Sunday, January 14, 2018

Mapping the Swamp: Why was Sodom's punishment so extreme?

BY ROBERT OSCAR LOPEZ

A young Hebrew Bible scholar responded generously with his time when I asked if I could consult him on the Sodom question. He agreed with me about the uniqueness of Sodom. Sodom is not like Jericho or Ai. God saw fit to wipe out the city with His own actions, as if He could not trust any human–even someone as faithful as Abraham–to spill Sodomite blood on himself in the process of blotting it out.

Sodom is not like Nineveh, for Nineveh repented. Sodom is not like Babylon. Even the wicked Babylon appears in scripture as a realm with some people worth saving. Consider this line from 1 Peter 5:13: “The church in Babylon, also chosen, sends you greetings, as does Mark, my son. Greet one another with a kiss.”


Writing around 63 AD from Rome, Peter calls the city “Babylon.” He understands that the term signifies a place with a great deal of sin but great opportunities for salvation. Paul himself said, where there was much sin, grace abounded. The lengthy letter to the Romans, arguably one of Paul’s most important, drove home the notion that Rome, for all its horrors, was redeemable. It was not merely a question of bringing people out of Rome. There was rather the hope that the city and its land could be a redeemed Babylon.

Numerous oracles in the prophetic books militate against Babylon as well as other cities–Edom in Obadiah, Nineveh in Nahum, etc. But Sodom stands out because of its complete erasure directly by God, in a case distinct from the rest of the world. My friend, the Hebrew scholar, acknowledged that a rich hermeneutical exercise beckons here. “Why was Sodom’s punishment so severe? That is a hermeneutical question that’s worth asking.” He seemed to imply that this was the question with which one ought to start, rather than starting with debates over sexual ethics.

After meditating intensively on this question for two weeks, I have come to a theory as to why God singled out Sodom for both extreme punishment and extreme stigma. My conclusion strengthens my belief that homosexuality is not like other sins. I say this despite the fact that so many Christians repeat the cliché that sodomites are equal in guilt to all sinners. Homosexuality and Sodom are both exceptional in the punishment and stigma heaped on them by the Bible.

My theory rests on Sodom’s unique inability to self-correct. A just society will reserve extreme punishments–total obliteration and uncompromising denunciation–for the stubborn criminal. In an ethical system defined by mercy and justice, we cannot mete out such total measures when there is any possibility that a person could change. Two groups that receive no leniency today, for instance, are terrorists and child molesters.

Why? Terrorists commit so strongly to their ideology that there is no way to convince them to abandon it. Child molesters are famous for high recidivism.

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Murderers, rapists, thieves, drug addicts, gang members, and embezzlers are also hated, but not as thoroughly reviled by society largely because many people can conceive of them repenting of their wrongdoing and living out reformed lives. There are examples of people emerging from jail time and getting past their evil ways in those cases.

With terrorists and child molesters we do not have enough narratives of people changing. It is hard to feel confident that any rehabilitation stands as a possibility. As a result, in the eyes of many, the best course of action is to abominate them and destroy them to the greatest extent possible.

As it turns out, homosexuality shares with terrorists and child molesters a widespread image of stubbornness. The very slogans “born this way” and “I didn’t choose” reinforce the almost universal opinion that reversing homosexuality is hopeless. My story, like so many ex-gays’ stories, defies this stereotype. Yet in cultural discourse one finds a widespread conception that homosexuality is nigh impossible to eradicate in a person. Homosexuals are not grouped with child molesters and terrorists in our present day because postmodern people do not generally see homosexuality as a sin or even a problem. Like being left-handed, so the bromide goes, homosexuality can be accepted and society can spare everyone the fuss of trying to change something that they will never change.


But what if the ancient world–and ancient people who knew eternal truths of which we have become ignorant today–agreed with us that homosexuality was deeply resistant to change, but disagreed with us about the notion that homosexuality was no big deal?

In other words, they would treat it similarly to terrorism and child abuse.

