Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Genesis 19 - maybe part 1 of more, maybe not

There is quite a lot of dodgy sex stuff in Genesis 19-20, all against the background of the difficult story of Isaac's conception and birth, sidetracked as it got with Hagar's concubinage and the fathering of Ishmael.

In Genesis 19 a rapacious sexuality* asserts itself (19:1-29), then incest creeps in (almost literally on a drunken Lot, 19:30-38). Sarah herself, despite advancing years, is attractive to Abimelech, king of Gerar, who acts on the attraction, takes her, then hands her back on discovery through a dream that she is not Abraham's sister but his wife (20:1-18).

What is going on here? A setting out of ethics via narrative? At the least the narratives illustrate some of the proscribed behaviours in Leviticus 18 - as does the story of Abraham nearly but not sacrificing his child Isaac (Genesis 22; cf. Leviticus 18:21). A settling of ancient scores? This is particularly noticeable in the stories of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael and Lot, his daughters and their (grand)sons, Moab and Ben-ammi. The emergent nations from these children are of dubious parentage, forever slurred within the history Israel tells itself.

The material we are working with in Genesis 19:1-29 is enigmatic, ambiguous, and contributory to inter-textual echoes throughout the Bible. Some kind of spiritual warfare is going on: angels manifesting as humans become the occasion for rapacious, violent, inhospitable behaviour. The men of Sodom wish to dominate and desecrate them - a vicious manifestation of prior wickedness within the city. But these are not ordinary humans they try to intimidate. As angels they have extraordinary power. They rescue Lot from the vindictive bullying of the assailants, blind the bullies, and destroy the city. Fiery, sulphuric desolation is the fate of Sodom, and of nearby Gomorrah.

The story is 'classic' spiritual warfare: good versus evil; evil appears to have victory in its grasp; but good triumphs and evil is vanquished.

The reactive destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is of a piece with the story of Noah: wickedness increases on the earth, but it will be checked, and then defeated. If my beginning observation was about dodgy sexuality being narrated through Genesis 19 and 20, a closing observation could be that dodgy humanity is being narrated through these chapters. People can be incredibly righteous (Abraham, many references in Genesis), very caring (Abraham as intercessor for Sodom in Genesis 18:22-33), full of integrity (Abimelech in Genesis 20), and quite stupid (Lot's wife and Lot's sons-in-law, Genesis 19:14,26). But people can also behave badly, so very badly that destruction is the consequence (Genesis 19:1-29).

Why Israel would tell such stories is not hard to fathom. Israel's calling is to be righteous, caring, and to act with integrity. This elect nation should be very clear that wickedness is intolerable to God. But it can be encouraged to trust God who is merciful - to people such as Lot who is not very wise, but has not completely given way to wickedness, to Abimelech who makes an innocent mistake, to Hagar and Ishmael who have been entangled in a complicated moral situation not of their own making - and patient but slow spiritual learners such as Abraham and Sarah. In certain moments Israel is a Lot, an Abimelech, a Hagar and an Ishmael. But mostly Israel is Abraham and Sarah. Called by God. Promised through a covenant to receive a great future. But impatient, unseeing, lacking faith, fearful, while also understanding something of the mercy and love which God asks of them.

With respect to modern concern about homosexuality, Genesis 19 tells us very little. We can only understand ethical imperatives which the narrative touches on (to do with homosexuality, incest) through other texts (such as Leviticus 18). The narrative itself is more interested in other lessons such as avoiding complete moral degradation, and seeking righteous and wise ways of living.

Yet the narrative challenges us in one way in respect of our times. When so much of our discussion is on what we think Scripture means, whether the church might bless or approve such and such a relationship, or not, these chapters in Genesis confront us with the God who sees exactly what we do, who acts mercifully and punitively, though never capriciously. [ADDED NOTE: the view taken here is that Sodom was punished because of its general wickedness, to which the reader begins to be alerted in 18:16-33].

If we seek from Genesis 19 an answer to an ethical question we find no answer which can be isolated from other relevant texts, but we meet the One to whom we all answer for the way we live.

