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The place of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in the Christian churches is a highly controversial issue. The stance of all the mainline churches is that homosexuality is sinful and incompatible with Christianity. In seeking to respond to attacks on their lives, identities and relationships LGBT Christians have moved over recent decades from a defensive position to a more affirmative position which asserts that there is evidence in the Bible and the Jesus tradition of validated homoerotic ...
The place of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in the Christian churches is a highly controversial issue. The stance of all the mainline churches is that homosexuality is sinful and incompatible with Christianity. In seeking to respond to attacks on their lives, identities and relationships LGBT Christians have moved over recent decades from a defensive position to a more affirmative position which asserts that there is evidence in the Bible and the Jesus tradition of validated homoerotic experience. This book presents a systematic overview of both the defensive and affirmative positions. In part one, The Defensive Testament, each of the so-called 'biblical texts of terror' used to demonise LGBT people is considered in turn and found wanting. None of them has anything to say about consensual same sex love. In part two, The Affirmative Testament, homoerotic elements in various Bible stories including the healing of the centurion's servant, Jesus and the beloved disciple, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi are revealed to make visible the place of LGBT lives in the Biblical tradition. Taken together, these two testaments forcefully champion the equality of LGBT people in the Kingdom of God and represent a formidable challenge to ecclesiastical homophobia.
The Story of Sodom
I invite you to think about the word 'sodomite'. It may have a slightly old fashioned ring but consider how potent the word 'sodomite' still is. To be a sodomite is to be a complete outcast. To be a sodomite is to be the epitome of evil and wickedness, utterly deserving of God's wrathful vengeance, punishment and annihilation. The word even now is virtually unspeakable.
People feel uncomfortable hearing or seeing it.
People believe that 'sodomite' means homosexual.
People believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God because the 'Sodomites' who lived there indulged in homosexual practices. People believe this because it is what the Christian churches have told them.
But there are strong grounds for believing that what the Christian churches have told them is not true.
Abraham's hospitality is rewarded
The story starts in Genesis chapter 18 with God appearing to Abraham mysteriously in the form of three strangers. Abraham's response to the strangers' unexpected arrival is to be extraordinarily welcoming: When he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground'. Genesis 18:2.
He then invites them in and tells his wife to give them the very best food in the house. In the Genesis verses we are given a lot of details about just how wonderful this food is. The strangers are not just to be fed but to be offered a royal feast.
Abraham is the very model of humility and hospitality. And because of this the strangers tell him that he is to be rewarded with the promise that his wife will bear him a son, despite the fact that both of them are 'old and well stricken in age'.
Two of the strangers set out for Sodom
Two of the men then leave for the town of Sodom. The one remaining identifies himself as the Lord and explains that he has sent the other two, who are angels appearing as men, to find out if the town of Sodom is really as wicked as he has heard.
There then follows a fascinating conversation between Abraham and the remaining stranger, the Lord. Abraham asks if everybody in Sodom will be destroyed if it is found to be truly wicked. He is concerned that the righteous will perish with the wicked. There could for example be fifty righteous men. Surely it is not right that they should be killed alongside the unrighteous? The Lord agrees he would spare Sodom if fifty righteous men could be found there. But suppose there were only forty-five? asks Abraham. No, the Lord would spare the city if there were forty-five righteous men. Abraham pushes the point. Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? The Lord agrees that Sodom would not be destroyed if there are ten righteous men. Notice though that the concern of both Abraham and the Lord is only with men. Neither seems bothered that all the women might be righteous and yet will be destroyed.
Lot's hospitality and the Sodomites' inhospitality
In Sodom the two strangers are greeted by Lot, Abraham's nephew, who is not a citizen of Sodom, but a resident alien. Just like his uncle, Lot is extremely welcoming and respectful towards these men he does not know: Lot seeing them, rose up to met them; and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground. Genesis 19:1
And also like his uncle, Lot is a generous host and after feeding them handsomely offers to give them both beds for the night. But at this point all the townsmen of Sodom surround Lot's house and demand: Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them. Genesis 19:5
There has been much discussion about the meaning of the word 'know'. It may or may not be sexual. Even if it does have a sexual connotation it would be a demand for these men to be subjected to multiple violent homosexual rape. If this is the sin of Sodom it says absolutely nothing about the 'sinfulness' of consensual homosexual sex. Nobody would dream of using the social condemnation of heterosexual rape to say that heterosexuality is sinful.
