Thursday, April 12, 2012

In Defense of Sodom (and Gomorrah)

Sodom has quite the reputation these days. Gomorrah does, too, although Sodom seems to be more well-known in English parlance and in the stories of Genesis, too.

According to the story, Abraham is showing some men "on their way," when they "looked toward Sodom," which means they were going in the direction of Sodom (18:16, NRSV). As Abraham is still being hospitable, the men share some divine news with Abraham. They share this news because Abraham has been chosen by God to be great, to "[do] righteousness and justice." Abraham's 'chosenness' and future stand in stark contrast to what the men hear of Sodom and Gomorrah. Apparently the sin is so bad that Yahweh has heard it and has to see it with God's own eyes, so to speak.

Before the men say anything about anyone being destroyed, Abraham asks if everyone will be destroyed for the sins, "the righteous with the wicked." Despite a lack of knowledge of this Yahweh character, Abraham assumes some sort of retributive justice where sin is repaid with destruction, even the destruction of life.

Abraham intuited correctly, it seems, and Abraham and Yahweh "discuss," if that is the proper word, what will happen if at least ten righteous people are found in Sodom. Of course, the discussion could imply specifically ten righteous men as opposed to people, since Hebrew, like popular English, uses masculine terms to imply both male and female.

Since Sodom and Gomorrah both likely included young children, I find it safe to assume Abraham and Yahweh are "arguing" over righteous men and therefore completely ignoring the possibility and probability of righteous women and children living in the area. Or, to be more precise: Yahweh mentions nothing specifically to Abraham about innocent women and/or children.

Of course, after I make my argument about innocent children, the story says the young and old men of Sodom come to Lot, presumably to rape the two messengers ("angels," NRSV, et. al.). Still, "young and old" must have a cut off. Infants, toddlers, and other youngsters must not have been involved.

Females, however, may have been involved. Like in English "man" and "men" could include men and women. In fact, the word translated as "men" in 19:4 most often signifies humans, not men. The original Sodomites might not have been as homosexual as we might think. The incident could have conceivably been in favor of a heterosexual or bisexual orgy to "welcome" the visitors. The KJV might give us a better translation here: "all the people from every quarter" as opposed to the NRSV's "all the people to the last man." Here, the word KJV translates "people" and the NRSV translates "man" is a word even more likely to incorporate a people group as opposed to a gender.

Homosexual or heterosexual, rape is not a great way to welcome newcomers.

But what if the culture of Sodom was one in which sex was hospitable? Certainly, my (post)modern mind always conceives of rape as wrong. However, I can understand a group of people wanting to offer an orgy as a welcome, as a doxological celebration of visitors before a god or gods, even. Such a celebration could cause a lot of people to relocate to Sodom. "Move here and get laid--guaranteed!" Could a bureau of tourism hope for a better motto?

But Genesis tries hard to distinguish the seed of Abraham as culturally different from everyone else in the world. For them, hospitality and worship are not sex. And only men can have multiple sex-partners, not women. Even though Yahweh/Elohim/El spends some time talking with Sarah and Sarah is not always your typically suppressed woman in a patriarchal society, Abraham and his progeny lean heavily towards patriarchy, even into current-day Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Sodom, however, paints a picture in which a large group of people, young and old, men and women come to have a public orgy.

If you take Genesis as a single book (or as a part of a Pentateuch or Hexatuech), the sins of Sodom are not necessarily homosexuality. The "sins" of Sodom are not even necessarily worse than anything later developments of Abrahamic religions call sins. Whereas polygamy was OK and sometimes encouraged by the God-character, it has become wrong to many Christians and Jews today. Either God changed or peoples' understanding of God and history changed. Or both.

Regardless, it is hard for me to see as Sodom as necessarily bad. As far as we know, they may have attempted to be hospitable according to their definition of hospitality. When Lot refused them, they were upset because an outsider wouldn't respect their customs, an outsider wouldn't even give them the chance to offer newcomers the culture of Sodom.

From a pluralistic perspective, maybe the people of Sodom aren't the "bad guys" in this story.

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