The Meaning of “Sodomy”

You know the definition of the English word sodomy? The word derives from the ancient city of Sodom, which was famously destroyed for their wickedness (Genesis 19).

So what made Sodom so wicked and worthy of destruction? The standard answer has been “sexual immorality,” specifically homosexuality. Sodom was destroyed because they sought sex with Lot’s two male guests. In Genesis 19:5, the people of Sodom called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, 1852

Yes, the people of Sodom sought same-sex relations, a practice that Bible denounces (cf. Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10). But homosexuality was not the core reason that God judged Sodom. Contemporary debates about sexuality, along with unawareness of honor-shame cultures, have misinterpreted Genesis 19.

The Sin of Sodom

The sin of Sodom was their lack of hospitality. They failed to properly honor their guests.

The story opens:

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”

“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”

But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate.

The opening scene recounts Lot’s extreme generosity and hospitality. When he sees the foreigners he offers to wash their feet and house them for the evening. They offer the mandatory, “No, thanks!”, but Lot insists a second time, “But you must come to my house!” The guests accept Lot’s offer, and enjoy a meal with fresh bread. If you have visited the Middle East (or any non-Western country), you can probably imagine this scene. This is a standard social interaction (cf. Acts 16:15).

The first three verses are about Lot’s generous hospitality and gracious welcome. Lot’s hospitality mirrors Abraham’s hospitality of the (same?) angels in 18:1-5. The parallels are unmistakable:

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” (Gen 18:1-5, NIV)

So Abraham and Lot are portrayed as welcoming hosts who extend a generous welcome to the divine guests. Then, in both stories, Genesis contrasts these righteous actions with the wickedness of Sodom (cf. Gen 18:16-22).

While Lot is hosting the divine guests, the story takes a dramatic turn.

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

The people of Sodom come to gang rape the two foreigners in Lot’s house. They are not seeking sexual relationships for physical pleasure, but they want to assert their power and domination over the outsiders. They wanted to send a message—“This is our territory! We are the masters here!” The atrocity of rape, especially gang rape, is worthy of heavens fire, regardless of the guests gender. The vicious act is one of domination and humiliation, not sexual pleasure (cf. Gen 34; Jud 19).

The scene switches back to Lot and his sacrificial hospitality.

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

Lot’s offer of his daughters is obviously absurd and baffling. Rather than guessing Lot’s intentions or morality here, let’s focus on the narrator’s rhetorical purpose. Lot is so hospitable he is willing to sacrifice everything—not just all the food in his pantry, but even his own daughters! Lot takes full responsibility for his guests, regardless of the cost. This admirable quality is the narrator’s main point. Lot is an honorable host.

But in contrast, the people of Sodom are so wicked, they threaten to rape Lot too.

“Get out of our way,” they replied. “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

Their words highlight their intentions—they wanted to treat foreigners terribly. They sought to project power over the outsiders. For the people of Sodom, gang rape was the path to authority and status.

In the end, the guests save Lot, and God’s judgment of fire destroys the entire city.

Ezekiel and Sodom

Despite modern meanings of “Sodom,” the Bible actually equates Sodom with stinginess, and never homosexuality. Ezekiel 16:49-50 explicitly defines the sin of Sodom.

“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She 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. 

The people of Sodom had resources to welcome the foreign guests, but they were arrogant. Instead of helping and serving their guests with honor (like Abraham and Lot), they sought to attack and humiliate the guests. They wanted to exalt themselves by demeaning and shaming others.

Sodom was known for being wicked long before this incident. Genesis 13:13 says, “Now the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.” Some therefore assume the sin must have been because of sexual perversion, and not “simply because of inhospitality.” But this reveals more about one’s cultural assumptions than the text of Genesis.

Jesus and Sodom

Jesus likewise assumes the sin of Sodom was the failure to honor outside guests. Jesus portrays Sodom as an archetype for inhospitality and destruction. He tells his disciples:

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. (Mt 10:14-15; cf. Lk 10:10-12)

In Matthew 11:18-24 Jesus denounces Capernaum because they have not welcomed and followed him despite the miracles they had seen. They will be destroyed like Sodom because they have denounced Jesus (much like Sodom rejected their divinely-sent guests).

Conclusion

The people of Sodom refused to welcome their guests, so they were judged and destroyed. Such behavior is the antithesis of Abraham and Lot, whose righteous hospitality brought deliverance and blessing. And in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus warns that all such unwelcoming “sodomites” will face an eternal destruction. 

