Friday, January 1, 2016

Setting the Record Straight: Sodom and Gomorrah

As I was sitting in Sunday School one afternoon, we were reviewing the signs of the Second Coming. The instructor asked what some of the signs were, and the class began to name the standard ones: natural disasters, rumors of wars, etc. Then one burly man raised his hand and said that accepting homosexuality into our society was a sure sign that we were going to be destroyed soon, and that no civilization had survived once they had allowed this terrible sin to flourish in their communities. Once the lesson moved on, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked in a whisper if he could name for me a few of those civilizations. He was a little surprised at my question and muttered something about the Greeks and Romans.
Now as a Classicist I knew something about the Greeks and Romans, and as a gay man I knew something about homosexuality. I was pretty sure that it wasn’t as clear-cut to say that all civilizations fall X number of years after homosexuality becomes accepted. In fact, the Thebans had an elite fighting force comprised solely of homosexual couples called the Sacred Band, and they actually beat the Spartans to establish a brief Theban Empire!  Furthermore, homosexuality exists in all populations, with or without cultural consent. The only difference is how openly it is allowed to be practiced. Historically speaking, his claim had little evidence to back it up.

No, I believe my fellow ward member was drawing on his cultural background of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Christianity has a 2000 year long tradition of interpreting this story as God’s personal condemnation of homosexuality. When else has he rained down fire on a city?

But when we look more closely at this story, we may realize that we’ve been giving too much weight to how sinful homosexuality really is. Does this brief account alone tell us that sodomy is a Sin of sins? Let’s review the relevant verses in Genesis 19:4-10:

But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter. And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, “Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.” And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, and said, “I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.” And they said, “Stand back.” And they said again, “This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge: now will we deal worse with thee, than with them.” And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and came near to break the door. But the men put forth their hand, and pulled Lot into the house to them, and shut to the door.

To start, let’s first turn to the LDS Sunday School manual:

1. The sins of Sodom and Gomorrah
As suggested in Genesis 19:4–11 and in the Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis 19:9–15, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah engaged in grievous sexual sins. But these sins, while severe, were not the only sins for which the cities were destroyed. Have a class member read Ezekiel 16:49–50 aloud, and discuss with the class the other sins of which people in Sodom and Gomorrah were guilty. Help class members understand that we can be destroyed by seemingly small sins as well as by large ones.

Here’s Ezekial 16:49-50:

Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good.

So Sodom and Gomorrah had the same problem as the Nephites when they were destroyed, namely pride and an unwillingness to share their abundant wealth with the poor or to credit the God that had given it to them. But the Book of Mormon makes no mention of the Nephites being punished for homosexuality, even as their cities were destroyed (and in some cases, burned). And when you look up Sodom and Gomorrah in other verses, their sins are only mentioned in general terms. Yet for some reason we’ve come to associate the principle sin of Sodom as homosexuality, and assume that it is worse than all other sins.

To some degree we have the Jewish philosopher Philo (25 B.C.–50 A.D.) to thank for that. In his book On Abraham, he was the first to describe Sodom as suffering as a consequence of their sexual misconduct. Until this point all rabbinical commentaries had followed Ezekiel in using Sodom and a cautionary tale against pride and selfishness. There is no biblical association with Sodom and homosexuality until the epistle of Jude, written a decade or two after Philo’s death. It seems very likely that Jude drew on Philo’s interpretation of Sodom’s destruction for sexual misconduct when he was preaching against the practice of homosexuality, preserving the idea for future Christians.

But can we really compare what happened in Sodom with modern day homosexual practices? In Sodom, what we have is gang rape. A group of men want to forcefully violate two unwilling male victims, possibly as a show of power as much as to sate their lusts. In modern times, we have two consenting adults who love each other and wish to enter into a committed relationship. They often want to sacrifice of their own resources to raise the biological children of others. Call me crazy, but I can’t see God as seeing those as sins of equal severity.

As our doctrine now stands, any sexual relations outside the bonds of a heterosexual marriage are considered sinful. Until President Monson receives revelation to the contrary, even a committed homosexual relationship would be a sin. But to privilege that sin over the sins of pride, greed, indifference, murder, heterosexual fornication, adultery, and rape, to say that homosexuality is the principle cause of a civilization’s downfall seems to be an egregious error. When we do this, it makes those who are queer in the room feel attacked or unwanted, and we are much more likely to leave the Church when we feel unloved there. It seems as though we are examining the mote in another person’s eye so that we can ignore the beam in our own. As Church members we have a duty to teach against sin as we understand it from the revelations of God, but we shouldn’t focus on one sin that we personally aren’t committing and ignore the sins that we do have.

So whenever we teach the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from now on, let us not jump on the gay-bashing wagon. This story has nothing to do with modern homosexuality, and really doesn’t help us to become more Christ-like if we take it that way. Could we instead think on how we ourselves might be grouping together to bully a minority living among us? Are we prideful or idle or do we turn away the poor and the needy? I feel as though we would gain much more from this story if we truly likened it to ourselves and not to the gay couple living down the street.

1 comment:

  1. Really excellent point. Beautiful, actually. I had never actually considered many of the angles that you present here. I look forward to more from your blog. Keep it up!