Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 19

In Genesis 19, Sodom is finally destroyed.

The events that transpire in this chapter have been a long time coming, in a certain sense. We first saw Sodom and Gomorrah mentioned all the way back in Ch. 13, when Lot chose to go off and live there. Back then, we saw Sodom as a picture of great wealth and richness (it was a well-watered land), and indeed that richness is what drew Lot to it. But we also saw that the Sodomites were "exceedingly wicked and sinners against the LORD". And indeed that chapter describes it as "before the LORD destroyed Sodom," so we already knew judgment was coming.

And it is, but not before the angels investigate to find out if the rumors heard in heaven were true. This is an interesting description, and almost seems to mimic a legal proceeding, as if the angels are investigating these alleged crimes. Note that these two angels were the ones accompanying the Lord in the prior chapter when they visited Abraham. So we see a striking contrast between the hospitality of Abraham and Lot versus the criminal intent of the Sodomites.

Lot sitting in the gate implies a position of authority or eldership, and his insistence upon treating the angels well is certainly a demonstration of his "righteousness" mentioned in prior chapters. One could also wonder if perhaps Lot knew about the indiscretion of his fellow townsmen, and wanted to protect these travelers from unwanted advances.

And so around dusk, the men of the town (in fact, it specifies *all* of the men who lived there both young and old) come to rape the two travelers, the angels.

This is the origin of the word "sodomite", to refer to (presumably male) homosexuals. To my knowledge, there are roughly 3 main theories about the "sin of Sodom". This is because, while the bible is clear that Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked, it is not necessarily as clear on what that wickedness was, arguably because they committed a variety of crimes and not any single thing. So rather than say, "the sin of Sodom", it's probably more fair to say, "here is a list of things that are probably sins of Sodom".

The first, traditional theory is homosexuality. It is clear that the men of the town wanted to rape the (ostensibly male) angels. This theory has been discounted by more liberal/progressive theologians, but I think it still has a lot of validity when considered in the context of the OT. In particular, it is completely obvious that to the Israelites, homosexuality is a sin and violation of the Covenantal Law given by Moses. So there can be absolutely no doubt that the Israelites (including the author of Genesis) viewed it very negatively. So it stands to reason that, while it is not perhaps the only sin of Sodom, it is certainly among the list.

Efforts to discount this theory seem (in my experience) to consist of "well, we have identified something else as the sin of Sodom". And I think those alternate theories are reasonable, but do not imply exclusivity from other sin like homosexuality. It's simply wishful thinking to say that the writer of Genesis, or indeed the Lord, would not view their homosexuality as sinful when it is prohibited by the Law that will be given in Deuteronomy. This theory is reinforced by Jude 1:7, which states that " just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh" (NASB). Naturally, progressive theologians challenge the meaning and interpretation of "went after strange flesh" to mean anything but homosexuality. This is commonly reinterpreted to mean "the sin of rape" rather than "the sin of homosexuality". Of course, claiming the latter is not meant to discount the former.

Rape is also obviously a sin under the Mosaic Covenant as well as in the NT. From my perspective, it seems evident that the "strange/other" flesh is a similar reference to the "abandon[ing] the natural function" of Romans 1:26-27. While in isolation I think alternate translations seem reasonable, I think the context is enough to secure the classical interpretation. In particular, we have to consider that *the original Jewish authors would have considered homosexuality a sin*. This is true for both the OT and the NT passages I have quoted. So many of the liberal/progressive reinterpretations work on the basis of condemning *specific subsets of homosexual behavior*, such as homosexual rape or male temple prostitution (a very common reinterpretation). However, the Mosaic Covenant does not make such exceptions, and while surely the NT authors were not living under the Covenant (as Peter discovers in the book of Acts), clearly they would have been strongly influenced by it and would have opposed homosexuality on cultural or historical principles alone.

