When asked to substitute-teach a gospel doctrine lesson a few years ago, I discovered unexpected parallels between the Sodom and Gomorrah story and some of the stories preceding it. Upon further examination, I came to the realization that the story was probably not literal, but largely a construction based in part on two earlier stories. I’d like to touch on a few things that I believe call into question a literal interpretation of this story.
In two or three posts, I’ll discuss how these two stories fed into the Sodom and Gomorrah story. I’ll also cover a later story that borrowed from and reshaped the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Just a warning – all of the stories have to do with sex. Old Testament is very frank about sexuality and does not shy away from a discussing a wide variety of sexuality. As I’ve read through these stories, I’ve concluded that each author was determined to not to repeat any previously discussed form of sexuality, but instead add new twists based on the older stories. My intent was not been to explore sexuality, but instead the Sodom and Gomorrah story. However I’ve realized how integral sexuality was to the related stories. All the stories tell of improbable, unproductive or inappropriate sexuality in order to demonstrate the superiority of Israel (or certain tribes of Israel) over its enemies.
The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are introduced in Genesis 13[i] when Lot chooses the fertile, Eden-like land surrounding Sodom and Gomorrah near the edge of the land promised to Abraham. He and Lot are running out of room for their livestock and Abraham[ii] allows Lot to choose where he would like to migrate to. The proximity of Lot’s choice being near the nations of Moab and Ammon are important to the story.
By stories end, this garden-like area will be desolate, and an unsavory tale of the unholy conception (yes, literal conception) of Israel’s enemies will be contrasted with the miraculous conception of Isaac who would father Israel. In subsequent posts, I’ll walk through two other Sodom-related stories, one borrowed for the Sodom story, and the other borrowing from it. Each story goes out of its way to discuss different forms of sexual relationships, and mars the character of the author’s enemies.
What’s in a name?
Sodom and Gomorrah are next mentioned in the context of battles and alliances between kings of cities [Genesis 14:1-12]. Nine kings are mentioned. Seven of those names appear to be authentic, fitting the context of the time and place. But two appear to be allegorical in nature rather than actual names. The King of Sodom’s name is Bera, meaning “in evil” and the King of Gomorrah’s name Birsha means “in wickedness.”[iii] The names appear to be constructed to make sure the reader knew who the bad guys were, to metaphorically represent evil, foreshadowing the coming story. This is an early indication of the figurative nature of the Sodom and Gomorrah story.
Lot, now residing in Sodom, is captured in battle and Abraham must rescue Lot. When Lot is rescued an important contrast of the names of the participants occurs. Abraham meets with Melchizedek, King of Salem (“Peace”) and King Bera of Sodom. The name Melchizedek means “my king (is) righteous” or “King of Righteousness”. He accepts an offering from Abraham, while Abraham refuses an offering from the King of Sodom (IE “King in Evil”).
|Melchizedek – King of Salem||King of Righteousness – King of Peace|
|Bera – King of Sodom||King in Evil of Sodom|
|Birsha – King of Gomorrah||King in Wickedness of Gomorrah|
The purposeful construction of the allegorical “king in evil” (and his ally “king in wickedness”) stands in stark contrast to the “king of righteousness, king of peace”.
The first parts of chapters 18 and 19 provide contrasting parallels exploring middle-eastern hospitality. The parallels show Abraham (future father of Israel) as an excellent host, with Lot (future father of Ammon and Moab) falling short, foreshadowing events to come. Note these important contrasts, particularly the underlined items:
|Angels & the Lord visit Abraham (Gen 18)||Angels visit Lot (Gen 19)|
|2 Three heavenly beings visit Abraham, who runs and bows down.||1 Two heavenly beings visit. Lot rises and bows down.|
|3-5 Abraham’s Invitation to wash, eat & rest accepted.||2 Lot’s Invitation to wash & rest reluctantly accepted.|
|6-8 Feast prepared. Bread, a tender calf, butter and milk mentioned.||3 Feast prepared. Unleavened bread mentioned.|
Abraham’s hospitality exceeds that of Lot’s, and the visitors are more receptive to Abraham. Lot is not graced with a visit from the Lord, one of the three visitors.
Who’s having sex?
