The Real Meaning of Sodomy

The Real Meaning of Sodomy

by Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho">(

For a book length study of this topic, see Michael Carden

 Sodomy: A History of a Christian Biblical


"Sodomy" and "sodomite" are some of the ugliest
words in the English language.  They of course are derived from the Canaanite
city of Sodom, whose destruction along with Gomorrah is related in Genesis
19.  Most people assume that homosexuality was the grounds for this divine
retribution and that this is the reason that gay men have been branded "sodomites."  The word itself,
used as implying a sexual sin,
does not appear until
A.D. 395 in letters between Saint Jerome and a priest Amandus, but the details
of the act and the nature of the sin are not explained.

A growing consensus about sexual orientation is that it primarily genetically
determined, so gays and lesbians may not have any choice in the matter. There
are two alternative theological positions that follow from the conservative
Christian position:
(1) If homosexuals are inherently evil, then that means that God created them
such; or (2) more orthodox and acceptable is the view that all humans are
created in the image of God and all that God creates is good.  Therefore,
if God creates gays and lesbians the way there are, then God must intend that
they are an integral part of the human community. 


(On a personal note, I learned that a gay Christian student who
heard me lecture on this very point discovered great solace in this simple
message about the Christian view of creation.  For a Unitarian with a
very low Christology, it gives me great satisfaction that I can offer a
Christian student pastoral guidance and new hope for his life.)

Interestingly enough, Jesus did not interpret the sin of
Sodom as sexual
. First,
Jesus says nothing specific about the sin of homosexuality anywhere in the
Gospels.  He does of course speak of sexual sins, but all of us, regardless of
our sexual orientation, commit a few of these.  Second, when Jesus instructs
his disciples to preach in the towns of Israel, Jesus warns that those who do
not receive them peacefully will be judged more harshly than the people of
Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10: 5-15).

Jesus joins other ancient authorities in viewing the sins of the Sodomites as
the abuse of strangers, neglecting the poor and needy, and the stigmatizing of
outsiders. For example, Ezekiel says that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah
"had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and
the needy" (16:49-50); and the Wisdom of Solomon says that they "refused to
receive strangers when they came to them" (19.14).  On the other hand, an
early Christian book I Clement states that Lot was saved "because of his
hospitality and piety" (11.11).  It is significant that when Leviticus
condemns "men who lie with men," it does not mention the story of Sodom and

It is true that other ancient authorities mention sexual sins in Sodom and
Gomorrah, but these are usually described in a general way, such as lust,
sexual impurity, fornication, and adultery.  These again are sins of the many
not just as few gays and lesbians.  The narrow interpretation known today
comes from an ancient minority report from thinkers such as Philo of
Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo.  The former condemned the Sodomites for
"forbidden forms of intercourse" and the latter for "lewdness between males."[2] 
The odd point about this charge is that the object of Sodomitic lust is not
male humans but sexless angels!  (Those who object by
saying that the Sodomites did not know they were angels miss the point: 
both Augustine and all of us who read the Bible know that they were angels!)

Today’s conservatives appear to follow Augustine’s untenable position, struck
down in the recent Supreme Court decision, that only sexual acts between
people of the same sex is sodomy.  The Texas law was particularly insidious
because in 1973 the legislature legalized heterosexual anal and oral sex (even
including bestiality), but criminalized homosexuals who performed the same
acts. Amazingly enough, two Catholic thinkers admit that these acts should be
legal even for unmarried heterosexuals, because at least there is the
possibility that their relationships might become the basis for a moral and
legal marriage and family.[3]

(Some say that the Supreme Court
decision is of only minor significance because sodomy laws were rarely
enforced and the effect was therefore minimal.  This view ignores the
larger impact that these laws have had on gays and lesbians.  In dozens
of cases judges have used the fact that these people are presumed felons to
deny them access to their children in custody battles or to conclude that they
are not fit to adopt children.  For an exposition of a number of these
cases, see Joseph Landau’s "Ripple Effect: Sodomy Statues as Weapons" in
The New Republic,
June 23, 2003.)

In his Summa Contra Gentiles Thomas Aquinas ranked sodomy as the worst
crime second only to murder itself, because it essentially amounted to wanton
destruction of a potential person.  As the only proper place for the male seed
is the female womb, those who masturbate, engage in oral sex, and, yes, even
those who use contraceptives are all sodomites! (Until recently Oregon and
Maryland included mutual masturbation in their sodomy laws.)  If the sin of
sodomy is the practice of nonprocreative sex, then every sexually active human
being is a sodomite!

