The Gospel on Homosexuality: Getting the Story of Sodom & Gomorrah Straight

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Religious-right Christians, heterosexual marriage activists, and homophobes have long founded their hatred for homosexuality in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, among other texts and stories in the Bible. 

Referring to the mention of Sodom and Gomorrah in Amos 4:11, for example, the infamous Fred Phelps (pastor of Westboro Baptist Church and horrifying website), uses the wood-burning terminology to connect word "faggot" to homosexuality, despite the fact that his beloved KJV uses the word "firebrand." 

"It is an excellent metaphor to describe sodomites because they fuel God's wrath, they burn in lust, and they will burn in hell...So, the word 'fag' refers to people who sin like the Sodomites did. It not only refers to homosexuals, but also refers to people who support homosexuals (see Romans 1:32), and people who engage in all other relatively 'lesser' perversions (like impenitent premarital sex and adultery, including the adultery of all of you divorced-and-remarried 'born again Christians')."

Per one news report last year, covering the mess he and his followers were creating at the steps of the Supreme Court, the Huffington Post records,

Onlookers and counter-protestors prodded the Phelps family about their message. A young man asked Jonathon Phelps if the word "fag"--which he had quoted on his sign as a verse directly from God--is actually in the Bible.

"I can reference you to Amos 4:11," Phelps said. "It says fag." In fact, that verse references Sodom and Gomorrah, but not homosexuality.
I have little more time than my mere mention here for such insolent hatred.  It is disgusting to King Jesus, and perhaps even more than the homosexuality toward which they display sinful vehemence.  It is tantamount to taking God's name in vain.  Saying we follow King Jesus and then not acting like King Jesus is identity theft in the grandest terms, and Jesus has no idea who these people are.  They definitely do not belong to His family.

Sodom and Gomorrah as Support of Homosexuality?

With the extreme fundamentalist right at one end of the spectrum, we also have extreme gay-rights activism on the other end.  And somewhere short of the end of the spectrum we surprisingly find theological arguments for homosexuality using the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  This is where we find Jennifer Wright Knuston in her recent CNN Belief Blog article entitled, "The Bible's Surprising Mixed Message on Sexuality."  I have attempted to address some of her arguments in a couple of previous posts (here and here).  I want to continue to do the same in this post.

 Thus far in my posts addressing her assertions, the bulls eye of the matter has been the integrity with which she handles the biblical texts.  I desperately want to interact with her on these issues, but she felt she needed to decline my requests to do due to a schedule that sounds as packed as mine.  So I completely understand.  I did want to give her the benefit of the doubt however, and invite her to interact with me nonetheless, from my first blog post in this series forward.

The handling of the biblical text with integrity is the most essential matter seemingly up for grabs in this conversation.  Knust's handling of the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 did not appeal to a sense of historicity and reliability toward the Bible.  Nor did it do so in her handling of the story of Jonathan and David.  All of this reveals a presupposition about the Bible that unfortunately does not handle it with the same integrity with which we are supposed to handle other literature.  The story of Sodom and Gomorrah falls in line with this same sort of thing.

When it comes to Sodom and Gomorrah, Knust's conclusion is as follows.

"Confident claims about the forms of sex rejected by God are also called into question by early Christian interpretations of the story of Sodom. From the perspective of the New Testament, it was the near rape of angels - not sex between men - that led to the demise of the city.

"Linking a strange story in Genesis about 'sons of God' who lust after 'daughters of men' to the story of the angels who visit Abraham’s nephew Lot, New Testament writers concluded that the mingling of human and divine flesh is an intolerable sin.
"As the New Testament letter Jude puts it:

the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and went after strange flesh, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire (Jude 6-7).

"The first time angels dared to mix with humans, God flooded the earth, saving only Noah, his family, and the animals. In the case of Sodom, as soon as men attempted to engage in sexual activity with angels, God obliterated the city with fire, delivering only Lot and his family. Sex with angels was regarded as the most dangerous and offensive sex of all."
A Fresh Look at Genesis 18 and 19

So let's do what we did in the previous two posts and look at the actual biblical record itself, assuming an vantage of point of historicity and reliability.  The story comes from Genesis 19.

19:1  That evening the two angels came to the entrance of the city of Sodom. Lot was sitting there, and when he saw them, he stood up to meet them. Then he welcomed them and bowed with his face to the ground. "My lords,” he said, “come to my home to wash your feet, and be my guests for the night. You may then get up early in the morning and be on your way again.”

“Oh no,” they replied. “We’ll just spend the night out here in the city square.”

