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25 December 2012

The Story of Sodom

Chapters 18 and 19 of the Book of Genesis concern the patriarch Abraham, his nephew Lot, and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham dwells in a tent on the plain of Mamre, Lot initially dwells in a tent outside the city of Sodom, but later is seen to reside in a house within the city walls.  Abraham is the type of the man of God, a nomadic herder of animals who is not beholden to any civil order.   Lot is more ambivalent character.  He begins, like Abraham, as a nomadic animal herder, but goes on to occupy a place within the civil society of the city of Sodom.

Abraham is visited by God and two angels at his dwelling place on the plain of Mamre.   He greets his visitors with bread, drinking water, water to wash their feet, a dressed calf, and a place of rest in the shade of a tree.  He therefore receives God and the angels with the fivefold symbols of the religion of God - compassion , faith, humility, sacrifice and righteousness.

God is represented as an investigating magistrate responding to a complaint ("outcry") from mankind against the city of Sodom, rather than as an omniscient being acting of his own volition. "..the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous ... I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know".

The "sin" of Sodom and Gomorrah is not specified - from what follows it is generally assumed that the sin of Sodom is the homosexual act of sodomy which takes its name from the Biblical city.   However by not specifying sodomy as the particular sin of Sodom in the initial verses, the text leaves implies that the two cities are more broadly immoral.  Sodomy is part of the cause of the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps the principal part, but there is an inference that the "grievous sin" of Sodom extends beyond that.  In the Bible generally, the wrath of God is not provoked by particular sins, or classes of sin.  Particular sins are forgiven.  Deluge, destruction and damnation are the divine response to a general and pervasive state of immorality within the individual or society.

God resolves to destroy Sodom but accedes to a plea in mitigation from Abraham.  "And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? .....  And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake."

The principle established in this verse is that a small number of righteous individuals may be sufficient to spare a city, nation or people from the consequences of its sin.   It is not necessary for there to be a majority of righteous individuals, and it is not sufficient for there to be only one such.   The arbitrary number of ten, on which God settles with Abraham, indicates that the condition of salvation is that there must be sufficient righteous people to function as a social entity and thus to exert a visible influence upon  the wider society.

The two angels journey to the city of Sodom where Lot sits at the gate awaiting them.  He invites the angels to his house within the city.   The house of Lot within the city of Sodom is a sanctuary of righteousness within a lawless and immoral civil society.  The angels initially demur, preferring to spend the night "in the street", signifying that they wish to experience and assess the state of the civil society of Sodom taken as a whole, rather than the state of the few believers, as represented in the house of Lot, but then consent to stay the night in the house of Lot.

What happens next is crucial.  "But before they" (i.e. the angels of God) "lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them."

This verse indicates that the men of Sodom wish to have sexual communion with the angels, which is to say that they wish to associate their sexual practices with the name of God so that the "sin of Sodom" should become known as "the way of the angels".

"And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him,
And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly"

Lot offers his own daughters in marriage to the men who are clamouring to have sex with the angels of God.  The story thereby signifies that the men of Sodom have been given the opportunity to adopt and follow normal sexual behaviour through marriage to "the daughters of Lot".   Unsurprisingly, given what we know of the nature of normal homosexuality, this offer is rejected by the men of Sodom.   Instead Lot is denounced as a "sojourner", a foreigner without standing in the city, which means that the crowd allows him no authority to speak or take a stand within civil society.  He is only saved by the intervention of the angels who draw him back into the house and shut the door behind.

The angels then strike the men of the town of Sodom blind, so that they can not find the door of Lot's house.  Biblically, blindness symbolises ignorance and stupidity, and the blindness of the men of Sodom makes it impossible for them to realise their object of sanctifying the sin of Sodom.

However this incident was the "last straw" for the angels of God who resolve that the city must be destroyed.  God's initial judgement against Sodom, and the sins of Sodom, was not absolute or immutable, as is revealed by his discourse with Abraham.  It becomes absolute only when the men of Sodom attempt to associate the Being of God with their sexual practices through sexual communion with the angels of God.

Lot is told to flee "to the mountain" (the realm of God) but pleads to be allowed to flee instead to a city  which "is near to flee unto, and it is a little one ... is it not a little one?".    Lot is seeking a compromise which will allow him to continue to reside within a civil society, and the "little city" of Zoar provides such a compromise.   In the Bible, cities are prone to sin, but "little cities", in which civil society is less advanced, are judged less so, and Lot is granted his wish.  "But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt".   The wife of Lot is representative of womanhood, her backwood glance indicating that the city of Sodom held some lasting attraction for her.  The story provides no detail.    One could reasonably speculate that the city of Sodom was a centre of art, culture, beauty, fashion and wit, and that there was a congruence between the interests of the men of Sodom and those of women in general. The sin of Lot's wife was to be ambivalent with regard to the demands of God and the appeal of a corrupt civil society, and for that she was destroyed.


