A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 18, 2015
Genesis 18:20-21; 19:1-13 CEB
If you follow the Knoxville-area news, then you likely are aware of the resolution presented to Blount County earlier this month calling for God’s mercy and that Blount County be spared the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah. The resolution was proposed by Commissioner Karen Miller, “who wanted to add to the agenda a resolution asking Blount County residents to be spared from God’s wrath” over the issue of same-sex marriage licenses.1 About 120 attendees showed up for the meeting, some in favor of the resolution and holding up their Bibles, and others in opposition to the resolution, most dressed in the color red. As it turned out, the resolution wasn’t even considered, as an opening vote to adopt the agenda failed, cancelling the commission meeting in which the resolution would have been formally presented.
Well, most of you know that I rarely criticize people for their personal stands on controversial social issues. But when I heard the news about the proposed resolution in an effort to spare Blount County the same fate of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, my first thought was Really? Do some citizens of Blount County, Tennessee, really equate themselves, think themselves to be on the same plane, with the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? Isn’t there a bit of warped egotism or pretentiousness at play there, to actually think that the same destruction that was said to have befallen Sodom would befall Blount County, Tennessee?
But then the whole issue got me to thinking about how great a misconception there is about what really happened in Sodom. And so, I thought the recent events provided a good opportunity to revisit this ancient story. And as we do so, it seems that there are two different issues involved: First, just what were the sins of Sodom that gave it the reputation of being such a bad place deserving of divine wrath? And second, if there was, indeed, a historical place, and it was destroyed in the sensational manner that Genesis says that it was, what might some of the explanations for Sodom’s destruction be?
First, what were the actual sins of Sodom? The fact of the matter is, the truth is most often overlooked or misinterpreted. But the scripture speaks for itself, in Genesis and in other books of the Bible: “The cries of injustice from Sodom and Gomorrah are countless,” it states (Genesis 18:20 CEB). As we turn to the next chapter, we are told what some of those injustices were.
As the story goes, two divine messengers were sent to Sodom to assess the situation and rescue Lot—Abraham’s nephew—from the sinful city. The two messengers planned to spend the night in the town square. Lot, knowing the dangers that threatened them, pleaded with them to come inside his house to spend the night. They finally conceded and did. After dinner, when it was time to go to bed, the men of Sodom—young and old alike—surrounded Lot’s dwelling and called out to Lot to bring out his guests so that they might “know them intimately.” That is a very polite way of putting it. To put it bluntly, the men of Sodom intended to have sex with the two divine visitors, by force if necessary. And as it turned out, they did try. Lot implored them to not do such an evil thing. He was responsible for the safety of the two visitors. In an effort to protect his guests, Lot offered them his two virgin daughters as sex objects instead, a deplorable act in and of itself, which only goes to show how Lot had been affected (or infected) with the evil spirits of injustice that prevailed in Sodom.
The men of Sodom didn’t accept Lot’s offer, so they tried to break down his door in order to get at the two strangers being housed under his roof. They intended to do as much or more violence to Lot himself if need be in order to satisfy their carnal desires. As the story continues, the two divine guests grabbed Lot and dragged him back inside the house, then struck the men of Sodom with blindness. Yet, the men still groped for the door, trying to get at the strangers. The biblical writer has the two divine visitors say, “The Lord has found the cries of injustice so serious that the Lord has sent us to destroy” this place.
Now, there are at least two issues at work having to do with the great injustices of Sodom. On the one hand there was the issue of hospitality. In that time and place, hospitality to strangers, and especially to visitors that you took under your roof, was paramount. The ancient code dictated that a homeowner be hospitable and protect visitors at any cost. So the desire of the men of Sodom to harm these strangers in itself was considered to be a grave injustice.
But much more serious was the injustice of sexual violence that prevailed in Sodom, and the prevailing spirit that allowed it to be commonplace. The real sin of Sodom was not in any particular act, but the reality of forced sexual interactions—sexual violence—which is always the gravest of sins. The intended sexual acts desired by the people of Sodom did not constitute an act of love or caring. The perpetrators threatened the visitors with mob or gang rape!
When we look to other places in the Bible that refer to the sins of Sodom, largely speaking there is no reference to homosexual activity or any sexual references at all for that matter. The prophets Isaiah (1), Jeremiah (23:14), and Ezekiel (16:49-50) all make reference to Sodom in comparison to the sins of Judah or the false prophets, but they do so listing a host of other sins and injustices, such as pride, idolatry, and ignoring the cries of the poor and needy. The only New Testament book that makes reference to the sins of Sodom as being sexual in nature is the little Letter of Jude who uses the phrase “immoral sexual urges” (Jude 7 CEB).
But especially to be noted is the fact that when Jesus spoke of Sodom, the sins he made mention of were inhospitality and unbelief (Matthew 10:14-15; 11:23). So as you can see, the case against Sodom and Gomorrah is quite complex, and not as simple and clear-cut as many are want to think. The real sins of injustice prevalent in Sodom were without question inhospitality and violence to strangers; ignoring the cries of the poor and needy; but also lack of human respect which played out as unrestrained sexual violence.
But there is a second consideration concerning Sodom which has to do with how and why it was destroyed. On the one hand, the ancients had a way of looking back at catastrophic events and trying to determine a source and reason for them. So if Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed as the Bible says they were, then those who knew of the disaster would naturally try to determine a source (i.e., God) and reason (i.e., great sin on the part of those who lived there).
If you have ever watched episodes on the History Channel or National Geographic Channel that seek to explain by natural events the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, then you know that various theories of the sensational destruction have been postulated. It is interesting to note that in the area around the Dead Sea, where Sodom and Gomorrah were located, there were a lot of tar pits (Genesis 14:10). One theory has it that internal pressure and gases under the earth’s crust caused explosions that propelled hot, burning tar into the sky, which rained down on the cities.
Another theory has it that an asteroid swept across the area (and I think there is historical evidence that such a thing did happen), raining burning rock as it passed over, explaining the fire and brimstone falling from the sky. So it is not inconceivable that some natural disaster occurred, which naturally was viewed by the ancients as punishment from God for gross sinfulness. Though some today still consider natural disasters to be a direct action of God for punishment for sinfulness (as some television preachers contended when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans some years back), most of us see such disasters simply as natural occurrences. But if “the cries of injustice from Sodom and Gomorrah” were, indeed, countless, as the biblical writer records; and if such a natural disaster did, indeed, occur that wiped out those cities, then it was only logical that the ancients put the two together as an act of God.
But let us return to where I began and the attempts of some to spare Blount County the same fate that befell Sodom and Gomorrah. If we are going to talk about the sins and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we need to have all the facts and really know what we are talking about. When we start talking about the cries of injustice having to do with inhospitality to the homeless, sexual violence and sex trafficking of the innocent, pride, and refusing to hear the cries of the poor and needy, then we will have started talking in earnest about issues that really matter; issues that mattered in Sodom and Gomorrah, and issues that matter in Blount County and Anderson County, Tennessee! Amen.
1Hayes Hickman, Knoxville New Sentinel, October 7,