Sex in Genesis: Is the Sodom Story Literal? (part 1)

Lots wife turns into a pillar of salt when she sees the destruction of Sodom

Lots wife turns into a pillar of salt when she sees the destruction of Sodom

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.

Brimstone mapBy 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”).

English rendering

Hebrew wordplay

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”.

Hospitality

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.

Abraham entertains three visitors while Sarah listens behind the tent door

Abraham entertains three divine visitors while Sarah listens behind the tent door

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.

dead-sea-salt-crystalsLiving 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.

[Read part two here]


[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.

Comments

Sex in Genesis: Is the Sodom Story Literal? (part 1) — 7 Comments

  1. Great stuff, Clair!

    The difference in what was served is an astute observation. Abraham’s treatment of the three visitors “certainly befits deity as he prepares a feast of a calf and bread made with choice flour usually reserved for sacrifice (three seahs = six gallons or twenty-four liters)” (Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, pg. 53). The NET commentary explains, “The animal prepared for the meal was far more than the three visitors needed. This was a banquet for royalty. Either it had been a lonely time for Abraham and the presence of visitors made him very happy, or he sensed this was a momentous visit.”

    And to go along with footnote iv about Lot protesting the abuse of his daughters in the JST, it might be worth noting that the JST also makes it three visitors for Lot, not two. I know you are contrasting the biblical account, but I think it is interesting that the JST allows Lot three visitors when he attempts to dissuade the mob. He apparently did something right.

  2. Then again, from my reading of the JST, it looks like it makes all three visitors to Abraham “holy men” with Yahweh being separate from them. Thus, the change in ch. 19 from two to three men may be for consistency.

    Even so, a point about Lot: I was under the impression that it was Lot’s adherence to the ancient virtue of hospitality (which was being violated by the inhabitants of S&G)–even to the extent of sacrificing his daughters to the mob–that spared him from destruction.

    “The implication…is that Lot had demonstrated his righteousness by his proper treatment of his visitors; offering his daughters to the mob was morally acceptable in such circumstances” (Michael Coogan, God & Sex, 114).

  3. A fun read, Clair.
    I was interested in your conclusion that Lot’s two daughters were married, but still virgins.

    Most commenters on this chapter in Genesis reconcile this either by saying that Lot had more than two daughters (two virgins and the others married to his sons-in-law, thus not technically living “in his house”) or by saying that they were only betrothed to future sons-in-law.

    You back up your assertion by describing this as the “author’s attempt to describe nearly every kind of sexuality but that of a fertile married couple having intimate relations that produce children. This certainly fits with your view of the chapters on Sodom and Gomorrah and I think it’s very valid. Do you know of other commenters that agree with your conclusion that Lot’s virgin daughters were married but not having sex with their husbands? Or are you breaking new ground here?

  4. Walker, thanks for pointing out how elaborate the feast was. I was unaware the extent of Abraham’s preparations. Lot does a good job, but there are subtle clues in the text that Abraham outdoes Lot — an important foreshadowing of what was to come, IMO.

    I was unaware there were three visitors in the JST. I missed that in my reading — I need to re-read it with that in mind.

    And regarding hospitality — I was unaware of the importance in the culture of providing for and protecting visitors before preparing this post. Lot seems perverse to our modern sensibilities for offering his daughters to be raped. However this appears to be an exaggeration of the virtue of hospitality of the time.

    Thanks for bringing these points out.

  5. Cheryl — No, I’m not aware of commentaries that suggest Lot’s married daughters were virgins. This was my personal reading of the text.

    In reading through it again, and considering the male-centric text, additional daughters beyond the two virgins can be implied. These appear to be the relevant verses:

    — 14 And Lot went out, and spake unto his sons in law, which married his daughters, and said, Up, get you out of this place; for the Lord will destroy this city. But he seemed as one that mocked unto his sons in law.
    — 15 And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying, Arise, take thy wife, and thy two daughters, which are here; lest thou be consumed in the iniquity of the city.

    In v.14 the sons-in-law ignore Lot about leaving the city. They could have wives (unmentioned, additional daughters of Lot) that stay behind with their husbands. But I think another valid reading can be that there are two and only two daughters. Considering the author’s obvious play on sexuality — married, virginal daughters seem to be a plausible reading.

    BTW, Cheryl has a great post on Sodom and Gomorrah here: http://mormonmatters.org/2010/02/17/where-the-lord-annihilates-all-the-gays/

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