19:3  But Lot insisted, so at last they went home with him. Lot prepared a feast for them, complete with fresh bread made without yeast, and they ate. But before they retired for the night, all the men of Sodom, young and old, came from all over the city and surrounded the house. They shouted to Lot, “Where are the men who came to spend the night with you? Bring them out to us so we can have sex with them!
16:6  So Lot stepped outside to talk to them, shutting the door behind him. “Please, my brothers,” he begged, “don’t do such a wicked thing. Look, I have two virgin daughters. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do with them as you wish. But please, leave these men alone, for they are my guests and are under my protection.”
16:9  “Stand back!” they shouted. “This fellow came to town as an outsider, and now he’s acting like our judge! We’ll treat you far worse than those other men!” And they lunged toward Lot to break down the door.
16:10  But the two angels reached out, pulled Lot into the house, and bolted the door. Then they blinded all the men, young and old, who were at the door of the house, so they gave up trying to get inside." (NLT)

As we can see from a plain reading of the text, the crowd gathering outside Lot's home had no earthly idea that the men inside were actually angels.  If they did, they probably would have been too fearful to have suggested such a thing.  You see, two of the angels who had come to see Lot were part of a group of three who had originally came to Abraham.  One of them was the Lord Himself, who evidently did not go to Sodom with the two angels.  In the previous chapter, Genesis 18, we read the following.

18:1  The Lord appeared again to Abraham near the oak grove belonging to Mamre. One day Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. He looked up and noticed three men standing nearby.
18:5  since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.”
18:16  Then the men got up from their meal and looked out toward Sodom. As they left, Abraham went with them to send them on their way.
18:20  the Lord told Abraham, “I have heard a great outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah, because their sin is so flagrant. I am going down to see if their actions are as wicked as I have heard. If not, I want to know.”
18:22  The other men turned and headed toward Sodom, but the Lord remained with Abraham.

Notice several features about the text, from a plain reading. First, these angels appeared as men.  That's what the text simply and plainly says.  If there was some sort of awareness on the part of the people that that they were angels, it just isn't there in the text.  

Second, notice that the "flagrant" sin was mentioned by God before the angels ever went to the city. The conversation with Abraham in Genesis 18 happened before the angelic visit to the cities in Genesis 19. Per Knust's assertion, "it was the near rape of angels - not sex between men - that led to the demise of the city."  So one must be led to conclude from her assertion that sex with angels must have been regular enough in the city to warrant the condemnation God has assigned to the cities in Genesis 18.

A Fresh Look at Genesis 6 and Jude's Reference

To make the logical/interpretive leap, Knust is strangely compelled to argue some sort of connection between the arguably debatable sexual relationship between angelic beings and women in Genesis 6 with the story of Sodomites wanting to have sex with two angels in Lot's house.  Honestly, I don't see the connection.  She asserts,

"Linking a strange story in Genesis about 'sons of God' who lust after 'daughters of men' to the story of the angels who visit Abraham’s nephew Lot, New Testament writers concluded that the mingling of human and divine flesh is an intolerable sin."
She refers to the brief statement in Genesis 6:2.

The sons of God saw the beautiful women and took any they wanted as their wives.

Notice several things in this simple verse.  First, the interpretation that the "sons of God" in Genesis 6 refers to angelic beings is debatable.  The extensive study and research I conducted on it personally over a decade ago led me to conclude that the phrase more than likely refers to self-appointed ruler-dictators.  In short, Moses (the author of Genesis) was telling the story of how God's plan for humans to rule the earth (Genesis 1:28) had been mutated by sin.  Men and women were originally supposed to rule in love and gratitude.  Instead, sin had led them to rule in oppression and polygamy.  That is why Moses starts Genesis with the mandate in Genesis 1:28 and then moves outward to include Satan (Genesis 3), murder and polygamy (Genesis 4), and oppression (Genesis 6).  The whole point of the story is to build the momentum of the history of the redemption that is so desperately needed, and eventually and ultimately offered in Jesus Christ.

Notice second that the issue is polygamy, like Lamech's story in Genesis 4.  These were self-appointed ruler-dictators who were riding into town and simply grabbing up as many women as they wanted to in order to take as wives.  And notice third that sex is not even the issue in the verse.  

So if it cannot be argued conclusively that the "sons of God" were angelic beings who simply wanted to come down and have sex with as many women as they wanted, then neither can it be conclusively argued that this passage supports homosexuality, as Knust asserts it does, when she write, "Sex with angels was regarded as the most dangerous and offensive sex of all."  The issue isn't about angels, and it isn't about sex.  Which means it can't be conclusively linked to the angels in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Do you see how much of a far-fetched stretch it is to argue as Knust does with the biblical texts?  It simply does not take them seriously and handle them with integrity.