After the meals of each, the issue of improbable / inappropriate / unproductive sexual union and divine intervention is explored. The Sodom story is carefully constructed to parallel the Abraham/Sarah story.
|Improbable procreative relations: Abraham / Sarah / visitor (Gen 18:9-14)||Unwanted sexual relations: Evil inhabitants of Sodom with visitors, Lot’s daughters, and Lot (Gen 19:4-9)|
|9 Before resting, a divine visitor asks where is Sarah?||4-5a Before retiring the evil people ask where are the divine visitors?|
|10a Visitor will soon see Sarah with a son (from sexual union)||5b Evil people to have sex with visitors|
|10b Sarah hears from tent door||6a Lot comes out through the door|
|11 Sarah is in barren due to age (menopause)||7a Lot pleads, don’t be wicked|
|12 Sarah “laughs” (Hebrew “Isaac”) at her having sexual “pleasure” from “feeble” (impotent) Abraham.||8a Lot offers virgin daughters to men for sexual pleasure to spare his guests.[iv]|
|13 The Lord wonders why Sarah questions Him but will bless her union anyway.||9a Evil men question Lot’s judgment, so will “do worse” to Lot than the intended rape of his visitors.|
|14 Miracle of a sexual union not too hard for the Lord – a son will be produced.||9b-11 Lot saved from sexual union with evil people through miraculous means by visitors|
A careful construction of parallels between the stories is apparent. In the first story, a sexual union is encouraged by the Lord. The reasons for the improbability of a productive sexual union for each partner are brought out. The impotence of 99 year old Abraham is implied who is too “feeble” to provide “pleasure” to Sarah, who “laughs” at the idea. And Sarah is barren because of menopause, and unable to conceive.
In the Sodom story, a series of unproductive / unwanted sexual propositions are explored. The angels, Lot’s virgin daughters, and finally Lot are each the object of potential, unwanted sexual intent (rape) by the people[v] of Sodom. Just as with Sarah, Lot’s daughters later will have a productive sexual union and be the mother of nations.
God is contrasted with the inhabitants of Sodom who are metaphors of evil. Both want a sexual union to occur, but have opposing motives. The goodness of God providing a miraculous union to a reluctant couple is contrasted with the potential unwanted rape of angels, young women, and a man – by a city ruled over by a king named “in evil”. In both stories, divine intervention is employed to cause, or prevent sexual union. Abraham and Sarah will have a productive sexual union, while the intents of the inhabitants of Sodom are thwarted.
Both stories revolve around a door with the location of the players inverted across the stories. Sarah remains inside the tent behind the door where the sexual union will take place, while the visitors remain outside. In Sodom, sexual activity is to take place outside. The visitors, Lot’s daughters and Lot are protected from sexual activity behind the door.
Also contrasted here is Sarah’s state of menopause (post-child bearing) to Lot’s virgin daughters (pre-child bearing).[vi] Lot’s daughters are virgins, even though they are married (Gen. 19:8, 14) – providing yet another twist in the author’s attempt to describe nearly every kind of sexuality but that of a fertile married couple having intimate relations that produce children. Just as Abraham and Sarah are not having sex, neither are Lot’s daughters having sex with their husbands.
Abraham, of course goes on to bear a son which fathers the nation of Israel, while Lot ends up fleeing Sodom and fathering Israel’s enemies. It is important for the storyline that Lot’s sons-in-law and brothers remain behind, and his wife to die in order to add yet another twist on sexuality which is used to insult the Moabites and Ammonites. The story of her turning into a pillar of salt is used to provide an explanation of the common salt formations that occur naturally around the Dead Sea.[vii] Lot is left with just his daughters with whom, in parallel to Abraham, he will father a nation.
Living alone in a cave, the two daughters get Lot drunk and have sex with him in order to perpetuate their seed. The two sons are named Moab (“of the same father”) and Ben-Ammi (“Son of my paternal kin”) – an apparent attempt by the author to imply the nations of Moab and Ammon were conceived through incest, while Israel was conceived through God’s miraculous intervention. In fact, these points are borrowed from another story that I’ll discuss in a follow-up post.
The obvious point-by-point parallels between the two stories, and the enumeration non-standard sexual relationships are clear indications that the Sodom and Gomorrah story was carefully written to contrast the origin of the nation of Israel to that of Israel’s neighboring enemies.
However, the borrowing doesn’t end here. In two subsequent posts, I’ll discuss two additional stories – one that feeds into the Sodom and Gomorrah story, and another that borrows from it.
[i] Its geographic proximity is mentioned earlier in Gen. 10:19
[ii] Actually Abram’s name has not yet been changed to “Abraham” at this point. I use “Abraham” throughout this paper.
[iii] These are common definitions in commentaries. See for example the Jewish Study Bible or the Harper Collins Study Bible, notes for Gen 14:1-2.
[iv] In the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), Lots says he does not want to bring his daughters to the men.
[v] Both the men and women of Sodom may have been involved in the attempted rape. The author notes “All the people from every quarter” (v.4) gather around Lot’s house.
[vi] The word “Laugh” (Gen 18:12) is a wordplay on the name of Abraham and Sarah’s future son “Isaac”. This reference to a son may provide a parallel to Lot’s daughters in 19:8a.
[vii] See for example Amusing Planet, “Strange Salt Formations in the Dead Sea” http://www.amusingplanet.com/2012/09/strange-salt-formations-in-dead-sea.html accessed 2/8/2014.