Genesis 19

A viscous attempt at rape.  An immigrant family fleeing for their lives.  Sulfur and fire raining down upon the unrighteous.  With elements like these, it is not surprising that the story of the judgment and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah found in Genesis 19 has arrested the attention of Scripture readers throughout the millennia.  A surprising and unexpected interlude amid the story of God’s covenant-building with Abraham, this text is well-known in Jewish and Christian religious circles and is even somewhat recognizable to people outside these circles.  As a thrilling yet terrifying text, this narrative has not only been read many times over; it has also inspired a great deal of commentary. Herein lies the problem: The judgment against Sodom and its subsequent destruction in Michael Bay-esque fashion is so intriguing that scholarly commentators and casual readers alike have spilled copious amounts of ink trying to figure out just exactly what the cause of it all was.  What was it that made God so displeased with a city that God would entirely destroy it and the surrounding region ?  Many theories have been put forth and unfortunately many of these have laid the blame on the perceived homosexuality of the male Sodomites.  Interpretations of this nature make this text not only terrifying on account of what it depicts but also because of the ways it has been used against members of the LGBTQ community right up to the present day.  Thankfully, these anti-LGBTQ readings are not the only possibilities for the text. Readers need not view this narrative as a means of ostracizing and oppressing the queer community.

Before taking up the various interpretations of the text, we must first see what is going on in the narrative at hand.  Immediately before chapter 19, God tells Abraham that a great outcry has been made against Sodom and Gommorah and that God is sending messengers to see if the city truly deserves  destruction on account of its sins (Genesis 18:16-21).  The messengers arrive and are taken in by Lot, Abraham’s nephew who is a resident alien in Sodom (Gen. 19: 1-3).  After dinner, however, the story takes a turn. The men of Sodom (specifically all the men of the city) come upon Lot’s home and demand to be given the visitors “so that [they] might know them” (Gen 19:4-5). Lot tries to turn the crowd away from its horrific mission by offering something that is, at least in his mind, less awful. He tries to give them his virgin daughters, but the men refuse the offer and continue their demands (Gen 19:6-9). After this hectic scene, the heavenly messengers declare that Sodom must be destroyed. Subsequently, God pours out sulfur and fire on the entire region, while Lot and his family are allowed to escape to another town (Gen. 19:12-29).

It is not too difficult to see how interpreters have decided to lay the blame for Sodom’s destruction on the homoerotic desires of the town’s men.  This sort of interpretation of the text is fairly common in both Jewish and Christian circles, but it is more prevalent among Christian readers.[1]  Many interpreters in this strand make it clear that God is displeased with the sexual perversity of the Sodomites,  whose sexual deviancy is so vile that the only just recourse is to totally wipe the people from the face of the earth.  While the violent and domineering nature of the men’s attack is often taken into account, commentators make the case that it is the “unnatural lust” of the Sodomites that secures their destruction.[2]  Similarly, historical-critical commentators argue that Israel thought of Sodom as “the example of greatest depravity that men could think of.” [3]  While such interpretations often leave the nature of the depravity unspoken, it is clear that the Sodomites’ sexual lusts are at least part of the problem. For instance, von Rad offers other possibilities for the nature of Sodom’s depravity, but he also notes that God’s messengers must be thought of “as young men in their prime, whose beauty particularly incited evil desire.”[4]  Nowhere in the text is any mention made of the messengers’ physical appearance; von Rad’s remark is entirely fabricated.  Yet his interpretation further ties the depravity of Sodom to the sin of homosexual desire. There may be other things of which the Sodomites are guilty, but their evil lust for these gorgeous men clearly plays a prominent role in their eventual destruction.

These types of readings focus a great deal of attention on the men of Sodom’s sexual desires.  Being thus focused on perceived homosexuality, commentators are often quick to generalize the evil of the Sodomites to all people who seek sexual congress with someone of the same sex.  While Genesis 19 may not be the primary text used by anti-LGBTQ activists (Leviticus 18:33 and 20:13 are much more straightforward in their eyes and thus much more desirable), this narrative still gets cited as an example of God’s displeasure with homosexuality.  Indeed, some people go so far as to say that creating inclusive societies wherein members of the LGBTQ community can pursue love openly and freely would invite God’s wrath and lead to the destruction of the nation.  Through these pundits, Genesis 19 becomes an oppressive text, a sign that God loves some people but despises others.  Further, because the men of Sodom seek to satiate their “depraved desires” in a violent manner, anti-LGBTQ activists often use this text to imply that all homosexual people are not only sexually deviant but societally deviant as well.

This passage of Scripture, along with so many others, has been twisted and weaponized to oppress the queer community. Thankfully these oppressive readings are not the only interpretations available to us today.  Many commentators, who either come out of the queer community or who seek to deconstruct heteronormativity, argue that this passage does not condemn homosexuality in the slightest. Miguel de la Torre declares: “To claim that homosexuality is the sin of Sodom is problematic.”[5]  He also states that the biblical witness does not agree on the sin of Sodom. In fact, he argues, many different sins are offered up as explanations (for example, in Ezekiel, Amos, and Isaiah), but none of these texts places the blame on the men of Sodom’s sexual desires.[6]  Indeed, the link between the sin of Sodom and homosexual sex appears to have been a late addition to the biblical interpretational game: Such a link was not made until Philo of Alexandria came along at the turn of the era and did not really pick up steam until the 3rd century C.E.[7] If the sin of Sodom has not always been equated with homosexuality, what are other possible options?  Many contemporary commentators focus on the issue of inhospitality and violent oppression.  De la Torre is emphatic on this point: “The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, according to the Bible, was a lack of justice done in the name of the society’s dispossessed. God’s anger consumes Sodom and Gomorrah because of the dominant culture’s refusal to show hospitality to those residing on their margins.”[8]  Thus, the story of Sodom’s destruction is not a condemnation of human sexuality, but it critiques the drive to oppress and dehumanize the Other in our midst.  Such interpretations shed much needed light on the meaning of this text and may help liberate Genesis 19 from being used as a weapon of terror against the queer community.


An anonymous student

[1] Michael Carden, “Genesis/Bereshit,” in The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache (London: SCM Press, 2006), 36.

[2] Claus Westermann, Genesis 12-36: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1985), 301.

[3] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, revised edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 217-218.

[4] Ibid., 217.

[5] Miguel de la Torre, Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 192.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Carden “Genesis,” 36-37

[8] de la Torre, Genesis, 194.