The defilement attending homosexuality would render it untouchable by human hands so justice would have to come from God, ostensibly through a supernatural or natural disaster. Ergo, Sodom.
The “Tests” Leading Up to Sodom

Scripture goes out of its way to demonstrate that the Sodomites cannot change. This is significant.

The lead-up to the obliteration of Sodom reveals a series of what seem like tests or warning. One could call them “chances” for the Sodomites to escape severe punishment.

Consider the first chance, which happens early in the narrative. Through the Lord’s providence, Lot ends up settling in Sodom and is captured by Sodom’s enemies during the revolt against Chaderloamer in Genesis 13-14. As a result, Lot’s uncle, the famous patriarch Abram, raises an army to defeat Sodom’s enemies. This act of intervention saves the city from being forever enslaved

This is the first chance for Sodom. Having been brought close to destruction, will they change? After Abram intervenes, Sodom has its liberty and must bear the consequences of those actions the Sodomites freely chose. Rather than make them less guilty, this renders them more responsible for their own actions.


Test #2 involves more subtlety. Toward the end of Genesis 14, Melchizedek, the king of Salem, performs a ritual honoring God. When Abram meets Bera, the king of Sodom, he and Bera see Melchizedek’s sacrifice to God and declaration that Abram is blessed by God. The book of Hebrews underscores this passage as a presage of Christ’s arrival and the beginning of a priesthood of the believer; this inference rests upon the fact that Melchizedek acted as a priest before the law came down from Moses.

The wording of Melchizedek’s blessing: “I give praise to the God Most High who has handed your enemies over to you.” Melchizedek states these words and performs this rite as the king of Sodom and Abram are both in his presence.

The “enemies” whom Abram defeated, though, were Sodom’s enemies more than Abram’s. Melchizedek’s blessing leaves open the possibility that Sodom had a chance, at this critical moment, to praise God and submit to God. Yet Bera merely offers to pay Abram for his military assistance. Abram refuses, which implies that Abram sensed, even at this early stage, that Sodom would not change even after having narrowly escaped complete annihilation in war.

Test #3 happens in Genesis 18. Three visitors come to see Abraham. These include, apparently, God and two angels. They come to announce three things: Sarah will give birth to a son in her old age, Abraham will father a great nation, and Sodom and Gomorrah are going to be destroyed. As the three visitors walk away from Abraham, Abraham begs for them to relent in their plan to obliterate Sodom, asking, “shall you sweep away the righteous and the wicked together?”

Abraham then bargains with God. First he asks if God will spare Sodom in the event that 50 good men exist in the city. Gradually, to play it safe, Abraham keeps asking God to set the threshold lower and lower, until he only needs to find 10 good men in Sodom in order to spare the whole city.

Why did the announcement of Sodom’s doom come alongside the announcement of soon-to-be-conceived Isaac, the father of the Jews and brother to Ishmael (the father of the Arabs)? One could argue that Genesis 18 offers a coherent thread that matches what happens before and after it. God is narrowing down his chosen people in a twofold way: first by separating Isaac’s patrimony from Ishmael’s patrimony, and second by eliminating Lot’s connection to the covenant. The obliteration of Sodom means that Lot’s city and wife will be destroyed. As a result of this destruction Lot engages in incest with his daughters, leading to the cursed lines of Moab and Ammon.

In Deuteronomy 23:1-8, happening long after the events of Genesis 18, Moses clarifies to the Israelites that God does not want the Israelites to despise the Edomites or the Egyptians, but they must single out the Moabites and Ammonites for longer and harsher exclusion. These bloodlines matter a great deal. The Edomites descend from Esau, Jacob’s brother. The mother of Ishmael, Hagar, came from Egypt. But Moab and Ammon, Moses points out, were worse than Edom and Egypt because the Moabites and Ammonites denied the wandering Jews water and drink during the exodus.

