We’ve been studying Abraham at church, and we eventually found ourselves talking about Sodom and Gomorrah. Looking for some depth, beyond the obvious condemnation of homosexuality, I pulled out the trusty computerized concordance to see what else the Bible says about Sodom.
There are about 25 references to Sodom after the account of its destruction by God, and of these, only one uses Sodom in conjunction with a condemnation of sexual perversion–Jude 7, which condemns in no uncertain terms fornication and “going after strange flesh,” an obvious reference to homosexuality, as translated in the NIV.
Many of the other references simply use Sodom as an example of God’s punishment of evil or of the utter destruction that God might impose on the disobedient. However, much to my surprise, there are several places where Sodom is interpreted quite differently. We start with Ezekiel–
(Ezek. 16:1-2) The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, confront Jerusalem with her detestable practices …
49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.’”
“Detestable things” or practices in the NIV is “abominations” in the KJV. It’s the same word used in Lev. 18 to refer to homosexuality and bestiality. But the prophet is not talking about sexual sin at all. The sin he condemns is failing to “help the poor and needy”–a sin he calls an abomination. Moreover, the prophet doesn’t say that not helping the poor is as bad as the sin of Sodom–he says it is the sin of Sodom! This is a very surprising result.
Isaiah reaches a similar conclusion.
(Isa. 1:10-17) Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah! … 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies. … Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
Isaiah compares Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah and declares its worship an abomination–as wicked as homosexuality and bestiality–because the government fails to provide justice and the people fail to care for the oppressed, the fatherless, and the widow. They followed the pattern of worship God gave, but they didn’t serve God outside the temple, making their worship repugnant.
Again, why do the prophets see in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah the sin of failing to care for the vulnerable of society? After all, the men of Sodom precipitated their destruction by threatening the homosexual gang rape of two angels of God. What has this to do with the poor?
Plainly, another element of the story is Lot’s concern to provide hospitality to the angels. When the men of Sodom demanded that the “men” be given them for sexual abuse, Lot responded, “[D]on’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof” (Gen 19:8). And the Sodomites responded, “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them” (Gen 19:9).
This led me to see what the Old Testament says about aliens–and it says quite a lot.
(Exo. 22:21-24) “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.
22 “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. 24 My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.”
(Lev. 19:9-10) “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.”
(Lev. 19:33-34) “‘When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. 34 The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
(Lev. 24:22) “‘You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the LORD your God.’”
(Lev. 24:22) “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you.”
(Deu. 10:17-19) For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.
(Deu. 27:19) “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
Now, notice that the Law of Moses demands equal justice for aliens (or “strangers” in the KJV). A close study makes clear that the Law is not about Jews from other tribes–this is people from other nations or ethnicities. Aliens are given the same concern as the poor, the widow, or the orphan.
Lev. 24:22 show just how far removed the modern American mindset is from God’s. God tells the Israelites to take care of their own poor just as well as they take care of aliens! We are wondering whether to love aliens as much as we love our own poor!
When the prophets read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, not only do they see sexual perversion, but they also see a profound lack of concern for the vulnerable of society. When the Sodomites refused to protect the strangers in their midst, they violated a sacred law: God cares for those who need protection and so must we. God sees failure to love the alien as just as wrong as failure to care for the poor, widows, and orphans.
And, yes, I was surprised, too.