This post is part 3 of a series on biblical passages that are relevant for or commonly mentioned in discussions about same-sex practices. The overview to the series is found here, and the second post, which surveys the biblical definition of marriage, is found here. Our goals as Christians should be to better understand the truth communicated in these passages while at the same time to love the people around us with pure hearts. With humility we seek to treat one another with respect and understanding while looking out for each other’s best long-term interests.
This current post examines the original account of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19, as well as later passages that refer back to that event.
There is no single sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that is isolated from other sins in Genesis 18-19. The episode that led to God’s judgment upon the cities was only one indicator of a broader sin problem in those cities. The nature of the sins there is best described as comprehensive wickedness, which included arrogance, inhospitable behavior, sexual immorality, and violence.
The specific episode with Lot’s visitors that is recounted as final evidence of Sodom and Gomorrah’s wickedness was characterized by hostility to outsiders, lawlessness, attempted sexual violence against same-gender targets, and arrogance.
Genesis 18-19 in context
In Genesis 13:13 Lot and family move into the city of Sodom: “Now the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD.” This verse points to the general wickedness of the city, without specifying the exact nature of the sins against the LORD.
In Genesis 18 the LORD appears to Abraham and arrives with two men that are later identified as angels, according to their title (malakhim in Genesis 19:1) and by their supernatural actions in Genesis 19 (blinding crowds of men and foretelling divine judgment on the city). The three men (they are identified as men in Genesis 18:2, describing how they looked to Abraham) stay with Abraham and Sarah. The LORD speaks and leads throughout the narrative (Genesis 18:1,10,17,20, etc.), and at one point the two angels depart for Sodom while the LORD stays with Abraham (Genesis 18:22). Abraham treats the LORD and the visiting men/angels with great hospitality.
- Though the narrator identifies the visitors as the LORD and two angels, Abraham sees them as human men (the men of Sodom will likewise see the angels as men). Hebrews 13:2 probably refers to this event: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
Genesis 18:20-21: “Then the LORD said, ‘The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin is so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me.’” In the verses that follow, “righteous” and “wicked” are contrasted.
- Righteous = tsadiq (dikaios in LXX) – “morally in the right, innocent” (HALOT, 1002). See Noah – Genesis 6:9 – “a righteous man.” God is often described as righteous.
- Wicked = rasha (asebēs in the LXX) – “guilty in general, essentially before God, guilty, wicked person” (HALOT, 1295).
- Outcry = z’aqah – “plaintive cry, cry for help” (HALOT, 277).
- Grievous = khabed – “weighty” (HALOT, 456).
Genesis 19:4-5 – “Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom – both young and old – surrounded the house. They called out to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.’”
- The two angels are identified as “men” by the men of Sodom, which suggests that they were seen primarily, if not exclusively, as ordinary human men by the residents of Sodom.
- “Have sex with them” is from the Hebrew for “to know,” and it often carries a sexual connotation (which seems to be confirmed in this instance by the same use of “know” in Genesis 19:8). The desperate offering of Lot’s daughters (for sexual intercourse) shows the sexual nature of the request. The scene also has strong parallels to Judges 19:22-26, where men of Gibeah seek to “know” a visiting man in the city, and the man hosting the visitor offers his daughter instead, who is “abused”/raped throughout the night.
Genesis 19:7 – Lot: “Don’t do this wicked thing . . . (offers daughters) . . . But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
- A strong culture of hospitality undergirds the narrative (with Lot’s concern to protect his guests).
- At the same time, the verses that follow depict a frenzied atmosphere that is likely fed by the need to satisfy sexual desires. In Genesis 19:9 the men say “Get out of our way . . . This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge.” They then proceed to “press hard” and “drew near to break the door down.”
Genesis 19:13 – In the midst of the terrible scene, the angels save the day (and Lot’s daughters!), and the need for divine judgment is confirmed. The angelic visitors say, “The outcry against its people is so great that he (the LORD) has sent us to destroy it.” In other words, the men’s actions were extreme and wicked enough to demonstrate that God’s judgment against the city was justified.