*My initial post had 'homosexuality' here instead of 'sexuality'. I have been thinking further because I acknowledge that 'homosexuality' is a much debated word in this kind of context. Some, for example, advancing the thought that this nineteenth century coined word should only be used to refer to 'modern homosexuality', and perhaps specifically to 'same sex attraction' as opposed to 'same sex sexual activity' which might not involve 'same sex attraction' as understood via modern psychologists. Thus, on this line of understanding, men seeking to dominate other men via sex are not necessarily homosexual, neither are Hellenistic older males and their younger boy friends, all destined later to take up a happy married life. The weakness with this distinction between modern and ancient worlds is that if homosexuality is a phenomenon occurring in nature, including within human experience, then it is not a suddenly appearing feature, but a recurring feature. Ipso facto, it was a part of ancient Middle Eastern life as well as of (say) modern Californian life. I conclude therefore that homosexuality may be properly used in connection with things to do with 'same sex' in ancient times as well as modern. Whether it ought not to be used about men acting out sexually with men for motivations other than attraction is an interesting question. I cannot see a difficulty in taking a word such as homosexuality to speak generally of same sex matters: attraction, as well as activity, whatever the motivation(s) of the latter. There would then need to be clarification through appropriate adjectives and phrasing.

In the case of Sodom it is possible that the rapacious men were motivated by a need to dominate and not by attraction. But I do not see enough detail in the story to rule out attraction playing a role. Not least, of course, because the offer of Lot's daughters was specifically turned down. Either way, what is narrated at Sodom is a vicious and violent expression of sexuality. It would be a long bow being drawn that used this story to condemn all expressions of homosexuality. And that bow is not being drawn here. Nevertheless I shall refrain from using 'homosexuality' here and use a more neutral-for-this-context 'sexuality'.


  1. "In Genesis 19 a rapacious homosexuality asserts itself (19:1-29)"

    Surely on a serious hermeneutics site such an unqualified statement is indefensible. The Bible itself makes no reference to homosexuality here and interprets it as a sin against hospitality and justice.

    It is you that make the connection with Leviticus 18. The text does not.

    Is this a serious post or a spoof? "Genesis 19 confront(s) us with the God who sees what we do, who acts mercifully and punitively, though never capriciously". The story has "God" kill ALL but a few of this massive city. All. And from your post because they were ALL gay (except the few). How in your view did they reproduce and become such a massive population? Babies, infants, children - ALL killed by the "non-capricious" "God". Because they were ALL gay.

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Let me see: men want to have sex with men, even when presented with the opportunity to have sex with women (Genesis 19). I think homosexuality is involved, but, as the story makes clear, it is rapacious in intent, rather than loving or compassionate.

    Later in Ezekiel an interpretation is given of the wickedness of Sodom: a sin against hospitality and justice. Hence my statement "angels manifesting as humans become the occasion for rapacious, violent, inhospitable behaviour" acknowledges that interpretation. Ezekiel's interpretation is not the only one present in the Bible: Jude 7 should also be reckoned with, and, I think, Romans 1.

    The text makes no direct connection with Leviticus 18 but there is increasing recognition today that the Bible makes all sorts of internal connections - citing, allusions, echoes, and the like. It is both possible and plausible to read stories in Genesis as illustrative of ethical concerns written elsewhere in the Penteteuch. Please note the word 'illustrative' and the way in which I am trying to argue that we should not read ethical imperatives out of these stories, but rather read them out of those parts of the Bible which actually offer ethical imperatives.

    Clearly I have not been clear enough for you about why God visited destruction on Sodom. Though I did not say "because they were ALL gay", and did say things such as "wickedness is intolerable to God" and "The men of Sodom wish to dominate and desecrate them - a vicious manifestation of prior wickedness within the city", perhaps I need to add an explanatory sentence: Sodom was punished because of its general wickedness, to which the reader begins to be alerted in 18:16-33.

  3. "men want to have sex with men, even when presented with the opportunity to have sex with women"

    Are you actually reading the text, or just making this up from a Sunday School lesson! If this is the level of exegesis in your church that is debating this particular text at a "hui", then why are you actually bothering to meet? Please let your readers know WHERE it actually says "men want to have sex with men". Are you bringing your prejudices to the text and then finding there what you wish to find there?!

    "I did not say "because they were ALL gay""
    Again, please show us where you find this in the actual text. 19:4 has every person from Sodom around Lot's house making their demands - which according to YOU is "men want to have sex with men, even when presented with the opportunity to have sex with women"

  4. Hi Anonymous
    It could be helpful to have your reading of the text because it would be helpful to check that we are reading the same text. Would you be prepared to supply that? Thank you in anticipation.

    In respect of your comments/questions above:
    (1) When the men of Sodom surround Lot's house, according to Genesis 19:5 (REB), "They called out to Lot: "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may have intercourse with them." In verses 6-8 Lot stands in their way and offers his daughters to them instead. This they refuse in verse 9 and they move to break down Lot's door. At that point the visiting angels intervene and the interest and opportunity in sex ceases. I take this to involve 'men want to have sex with men'.

