The question of why Sodom and Gomorrah got destroyed is a question that has been brought to the public sphere in the debate going on within Christian circles about homosexuality. There are a few stances, one being the punishment was about the treatment of strangers, the poor, or some other group, another stance is that the punishment was about sexual sin, another that it was about rape, and there are other stances that combine the causes for punishment or add some other cause. We all know the story, but let’s look at the beginning of the story in Exodus 18 (using the NRSV):
20 Then the Lord said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21 I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.’
This is before the angels come down to the city, but it seems that the sin (In the LXX it’s translated ἁμαρτίαι , which is plural, i.e. sins, which may be significant for the Greek speaking Jewish and Christian understanding of the story of Sodom, it’s a side point for now but might be relevant to keep in mind later) has already been done, and is already considered grave. Other than that it doesn’t really gives us any hint at this point as to what the sin might be. We read about Sodom earlier in Genesis in Chapter 13:13 where it describes the men of Sodom as sinners. In the next chapter, chapter 14, there is a strange story about a war which includes Sodom. According to the story Sodom along with 3 other kingdoms (including Gomorrah) rebel against the King of Elam, whom they were previously serving. Sodom and the 4 kingdoms lose the war against Elam (and her allies) and are dispossessed by them, in the process Lot and others (who are living in Sodom by this time) are taken Captive. When Abram heard about this, he took his men and won back the possessions taken from Sodom and the 4 kingdoms and he also freed Lot and the other captives. When the king of Sodom meets Abram, the following exchange happens recorded in Genesis 14:
21 Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the people, but take the goods for yourself.’ 22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I have sworn to the Lord, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, 23 that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, “I have made Abram rich.”24 I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me—Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre. Let them take their share.’
This story seems to be completely unrelated. But the strangeness of the exchange should be noted, the King does what seems like a kind act, he offers to give Abram all the goods stolen from Sodom by Elam, yet Abram refuses. The reason Abram was not that he just had a problem with receiving gifts; it was that he had sworn to God to not accept anything from, specifically, the king of Sodom. The reason was because the King of Sodom would say “I have made Abram rich,” had Abram accepted the gift. The story at face value seems unrelated to Sodom’s destruction, but perhaps looking at some other sources might give us a context to see if it really is unrelated.
Let’s now look at the other widely sighted scripture dealing with the reason for the destruction of Sodom. Ezekiel 16:
49 This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.
The passage lists a few things, pride and haughtiness, enjoying material excesses while not helping the poor, as well as “abominable things.” 2 of the 3 sins listed actually might tie the narrative in Chapter 14 of Genesis with the sin causing destruction. How so? The kind of person who would give a gift to someone for the sole purpose of bragging rights is probably someone who could be seen as being prideful and being haughty. Also the kind of person who would give a gift just for bragging rights is unlikely to be someone who desires an egalitarian society where the poor have access to what they need, lest it take away from their own glory and pride. In Chapter 14 of Genesis, we see a general attitude being displayed by the King of Sodom which can easily be seen to relate to 2 of the 3 sins listed in Ezekiel 16.
The explanation given by Ezekiel goes hand in hand with rabbinic tradition found in the Mishnah, Avot 10:
There are four types of people: One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” is a boor (A person of the land, unlearned person). One who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” — this is a median characteristic; others say that this is the character of a Sodomite. One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” is achassid (pious person). And one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine” is wicked.
The attitude which was considered characteristic of Sodom was very much one of an individualistic mindset putting primary value on private property. The maxim “what’s mine is mine and what is yours is yours,” taken to the extreme, would, arguably, lead to a society where the poor are neglected, and where the rich who are prideful and haughty and live in excess and luxury. This kind of attitude would also lead any gift giving to be seen as an act which would lead the gift giver to be considered responsible for any positive effects the gift has on the recipient. If I believe that what’s mine is mine, and yours is yours, then I have no obligation to give, and if I do give, then whatever good comes out of that, is really attributable to me, and is to my own glory. This attitude would explain why Abram knew that had he accepted the gift from the king of Sodom, the king of Sodom would have claimed that he had made Abram rich.
However we also have a third sin listed in the account in Ezekiel, the sin of “Abominations.” The word Abominations is translated from the Hebrew תוֹעֵבָ֖ה (Tohevah), which in the LXX is ἀνομήματα. This word Tohevah, or abominations, was used for sins involving idolatry, or sexual sins of both the Israelites and the surrounding Nations. However it was also used for social or economic sins, such as usury or economic fraud. So what that word is referring to in Ezekiel is not explicitly clear. Chapter 16 of Ezekiel compares Samaria’s “prostitution” to the nations around, and Samaria’s idolatry (which stemmed from their trusting in their own fame and riches) to the sin of Sodom. So from the context of the text in Ezekiel alone it’s quite difficult to get a clear answer simply as to what the “Tohevah” of Sodom exactly was.
One of sources in the first century where the destruction of Sodom is explained is found in Philo of Alexandria in his writing “On Abraham” His explanation is:
XXVI. The country of the Sodomites was a district of the land of Canaan, which the Syrians afterwards called Palestine, a country full of innumerable iniquities, and especially of gluttony and debauchery, and all the great and numerous pleasures of other kinds which have been built up by men as a fortress, on which account it had been already condemned by the Judge of the whole world. (134) And the cause of its excessive and immoderate intemperance was the unlimited abundance of supplies of all kinds which its inhabitants enjoyed. For the land was one with a deep soil, and well watered, and as such produced abundant crops of every kind of fruit every year. And he was a wise man and spoke truly who said–
“The greatest cause of all iniquity
Is found in overmuch prosperity.”
(135) As men, being unable to bear discreetly a satiety of these things, get restive like cattle, and become stiff-necked, and discard the laws of nature, pursuing a great and intemperate indulgence of gluttony, and drinking, and unlawful connections; for not only did they go mad after women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature, and though eager for children, they were convicted by having only an abortive offspring; but the conviction produced no advantage, since they were overcome by violent desire; (136) and so, by degrees, the men became accustomed to be treated like women, and in this way engendered among themselves the disease of females, and intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy, became like women in their persons, but they made also their souls most ignoble, corrupting in this way the whole race of man, as far as depended on them. At all events, if the Greeks and barbarians were to have agreed together, and to have adopted the commerce of the citizens of this city, their cities one after another would have become desolate, as if they had been emptied by a pestilence.
XXVII. (137) But God, having taken pity on mankind, as being a Saviour and full of love for mankind, increased, as far as possible, the natural desire of men and women for a connection together, for the sake of producing children, and detesting the unnatural and unlawful commerce of the people of Sodom, he extinguished it, and destroyed those who were inclined to these things,
Here we have a more vivid and full explanation. According to Philo the reason Sodom was destroyed was more of a process of sin rather than just an individual sin. The process goes something like this; Excesses of wealth and prosperity leads to a stiff-necked (or prideful) attitude, leading to the disregarding of natural laws, which in turn leads to a disregarding of sexual morality. According to Philo, the sin of Sodom was cumulative, not just one specific act. This fits with the explanation in Ezekiel, and in fact would fit with the interpretation of “Abomination” (Tohevah) being, in fact, sexual sin, seeing as that sexual sin would not be separate from the pride, luxury and lack of care for the poor but rather a symptom of it, a natural progression of sin.
In the next Post on this subject, I’m going to go over the rest of the narrative in Genesis 19, and then look at some Christian sources that deal with the sin of Sodom.