References to Sodom (and Gomorrah) in later OT passages:
Many later passages in the OT refer to Sodom and Gomorrah. A basic reason for this is because the cities were memorable for God’s swift judgment upon them. Note in the verses that follow that at times the threat of judgment is the basis of comparison (and not the nature of the sins themselves). In other words, the sins of those threatened by a judgment similar to Sodom and Gomorrah do not always correspond exactly to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, unless the passage explicitly makes that link.
In Deuteronomy 29:23 threatened judgment of Israel is compared to judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah. A similar idea is found in Isaiah 13:19 (against Babylon), Jeremiah 49:18 (Edom), Jeremiah 50:40 (Babylon), Lamentations 4:6 (Jerusalem), Amos 4:11 (Israel), and Zephaniah (Moab and the Ammonites). Judgment in these cases is devastating and irreversible.
Isaiah 1:9-10 – the Israelites, in the wake of God’s judgment, felt that they were almost extinct as a people – almost as devastated as Sodom and Gomorrah. Israel has sinned (“rebellion” and “corruption” and “forsaking the LORD” and “spurning the Holy One of Israel”). There is an ironic turn from verse 9 to 10 – God says they actually are Sodom and Gomorrah (because of their wickedness) – their sacrifices and rituals are meaningless. They need to repent and do right and seek justice.
Isaiah 3:9 – Jerusalem, Judah are guilty because “they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it.” Jerusalem is thus compared to Sodom because its sin is flagrant, being practiced without shame or repentance.
Jeremiah 23:14 – “And among the prophets of Jerusalem, I have seen something horrible: They commit adultery and live a lie. They strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that not one of them turns from their wickedness. They are all like Sodom to me; the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah.” The prophets are unfaithful to God and to their divine calling. Instead of confronting the people’s sins, they are condoning sin (promoting sin without shame or repentance).
- To “commit adultery” (naaph) is used throughout Jeremiah and the prophets to refer to idolatry and spiritual unfaithfulness to God and his covenant.
Ezekiel 16 – “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations” (16:2). Jerusalem was the unfaithful wife to God’s covenantal love, through idolatry (16:17), (spiritual) prostitution, and lewdness (16:43 – “Have you not committed lewdness in addition to all your abominations?”). They imitated practices of godless cultures and cities, including Sodom (16:47): “Not only did you walk in their ways and do according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways.” Ezekiel 16:49-50: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.”
- A variety of Sodom’s vices are linked to Sodom in 16:49-50, including arrogance, selfish indulgence, lack of mercy, and committing an abomination. The mention of arrogance and injustice match with the general description of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 13, 18, and 19, and it may also recall the outcry of the righteous in Genesis 18:20-21 and 19:13 (see Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel 1-24, 509). But what about the language of abomination?
- The appearance of “abomination” in 16:50 could summarize the sins listed prior to it, or it could add a different sin to the list. “Abomination(s)” (toevah) is mentioned multiple times in the passage to describe practices that are offensive to God (HALOT 1703 – toevah – “abomination, abhorrence”). “Abomination” is used more as a catch-all category for sin elsewhere in Ezekiel 16 (in the plural) but may indicate a more specific sin in 16:50 (in the singular – “committing an abomination”). This is plausible when seen in comparison to Ezekiel 18:10-13, which presents a list that includes “abomination” (singular) before summarizing all sins in the list as “abominations” (plural) – see Robert A. J. Gagnon, “The Old Testament and Homosexuality: A Critical Review of the Case Made by Phyllis Bird.”