    There is an alternative reading possible in which 'intercourse' is social intercourse, just a bit of a chat. But I do not see that reading as valid here because it is difficult to explain why Lot would say their conduct is 'so wicked' (verse 7) or why he would offer his daughters to them.

    (2) "I did not say "because they were ALL gay" is a reference to my understanding of the story from Genesis 18-19 that the punishment of God is on Sodom for its general wickedness not for its gayness. If it were solely for the latter I do not see in Genesis 18 where this is a specific concern amidst the general concern there for Sodom's wickedness, nor in Genesis 19 where this is a specific reason for its destruction.

    I am genuinely interested in your alternative reading and look forward to receiving it!

  5. I was still reeling from your approach, wondering if this really is the acceptable level of Bible study in your church, when I noticed your comment on the sidebar: “we have not done work ourselves on how we understand the Bible…” At least you are prepared to acknowledge this. But then what is a hermeneutics “hui” if in your church people have not done any work on reading the Bible?

    No one, until the Christian era, understood Gen 19 as referring to homosexuality. That includes the Babylonian Talmud.

    Your interpretation is clearly bazaar. The text says anshei ha'ir, anshei S'dom. That may include women and children – even leaving that aside and making it all the men of the town, the suggestion that they all sought to “have intercourse with them” should make you pause and check the bias of your translation. Especially if Lot, knowing this to be the tendency of all the men, then offers his daughters instead!!!

    Ya,da as you should know is used nearly a thousand times in the Bible. In only a dozen of these is there any allusion to sexual intercourse, to the point of some arguing it can never be translated merely as sexual intercourse. In the dozen cases it is always heterosexual intercourse. Surely that should make you pause and check again the bias of your translation. 1% chance intercourse is involved. No other example of this verb used in a homosexual way.

    Lot argues against their seeking to Ya,da them, not by arguing homosexuality is a naughty thing, but “for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof” 19:8

    They came under the shadow of his roof because of the code of hospitality to strangers, to those who are different.

    The Biblical interpretation that inhospitality is involved is reinforced by our knowledge that Sodom was a tiny fortress in the barren wasteland south of the Dead Sea. The only strangers that the people of Sodom ever saw were enemy tribes who wanted to destroy and take over their valuable fortress and the trade routes that it protected. You will know the context of this passage: the city had recently survived just such an attack, and may have been on high alert.

    Far from the homophobic interpretation of the text, Genesis 19 in fact is about the fear (like homophobia) and anger of a mob (like many misguided religious fanatics) directed against a small group of isolated strangers (like Gays and Lesbians today) in their midst. Sexual orientation is not the issue here or anywhere else in the Bible.

    That this interpretation is unknown to you should be cause for self-examination by you and your church as a few minutes actually researching the text, even on the internet, would have resulted in seeing an alternative to the error of your appalling translation and interpretation.

  6. Hi Anonymous
    Phrasing your critique here with, say, "the error of your appalling translation and interpretation" does not cut much ice with me. The translation I cited, REB = Revised English Version, is an elegant and erudite translation stemming from an interdenominational, broad church heritage. The reading I am offering contrasts with the reading you offer (thank you for providing it) but the fact that an alternative reading can be offered does not thereby make it either valid, or the only valid reading.

    What I have offered is in line, for instance, with W. Sibley Towner, Genesis, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2001, page 172, when he writes,

    "We learn how rotten Sodom really was. All the men and boys of Sodom gather around the house and demand that Lot turn the visitors out so that they might "know" (read: rape) them. Lot, still scornfully regarded as a foreigner (v. 9), has the courage to place himself between the crowd and his door and to implore them to desist. His nobility tarnishes before our latter day eyes, though, when he offers to let women pay the price that will preserve the integrity of the honoured guests. He offers to let the crowd rape his virgin daughter (v. 8)."

    Last time I checked Westminster John Knox Press were and are not a particularly "conservative" press. For a "conservative" publisher, but well respected, backing up the line I take, I point you in the direction of the Word Biblical Commentary on Genesis 16-50 by Gordon Wenham.

    You are free to be appalled by these commentators also. But I wouldn't mind some conceding that there might be something vaguely "acceptable" about the "level" I am offering!!

    A level, I remind you, that Jude himself (Jude 7) operates at.

  7. “Elegant and erudite translations stemming from interdenominational, broad church heritages” have been used to justify apartheid, anti-semitism, slavery, the silencing and oppression of women, divisions between Christians, et cetera.

