Were the Men of Sodom Sodomites

It is important at this point for me to discuss the story of the Destruction of Sodom, since this text has often been interpreted as encoding a condemnation of - and therefore production (or presupposition) of - a category of homosexuality (Cantarella 1992: 195).

The story is as follows (Genesis 19.1-12). God, having become aware of the evil of the people of Sodom has determined to destroy the city and sent angels in the form of men to announce this to Lot, so that he and his family can be saved. In the evening the people of Sodom come to the door of the house and demand access to the strangers, desiring to "know them." Lot offers instead his two virgin daughters. The people are very angry: "This one has come to dwell among us, and he is judging us. Now we will do more evil to you than to them" (Genesis 19.9). At this point a miracle is produced, the people are struck blind, and Lot and his family escape.

Both writers who want to insist that the Bible condemns homosexuality and writers who wish to argue against this proposition have operated with the assumption that if this is a story about homosexuality then it provides strong support for the idea that the Bible operates with a category of homosexuality that it violently condemns. Typical is Eva Cantarella, who, in arguing against Robin Scroggs' claim that the Leviticus verses are totally isolated in biblical literature and probably late (Scroggs 1983: 73), writes, "The proof of how forced this interpretation is comes from the celebrated story of the people of Sodom" (Cantarella 1992: 195). Rightly dismissing interpretations which deny the sexual nature of the Sodomites' intentions, she concludes, "It seems very difficult to deny that the biblical account should be taken to mean that homosexuality is an execrable type of behaviour" (1992: 197). Difficult or no, this is precisely what I intend to do.

I begin by stating that there is no possibility, so it seems to me, of denying that the intention of the Sodomites was to rape the strangers. Commentators who attempt to interpret "know" here in a non-sexual sense are ignoring the simple and clear fact that Lot "offers" his daughters as sexual substitutes for the strangers. Does he do so because he condemns their "homosexuality" and is trying to convert them to "heterosexuality"? Some interpreters would have us believe this proposition, but the story makes absolutely clear why he is protecting the men: "Only to these men do nothing, seeing that they have come under the protection of my roof." The offer of his daughters in exchange is simply because, as his "property," he has the right to do so, while he is obligated to protect guests from all harm. Far from a rebuke, Lot is simply offering them an alternative to protect his honor, and one that he expects, moreover, that they will accept. (One could, of course, query why he offers his daughters and not himself, and two answers could be given. Either he expects the daughters to be more attractive to the men than he himself would be or that women are generally dispensable in his culture. This question will be further addressed below.) The rejection of his proffer is not portrayed in terms of a homosexual preference on the part of the Sodomites but as a furious response to Lot's judgmental stance toward them. This is, after all, the stated reason for their anger: "This one has come to dwell among us, and he is judging us!" Any "hermeneutics of suspicion" here that suggests some other reason for the fury runs the serious risk of anachronism, of simply filling in a gap where there is none and doing so, moreover, with our own cultural expectations. Their expressed intention, moreover, to do worse to him than they intended to do to the strangers is not at all erotic in its implications. There is, accordingly, no warrant whatever for Eva Cantarella's conclusion that "The Sodomites do not want Lot's daughters: they want the foreign visitors. This is their sin" (1992: 195). Had they taken Lot's daughters, they would have been equally sinful - a proposition that will be further verified from a parallel text immediately below.

The point has been made that in the myriad references to the Sodomites in later biblical writing, not once is their alleged "homosexuality" even mentioned. Scroggs has collected eleven such allusions (Scroggs 1983: 74). Where they make mention at all of the nature of the Sodomite sin, it is always violence that is at issue, not sexual immorality. Typical is Isaiah 1.10-17, where the "officers of Sodom" are addressed and their sin is described as "their hands being full of blood" (v. 16), and their atonement is to do justice with the orphan and the widow (v. 17). He argues from this that these writers either did not know of or did not accept the "homosexual dimension of the story of Sodom." On the other hand, there is a parallel story - almost surely modeled on the Sodom narrative - in which the sexual aspect is clearly presupposed - I shall presently be returning to this text - and therefore, Scroggs writes, "Contrary to later references, the homosexual dimension of the story of Sodom is accepted" (Scroggs 1983: 75). It seems to me that Scroggs has missed the point, although he is tending in the right direction. There is no reason to assume that the prophetic writers did not know of the homosexual rape aspect of the Sodom story, but it was considered by them a synecdoche for the violence of the Sodomites, not an issue of sexual immorality.