Now, the progressives might be thinking, "but their cultural preconceptions are not biblically founded! We don't live under the Old Covenant anymore!" This is all correct. However, what is critical is that the author's mentality must be considered when translating a passage like Romans 1 or Jude. You can't just take a set of words, throw them into a complete cultural vacuum, and then presume that what comes out matches the original intent. I think this is an unintentional effect of many progressive translations that depend very heavily on reinterpreting words in the passage on the basis of how they are used elsewhere. This logic is fundamentally flawed because even if the words mean what the progressives say they do, the author's intent in writing the passage provides the contextual meaning of the words, which is what should ultimately determine the proper translation.

Again someone may object, "but what we care about is God's intent, not the author's intent!" And that opens up a whole bag of hermeneutical worms that would be nearly impossible to address here. I partially address this in my introduction to biblical translations, but I will summarize here. We have to capture the author's intent because intent is a critical aspect of translation and interpretation. Simply put, words only have meaning with respect to how they are used and how they are intended. Most words have multiple layers of meaning, and therefore it is impossible to come up with a single, "correct" interpretation without considering which meaning is intended. While one could ostensibly claim to seek "God's intent" in the text, the material fact is that God did not write these physical books, the human authors did. As such, I do not believe we are bound to hold that (from a hermeneutical perspective) what the author intends is necessarily God's viewpoint as well, we are required to use the author's intent when discerning the simple meaning of the expressions present. Among other things, this is because we generally use the bible to inform our viewpoint about God, so if we try to judge the bible based on how we view God, then we end up in a circular reference where we interpret the bible based on our viewpoints, and then proclaim that the bible supports what we believe!

Sadly, this sort of circular logic is going to be present almost regardless of what we do because of the irrepressible human tendency to view the world (including the bible) through the lens of our preconceptions. To the best of my knowledge, there is no natural solution to this issue, so we have to just remember to always seek divine guidance when trying to interpret the scriptures (and do nearly anything else too).

So, that was a long digression. But my point is simply that the author's intent is a critical element of interpreting texts, and in this case we know that the authors would have almost definitely opposed homosexuality on general terms. As such, it seems evident that the passage in Jude is describing the classical viewpoint, which almost every Jew would have believed, that the homosexuality in Sodom was a sin against the Lord and that their "going after strange flesh" was one of the sins resulting in their destruction.

The second theory is the Sodomites were grossly deficient in hospitality. Indeed, they seemed to assault travelers as a regular custom, since we are not given any description of provocation or what might have initiated this attack against the two angels. Therefore one could reasonably surmise that they did this regularly. In the ancient Middle Eastern (ME) culture, hospitality for strangers was considered very important. There's little doubt in my mind this was one of the sins of Sodom.

The third theory is not something mentioned here, but is brought up far later in the bible, in Ezekiel 16:48-50:
As I live,” declares the Lord GOD, “Sodom, your sister and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.
We again see a picture of abundant wealth, but with it comes "arrogance... she did not help the poor and needy". Lastly, they were "haughty (i.e. prideful) and committed abominations before Me." So according to this theory, the main sins of Sodom were social, not helping those in need. While many propose this theory as an alternative to the other issues (homosexuality and inhospitality), I see it as more complimentary.

I've also seen a few arguments on the basis of omission; that is, this chapter does not specifically condemn Sodom on the basis of homosexuality, therefore homosexuality is not part of the sin of Sodom. My response is simply to refer to my prior rant about biblical omissions: generally speaking, the bible does not always explicitly condemn things that the author would have clearly viewed as sin. This does not mean it is sin, but it means the argument from omission is not generally applicable to the OT.

So, enough about that section. The next part that is very unusual is Lot's offer of his two daughters. This is ostensibly an act of great charitable hospitality. It shows a tremendous regard for these strangers, that he would be willing to sacrifice his own children to protect them. But (and here is my opinion) it was a horrible mistake on Lot's part. Again, some argue on the basis of omission that the bible actually condones this action, and similarly some people argue that it would have been *considered* righteous by the author to offer his daughters in exchange for the honored guests. So omission + "rule of hospitality" = a so-called righteous person sacrificing his daughters. And thus the skeptic assails the validity of biblical morality, that it could (ostensibly) condone and honor such a vile decision.

