Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What Happens in Sodom, Stays in Sodom

Beyond the story of Sodom in Genesis 19--which leaves some ambiguity as to what the problem in Sodom actually *is,* where else in scripture do we find reference to that unpleasant little burg? Perhaps that'll clear things up a bit. Or not...

In the Old Testament, we hear only two references that try to explain what happened in Sodom, both times in prophetic literature.

Isaiah 3:9-15 The look on their faces testifies against them; they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! They have brought disaster upon themselves. Tell the righteous it will be well with them, for they will enjoy the fruit of their deeds. Woe to the wicked! Disaster is upon them! They will be paid back for what their hands have done. Youths oppress my people, women rule over them. O my people, your guides lead you astray; they turn you from the path. The LORD takes his place in court; he rises to judge the people. The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: "It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?" declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.

Ezekiel 16:49-50 "'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. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.

Here, neither Isaiah or Ezekiel use Sodom as an example of God condemning same-sex relationships. In fact, sexual immorality doesn't come into the equation at all. If you read the plain, straight-up text itself, it just isn't there. Sodom, for both of these prophets, is used to symbolize those who oppress the poor, as they lay a theological whuppin' on the self-absorbed Judeans around them.

Well, what about in the Gospels and Epistles? There are nine references to Sodom itself in the New Testament, and two uses of the word "sodomite."

The term "sodomite" is used in some English translations (not the NIV or KJV) to render the Greek term arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10). That word comes from colloquial English, and does not indicate any original textual connection with the city or what went on there. We'll talk about what it means later.

So what of the nine specific references to Sodom? Of these, eight don't talk at all about the nature of the sin of Sodom. Only Jude 1:7 speaks to it, and what it says varies depending on your translation:

NIV: Jude 1:7 "In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion..."

New Revised Standard Jude 1:7 "Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust.."

King James Version Jude 1:7 "Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh..."

Clearly, Jude presents Sodom's crime as sexual sin. The challenge for translators comes with the words that are in bold. What sort of sexual sin is being referred to here? What the NIV translators refer to as simply "perversion" is actually an entire clause in the Greek. "apeltheousai spisou sarkos heteras." The King James comes closest to giving us a literal translation, as what Jude is saying is "going after strange flesh" or, as heteras is in every other location rendered "another" in the Bible "going after another's flesh."

Again, there is no direct reference to same sex activity here. If this verse--as it occurs in our most ancient manuscripts--is read as it was written, then the sexual sin Jude is referring to is better understood as describing their attempted violent assault on the strangers in their midst. If we take scripture as a guide, the sin of Sodom is twofold: 1) They oppress the poor and are selfish, and 2) They engage in predatory sexuality.

If you're looking for scriptural justification to condemn homosexual behavior, you're going to have to travel beyond the Sodom city limits, and travel elsewhere. Let's stick with the Old Testament for a bit. Where else in the Torah, the Prophets, or the Writings can we find talk of gayness or..um..what's the term...lesbiosity?

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