1. The door or gate: Genesis 18-19 consistently uses the symbol of the door or gate to represent the interface between a house (family or people) and its environment (the world at large or the divinity). The door may be either open in welcome, as the door to Abraham's tent is open to the entry of God and the angels of God, or closed in defence, or, as in the case of the door to Lot's house in the city of Sodom, it may serve both functions in short order.   Where there is a gate or door, there will be a gate or doorkeeper, who keeps a watch on the outside world and decides on who shall be welcomed and admitted, and who or what shall be denied entrance.  In modern times the role of doorkeeper is delegated to a servant or security officer, and seen as a menial function.   However servants act on the instructions of the proprietor of the house, so effectively it is always the head of the house who "watches at the door" for friend or foe, benefactor or danger.  Abraham sits at the door of his tent, waiting for the coming of God to his house.   Lot sits at the gate of Sodom, waiting to admit the angels of God into the city of Sodom.  Lot is thus a gatekeeper of the civil society who acts to admit the angels of God into civil society, and the doorkeeper of the church (his own house within the city of Sodom), to which he may grant or refuse entry.   There is a parallel to the Cain and Abel story where God says that "sin crouches at the door" of Cain.  The house of Cain is the city, and Cain is the civil authority and doorkeeper of civil society, whose role is to legislate so as to permit or refuse entry for particular customs and practices.   The passage indicates that that while sin is not inherent in civil society, it is always waiting at the door to find entry when the doorkeeper's guard is down.

2. In the Book of Genesis cities such as Enoch, Babel or Sodom represent civil society while herders of animals represent the religious order.

3. God presents Himself before Abraham, but not before Lot and the city of Sodom, which is visited by the two angels alone.  God only shows Himself to those who are unequivocally His specially chosen ones, thus Abraham but not Lot. The reception Lot offers to the angels, while hospitable, is less effusive than that offered by Abraham, which is a further indication that Lot is not as close to God as his uncle Abraham.

4. The story of the incest that subsequently took place between Lot and his daughters may be a later interpolation, designed to cast Lot, as ancestor of the Moabites and Ammonites, in an unfavorable light.  There are grounds for believing that to be the case, but never-the-less the two stories do hang together after a fashion, because they are both concerned with the subject of moral circumstance and moral ambivalence, and whether or not it is mere coincidence, the issues of incest and sodomy have also been linked in contemporary controversies over changes to the institution of marriage to include homosexual and lesbian relationships.   Lotís daughters use the defence of necessity to justify the incest, which brings to mind the manner in which they themselves were offered to the men of Sodom so as to preclude the argument of necessity from being used in defence of sodomy.   There is thus a degree of symmetry between the story of the fall of Sodom and the story of Lotís incest, and Lot emerges from both stories as a generally well-meaning yet flawed character.

5. Genesis 18-19 has three major themes: homosexuality, moral circumstance and moral ambivalence.  The homosexual aspect requires no further explication.  The subject of moral circumstance raises the question of ďwhat is fairĒ, or, as Abraham puts it ďWilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?Ē.   The implicit response is in the affirmative, if the wicked are many and the righteous very few.  Godís dialogue with Abraham leaves open the possibility of destruction if there fewer than ten righteous people within the city.   All Lotís problems  in Sodom, in Zoar and in the cave arise out of his association with the wicked and separation from the righteous.
Lotís relationship with Abraham sets the scene for the theme of moral circumstance.  An uncle and nephew can share a close affinity or be more or less detached from one another.   Abraham speaks to God on behalf of Lot, but he does not dwell with Lot, and in the course of the two chapters Lot is never in the actual presence of either his uncle Abraham or the Lord God.   He is, however, in the actual presence of the men of Sodom and Zoar.   Lot is guilty of no specific offence or wickedness of his own; his tribulations arise purely out of the circumstances of moral hazard in which he places himself.
It is moral ambivalence which causes the house of Lot to find itself in such circumstances.  Lotís ambivalence is signified by his status as a sojourner (ďin the city but not of itĒ), by his offer of his daughters to the men of Sodom and by his appearance before the angels both at the gate of the city and at the door of his own house.   The moral ambivalence of Lotís wife is  more explicit: she ".. looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt".   The men of Sodom were consumed by fire so that no trace remained of them, but the wife of Lot remained in the land as a pillar of salt.  In ancient times a pillar, often inscribed, served as a warning, sign or reminder, as it still does for our own people.  Salt is a  symbol of ambivalence.   A little imparts flavour while an excess is bitter to the taste.   Thus while the destruction of Sodom signifies the fate of the wicked, the fate of Lotís wife is a sign to the world of the danger of moral ambivalence.