The Mortal Sin of Sodom – What Was It?

Sodom and Gomorrah recap (Genesis 19:1-11)

So far, chapter 19 has been telling us the story of Lot and the Angels in Sodom. It introduces to us the people of Sodom and their customs.  Verse 11, which we covered in our last post, is the end of the first part of Lot’s story. It is a natural place for us to stop and ask ourselves what do we know about the mortal sin of the people of Sodom, a sin so grave that condemned all the citizens to a horrible death and to a complete destruction of their city.

Those who have been following this blog already know that I believe that everything in the Bible has numerous meanings, and that the ‘on-the-surface’ interpretation is only one out of many. In the story of Sodom, the common interpretation is that their sin was sodomy and rape.

The common interpretation: rape and sodomy

Rape and sodomy – how convenient they are to convey sin to people. Using them guarantees that it will get us involved emotionally, make us outraged. It also helps preachers to convey their messages through passionate speeches. After all, we can immediately feel anger when rape is mentioned. Do we need to dig deeper?

I will not claim that this is not a possible interpretation. But is it the only one? Is it the most likely one? Were sodomy and rape good enough reasons to destroy a city and kill everyone in it?

The interpretation that rape and sodomy were the sins comes from a single word in the chapter וְנֵדְעָה (and we will know) as it appears in verse 5:

וַיִּקְרְאוּ אֶל-לוֹט וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ, אַיֵּה הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר-בָּאוּ אֵלֶיךָ הַלָּיְלָה; הוֹצִיאֵם אֵלֵינוּ, וְנֵדְעָה אֹתָם
And they called to Lot and told him, where are the people that came to your home tonight; Bring them out to us, and we’ll know them

Those who advocate this interpretation claim that in the Bible the word to know means to have sex. But is it really the case?

While it is true that the word to know often means to have sex, in the majority of cases, the Bible uses the verb the same way we use is today:  having knowledge or becoming acquaintances.  For instance, in Genesis 4:9

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל קַיִן אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי
And God said to Cain, where is your brother Abel? And he said, I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?

How likely is that interpretation?

Let’s look at some verses that point that the sin may be different.

  • Verse 4 clearly indicates that ALL the men of Sodom, from teenagers to old men, came to surround Lot’s house. The verse uses the expression, כָּל-הָעָם, to emphasise that everyone was there, nobody was amiss. If the call was for rape, can you really imagine that not a single person would say: “I am too old for this,” “I am too tired this evening, I’d rather have an early night,” or “I have already raped enough today, I need a break.”  Someone would surely be missing, even in the city of sin. In my view, the only time you manage to rally everyone is when they feel threatened or when they feel that injustice was done, and justice is called for. When else could you manage to get EVERYONE out, without exception?
  • And what about the women? The Bible is specifically telling us that only men were involved.  But if women were not involved in the sins of Sodom, why couldn’t Abraham find 10 righteous people in the city? Or was it only with Lot’s guests that the women decided to miss the opportunity to have some sin?
  • The people of Sodom were not interested in Lot’s virgin daughters. Can you imagine an evil, lusting crowd turning down such an offer? They could have taken them and then continue to the guests.  But this is not what they want. Not only that they refused to take the girls, but they also accused Lot of judging their customs. They called for justice done by the book.

So, what was the sin of Sodom?

Let’s start by saying that the Bible is not specific about it, so we will never know for sure. But I believe that their sin is making hospitality unlawful. That is, the rule to turn down guests in need.

A little boy standing in the door of a tent in the desert. Hospitality is an important rule of desert dwellers. It is the difference between life and death. Inhospitality is considered as a mortal sin.

It may sound like a small thing, definitely in comparison to rape. Is it really a good enough reason to destroy a city? But put yourself back in the culture of desert dwellers. When you walk in the desert with limited amounts of food and water, hospitality is the difference between life and death. If you do not accept guests, you condemn them to death. Lack of hospitality is akin to murder.

In this chapter we have a few verses that may indicate that this was Sodom’s sin:

  • In verse 2 Lot is using the verb סוּרוּ, that is he is asking the angels to come to his house the indirect way. Why wouldn’t Lot ask them simply to come to his home … unless he had to hide the fact that he was having guests.  
  • In verse 2 Lot is also asking them to leave very early in the morning. Isn’t it rude to ask people to leave as early as possible … unless they needed to make sure that they leave before other people woke up.
  • In verse 3, Lot is preparing מַצּוֹת (unleavened bread) for his guests. The obvious question is why not cakes, like Abraham served his guests, or at least normal bread, which much tastier. But normal bread takes time to make and its waft is impossible to hide. Unleavened bread, on the other hand, can be done quickly and in stealth. Lot did not want the people of Sodom know that he had guests.

In the desert, hospitality is the difference between life and death, and is therefore sacred among desert dwellers. But, of course, as culture had changed and the sacred meaning of hospitality disappeared, the narrative of sin had to change to fit the culture of the European church goers. Rape and sodomy was an easy choice, and hence, in my view, the original meaning got lost.  

I would like to finish with a quote from Job 31:32, in which Job tells his friends why he did nothing to deserve his punishment.

בַּחוּץ, לֹא-יָלִין גֵּר;  דְּלָתַי, לָאֹרַח אֶפְתָּח
I will not let a stranger sleep outside; I will open my door to a guest

In other words, had he not done that, his severe punishment would have been justified.  Lack of hospitality, akin to a murder, is a mortal sin, and might have been the sin of Sodom.

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1 year ago

A lot to take in….. need to look at all that again, but thankyou. Di

1 year ago

I agree with you because when I juxtapose it with what Christ said about sodom and Gomorrah in the book of luke it’s related more to the sin of hospitality than the sin of rape and sodomy

Reply to  Ran Fuchs
6 months ago

Luke 10, specifically 10:12 Yeshua was discussing with the disciples their missions ahead of him, and their reception in those towns. Thank you for sharing your interpretation of Lot’s predicament in Sodom. It offers much greater context (e.g. Bedouin hospitality) supporting this being more about a “righteous” mob seeking coliseum… Read more »