    I continue to be appalled that you give not a whisper of any alternative understanding of Genesis 19 from contemporary scholarship that echoes every Jewish exegesis of their text prior to the Christian era.

    In your revision of your original post you continue to assume, “Either way, what is narrated at Sodom is a vicious and violent expression of sexuality.” Your inability to acknowledge any other interpretation but your own leads me to continue to assert most vigorously here an alternative reading, in this case the traditional, conservative reading.

    I see not the slightest movement from you “conceding that there might be something vaguely "acceptable" about the "level" I am offering!!”

    That you are now adding your confused reading of Jude 7 to your confused reading of Genesis 19 does nothing to enhance your attempts at scholarship. To bring this verse in, which pivots on the word “heteros” as an argument for a homosexual reading of Genesis 19 is ironic indeed! Jude’s careful choice of “heteras” rather than “homoios” should have given you pause before you added Jude as supporting your reading. Even many anti-gay Christians do not see Jude 7 as condemning homosexuality. Conservative Calvinist Bible teacher John MacArthur rejects the convoluted attempts to have Jude 7 serve the anti-gay agenda. Or check The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 12, Zondervan, Jude, p. 390, or Dr. Robert Gagnon’s interpretation from Pittsburg Theological Seminary.

  8. Hi Anonymous
    I am offering a reading here. You are offering one too. I am publishing that. I have also acknowledged the alternative reading in which 'intercourse' or 'know' is social communication. And expressed my disagreement with that!

    I would be interested to know whether your comment, "any alternative understanding of Genesis 19 from contemporary scholarship that echoes every Jewish exegesis of their text prior to the Christian era" includes Philo, De Abrahamo, 133-136, or not. Philo, of course, straddling the beginnings of the Christian era, but not (as far as I am aware) influenced by Christian exegesis?

    The point about Jude 7 is not whether it condemns homosexuality per se, but whether it supports a reading of Genesis 19 in which sexual sin figures in the understanding of wickedness present (alongside inhospitality, as per Ezekiel). I think it supports that reading, though its specific interest in the sexual sin at Sodom appears to be slightly different to the traditional (Christian) view of what sexual sin figures in Genesis 19.

  9. Hi Peter,
    As one who has been charged by your organising committee with the task of offering an interpretation of Genesis 19 at the forthcoming hermeneutics hui, it has been illuminating to sit back and watch this discussion so far, but it would be remiss of me not to offer you some support at this point. Without yielding for a moment to the derisory pretensions of your anonymous interlocutor about the level of scholarship participants will bring to our hui (After all, what do brief displays of learning tell us about the scholarship of any anonymous commentor, especially when they display such arrogance as this one?), I would like to indicate the reading I will be arguing for.

    1. Sodom and Gomorrah became a biblical commonplace for God's destructive judgement upon collective sin. The prophetic topos is, "Unless we repent of our collective sins, we will become like Sodom and Gomorrah." The major question following from this is what the canonical literature regards as the distinctive sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that made them so much more worthy do divine punishment than other societies.
    2. English usuage has derived the term "sodomy" from this biblical story to refer to anal intercourse. That later linguistic fact does not indicate that this represents sound exegesis of the text, or the common mind of traditional interpreters. It is in fact important to ask, "The great sin of Sodom - was it sodomy?"
    3. The narrative and subsequent early commentary, including descriptions of Lot's contrasting virtues, make it clear that a canonical reading of the narrative is that both inhospitality and intended rape are in view as evidence of the social corruption of Sodom. The question remains as to whether the same-sex nature of the intended rape made it worse.
    4. An important canonical aspect of this text is its close parallel in Judges 19. Each story has similar features, including inhospitality and rape, except that the rape in Judges 19 was heterosexual and ended in murder. Was the greater judgement on Sodom indicative of God's particular intolerance of all sex? I will argue that, on the contrary, his leniency towards the offending tribe of Benjamin is better explained by another biblical principle, that if God's people judge themselves as Israel did in this instance, then they will be spared the judgement of God.
    5. A further element of Sodom's sin, drawn from both the textual and canonical contexts of Genesis 19, is the "impiety" of the inhabitants, in the sense of their failure to intuitively recognise the angelic visitors for who they were. Indeed, this may have been their fundamental offence, once we look past the counter-example of Lot to the even more important figure of Abraham... although, as you have pointed out, even he was far from perfect.

    There you are, more grist for the mill.

  10. Thanks Howard. Support appreciated. So far, on the basis of what you give above, I see myself in significant agreement with you in each of the steps you outline.

  11. Oops! Typo detected ..."all sex" in my point 4 should read "anal sex".