Genesis 18 involves multiple strains of separation and bloodline discernment. Isaac’s line breaks from Ishmael’s, just as his son Jacob’s line will break from Esau’s. Lot’s line could have been distinguished in a similar matter, were it not for Sodom’s depravity. Even among legacies that are kept out of the covenant, Sodom is singled out for the most severe punishment, total annihilation. Unlike other people who suffer the righteous judgment of God, Sodom is forbidden from leaving behind any lineage. As a result, Sodom lays no claim to the redemption when Jesus Christ comes to free the world from sin. Its sins are, in this sense, unpardonable because its people were unredeemable.

Why such a harsh sentence? Yet in Genesis 18, signs point to God’s testing of Sodom to see if the ultimate disaster can be avoided. If Sodom were preserved, one might arguably assert that Lot’s daughters would marry their fiancés, have children, and have a legacy similar to Esau’s and Ishmael’s. That is, a legacy not favored in the way Isaac’s was, but still not entirely turned into a byword and wasteland like Lot’s.

In Genesis 18:20-21 God says, “the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great. I will go down and see if what they do justifies the cry that reaches Me.”

Immediately following this statement, Abraham begs God to set the bar low enough to give the city a chance. Even if the vast majority of Sodom is depraved beyond all reason, at least if 10 decent men live there, some chance of rehabilitation gives the rest the right to continue living.

Test #4 comes in Genesis 19, when the angels arrive in Sodom. Lot greets them and pleads with them to come and stay inside his house. The angels at first say no, because they would rather sleep in the town square. This would go along with God’s intent to investigate in Genesis 18. God said that He would observe if Sodom was as bad as people said, something He could do more obviously if his angels are spending the night in the open air of the city’s main hub. Presumably because he knows the men will be raped in the public square, Lot insists that they come and stay safely inside his house.

This small detail represents the fourth chance the Sodomites had to save themselves from destruction. It is clear by now that Lot knows them to be so shameless that homosexuals in the city would molest and rape any man sleeping somewhere public. But if they could simply respect private spaces as inviolate, then maybe there would be hope of redemption for the city. If they had any limits at all, the angels might make the case for sparing the whole city its doom.

But the next lines run, “Before the guests went to bed, the men of Sodom, young and old, everyone in the city, surrounded the house. They called out to Lot, ‘where are the men who came to your house tonight? Send them out so we may have sex with them!'” (19:4-5).

By now the Sodomites have failed four tests. They have rejected four chances to save themselves. Their minds are so debased and their arrogance so stubborn that they will “not take yes for an answer.” They cannot be saved, it seems. No hope exists that they will ever be anything different from the perverts they are now.

Yet there are still more chances.

Test #5 comes quickly and is twofold. If any of the men in the crowd stood up to the rapists and rallied to Lot’s defense, disaster might be deferred. None breaks with the mob. Then, Lot offers to cast his virgin daughters to the crowd but the crowd refuses. They refuse to engage in any discussion with Lot at this point, mocking him for having “come as a foreigner, now trying to play the judge.” They threaten to rape Lot even worse than the two men inside.

Test #6 also comes quickly and Sodom fails it. The angels now tell Lot that the city’s going to be utterly devastated. They ask him if there are any people he loves in Sodom. If so, he has a chance to lead them out of the city before it is destroyed. Lot asks the men who are supposed to marry his daughters to come with him, but the men think it is a joke and apparently refuse. Since Lot is technically a foreigner, not a single Sodomite male is capable of being saved. With the rebuff of the two prospective son-in-laws, the last chance for Sodom’s male seed to continue falls and the city’s total doom is ensured.

Test #7, the last, comes at daybreak. The text states that Lot is hesitant but God had mercy on him, even then, prompting the angels to grab Lot’s hand and his wife’s hand. The angels pull Lot forcefully and finally tell him to run for the hills with his family and not turn back. His wife, a Sodomite at heart, fails the test on behalf of the last remnant of Sodom. She looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. One can surmise that in the cave of Zoar, the disastrous incest between Lot and his daughters would not have happened if Lot’s wife had not been dead. Hence, the failure of the seventh and last test makes Sodom’s extreme punishment extend to the tribal descendants of the incest act: Moab and Ammon, two peoples whom Moses targets for exceptional exclusion in Deuteronomy.
Why is homosexuality so entrenched?