But it is clear from the text that the sin of Sodom is not essentially sexual at all. Lot does not say in response to the townsmen: 'do not do this for it would be homosexual' or even: 'do not do this for it is a forbidden kind of sex'. What he actually says is: Do nothing to these men for they have come under the shelter of my roof. Genesis 19:8
Thus Lot appeals only to the requirements of hospitality. Strangers are to be treated as honoured guests, indeed as superiors. Remember that both he and Abraham had bowed low to them on their arrival. To abuse them for sexual pleasure would be to dishonour and humiliate them, to treat them as inferiors, which was anathema to the culture of the time. What is absolutely clear is that these Sodomite townsmen are intent on being extremely inhospitable towards the two strangers. The contrast with the fulsome hospitality offered by Abraham and by Lot could not be starker.
To try to protect his guests Lot offers the townsmen his two virgin daughters to use as they please: Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: Genesis 19:8
This seems shockingly immoral to us but it is important for the story because it reveals the lengths to which Lot is prepared to go. Daughters were in those days subordinate to their father, effectively owned by him, part of his economic assets. If they are raped by the crowd, Lot will pay a high price because they will become unmarriageable, and he will be permanently responsible for their upkeep.
The true meaning of this gesture by Lot is therefore not an attempt to persuade the crowd to commit an acceptable heterosexual act instead of an abominable homosexual one, but rather a demonstration of the sacrifices he is willing to make to protect his guests.
The story ends with the crowd of townsmen turning really nasty. They try to attack Lot, who of course is himself an outsider to Sodom. Lot is rescued by the two strangers who pull him back into the house in the nick of time. The townsmen go to break down the front door in an effort to reach Lot and his guests, but the strangers who are really angels instantly blind them: And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great: so that they wearied themselves to find the door. Genesis 19:11
The angels tell Lot to gather his family and help them to get out of the city of Sodom before it is destroyed under a hail of fire and brimstone. In this way Lot's reward parallels the reward given to Abraham. Both receive the promise of posterity whilst others are annihilated, Abraham in the form of a son and Lot by being allowed to escape.
This story has nothing to do with homosexuality
This is not a story about sex at all. Still less is it a story about the wickedness of same sex love. This is a story about reward and punishment. Contrary to what so many Christians claim, it is not a story about the virtue of heterosexuality and the vice of homosexuality. It is about the virtue of Abraham's and Lot's kind hospitality and the vice of the Sodomite townsmen's brutal inhospitality. The former is rewarded, the latter is punished. It would make no sense to say that Abraham and Lot are rewarded for being hospitable but the Sodomite townsmen are punished for being homosexual. It would undermine the whole point of the story. And yet this is what most mainstream Christian churches have taught. Abraham's future son and Lot's safe passage ensure their continuity and future, as Sodom and Gomorrah disappear under fire and brimstone, because they showed great hospitality to strangers. The two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are completely destroyed, without hope of posterity, because of their flagrant inhospitality.
Many other subsequent passages in the Bible refer to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, treating the Sodomites' sin purely as an outrage against the expected norms of hospitable behaviour towards strangers. For example, in Ezekiel we read: This was the guilt of your sister, Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food and prosperous ease but did not aid the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:48-49
In the book of Wisdom the reference to Sodom's sin is 'bitter hatred of strangers' and 'making slaves of guests who were benefactors'. Other references occur in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah, where words such as oppression, injustice, partiality, lies and encouraging evil-doers appear.
Indeed Jesus himself confirms this in the Gospel of Matthew when he sends his disciples out to save 'the lost sheep of the House of Israel': And whosever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgement, than for that city. Matthew 10:14-15
Jesus clearly has in mind here the offensively inhospitable actions of the Sodomite townsmen. What he is effectively saying is that those sodomites were punished for failing to respond to the expected norm of caring for the stranger in your midst, or in terms of his own teaching, the requirement to love your neighbour. If any of the people in the towns which the disciples are about to visit behave in this sodomite fashion, they will suffer the same judgement, but it will be worse because they are not just failing in their duty to 'love thy neighbour' they are in effect rejecting the Kingdom of God. Again it would make absolutely no sense for Jesus to say that if people reject the disciples they will suffer a worse penalty than that due to homosexuals.
The immorality of the 'traditional' interpretation
Just think for a moment about what the implications of the 'traditional' anti-gay interpretation peddled by the patriarchal churches actually are.
(1) As pointed out above, there can be no doubt that if the word 'know' means 'have sex with' then this sex is intended to be violent and non-consensual. It is rape. If the objects of this sexual attack were women it would still be rape. But nobody would then therefore say that any consensual male-female sex was wrong and due for punishment by God. It is a case of hypocritical double standards to say that disapproval of male rape means that any consensual male-male sex is wrong and due for punishment by God. It is also illogical.
(2) Are we really expected to believe that Lot's offering of his daughters to be raped by the crowd is a good moral example to be followed? There is no hint of criticism of Lot for doing this, either from the angels, or the Lord or the author of Genesis. These are not morals that can guide Christian lives today.
(3) God's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is cruel and arbitrary. If, as the patriarchal churches say, it is destroyed because of male homosexuality, why are they not appalled at the atrocity of killing innocent women and children who by definition cannot be guilty of what they call 'sodomy'? Again, these are not morals that can guide Christian lives today.
