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What was the sin of Sodom?

An example of my work's usefulness
Biblical teaching on homosexuality has been a topic of much debate in recent times. This is a consequence of the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships in many countries around the world —which is itself a consequence of countries considering how their cultures relate to the increasingly influential global community. But from my perspective, the debate on homosexuality in the Bible provides an opportunity to demonstrate the usefulness of the hermeneutics that stem from my Biblical research —and continue to advance it.
Genesis 19 —Sodom & Gomorrah
The text under consideration is Genesis 19's account of Sodom and Gomorrah. While accepting that the text describes two cities being destroyed in order to end the dreadful sins of their inhabitants, some scholars claim that the described sin of Sodom has more to do with hospitality [Ezekiel 16:49] than homosexuality. Other scholars, having examined this possibility, stick to their original, ‘traditional’, opinion.

The result is often a sustained disagreement rather than persuasion. We could presume this is because one or other side is biased —perhaps both?! As readers of a Bible text, our own backgrounds do tend to influence the way we interpret it. But scholars know this: They know that they should consider a text within its original context, so they place themselves back in time, trying to evaluate the intentions of the original authors. They consider who wrote it? —for which audience? —in what particular situation? —set against what historical background? Unfortunately, these good intentions often prove unhelpful, merely widening the possibility for disagreement. Even with the same critical methods being applied on both sides, the only person you've managed to get to agree with you is the ‘original author’!

But there's an elephant in the room —an enormous exegetical aid that gets little attention from the academics: The most important background that Biblical authors shared with their original audiences is still available for us to examine in some detail even today…

Biblical authors and their audiences had their faith in common: They shared a knowledge of their Scripture. Even when the vast majority were illiterate, they learned Scripture through listening and retelling. Scripture encapsulated their society's values: It was the message to memorise, the shared education, the camp fire tales, the stories that parents taught their children. It developed alongside the society that learned it and lived by it. New material would deliberately allude to what was already shared and known, developing the God-focused, God-inspired message in ways that kept it relevant throughout the ages. And so the library of Scripture built up over hundreds of years. At times, other writings would influence — or be influenced by— the library of Scripture, but the most important outcome at the end of it all is the richly layered book we now call ‘The Bible’.

The development of the Bible is the essential background against which its individual texts need to be considered, so scholars should spend more time exploring its development by examining how texts relate to one another: What references, allusions and other dependencies are evident? What structures do texts share with each other? What follows should convince you of the value of such examination.

The prototext
I have often found examples, within the Old and New Testaments and beyond, where an author structures a text in line with a prototext —a text already known to the audience. The two texts share a theme-based structure and certain key words or phrases. The words and phrases help to define the structure, but the author also uses them to pick out details within the prototext's message that form a background against which the message of the new text should be understood. So the prototext provides the context for the current text.

The account of Sodom & Gomorrah depends upon such a prototext. The prototext behind it is Genesis 6-9 —The Flood…

Although The Flood and Sodom & Gomorrah are both contained in the early chapters of Genesis, The Flood comes first and shows signs of having been a stand-alone account, pre-dating the construction of Genesis: Note how the account is introduced [Genesis 6:1] and the problem of human wickedness is identified [Genesis 6:5], with Noah being God's favoured exception [Genesis 6:8]. Then it starts all over again, as if nothing has been said —Another introduction [Genesis 6:9] presents the uniquely righteous Noah and leads to God observing the problem of human wickedness [Genesis 6:12-13]. There is a symmetrical structure to the account which starts and ends with mention of Noah's three sons [Genesis 6:9-10; 9:18-19]. After the waters rise, it says ‘God remembered Noah’ [Genesis 8:1]. This marks the centre of the structure, then the waters subside and the occupants of Noah's ark are saved.

In The Flood, water pours down from the heavens to wipe away the sinners from the earth. The account ends with a promise from God that this will never happen again [Genesis 9:11] —so the wiping away of sinners in Sodom & Gomorrah is caused by pouring down fire and sulphur instead [Genesis 19:24]. As we consider the striking parallels between the two accounts, note that words in "quotes" are translations of Hebrew words found in both texts.