I've already addressed the issue of moralistic omission, so in my opinion the bible does not explicitly or implicitly evaluate the morality of this decision. I can't imagine what sort of opinion the author or Israelite people would have had upon reading this, but my opinion is (as I have already stated) that it was a horrible mistake. I have more words in my heart than I can share through this medium, so I will be brief.

Protecting honored guests is a good and noble thing to do, but to disregard his own children in this manner is vile and reprehensible. I don't pretend to understand Lot's mentality or what inspired him to this decision, but I can only say that I would rather die in the defense of my children than allow them to suffer the brutality of a wicked mob such as this, such as Lot would be familiar with since he had lived there for some time.

Lot, who had chosen the well-watered, fertile and wealthy plains of Jordan, is now beginning to discover that choosing wealth and casting his lot (sorry) in with a wicked people is not going to turn out well. While he may have not known the reputation of Sodom and Gomorrah before moving there (although it's certainly possible he did), he certainly should have learned their character upon living in the region for some unspecified time period.

I have two or three things to say about this. The first point is to remember that Lot was living in the old Covenental period (even if he was not personally under the Mosaic Covenant). In this period, one of the chief emphatic points is upon moral, cultural and physical separation from the idolatrous peoples who lived in the ME, among whom Sodom and Gomorrah are pre-eminent. So life for the people documented in the OT is not the same as life in the modern, post-resurrection period. This is a very important point that is deeply connected with covenantal theology, and it helps to explain a lot of the issues that people have related to the OT and its application to modern life. In particular, it is very common to hear arguments regarding the validity of the OT as the inspired word of God by pointing out certain passages regarding Israel's mandate to destroy idolatrous nations, laws regarding slavery and so on. All of these arguments hinge on stripping away the entire context of the OT, the times they lived in *and the covenant they lived under* and simply judging those actions or laws on the basis of modern times and morality. This is not a proper interpretation of the OT, and it is relevant in this situation as well because Lot is most likely under an implied mandate to separate himself from the idolatrous nations in the ME. Now we see Abraham also make alliances with the local peoples (such as Mamre the Amorite) and I think this analysis equally applies to him. As such, his alliance with Mamre is probably also a mistake, but it's a mistake with a far reduced scope and impact compared to Lot.

Secondly, the paradigm of separation is largely reversed in the NT. Not only are Christians not supposed to separate themselves from others, they are supposed to be the "salt and light of the world", so to speak. This refers to being intermingled with people who do not follow God, and allowing your relationships with them to result in their preservation and transformation. But this is not contradictory to my third and last point, which is that Christians are still under the mandate of moral separation, that we are not supposed to emulate the patterns of the world but to be transformed by redemption and adopt the ways of God (Romans 12:2).

Out of all these things, the only one that Lot somewhat demonstrates is the third, maintaining moral integrity in spite of living in a corrupt culture. We see this in his good treatment of the unknown visitors. But we also see (in my opinion) signs of moral corruption in offering up his daughters, we never see any signs of him transforming the lives of the people around him (which is arguably a NT paradigm and not to be expected in the OT) and we don't see the proper separation expected in the OT period. That, in conclusion, is why I think Lot moving to Sodom and Gomorrah was a mistake. If he had acted in greater measure as the prophets of later times, like Noah or Amos who worked hard to bring change to idolotrous foreign peoples, then perhaps he could even have averted the disaster on himself by restraining God's wrath. And that seems to be how it goes: the people whose lives you are bonded to share your fate, just as you share theirs. Their disaster can bring you down, as we see with Lot, and their good fortune can bring you up as well. If you are bonded with wicked people to whom judgment comes, that is not in itself bad, so long as your influence can bring about positive changes in their lives to avert the judgment. But if you do not do so when you have the chance, then you have also sealed your own fate along with theirs.