What about the reference in Jude, to which Knust refers?  Presumably, and hopefully simply, "the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling" may in fact refer to the angels who disobeyed God and rebelled with Satan.  Per other texts which allude to the fall of Satan, it would appear that he rebelled against God and took a third of the angels with him.  They were all put out of heaven, their assigned condition from that day forward being that of death row essentially.  

The mention of Sodom and Gomorrah should be plain enough.  Jude says they "indulged in sexual immorality, and went after strange flesh."  The reference to Sodom and Gomorrah and surrounding cities is joined to that of the fall of the angels in order to illustrate how the false teachers of Jude's day were behaving.  Presumably good teachers had gone bad, leaving their original place of honor in serving God and His truth, and living sexually immoral lives.  In this way they had become "false" teachers.  Therefore the same punishment that awaited the angels and that happened to Sodom and Gomorrah will happen to these false teachers.  Jude's words are a warning to the false teachers and to the church regarding their future.

"Strange flesh" is a difficult itself.  Yet it is linked to "sexual immorality" in the text by a conjunction.

εκπορνευσασαι και απελθουσαι οπισω σαρκος

More than likely the phrase "strange flesh" further explains or defines the previous construct for "sexual immorality."  That seems to be the simplest way to take the two phrases.  There are not two different sins mentioned here, in other words, but two phrases describing the same sin: sexual immorality.  The use of the second phrase is simply provided to further describe the first: sexual immorality, including strange flesh.

So what is "strange flesh"?  The grammatical construction and context seem to point to an unnatural desire for something, and in this case, flesh.  Flesh is a reference to humanity, the human body, or even simply "flesh" in general that includes but is not limited to human beings.  Strange is a reference to something unnatural.  The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were engaged in sexual immorality which included an unnatural desire for humanity or human beings.  The fact that the phrase sexual immorality is governing the whole construction means that whatever "strange flesh" is, it is connected to sexual immorality.  Therefore, sexual immorality that has an unnatural desire for another human being sexually could include a wide variety of things, including but not limited to homosexuality, sadomasochism, group sex, pedophilia, incest, etc.  It would also even include beastiality, or sex with animals, which definitely fits the mold of "strange flesh."  

It is in light of the obvious request of the men of Sodom to have sex with the men in Lot's house that leads us to conclude that homosexuality is included in the "sexual immorality" of which Jude speaks.  Yet based on the use of "strange flesh" it conceivable that the sexual sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, as well as the surrounding cities to which Jude refers, went even beyond homosexuality.  We could easily conclude this if for no other reason than that Lot himself offered his own daughters to the angry mob outside!  If his "knee-jerk" reaction was to appease the mob by giving his own daughters to be raped by the angry men outside, while the men outside wanted to have sex with the men inside, there is just no telling how far the sexual sin of the cities actually went!

The Gospel in the Story of Sodom and Gomorrah

The gospel is most clearly seen in the end of the story...which is the point of the story:  God wanted to rescue Lot and his family from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  That's it, plain and simple.  Lot chose to live there, despite what he knew about it.  And by virtue of the fact that he offered his daughters to be raped, it is evident that the culture of the city had "gotten" to him.  But God went of His way to visit Abraham, discuss the problem, explain the plan, and execute an escape plan for Lot and his family.  

The story is there to show us that despite the mutation and downfall of humanity because of sin, and despite the willing participation of humanity in sin, they are still very much victims of the fall and therefore in need of rescue.  And there is precisely the point of the story:  God is a rescuer of a race of people who are responsible victims.  Their victim-status almost explains why they choose to act irresponsibly.  Even though they know they are responsible for their sin, they still continue to make decisions that put them deeper in bondage to it.  Their irresponsibility almost explains why they are victims of sin then.

God has recognized this problem and He promised at the outset of the first sin to undo it.  But first He must show how heinous and awful sin is.  This is what the Old Testament is about, in its most distilled form.  And this in turn is what the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is all about.  It is simply another chapter in the unfolding story of just how bad humanity needs a deliverer, a rescuer, a Savior.  

God's plan to rescue Lot and his family is a foreshadow of His plan to rescue humanity as a whole.  God Himself came down to earth to visit with Abraham and Lot to execute this escape plan.  And God repeated Himself when He Himself came down to earth to live among humanity as Jesus Christ, who executed the grandest escape plan through the cross and the empty tomb.  Through Jesus, anyone living like Lot or living as the men of Sodom and Gomorrah, can be rescued.  

This then, is the gospel on homosexuality for homosexuality.

For more in-depth study of the issue, see the helpful article, "Homosexuality and 'Strange Flesh'" by David Miller, Ph.D.


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