Genesis 18:16-19:29 – Sodom and Gomorrah
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that you had a good week and enjoyed some of the pleasant weather. We observed Ash Wednesday this week and have entered into the season of Lent. Henry David Thoreau wrote that he wanted to give up all that is not life so that he could truly live. I think that is what Lent is really about it. It is not about token sacrifices; it is about self-examination and giving up whatever is keeping you from living fully in the joy of God. Once again the timing of our study in Genesis has been strangely appropriate. I did not plan to discuss the story of Sodom and Gomorrah on the first Sunday in Lent, but it fits with the themes of this season. It is a story of judgment and sacrifice, mercy and loss. Genesis 19 is one of the most controversial and disturbing chapters of Scripture, so I feel a need to give a bit of a warning to listeners. This is not pleasant material, but we should examine it carefully.
Sodom and Gomorrah are part of our cultural literacy. Their destruction is referred several times in the OT and NT. Sodom has even been featured in comedy routines on Saturday Night Live. The funniest involved a meeting of the Sodom chamber of commerce seeking to improve the city’s image for tourism. They came up with a bumper sticker that said “I Heart Sodom.” Leaving humor aside, the most important point about these cities, though, is that they were destroyed because of their wickedness. They are presented as a smaller version of the Noah story. God destroys the wicked, but a chosen remnant is preserved.
Archaeologists are reasonably sure that the destruction of these cities in the Sittim Valley really did happen even though there is no trace of the cities today. Some think they may have been covered by the Dead Sea centuries ago. There are some literary and legendary hints about Sodom and Gomorrah that indicate that they were located near a hill called Jebel Usdum, which is Arabic for Mount of Sodom. In 1953, the Israeli government established a small settlement there and named it for the biblical Sodom. I’m not sure that was the best way to inspire civic pride, but it does reflect ancient tradition about the location of the original Sodom.
That area of Israel was once a fertile plain, but it has two distinctive geographical features. One is petroleum. There are still asphalt pits and gas vents there. Accounts of the destruction of Sodom are consistent with a major petroleum explosion. Natural gas, flaming asphalt falling from the sky, and burning oil would have destroyed the city in a dramatic and rapid fashion. The other unusual feature of the land is that there are large, above ground salt deposits. In fact, Jebel Usdum is basically a salt mountain 700 feet high. It has eroded in many places, leaving strangely-shaped figures standing like pillars against the horizon. If you travel there today, a guide may point to one of those pillars and inform you that it is indeed Lot’s unnamed wife. The cities, of course, are gone.
There are many historical accounts of cities that were destroyed in sudden disaster, such as Pompeii. Sometimes, humans play a major role in this destruction. In World War II, the British High Command gave the code-name Operation Gomorrah to their strategy of using incendiary bombs to completely destroy German cities. This was a massive retaliation for the German blitz on London at the beginning of the war. Dresden is merely the most famous of the cities that were consumed in unimaginably powerful firestorms. Hundreds of thousands of women and children were killed by Allied bombers in Operation Gomorrah. This strategy was adopted by the Americans in the war with Japan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leveled by single atomic bombs that mimicked the divine wrath of the angels in Sodom. Fire from the sky. Death of the innocent. And it continues, sometimes with machetes instead of fire.
There are many people in the world who long for such destruction; who hope that God will smite wicked cities. They viewed Hurricane Katrina as God’s wrath on an American Sodom. I was surprised to hear that a prominent evangelist agreed with Osama Bin Laden when he said that the destruction of the Twin Towers was punishment for New York City’s sexual permissiveness. The horror of Sodom and Gomorrah is too easy for us to imagine; too easy for us to imitate. The danger of these stories in Genesis is that we now appear to have the power of God, but do we have the wisdom. The death of the innocent in order to punish the guilty does not trouble the hearts of fanatics and ideologues, but did bother the biblical writers and us as well.
I mentioned Genesis 18 last week. In that chapter God invites Abraham into a discussion on the nature of justice and punishment. I will not read this discussion, but it can be summarized by saying that God agrees not to destroy Sodom if there are even ten righteous people. This is a bold passage of Scripture and it probably was one of the last parts of Genesis to be written. We see this debate in the book of Job, for instance. It reflects the discussions of Israel’s sages after the Babylonian Exile.