We see his disaster compounded when his sons-in-law (who we can only presume to be Sodomites) don't believe his warning, and therefore die. Unlike Abraham, Lot was going to intermarry with the idolaters which is also strongly forbidden by the Mosaic Covenant.

Lot hesitates. This is a point many write about, but it should not be surprising given everything we have seen up to this point. Lot had already demonstrated his desire for wealth by moving to Sodom/Gomorrah, and he simply continues to have that desire now that it is going to be swept away. And make no mistake, Lot loses almost all of his material wealth in this judgment. In order to flee, they had to leave nearly everything behind, including their home and the majority of their livestock. The angels physically pull them into escaping because "the compassion of the LORD was upon him", which is very striking. Lot does not escape because of great wisdom or strength, but because of the compassion of the Lord.

In the end, they escape to Zoar which survives because of their presence. This again shows the blessings of the righteous spilling over into the lives of those around them.

Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt. There can be no hesitation or ambivalence between the life of wealth one is giving up if you are seeking to follow the Lord. He requires undivided devotion.

When Abraham looks down and sees the destruction, he doesn't know if Lot is still alive, so that must have been a challenging and dynamic time for him, as well as the gravity of seeing such vast destruction. But nevertheless God remembered his conversation with Abraham, and did not punish the righteous with the wicked.

Next, Lot and his surviving family depart from Zoar, possibly from a fear of the inhabitants and possibly from a fear that the small city would also be destroyed by God.

Lastly, both of his daughters have sex with him to preserve their family line. After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, they were possibly thinking that there was nobody else alive in the world. Or they were thinking that they would simply stay in the mountains for the rest of their lives and never meet another person.

Some commentators say that the reason they had sex with him is that when Lot offered to give them up to the mob, he basically eschewed protecting them and this both leaves them unable to trust him anymore and also leaves them open to demonic attacks. Either way, both of the children named here are the ancestors of peoples who constantly war with Israel in later times, so the outcome of this incest is clearly negative to Israelites.


Anna Tan said...

Whilst I agree that Lot did make a bad choice (well, a series of overall rather bad choices), I would have to disagree that he would have been bound by the Mosaic law or the requirement to keep himself apart. I think that the references to Israel as a nation set apart only comes much later during the Mosaic times. (I could be wrong as to when, but it's definitely not in Abraham & Lot's time period).

Seeing that the only covenants in effect at this time are the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants, and that there are no specific "rules" to these (except against bloodshed and eating blood) it's difficult to say this: "Lot is most likely under an implied mandate to separate himself from the idolatrous nations in the ME. Now we see Abraham also make alliances with the local peoples (such as Mamre the Amorite) and I think this analysis equally applies to him. As such, his alliance with Mamre is probably also a mistake, but it's a mistake with a far reduced scope and impact compared to Lot."

Daniel S. said...

I agree that Lot is not, in any strictly legal sense, bound by the Mosaic law or covenant of any kind. However, it is interesting to note that Lot baked unleavened bread for them, which anticipates the Passover.

I have two thoughts here.

First, we should remember that while Lot may not have been bound by the law, the book of Genesis was written by a Jew that was living under the law. As such, I think it is probable that the author intended this passage as an illustration to the later generations (who were bound by the Law) of how things can go wrong when you live amongst idolaters.

Second, in my opinion, while the law itself may not have been binding on Lot, the principles of the law applied to him. If he wants to be a follower of God, then he cannot live in unity with nonbelievers. That's why I call it an implied mandate. To a certain extent, the same principles apply to us also; the biggest difference is that the cultural context we live in is far different from the ancient near east, so the expression of these principles is necessarily different. However, Lot and Abraham lived in a much closer culture to the Law than we do (arguably, almost identical), so I think the expression of those principles in Lot's life should be very similar to how they are phrased in the law.