“Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.”
As our preacher read those lines from the Bible, standing behind his pulpit before the entire church, hands clasped on opposing corners except when he adjusted his glasses from time to time, I knew he was talking about me. All the men of Sodom were evil, according to Genesis 19. I wasn’t yet calling myself gay, but I knew I was attracted to guys not girls. That made me a sodomite whether I had actually done anything about it or not. God so hated Sodom he destroyed it with fire from heaven, which meant God hated me and would destroy me with fire in hell.
I remember sitting in the front of the church, on the first row of pews with my parents and grandmother sitting on the row behind, when this latest sermon on the sin of Sodom and warning about the resulting punishment was delivered on one of many Sunday mornings in Pensacola, Florida. The year is somewhere in the early 1980s. I’m maybe about 15 years old and in the 10th grade. I’ve heard fire-and-brimstone sermons like this on any number of subjects designed to uphold pre-1940s American morals and traditional gender roles for men and women.
By this time, I had known for a few years that eventually I would face a dilemma, choosing between God and my personal happiness. I didn’t choose same sex attraction. But I would have to choose whether to be faithful to God, and therefore choose a life lived alone and in the closet, or to be faithful to my true self, seek out a relationship, and live a life shunned by family and church.
The number of assumptions in the previous paragraphs are many, and most of them false. It would be many years before I would resolve these issues, and reconcile my sexuality with my faith. I thank God that I have come out the other side alive and only somewhat scathed. SPOILER ALERT! So take heart, gentle reader, for this is a story of one person using scripture along with God-given reasoning power to overcome the deficits in fundamentalism to grow into a greater, fuller, more mature faith in God.
One of the truly good values that my parents and church had instilled in me was the idea that anyone could read the Bible and come to understand what it meant for how we are supposed to live today. I had heard numerous sermons about the destruction of Sodom, but I had to satisfy my own mind that what I had been taught was the same thing as what the Bible actually said.
I took a deep breath, picked up my study Bible, turned to Genesis 18 and began to read.
In Genesis 18, the story begins with three men who travel by Abraham’s encampment and are invited in to enjoy Abraham’s hospitality. Hospitality was a major component of the culture of the time, and Abraham goes to a seeming extreme to welcome these strangers. One of the three makes a surprising announcement. Then Abraham leaves with the men when they continue their journey. We read a surprising bit of dialog where God deliberates over sharing with Abraham his intention to destroy Sodom. (How often do we read God’s internal monologue anywhere in the Bible?) Even more surprising is that one of the three men is apparently God himself. Abraham bargains with God who remains with him as the other two men travel on to Sodom. It is reasonable to assume that Abraham knows his nephew’s family are living in Sodom, so wants to see the city spared. God agrees to terms, and Abraham returns to his encampment.
Genesis 19 begins similarly, with the two men entering the gates of Sodom where Lot extends hospitality to the travelers in the same way Abraham had at the beginning of Genesis 18. Hebrew Bible writers love parallels, and this device is apparent here, paralleling these stories of visitors to compare/contrast the reactions of the two men: Abraham and Lot. We read a curious statement that around nightfall, “the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house…” The mob demands the visitors be released to them, “so that we may know them” which Lot refuses. Lot then offers his virgin daughters to the mob instead, seeking to protect the visitors, behavior consistent with the cultural expectation of hospitality to strangers, a convention the mob apparently has chosen to ignore if not flagrantly violate. The visitors mysteriously cause the mob to be blinded, neutralizing the threat. Lot leaves to tell his sons-in-law of the impending destruction of the city, to which they laugh and ignore the warning. In the morning, the two visitors physically lay hands on Lot and his family to essentially drag them out of Sodom. They flee to a nearby city which Lot is promised will be spared from God’s wrath. Sodom and Gomorrah are then destroyed by sulfur and fire from the sky. Lot’s family is spared, except for his wife who “…looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” Abraham surveys the damage then returns home, at which point the story ends.
I don’t call the three (two) visitors “angels” because the story itself doesn’t call them angels. Even more interesting to me is that one of the three appears to be God himself. (This reminds me of the story of Jacob who wrestled with God overnight and who then had his named changed to Israel. The Jewish culture wrestles with God in a manner lost to Western Christianity, to our loss.) God appeared in human form? Curious! But if the two men aren’t angels, then what else isn’t what it appears to be?
I began pulling at the thread on the theological sweater, and it just started coming completely unraveled.
But what about the sex stuff?
The idea that “all the people to the last man” were gay is not probable. The description in the passage might be explained by saying Sodom was a city populated strictly by gay men, but that seems even less probable. Other writers have pointed out that rape is a tool of war and of humiliation. Otherwise straight men, when seeking to subjugate or neutralize an enemy, treat other men like women sexually through anal rape. The offenders aren’t gay, because they don’t meet our modern definition of having same-sex attraction. Rape isn’t affection.
I put my Bible down. I took another breath.
“Sodom is about rape, not about being gay,” I thought to myself.
A rush of relief swept over me. I felt I had discovered something revolutionary. And for my 15-year-old self, it was a revelation on more than one level. I still had a long way to go to get from where I began to a point where I could plainly state that God does not disapprove of same-sex, committed relationships. But as is often said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” From then on, no one could tell me that the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah had anything to do with being gay. The jump from what I read in Genesis to blanket statements about being gay were too great for me to accept anymore.
Unfortunately, on that life-changing Sunday, I had no one whom I could trust enough to discuss my new understanding of the reading. I was learning the hard way about the worst part of the closet: isolation.