(4) Similarly, remember God's promise to Abraham that if there were just ten righteous men then Sodom would be saved. Presumably we have to imagine that God thought there were not ten righteous men in Sodom. But if the sin that makes them unrighteous is homosexuality, and there are not even ten of them who are heterosexual, how on earth did the town continue to exist? Clearly there must have been some heterosexuals amongst them to keep the population going, and ten would not be enough! So if the churches are right. God must have broken his promise, and this is very immoral indeed. In fact the churches are wrong of course. God destroys Sodom for its inhospitality and it is perfectly possible for the population to continue even if 100% of the men fail to show respect for the norms of hospitality. But the churches in effect teach that God broke his promise to Abraham. Once more these are not morals that can guide Christian lives today.
(5) After his escape from Sodom, Lot has sex with his own daughters. They seduce him: Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father. Genesis 20:32. This is a clear case of incest, and yet once again there is not the slightest suggestion anywhere in the text that this might be wrong or abhorrent. These really are not morals that can guide Christian lives today.
Thus, even if the patriarchal churches were correct in their interpretation of the story, which they are not, that interpretation simply cannot be used as a guide to moral conduct. It is outrageously immoral. And as we shall see later in the chapter on textual abuse they simply turn a blind eye to this fact. They also turn a blind eye to the fact that their so-called 'traditional' interpretation of the story is no such thing but dates actually only from the twelfth century.
The one lesson we can learn is the lesson it was actually intended to teach: show honour and respect to strangers. This of course was very important in the deserts of the Middle East three thousand years ago. If everywhere had been like Sodom it is doubtful that humanity would have survived. Honour and respect for strangers is of course also, as already noted, the precursor to Jesus' 'love commandments'.
A parallel story
In the Book of Judges there is story which sounds very similar. A Levite is on the road with his servant and his concubine. Night is drawing in and they look for shelter. They arrive at Gibeah and wait in the town centre to be offered hospitality. Nobody from the town offers them anything. And then a foreigner who, like Lot, happens to be temporarily resident takes them in. Just as they are all settling down for the night the townsmen come and demand to 'know' the Levite visitor. Like Lot the host offers them his virgin daughter, but the townsmen reject her. Then the Levite gives them his concubine: and they knew her, and abused her all the night until the morning. Judges 19:25
At dawn she is found dead in front of the house. Vengeance in this case is delivered by all the tribes of Israel who raze the town of Gibeah to the ground. Here the punishment is for a vicious heterosexual rape of atrocious savagery. The offence of the Gibean townsmen has nothing to do with homosexuality or heterosexuality. Just like the sin of the Sodomites, they indulged in gross inhospitality, and for it they were robbed of any hope of posterity. The lesson is the same and is crystal clear.
The sodomite behaviour of some Christian churches
It is a cruel irony that the whole language of sodomy and sodomites has been applied to gay men. For two thousand years the Christian church has been responsible for persecuting, torturing and murdering gay people. You could say that the Christian churches have subjected LGBT people to extreme acts of inhospitality. Because of what, if we are being charitable, we could say is a misreading of the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah, the patriarchal Christian churches themselves perpetuate the true crime of Sodom and Gomorrah every day. Because of their policies of exclusion, condemnation and denial of basic human rights, it is arguably the churches which are sodomite rather than the LGBT people they victimise.
What the churches tend to do is to start with a predetermined prejudice against homosexuals and to then seek biblical justification for their exclusionary practices. A close reading of the Biblical texts concerning this story makes absolutely clear that there is no such justification here. We shall encounter this same situation with other texts used to attack gay people in the following chapters.
Many outspoken Christian leaders have in recent years called on gay people to 'repent and change'. Actually on the evidence presented here it is really these Christian leaders who need to 'repent and change' and apologise for their churches' uncharitable and unchristian behaviour towards LGBT people as God's children. The particular misuse of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to demonise gay people, and to promote bigotry and homophobia, is an especially disgraceful example of the more general misuse of the Bible, which will be discussed later in chapter D7. It is especially disgraceful because Biblical scholars have known for a long time that the 'homosexual' interpretation of the story was wrong. To their credit, some churches have recognised this fact and no longer refer to it. Others, however, wilfully and culpably persist. Rather than LGBT people it is they who richly deserve the anathema carried by the word 'sodomite'.
Excerpted from The Gay Gospels The Gay by Keith Sharpe Copyright © 2010 by Keith Sharpe . Excerpted by permission of O BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 19, 2013
so wrong! Sharpe changes several Biblical relationships (friend, mother/daughter, aquaintance, etc.) into a sexual orgy! Distasteful & dangerous!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 28, 2014
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Posted April 19, 2012
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