 Protestant theologians generally joined Catholics in making sodomy a unique
and unredeemable sin.  It is interesting, however, to note that John Calvin,
in his commentary on Genesis, does not define the Sodomites’ sin as homosexual
acts. Instead he prefers the social meaning of sodomy, reminding his readers
that the Sodomites were "in the habit of vexing strangers," whereas Lot had
offered them shelter and a meal.  No friend of the freedom of the will, Calvin
declares that God himself "impelled [the Sodomites] to their crime," leaving
the rest of us to wonder how Calvinists can have any individual moral

The brutal
inhospitality of people of Sodom and Gomorrah stands in stark contrast with
Abraham’s generosity to three divine strangers who visit him in Genesis 18. 
(This, by the way, is not an allusion to the Christian Trinity, as Calvin
actually implies, because the original Abraham could not have been monotheist
let alone a Trinitarian.  See this link for more on
Hebrew Henotheism.)
After feasting at Abraham’s table the angels announce that Sarah shall
conceive and that from her son a great nation shall arise.  All that the
barren Sarah could do in response was to laugh her famous laugh and to protest
that it was impossible for her to bear a child. Two of Abraham’s guests then
proceed to Sodom where they intend to warn the residents of the impeding
destruction of their city.  The fact that Abraham demands that God save the
lives of the innocent demonstrates that he again has concern for the welfare
of strangers and, ironically, displays more generosity of spirit than his own

When the two angels arrive in Sodom, Lot and his family receive them warmly.
The men of Sodom come to Lot’s house and demand that the two visitors be
handed over to them.  The Sodomites’ intentions were overtly sexual ("so that
we may know them"), but these men were no more homosexuals than are the
bullies in our prisons who rape newcomers and weaker prisoners on a daily
basis.  Although sexual in nature, these attacks are essentially acts of
aggression against the "other," those who are weaker and those who are

Prison rapists are carrying on an ancient patriarchal tradition where the
dominant male has the right to penetrate anyone subordinate to him–women,
lower men, boys, and slaves. Arno Schmitt states that it was "the right of men
to penetrate and their duty to lie on top" and that the raping "of one’s
slaves . . . was not only sanctioned by public opinion, but by some jurists as
Needless to say, medieval Christians were compelled to declare that the "woman
superior" sexual position was also, incredible though it sounds, a form of

The same theme of power rape appears in the story of the Levite in Judges 19. 
One night in the land of Benjamin a Levite and his concubine find themselves
in Gibeah, where they were put up by a kindly old man.  As in Sodom the men of
the city come and demand their assumed right to abuse the stranger.  (Alden
Thompson follows many traditional readers in assuming, wrongly of course, that
this was "clearly homosexual activity.")[5] 
The old man offers them his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine, but
the Levite insists that only his woman be taken.  The men of Gibeah rape her
to death and the next day the Levite divided up her body into twelve pieces
and sent them to the tribes of Israel. 

The Israelite leaders met
at Mizpah and decided that the Benjamites should be punished for their
"abomination."  The fact that Lot also offered his daughters to the mob to
save his guests from attack shows that the main issue here is not the abuse of
women but the honor of men.  (If the mistreatment of women were the issue,
then Lot and the Levite were surely just as guilty as the Sodomites and the Gibeans.)  In machismo culture a man preserves his honor by being
"on top,"
but he loses it if he allows himself to be the passive partner.  As Michael Carden observes:
"In this world it is better that women be raped than men, because the rape of
men takes away their heterosexuality."[6]

The point of these stories, however, goes beyond the destructive hierarchy of
"top males."  The message for our time is that those who embrace those
different from themselves, such as Abraham and Lot, are blessed, while those
who discriminate against them, such as the Sodomites and Gibeans, should be
despised.  I will let readers apply this biblical doctrine to contemporary
America and discover to which group they belong.

this point in time it would be futile to reject the sexual meaning of sodomy,
but if the word "sodomite" should be reserved, if we should use it at all, for
those who use sex to dominate, humiliate, and terrorize others. We should
preserve and dignify the word "homosexual" for people who love others of their
own sex, and our liberal democracy should protect their right to do so with the
same tenacity that we do with any other fundamental human right.


1. See Mark D. Jordan, The
Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology
(Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1998).

2.  Philo of Alexandria, Abraham
134-135; Augustine, The City of God 16.30.

3. See Andrew Sullivan, "Unnatural
Law," The New Republic (March 24, 2003), p. 22.  I’m indebted to
Sullivan for references and insights.

4. Arno Schmitt, "Different Approaches
to Male-Male Sexuality/Eroticism from Morocco to Uzbekistan" in Sexuality
and Eroticism Among Males in Muslim Societies
, eds. Jehoeda Sofer and
Arno Schmitt (New York: Hawthrone Press, 1992), p. 3. 

5. Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid
of the Old Testament God?
(Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Press, 1989), p.
112. Thompson admits that this story is the "worst story in the Old

 6. Michael Carden,
"Homophobia and
Rape in Sodom and Gibeah: A Response to Ken Stone," Journal for the Study
of the Old Testament
82 (1999), p. 90.  I am indebted to Carden for
ideas and references.


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