The same point ought to be made about rabbinic interpretations of this story. As Scroggs correctly points out, there is nothing in the rabbinic readings of the Sodom story that indicates that their particular sinful nature was "homosexuality." The emphasis is always on their violence and murderousness (Scroggs 1983: 80). Scroggs, however, draws the wrong conclusion from this premise. Thus he writes, "The Palestinian Targum's clear statement of the sin as sexual does not, perhaps surprisingly, seem to have informed rabbinic midrash of this time" (Scroggs 1983: 81). Scroggs has been misled by the modern category of sexuality to assume that the Rabbis would certainly have marked off sexual inclination as a separate and unequal determiner of human moral status. There is no reason whatever to assume that the Rabbis, assiduous readers of the Bible with no reason to apologize for the Sodomites, denied the sexual nature of their intention towards the "men." They almost certainly did understand it this way, as did everyone else in the ancient world. It was not understood by them, however, as it was not understood by the inner-biblical interpretive tradition, as being the essence of the Sodomite sinfulness or the point of the story Indeed, judging from this Jewish interpretive tradition, the homosexual aspect of their violence was hardly worth remarking; it did not add to the heinousness of their brutality. For the interpretive tradition that locates the sin of Sodom in their "unnatural" sexuality, we look neither to the inner-biblical allusions nor to rabbinic midrash, but to first-century Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jewish texts, whether Palestinian or otherwise. Not surprisingly, here as elsewhere, the New Testament is closest to these other Hellenistic Jewish traditions.27 The crucial element that enters, it seems, with Hellenistic culture is the notion of nature and the possibility of an act being contra naturam, as opposed to being merely forbidden. This is a peculiarly Greek idea, whether or not Greeks applied it in the same way - obviously they did not - as Hellenized Jews were to (Koester 1968). For the ancient Near East, and ancient Israel among them, acts were taboo or permitted, abhorred, or praiseworthy, but never consonant with or against nature itself. Consequently the notion that a type of desire was "unnatural" and the people who possessed it were somehow monstrous had to wait for the grafting of Greek thinking onto biblical culture that took place among Hellenistic Jews.28 This story in the Bible and in the (Hebrew/Aramaic-speaking) Rabbis is no more a condemnation of homoerotic desire than a story about a heterosexual rape would be a condemnation of heteroerotic desire, and the parallel text from Judges, to which I turn now, makes this clear.

In the story in Judges 19 the account is similar to the Sodom story. This is also a story of inhospitality and violence toward strangers. The inhospitality of the men of Gibeah is focused on right at the beginning of the story The Levite, his concubine, and servant are wandering in the town at nightfall, and contrary to the customs of Israel, not one of these Israelites takes them into their home for the night (v. 15). An elderly foreigner, not one of the natives of the place - like Lot - finally takes them in and exhibits the appropriate friendliness and generosity toward strangers (v. 21). The wicked inhabitants of the place surround the house and make exactly the same demand that was made of Lot, that he bring out the stranger to be raped. Once more, the host pleads with them, "because this man has come into my house" (v. 23), and offers his virgin daughter and the concubine as "substitutes." The man pushes his concubine out, and she is gang-raped and abused all night, until in the morning she is found dead with her hand on the doorstop, having died desperately trying to get in. This is an absolutely horrifying story of violence toward women, and while the men of Gibeah are punished terribly for their murder of the woman (v. 4), the Levite who threw her to the dogs to save his skin is let off scot-free by the text.29 A story of primitive male privilege of the most repulsive sort, this is not in any way, however, a discourse about homosexuality. Indeed, here, the acceptance of a "heterosexual" substitute shows that the people of Gibeah are not being anathematized as "homosexuals." Their punishment is explicitly owing to their violence toward the woman and not to their supposed homoeroticism. In both of these stories we find, then, a representation, perhaps with some historical basis, of a tradition of aggression toward strangers, acted out as "homosexual" rape (and murder -the Levite expected that he was to be killed as well [v. 5]).30 These accounts have nothing whatever to do with either legal or discursive practices related to same-sex desire.

We should indeed be appalled by both of these narratives, but not for an alleged condemnation of homosexuality which they do not inscribe, but rather for the callous indifference to the fate of women that they do. The final conclusion is that there is no evidence in the Hebrew Bible for a category of homosexuals or homosexuality at all, and whatever explanation be adopted for the prohibition of male anal intercourse, there is as little reason to believe that it extended to other forms of homoerotic practice.31 The hypothesis offered here, namely that male anal intercourse was understood as a category violation, a kind of cross-dressing, while not provable, certainly seems to me to be a plausible one.

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