In many ways this is a debate between the wisdom tradition and the priests and prophets of ancient Israel. The priests and prophets claimed that God had punished Israel because of the sins of the Israelites. They were idolatrous and so the Temple was destroyed, but the wise men pointed out that the innocent had suffered with the wicked. Is this justice? This is what Abraham asks God. Is it just to kill 50 righteous along with the wicked? Is it just to bomb the homes of children to bring them democracy? The debate in Genesis ends when God decides that 10 righteous people are enough to save a whole guilty city from destruction.
Hospitality in a Hostile World:
Unfortunately Sodom did not have even righteous people. The mysterious men who we met in the lesson last week traveled to Sodom after dinner. They arrived at nightfall and prepared to sleep in the city square. Abraham’s nephew saw them and urged them to spend the night in his house. We’ve met Lot before and aren’t surprised at this. If you remember, Lot chose to settle with his family in Sodom. This casts doubt on the righteousness of Lot, but he does remember the obligations of hospitality. He urges the strangers to sleep in his house rather than on the street where they will be vulnerable.
The streets remain dangerous in our day. Humans need shelter from the wind and rain, but we also need shelter from each other. You don’t want to sleep outside in most cities. Many people in America are afraid of the homeless, but it is the homeless themselves who are the most afraid. They are the ones who get abused on the streets, often by people with homes and jobs. The streets were dangerous in Lot’s day, too, so he makes the effort to bring the strangers into his own home and offer them his protection. Lot is righteousness. Righteousness and hospitality is more than politeness or simple kindness. It means protecting the vulnerable, caring for the outcast. It means hiding the slave fleeing on the underground railroad and assisting the Jew pursued by the Gestapo. Righteousness and hospitality is risky, but Lot took the risk and brought the strangers into his home. For this, he was saved. I’ll read from Chapter 19.
Read The Men of Sodom:
This is a horror story. It appears to be based on an older story found in the Book of Judges (ch. 19). In that story a Levite priest stops for the night in a village. He is traveling with his concubine. Someone brings the priest and the woman into his home so they will be safe. But the men of the village surround the house and demand that the priest be given to them to gang rape. His protector offers the crowd his own daughter in exchange, but the priest will not allow that. Instead he throws his own lover to the crowd. They rape her so violently and for so long that she died in the morning.
In reading the story of Sodom or the story of the Levite’s concubine, we should keep in mind that this is still happening in our world. Think of the Korean women taken as sex slaves for the Japanese army; the Muslim women systematically raped during the Bosnia War; the peasant women raped by the Salvadoran death squads; the women gang raped in the Sudan each day; the girls sold into slavery around the world today. These are not pleasant things for a Sunday morning, but they are real, and they are part of the message of Genesis 19. The mob violence of Sodom has been repeated over and over in our day, but in most cases the victims suffer in silence and are forgotten. They do not have angels to blind the mob. They look to us to intervene.
We miss the horror of Sodom if we read this as a story about homosexuality. It is unfortunate that medieval monks coined the word sodomy to deal with the violations of celibacy that occurred in their single-sex communities. According to Genesis 19, Sodom was destroyed because the men of the village surrounded a home and demanded that a vulnerable stranger be given to them to rape, abuse, and murder. The story would have been no different if the crowd had demanded a woman for their pleasure. This is not a story about sex; it is a story about the complete and total degeneration of society. It is a story of injustice and violence, and this is confirmed elsewhere in Scripture. According to prophets, Sodom was destroyed because of the neglect of the poor, because of its lies, greed, luxury, abuse, and inhospitality. (Isa. 1:9-10, Jer. 23:14, Lam. 4:6, Ezek. 16:48-44; Zeph. 2:9).
And Lot’s response to this violence at his door is also horrifying. Lot offers his own virgin daughters to the crowd, just as the Levite offered his lover in Judges 19. Women and children were viewed more like property than people in the ancient world, and this is still true in many areas of the world today. In parts of Asia, women who been raped have then been killed by their own fathers for having shamed the family.
