Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

The Story Behind Sodom

Friday, May 24th, 2013

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Genesis 19) transports me to the far reaches of Madison County, to the little hamlet of Sodom Laurel, famous not only for its name but for the mountain ballads of Dellie Norton and the photography of Rob Amberg. When I was directing service-learning at Mars Hill College, one of our community partners for a number of years was the elementary school there in Sodom Laurel, where college students would go to tutor and mentor struggling kids. It was a hard sell to convince many of the predominantly conservative Baptist students to make the half hour to 45 minute drive over Lonely Mountain to get to a place called Sodom. There are various legends as to how the community got pegged with that unfortunate name. The official name is Revere, but I never heard anyone call it that. One story, coming from Dellie, was that a preacher came through Revere during the Civil War, and stumbled across a logging camp that was sinning to beat the band, and he likened the community to the biblical Sodom. According to another story I heard from an old-timer in Sodom, (and I hope this was the true account), Presbyterian missionaries had followed the Laurel River down the Lonely Mountain in hopes of “civilizing” the backward hillbillies, a la Catherine Marshall’s Christy, and they christened the community with the high-falutin’ name of Revere. The hillbillies didn’t much like their attitude, and started calling the community Sodom instead, in hopes of driving the missionaries away.  The name stuck; the missionaries didn’t.

However the original biblical community of Sodom got its name, it eventually came to be associated in our culture with the the taboo practice of back door copulation, prohibited by law even among married couples in in many states, including my own, until the Supreme Court struck down these laws just ten years ago. It’s an interesting journey to see how far afield our lingering association of sodomy with homosexuality is from the actual biblical account. Abraham and Lot had gone separate ways, Lot choosing to settle his family in the fertile lands of Sodom. The Lord was not pleased, judging Sodom to be a desperately wicked city, and threatened to destroy it. Abraham made pleas on their behalf, but when he failed in his diplomacy, the Lord sent a couple of Navy Seal-like rescue angels to get Lot’s family out of harm’s way before the fire and brimstone started falling down on the wickedness. And here’s where the story gets interesting. Some of the Sodomites come calling on Lot, demanding that he send his two visitors out into the streets, so they can gang rape them. Lot refuses, and tries to pacify the violent crowd by offering them his own virgin daughters instead. In the context of the middle eastern culture this story emerged from, providing southern hospitality and safe sanctuary for strangers and immigrants was high on the code of ethics; seeing women as human beings worthy of the same protection was not. The gang doesn’t abide by that code, though; the crazed Sodomites don’t want to negotiate with Lot, and start to rush the house. The two angels call on their wonder twin powers and strike the perps blind. The heroes rush up Lot and company, who don’t seem particularly eager to get out of harm’s way, and then the shock and awe starts. Lot’s wife, still somehow attached to the place, turns to look back, and is hoodooed into a pillar of salt.

It’s a crazy story, subject to all sorts of interpretations. What was the precise trespass of Sodom, a sin so serious as to precipitate the napalm? Was it about sexuality? Not according to the Bible. The prophet Ezekiel gives a direct answer to the question, in chapter 16 of his prophecy: 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 abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it. The cause of the city’s cursed destruction was their arrogant inhospitality toward these strangers in their midst, an inhospitality so stark that it caused them to believe there was nothing wrong with abusing and violating those they deemed vulnerable. You’re not likely to find Ezekiel’s definition of sodomy in Merriam Webster or in any of the homophobic harangues coming from the pulpits of our country, but it’s there in the Bible nonetheless: Pride and haughtiness, an excess of food and prosperous ease, and even with an overabundance of riches, a stubborn refusal to share with the poor and needy. Abominable violations invariably arise from such attitudes. And a curse on the inhospitable and violent actions follows. I wonder if Jesus had this story in the back of his mind, when he commissioned his disciples to go into strange lands, sharing good news and healing the sick, giving them leave to shake the dust off their feet as a curse to any household that didn’t show hospitality. Don’t look back, I can almost hear him echoing the warning of Lot’s guardian angels. Dust from sandals isn’t fire from heaven, but it does reinforce the notion that hospitality to the immigrants and strangers who wander into our midst is indeed high on the code of Christian ethics. I’ll hand this to the denizens of Sodom Laurel; they understand that code. The few students who did choose to travel there on a regular basis to tutor and mentor the kids there came back describing the people as the friendliest, most welcoming and gracious and hospitable bunch of folks they had ever encountered. Perhaps a new definition of sodomite will emerge from the little community across Lonely Mountain. Who knows, they might even welcome Presbyterian missionaries, if they come with a better attitude.