 

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22 comments on “The Meaning of “Sodomy”
  1. Andrew Bartlett says:

    Thoughtful. Thank you.
    But does Lot’s offer of his daughters have to be regarded as so absurd and baffling? Verse 14 shows that they were not there in the house. So, wasn’t Lot playing for time and looking for a way of escape?

  2. Rainer Ehmann says:

    Thank you.

  3. Louie Hill says:

    That is awesome teaching. Thanks very much!

  4. Doug Heck says:

    Great article! Masterfully cleat, making a really important point. Thanks

  5. Judy Cochran says:

    To suggest that the Lord destroyed Sodom because of their “lack of hospitality” is to grossly minimize the “very grave” sin of Sodom referred to in the previous chapter (Gen.18:20). There was more going on in Sodom than a lack of hospitality. 2 Peter 2 says “…he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked..” It is true that Christians should demonstrate love by being hospitable, but you missed the mark on the reason for Sodom’s demise.

    • Joyce says:

      I heartily agree. Everyone wants to white wash the sin of homosexuality so people will be lulled into accetance.

      • HonorShame says:

        So, I actually agree with your position, but based on other passages. My point in this post is NOT about the morality of homosexuality, but about the author’s intended meaning, which often gets lost when we see to for our ethics/theology before listening close to the theology/purpose of the text.

  6. Judy Cochran says:

    It is simply incorrect to suggest that the reason God destroyed Sodom is because of their “lack of hospitality.” Sodom’s sin problem extends far beyond that. The Lord said in Genesis 18:20, “…the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave.” 2 Peter 2:7-8 says, “…he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard).” Yes, Christians are to demonstrate love by being hospitable, but you did not correctly identify the reasons behind God’s wrath toward Sodom and Gomorrah.

  7. Little confused about how the title relates to the contents or the article (which is quite interesting)

    • HonorShame says:

      Yes, I actually thought the same thing just recently! I came up with that title before completing the article (thinking it would go a certain direction, but didn’t in the end). In hindsight, I realize a more accurate title may have been, “What Westerners Get Wrong About Sodomy,” or “Who is a ‘Sodomite.'” Thanks for mentioning this. I have updated to title to: “The Meaning of ‘Sodomy'”

  8. Eric says:

    Hard to tell if this is another parody… but I’ll respond anyway.

    The Sodomites were fine with foreigners until Lot called out their immorality. For instance, Lot choose to settle and stay there. As a foreigner, if they did this to him right off the bat, he would have left sooner. But the moment Lot called their gang rape immoral that is when they got defensive and called Lot an outsider and turned to attack him. It’s more like Judges 17 or 21 where everyone wanted to do what was right in their own ideas and this group decided to attack anyone who questioned their ethics.

    Also why would you say: “The vicious act is one of domination and humiliation, not sexual pleasure (cf. Gen 34; Jud 19)”. In Gen 34, verses 3 and 8 explicitly state that it was for sexual pleasure and all throughout the rest of the chapter Shechem was open towards sharing the land with them (10) as long as he could take her. Again in Judges 19, it really seems like a stretch to say those acts were not about sexual pleasure. In v22 a bunch of worthless fellows got drunk and wanted to satisfy themselves so they again went to gang rape a man. If the desire was not sexual then why would they settle for the women when they were offered? Clearly they had the power.

    Furthermore to state that “Despite modern meanings of “Sodom,” the Bible actually equates Sodom with stinginess, and never homosexuality” seems like quite the stretch (though it does equate them with both). In Ezekiel 16, the detestable things they did (sins of commission) are those acts. The Hebrew word translated “detestable” refers to something that is morally disgusting and is the exact same word used in Leviticus 18:22 that refers to homosexuality as an “abomination.”

    Also what is the connection with Westerners specifically? If you are talking about the US, in terms of poverty you can never eliminate it, but can you point to a society that does that much better than the US and explain why? If you are talking about US Christians, again could you explain why? Statistically, I have seen that they are some of the most generous on the planet in terms of giving. Or if you are talking about Christians who support immigration restriction, even there I still don’t get the connection. I think Christians on both sides agree that at some point the US needs to restrict immigration the question is how much and can we come up with a system that works, correct? Especially considering that in the political sphere the proposals are free college and free health care for all. These policies with open borders are totally unsustainable. So again what is the connection with Westerners?

    • HonorShame says:

      Hi Eric, I appreciate your thoughts here. Thanks for taking the time to write these. Here are a few (quick) responses that come to mind.