- Even more, “abomination” may describe sexual sin in Ezekiel 16:50. The word also appears in Leviticus 18 and 20 in the context of laws against sexual immorality, and it describes sexual sin in Ezekiel 22:11. More specifically, it may recount the sexually lawless behavior that led to judgment in Genesis 19. The end of Ezek 16:50 (“So I removed them, when I saw it”) may support the idea that “abomination” refers to that specific episode (the attempted male-on-male gang rape), because it suggests a correlation between seeing the behavior (through the eyes of the angelic messengers?) and delivering the judgment. The chaotic scene of sexual aggression was the final straw that confirmed the need for judgment against wicked cities.
- Though Sodom’s non-sexual sins are highlighted here, there is some evidence that the passage has Sodom’s sexual sins in view as well.
References to Sodom (and Gomorrah) in NT passages:
Several New Testament passages highlight the connection between Sodom/Gomorrah and swift judgment. But 2 Peter 2:6 and Jude 7 delve more extensively into the original account from Genesis.
- Matthew 11:23 – Sodom is used as an example of sin and future judgment (towns rejecting Jesus are in an even worse situation). See also Matthew 10:15/Luke 10:12.
- Luke 17:28 – with the coming kingdom of God, judgment will come suddenly, amidst common daily events (as was the case with Sodom).
- Romans 9:29 quotes Isaiah 1:9, drawing upon the finality of judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah.
2 Peter 2:6 – “if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard) – if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.”
- Ungodly = ἀσεβέω, ἀσεβής = “to violate norms of a proper or professed relation to deity, act impiously,” and “pertaining to violating norms for a proper relation to deity, irreverent, impious, ungodly, BDAG, 141.
- Depraved = ἀσέλγεια = “lack of self-constraint which involves one in conduct that violates all bounds of what is socially acceptable,” BDAG, 141. See also 2 Peter 2:2 and 2:18. ESV has “sensuality.” This vice (ἀσέλγεια) is also condemned by Jesus in Mark 7:22. It is often found in lists associated with sexual immorality (Rom 13:13, 2 Cor 12:21, Gal 5:19).
- Lawless = ἄνομος = “pertaining to violating moral standards,” BDAG, 85. 1 Timothy 1:9 – the Mosaic Law was given for people who are “lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane.”
- Elsewhere in 2 Peter 2 (2:2, 2:10, 2:13, 2:18, 2:20) words with connotations of sexual immorality appear as part of a broader condemnation against godlessness.
- The specific description of Sodom and Gomorrah and the broader context in 2 Peter 2 has sexual deviancy as a strong focus.
Jude 7 – “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. In the very same way, on the strength of their dreams these ungodly people pollute their own bodies, reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings.”
- Sexual immorality = ἐκπορνεὐω = “indulge in illicit sexual relations/debauchery.’ Used only in Jude, but related to the common term πορνεία.
- “Perversion” = ἕτερος σάρξ = “other flesh.” ESV – “unnatural desire.” HCSB – “perversions.” NASB – “strange flesh.” NET – “pursued unnatural desire in a way similar to these angels.” NRSV – “unnatural lust.” It is somewhat ambiguous here whether this refers to desire for same-sex activity or sex with angels, though the former is more likely in view of the fact that according to Genesis 19 the men of Sodom did not appear to realize that they were seeking sex with angels.
- “Pollute” bodies = μιαίνω = “to cause the purity of something to be violated by immoral behavior; defile,” BDAG, 650.
- Jude as a whole condemns “ungodly passions” (Jude 18), and “sensuality” (Jude 4 – ἀσέλγεια), so sexual immorality seems to be central to the problem he is addressing (along with general spiritual arrogance and irreverence). The judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah is enlisted as one example of judgment for sexual immorality, with perhaps a specific reference to same-sex sexual activity as well.
Both the passage itself and the later references to it show that Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked cities in a number of ways. A number of vices marked the cities. Readers should not target same-gender sexual relations as the solitary sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, though the fact that the men of the city demanded sex with other men is still a notable detail in the story. The narrative of Genesis 18-19 highlights this violent, inhospitable, sexually inflamed behavior as something shocking and out-of-bounds, and some later passages imply that the sexual practices of Sodom and Gomorrah contributed to their being judged by God.