How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.



  • May 25, 2013 at 9:19 am

    Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, but He did condemn all forms of sexual immorality:
    What comes out of you is what defiles you. For from within, out of your hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile you. (TNIV, Mark 7:20-23)

    The apostle Paul, in one of his letters to the Corinthians, wrote the verses most often quoted on this subject:

    Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (NIV, 1st Corinthians 6:9-11)

    This verse has been translated in as many different ways as there are different versions of the Bible, so we have to look at the original Greek to see what Paul was really saying. The word translated here as “male prostitute” is the Greek word malakos which literally means “soft to the touch.” However, it was used metaphorically to refer to a catamite (a boy kept for sexual relations with a man) or to a male prostitute in general. The word translated here as “homosexual offender” is the Greek word arsenokoites which means a sodomite, a person who engages in any kind of unnatural sex, but especially homosexual intercourse5. Some believe this use of arsenokoites referred specifically to the men who kept catamites6, but that is not certain.

    There are two other New Testament mentions of homosexual acts, in Romans 1:25-27 and 1 Timothy 1:8-10. In this passage from Romans, again in the context of idolatry, Paul mentions women who “exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones,” which might apply to lesbian acts:

    They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator– who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (NIV, Romans 1:25-27)

    Comment by Bill Dotson

  • May 25, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    good explanation of the texts Bill! thanks

    Comment by jim

  • May 25, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    Bill, thanks for offering your opinion on those texts. My study has led me to a different interpretation, one that does not simply cohere with the cultural prejudices of my childhood and youth. I will note, however, a few points of agreement with your commentary: one, Paul was talking about people who chose to serve created things rather than the Creator; as such he was not addressing people of faith who are followers of Jesus, people who worship the Creator but happen to be in same-sex covenant relationships. Second, he is addressing people who were acting contrary to their created nature, and as such he is not talking about people who have been created with same-sex attractions. Third, as Paul is addressing wicked people who are not participants in the kingdom of God, people he describes as having “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” – he is obviously not addressing people within the faith community who are bearing fruits of the Spirit, participating in the Kingdom, bringing the lost to faith in Christ and ministering to the least of these. Fourth, it is likely, given the cultural practices of the time, that the author you have cited is correct that the Greek word probably refers to child molestation, not faithful same-sex covenant relationships between adults. Thanks for giving me another opportunity to offer a response to some of the culturally captive interpretations common to these texts. Back to the post itself – what do you think of Ezekiel’s description of what Sodom’s sin was: that “she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Doesn’t that describe a lot of our culture today, including a large swath of the religious culture, and shouldn’t authentic evangelical preachers and lay leaders be focusing more on these destructive attitudes that exist so prevalently within the church, instead of mis-applying sexual taboos of biblical times to monogamous, faithful, covenant relationships of same sex couples today, many of whom are your brothers and sisters in Christ?

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • May 26, 2013 at 8:31 am

    Stan as you said you have your opinion
    and I have my opinion and different
    interpretation of scripture than you, so lets leave at that..
    sin is sin and God looks at it all as SIN ..All have sinned and come short of the glory..we were all doomed for hell, so he sent himself to earth in the form of his son Jesus, that if by faith we repent and accept him we would be saved…You and I sin each day but we repent and try to do all sinners that repent will receive salvation. If some one continues to live an unrepentant live, God will judge there actions..

    I agree that Sodom had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Yes that describe a lot of our culture today. More so to day than back then…
    We are in the last days and the message should be a call to salvation before its to late..
    The world and America is not the same today..
    Judgement day is coming. get ready people

    Comment by Bill Dotson

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