      You are right that the people of Sodom didn’t call out Lot until he spoke against them. However, their threat against Lot was simply a repeat of their desire to have and “know” (sexual intercourse) Lot’s guest. The people of Sodom came to get Lot’s guest as soon as they arrived, not just after Lot spoken against them.

      Good point about them seeking pleasure through the action. My point is that they were not seeking relational intimacy through the sexual act, but more to exert control and authority, which they would have certainly derived pleasure/satisfaction from.

      Yes, the Bible does speak of same-sex intercourse as detestable. And the phrase in Ez 16:50 “detestable things” does seemingly to refer to their sexual behavior. But as was my point with Gen 19, so here in Ez 16, the main focus tends to be on their arrogance and haughtiness in demeaning others, which happened to take the form of homosexual domination.

      About the connection with “Westerners”, great points. See the my comment below about how was a mistake, and why I changed the title to ‘The Meaning of “Sodomy’ ”

      Thanks again! Hopefully this clarifies and corrects a few things.

      Peace,
      Jayson

  9. Eric says:

    Also Jud 1:7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

  10. Eric says:

    Wow, thank you for this understanding of this passage. The presuppositions we bring when we read scripture are often hard to detect.

  11. Steve says:

    The role of homosexuality in this story is much like its role in Paul’s argument in Romans 1. Paul doesn’t argue there that same-sex sexuality is wrong. He assumes that his readers will already think so, and so he uses it as evidence of the fruits of idolatry. Here too in Gen 19, the author assumes that this behavior will be viewed negatively by his audience, so he uses it to demonstrate the inhospitable hostility of the Sodomites.

  12. Don L says:

    Regarding:
    Despite modern meanings of “Sodom,” the Bible actually equates Sodom with stinginess, and never homosexuality.

    What about Jude 7?

    “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” Jude 7 (NIV)

    • HonorShame says:

      Don, thanks for this comment. I was wrong, in that I overlooked this verse when writing the original post. So, I have edited the post to be more accurate, in light of Jude 7 and the similar passage of 2 Peter 2:7. Thanks for mentioning these verses. As I was reviewing the passage in context, the words of 2 Peter 2:1 were sobering and convicting.

    • HonorShame says:

      Several helpful comments brought to my attention the verses of Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:7, verses which I overlooked while writing this post. I apologize for that. These two verses do mention that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah “indulged in homosexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire” and had “sensual/lewd conduct.” While it is true their sexual behavior was condemned and judged, I still think the focus of Genesis 19 is more about (not) welcoming guests (who happen to be ‘God’s’ people) than solely about sexual (im)morality. This is not to separate out the two issues, as their sexual behavior was the very means by which they humiliated and demeaned their guests. This seems to be the narrator’s rhetorical point in Genesis 19, and the later interpretations by Ezekiel and Jesus. 

  13. HonorShame says:

    Hi all, thanks for the helpful comments. You have pointed out several mistakes with the original post, which I have attempted to correct. Hopefully this current version and my replies to comments address those earlier issues.

    Jayson

  14. Rainer Ehmann says:

    I have read “Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes.” So now I am studying and preaching through Romans. Chapter one verse 24-25: 24 Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (CSB)

    God judges mankind for forsaking Him and worshiping creation by delivering them over to sexual immorality, one prominent venue of this being homosexuality. My humble take on this: by rejecting the transcendence of God, God refuses to let us enjoy the otherness of the opposite sex.

    The list then goes on with 21 abominable sins God hates. And the long list leads to the statement: “God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance.” THESE kinds of evil people are the very people God wants to save. What a message!

    Is it possible that Sodom’s true sin was pride that then expressed itself, among other things, in homosexuality? Ezekiel 16:48-50 fist attacks the pride which knew no hospitality and then states that this was lived out in “detestable acts”? So, yes, Sodom got judged for living in homosexual debauchery (Jude 7), which is the consequence of a life of pride and egotism (Ez 16:48-50). And then we’re back to Jesus denouncing those who will not receive Him in general (Mt 10:15) and Capernaum in specific (Mt 11:23-24) for their refusal of the salvation message, and not for their morals.

    Here, with Jesus, as with Paul, the concern is much less about morals than about receiving the Savior or rejecting Him out of inflated pride.

    I think this discussion has the makings of changing our way of evangelizing. I love it.

  15. Rainer Ehmann says:

    I have to re-phrase one sentence:

    My humble take on this: by rejecting the transcendence of God, God refuses to let us enjoy the otherness of the opposite sex.

    It should read:
    My humble take on this: because we (or people) are rejecting the transcendence of God, God refuses to let us enjoy the otherness of the opposite sex.

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