Genesis 6-9The FloodSodom & GomorrahGenesis 19
6:1-8 Heavenly beings decide to couple with human (earthly) women.

This is contrary to God's design and results in huge, evil descendants.

The men (earthly beings) of Sodom decide to couple with Lot's male guests. The offer of Lot's daughters [19:7-8] seems shocking to us, but its inclusion makes clear that these men of Sodom are rejecting male-female relationships and acting contrary to God's design [Genesis 2:24].

Unknown to the men of Sodom, Lot's guests are actually angels —so the events are a complete inversion of the parallel pre-Flood scene [6:1-8].

19:1-13
An active seeking of sexual relationships that are contrary to God's created order is, in both accounts, used as a depiction of sin. The more primitive Flood account has been pre-introduced [6:1-8] in order to establish this particular picture within the Genesis context [Genesis 1:27; Genesis 2:24].

The following acts of destruction illustrate God's judgement in response to the rejection he observes.

7:7 Noah enters the ark with his sons, his “wife” and his sons' wives. Along with the animals, they enter in “twos” [7:2] —male and female, being obedient to God's created order. Lot is told to take his “wife” and, specifically, “two” daughters [19:15-16] out of the city. The “two” daughters alludes to The Flood account, but the daughters' husbands refuse to come [19:14], so there is only one male-female pair, being Lot and his wife. Before the end of the narrative, the disobedience of Lot's wife results in the destruction even of this coupling [19:17,26]! 19:14-16
7:16 They “enter” and the door is “shut”. 19:10
God causes it to “rain” [7:4] a flood of water from “heaven” [7:11]. God causes it to “rain” fire from “heaven” [19:24].
8:1-9:17 “God remembered Noah” —so he takes action, amid the devastation, to save him. “God remembered Abraham” re: Abraham's petition [Genesis 18:20-33] —so he takes action, amid the devastation, to save Lot. 19:29
8:4 The ark comes to “rest” on the “mountain”.
“Noah” is Hebrew for “rest”, so this resting of the ark is significant as God's response to remembering Noah [8:1].
They are brought to “rest” outside of the city.
Later, they journey to the “mountain”.
19:16,30
9:20-29 Father Noah gets drunk with “wine” [9:21]. Father Lot is made to get drunk with “wine” [19:32,33,35]. 19:30-38
While drunk, his sons notice his naked state. Noah wakes and “knows” [9:24] the wrongdoing of his younger son. While drunk, his daughters lay with him, in order for Lot to have descendants. Lot does not “know” [19:33,35] about the wrongdoing of his daughters. Compare with Abraham's experience [Genesis 16:1-2; 17:15-19].
Consequently, Canaanite descendants are formed, being trouble for Israel in later generations [Numbers 13:1-2,25-29]. Consequently, Moabite and Ammonite descendants are formed, being trouble for Israel in later generations [Deuteronomy 23:3-5].
Genesis adds a small scene either side of The Flood [Genesis 6:1-8 and Genesis 9:20-29]. These scenes bracket the original account and thereby add a context. Note how both scenes illustrate grave consequences to drunkenness and sexual indecency; and note how both scenes are echoed loudly within the account of Sodom & Gomorrah. The opening scenes are the cause of God's acts of judgement while the closing scenes result in other troubles, of interest to the author and original audience but beyond the scope of our current investigation— What does all this tell us about the “sin of Sodom”?

It tells us that the account in Genesis uses the rejection of male-female relationships as a way of illustrating the rejection of God's created order, but it does not do so in order to define what the sin of Sodom is. Rather, the sin of Sodom is the rejection of God's created order —going against his plans and design. However, seeing as Genesis uses homosexual relationships to depict the sin of Sodom, there is no denying that such relationships are themselves portrayed as contrary to God's created order and, therefore, sinful.

Copyright © Jas.C.Brooke

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