Sodom received at least seven chances, all resulting in the refusal to change. The Lord was not exceptionally harsh but rather, exceptionally merciful to the city. All the means of averting catastrophe were so easy and obvious. All Bera had to do was join Melchizedek in praising God for having saved Sodom from war. If only they had left the angels alone in Lot’s house… If only ten men had stood against the crowd… If only two Sodomite men, those engaged to Lot’s daughters, had gained composure and fled with Lot, married his girls, and had a normal lineage with them… In all these cases, Sodom would not have been laid waste.

But the Sodomites refused at each term. Sadly, the same self-destructive tendency appears in the postmodern LGBT movement. At so many points, the gay activists could have decided to stop and at least limit the scope of their behavior. They could have stopped at ending the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder and not encouraged the orgy culture that led to AIDS. They could have turned away from it all when AIDS made it clear that homosexuality was going to come with an enormous cost not only to themselves but to all of society. They could have turned inward and tried to reform their culture’s obsession with youth, beauty, and muscles, which may have left youth safe and not placed the gay movement in the terrible position of recruiting and corrupting the vulnerable while disparaging the overweight and awkward in their community. They could have stood up and cried out against their leaders’ brutal behavior: “Stop the blacklists! Leave the churches alone! Leave the schools alone! Stop calling people names! Stop getting people fired!”

On a basic level, they could have stopped organizing the horrifying gay pride festivals, boycotted pornography, or at least come out against drag queens reading “queer” books to little kids in public libraries.

But even more importantly, at some point homosexuals could have looked at what they were doing, listened to people around them who loved them, and stopped harming themselves and others with dangerous sex acts. They have had over forty years of prominence and visibility to make these choices.

Perhaps Sodom’s problem is a deeper problem than simple sexual sin. Rather than justify homosexuality, however, such a situation places the pro-homosexual culture of our day in a terrible trap. For homosexuality’s problem, like Sodom’s, seems not to be sexual sin but deeper personality traits that coincide with men who call themselves homosexual. If one commits oneself to a life of sex based on pain–either you cause it or you show affection by accepting it–such a person must possess a strong will and somewhat of a morbid eros. Not every man who finds good looks in other men takes this appreciation to the next step and seeks to consummate unclean sex acts based on such appreciation. The ones who do are people who have decided to ignore their internal hesitations and disregard the voices of worry around them.

When they say, “I didn’t choose,” what they mean to say is, “I refuse.” They refuse to choose. They refuse to say they can choose. They refuse to give anyone else a choice. They are unwilling to compromise, and dismissive of warning signs and reasonable caveats. While “I didn’t choose” might not be fully true, at a certain point they are not lying when they say, “I cannot change.” They do not want to change. They cannot want to change.

Sodom is back in our world, as Ezekiel predicted she would be. Remember what Ezekiel’s prophecy ends with: “She will return to her formal state.” God would give homosexuality one more chance, and the Sodomites would have the same response they showed to Lot’s guests. No compromise. No change.

The Sodom story in Genesis tells us that we have to give chances to Sodomites to prove the track record wrong. Remember that Lot did not kill the Sodomites. Nor even did the armies against which Sodom rebelled. “Justice is mine, says the Lord.” It is God’s call to decide the fate of the homosexuals who are up to their same old tricks. Perhaps they are on their thousandth chance by now. God will keep giving them chances until one of two things happen: (1) They take a chance and change, or (2) Pride goes before the fall, on God’s timetable.

But this reflection, however morbid, makes one thing clear. It is not unreasonable that God punished Sodom more harshly than other cities. He showed them more grace and mercy. They were not aliens but beloved people to God, more like a cheating wife than an adversarial army. They were neither slaves nor people who knew no better. They were a free people who had ample cause to know that they sinned. They made the willful choice to sin anyway, even if it meant not living to see the next sunrise. When people engage in corrupting evil and show that they will never change, God’s justice follows suit.