of Israel was a nation called Aram. Aram had a mighty general named Naaman, who terrorized the people of Israel through war and kidnapping their children.
But Naaman had leprosy. He tried all kinds of ways to heal his skin disease, but had no luck. One day, a girl he kidnaped from Israel to be his wife’s servant told him about the prophet Elisha, who could cure his disease.
Naaman traveled to Israel to find Elisha and pleaded for him to heal this great enemy of Israel. Elisha could have said, “You Arameans have terrorized us for long enough! You constantly make plans to harm us. And now I will call for God to do to you what was done to Sodom and Gomorrah!”
But instead of divine violence, Elisha showed divine compassion to his enemy. He gave Naaman instructions to wash his body in the river Jordan and his skin would be healed.
Naaman followed Elisha’s instructions and was healed. In response, Naaman said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
Throughout the Bible, we discover that divine violence never works. It only hardens hearts against God and God’s people. The only thing that has the potential to soften hearts is divine compassion.
Jesus and the Disciples – the Call to Nonviolence
Jesus traveled with his disciples through many towns that refused to welcome strangers, just like Sodom and Gomorrah. They once entered a town in Samaria, but the people of the town refused to accept Jesus and his disciples. Jesus had two options at this point. He could act like the God portrayed in the Sodom and Gomorrah story, or like the God of Elisha in the Naaman story.
Two of Jesus’ disciples, named James and John, suggested the Sodom and Gomorrah option. They said to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Can you blame James and John? After all, they had scriptural justification for this idea.
But Jesus didn’t follow the god portrayed in the Sodom and Gomorrah story. Rather, he followed the God of Elisha. Instead of rebuking the town of Samaria with fire and brimstone from heaven, Jesus rebuked his disciples for thinking that violence was ever a good idea. Instead of causing violence against the town, Jesus merely moved on to another village.
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Violence Is Not Divine, It is Human
Throughout the Bible we find a tension between divine violence and nonviolence. Many Christians want to reject the Old Testament because it portrays God as violent. I don’t want to reject the Old Testament because the Old Testament tells the truth about human violence. We always justify our violence in the name of some “higher good” – whether that good is God or peace or justice. Divine violence, whether it’s portrayed in the Old Testament or the New Testament, is a projection of our own violence onto God.
But the Old Testament, through stories like Naaman and Hosea’s demand that God desires steadfast love and not sacrifice, starts the process of teasing out the reality of human violence from the non-reality of divine violence. Ultimately, we find the non-reality of God’s violence in the Jewish Jesus, who lives out Elisha’s example of enemy love throughout his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus rebukes our demands for violence. He encourages us to seek justice not through violence, but through nonviolent acts guided by love.
So here are the main takeaways about God and violence when it comes to stories like Sodom and Gomorrah:
- The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not about homosexuality. It is not about two men or two women living in a committed relationship. The story is about gang rape.
- According to Ezekiel, the sin of Sodom was that it refused to help the poor and needy.
- Throughout the Bible, God is sometimes depicted as violent, but there’s another nonviolent strand that reveals God’s nonviolent love that embraces even God’s enemies, like Naaman.
- Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s nonviolent love. He reveals that violence is a human problem that belongs to us. Violence does not belong to God.
- Once we realize the problem is our violence and not God’s, we can take responsibility for it. As René Girard warns in his book The One By Whom Scandal Comes, “… the renunciation of violent reprisals is bound to become, in a more or obvious way, the indispensable condition of our survival” (20).
Questions to Ponder…
Here are some questions to ponder about this article: Does this interpretation make sense to you? Is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah about a lack of hospitality, gang rape, or homosexuality? Does the interpretation in this article about God’s nonviolence change the way you view other violent passages in the Bible? Did Jesus learn to love his enemies from stories in the Bible like the story of Elisha and Naaman? Why is Jesus depicted differently from violent stories about God in the Bible?