But it is hard to see such a story in the Bible. It shocks us that any man would do what Lot did, but it is doubly shocking since this is contrary to the message of the Bible. The first duty of parents is to protect their children and raise them to adulthood. This is a sacred obligation that cannot be trumped by customs of hospitality or fear of shame. Yes, it was right for Lot to protect the strangers, but not at the expense of the children. This shows us how corrupted Lot has become. He has also fallen into the chaos of Sodom and forgotten the most basic laws of justice, but the angels save Lot from this crime. They blind the mob, and it is the angels, not Lot, who take the daughters by the hand to lead them to safety. The angels do what Lot failed to do. It is society that treats women as property, not God. It is men who abuse women, not God. We will be discussing these issues in more detail Friday and Saturday at the conference on justice for women. I hope you will come.
To return to our story: The angels tell Lot that Sodom is on the verge of destruction. He will have to flee with his family, but he doesn’t so immediately. He delays. For centuries commentators have seen Lot’s reluctance as further evidence that he has been corrupted by the injustice and depravity of Sodom. He seems strangely attracted to this city, even though he knows it is wicked. But Lot’s lingering may have also been a response to the reaction of his sons-in-law who were with him. They laughed when he said that the city was going to be destroyed.
As an aside, it is hard to make sense of who these sons-in-law were since they had not married Lot’s daughters but they were living in the house. Clearly the statement that every man in Sodom was part of the crowd is a little exaggerated. Personally, I think that the text may have suffered a bit through years of copying or else the storyteller got himself in a bind because he wanted virgin daughters for the sacrifice, but also needed faithless sons-in-law. Rather than getting too worried about all this, we should ask why the sons-in-law are part of this story. I think that it is to demonstrate that not everyone heeds the warning given by a prophet. They represent the blindness and deafness of the world. They did not believe that God judges the unrighteous, nor that greed and wanton destruction destroys us. They did recognize themselves as under judgment.
Even though they had witnessed the same horrifying scene of attempted violence, they were not horrified. Apparently, they weren’t even angry at Lot for offering their finances up to the crowd. They did not participate in the violence of the mob physically, but they were a part of that corrupted and depraved world. They represent the silent majority of people who are no longer shocked by pictures of torture, starvation, abuse, and cruelty. They ridiculed Lot just as people today ridicule scientists, scholars, and reformers who shout warnings about global warming, violence on TV, racism, advertising images, government surveillance, extremist religion, national debt, and pollution. We laugh and mock and accuse those who warn us because we don’t want to change. Like the sons-in-law in Sodom, we are willing to put up with a lot of evil so long as we can enjoy ourselves. Their jesting had an impact on Lot. He was affected by their ridicule. He lingered. Unwilling to be mocked, we linger, we dither, we delay making the changes we need to make.
Rescue and Regret:
Finally the angels had to grab Lot by the hand and drag him and his family out of the doomed city. Three of them will find safety in a cave near the city of Zoar. Millions of refugees in our lifetime have faced this awful decision. Do I leave all that I know, all that I own, all of my friends? But there are times to flee. There are times to remember that your life and the lives of your children are more important than anything you own or possess. When that time comes, you discover what you value most. Your values are tested when you are a refugee, and Lot’s wife failed the test. Why did she turn back? This has been a popular text for preachers for centuries, but we aren’t told why she looked back or why she was turned to a pillar of salt.
She may have look back out of curiosity. Think of how we are glued to our TVs whenever there is a natural disaster. We are frightened and fascinated by the idea that a mountain can explode and disappear, that cities can be washed away, and that all that we have built can be destroyed in a few moments. Many preachers have said that Lot’s wife turned back because she really liked Sodom, despite its “image problems” as a wicked town. It certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of city a woman would like, but maybe there were some things that she enjoyed. Certainly we can understand why someone might the big city to exile in a cave. I think it is likely that she looked back for mixed reasons, including the desire to see if the angels were right about the destruction. Was Lot doing the right thing or would they be laughed at by their friends?
We can understand these feelings, but there are times when you have to commit to something without looking back, not even checking to see if you were right in your decision. Unlike Abraham, Lot’s wife could not leave her old life even when she has seen how corrupt it was; even when she knew that only death awaited her there. We do the same thing; we look back with regret, with longing, with nostalgia, with curiosity, and wonder what might have been. It is sometimes too painful to look to the future with its uncertainties and sacrifices. According to the story, Lot’s wife was frozen in her regret, forever looking out on a ruined land.
Next week we will continue with the story of Lot, Abraham, and Sarah.