By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible is well-known: God destroyed those two cities for their ‘sin’ of homosexuality. Or did he? What’s wrong with talking about ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ as a pair of cities in this way, and what exactly was the sin committed by the inhabitants of these places?
Let’s take a closer look at the story, offering an analysis of the Biblical account. We’ll also explore what real-life events may have inspired this tale.
Lot was the son of Haran and the nephew of Abraham. His name is thought to mean ‘to wrap closely’. He was a companion of Abraham’s in Canaan, and travelled around with him, until they decided to part ways. Lot chose to go to Sodom.
Despite the fact that they went their separate ways, Abraham continued to look out for his nephew. Genesis chapter 18 tells us that when God told Abraham that he planned to destroy the city of Sodom for the ‘grievous’ sin of its people, Abraham pointed out that some righteous people lived in the city.
There follows a curious passage where Abraham convinces God to spare all of the inhabitants of the city if as few as ten righteous people can be found within it (he started with fifty people but managed to talk God down to just ten).
Then we move, in chapter 19, to Lot in Sodom itself, with its impending doom hanging over it. God sends two angels to the city, and Lot meets them at the city gates. He invites them into his house, calling him their servant, so they have somewhere to eat and sleep that night.
But when the men of Sodom hear that Lot has got some men staying with him (or what the folk of Sodom think are men), they come knocking on his door, demanding that Lot ‘bring them out unto us, that we may know them’ (19:5). That’s ‘know’ in the famous ‘biblical sense’ of the word ‘know’, as a man knows his wife: carnal knowledge, in other words. Because this is what the men of Sodom did, the practice of sexual relations between men (among other things) became known as sodomy, after the city.
Lot doesn’t come out of the story looking well by modern standards. In order to shield the angels from this mob of men at his door, he offers the men his two daughters, telling the crowd outside that neither of his daughters has ‘known man’ (there’s that word again), i.e., they’re virgins. Thankfully (from our perspective), the men of Sodom aren’t interested in such a bargain.
The angels then take care of the men at the door, striking them blind before urging Lot to gather his loved ones together as the city is going to be destroyed and he and his daughters and other kin need to get out, as fast as possible.
Curiously, having said that his daughters hadn’t ‘known man’, Lot then goes and fetches his sons-in-law (presumably he was lying to the men at his door in order to make the prospect of his daughters more appealing to them). However, they think he’s having them on and refuse to leave with him.
When morning comes, the angels hasten Lot, his wife, and his daughters out of Sodom, and they leave, being told not to look back on the destruction that is going to be visited upon the city. God tells Lot to go and take refuge in the mountains, but Lot requests to be able to travel to a nearby city, Zoar. God agrees to spare that city, and so Lot and his wife and daughters set off for Zoar.
As soon as they’ve left, God rains down fire and brimstone upon the city of Sodom, as well as Gomorrah. From this verse in the Book of Genesis, we get the phrase ‘fire and brimstone’ to denote God’s righteous anger (‘brimstone’, by the way, was an archaic word for sulfur).
In fact, there were two more cities destroyed in the catastrophe: everyone knows ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ and the two are often paired like this, implying there were just two cities destroyed. In fact, the cities of Admah and Zeboiim were also consumed by God’s wrath. The fifth city of the plain, Zoar (also known as Bela), was spared at Lot’s request.
Despite God’s injunction to Lot that they should not look back at the destruction of the cities, Lot’s wife did look back, and for her trouble she was turned into a pillar of salt (19:26). The next morning, Abraham beholds the smouldering ruins of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In a curious postscript – whose purpose appears to be to show that Lot was the progenitor of the people of Moab and Ammon – he leaves Zoar and goes to live in a cave with his daughters, who get their father drunk on wine and lay with him so they both conceive his children. Their descendants are, respectively, the Moabites and the children of Ammon.
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah shows God’s wrath in full swing, as he punishes the people of those cities – and the cities of Admah and Zeboiim, lest we forget the other two – for their ‘grievous’ sin. The sin in question, or at least one of their sins, is revealed to be relations between men, as revealed by the tale involving the men knocking at Lot’s door and demanding that they be allowed to ‘know’ his male guests.
Interestingly, though, ‘sodomy’ was not the sole sin of which the Sodomites were guilty, even if the term ‘sodomite’ came to refer to that very specific activity of ‘relations’ between men. Rabbinic writings – not included in the Bible or Torah – tell us that the Sodomites also committed economic crimes, among other things.
Their distinct lack of hospitality towards Lot’s guests – regardless of what they wished to do with them once they got them outside – was another of their crimes.
But even elsewhere in the Bible itself, it’s made clear that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were guilty of many other ‘sins’ besides homosexuality. Jeremiah 23:14 identifies their sin as adultery, while in Ezekiel 16:48-50 it’s pride, idleness, and ‘fulness of bread’ that God identifies as their sins. But now the one thing everyone associates with the Sodomites is their practice of same-sex relationships (or, if not relationships, acts).
So, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were only half the story: the folk of Admah and Zeboiim also felt God’s fire and brimstone, or divine punishment. But their ‘sin’ (or sins) were not limited to homosexuality.
What prompted this story? Is it a moral lesson? Partly – although given the confusion over the precise nature of the sins committed by the Sodomites (and the other cities’ citizens), it’s not a particularly clear one when we stop and analyse what the Bible tells us.
But many of the miracles and divine happenings in the Old Testament, from the Great Flood to the Tower of Babel, probably have their origins in real, historical events which were then retold and grew in the (re)telling.
And with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (and Admah and Zeboiim), it’s been plausibly suggested that some catastrophic earthquake in around 2000 BC, accompanied by a devastating electrical storm, may have done for these cities.
Meanwhile, seepages of bitumen (i.e., tar) could have helped to create a giant conflagration, burning the cities to the ground. A meteorite impact has also been proposed, but we may never know. As the Dead Sea expanded, these cities – if located at the southern tip of that lake – would have been submerged underwater, and this explains why there is now no trace of them left.