Home > Study of the Old Testament > Sodom’s Sin: Genesis 18-19 and its Interpretations (Themes in Biblical Narrative)

Sodom’s Sin: Genesis 18-19 and its Interpretations (Themes in Biblical Narrative)

Brill Academic Publishers | 2004 | ISBN: 9004140484 | PDF | 203 pages

This volume is devoted to the receptions of and reflections on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as told in Genesis 18 and 19. Two articles discuss intertextual reactions to the Sodom narrative within the Hebrew Bible. Five contributions examine readings and rewritings of the Sodom narrative in early Jewish, Christian and Islamic writings: Jubilees, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament (Revelation 11), Targumim and early Koran commentaries. Two articles focus on separate themes, the punishment of the Dead Sea and the prohibition on looking back. Finally, two articles that focus on Peter Damian and Proust’s Sodome et Gomorrhe I describe the later reception of the sin of Sodom as homosexuality. A bibliography of recent works completes the volume.

The famous story of the doomed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah has generated a rich and diverse history of reception. Whereas the narratives of the Flood, in which the whole of creation reverted to chaos, offer only a very general terminological description of the reason why, the violence and the attempt at male rape in Sodom are explained extensively. The social sin of Sodom developed into a long and painful interpretation of homosexuality and only more recent exegesis has been able to read the texts without the blindfold of dogmatic interpretations of sexuality. This volume presents aspects of the history of reception of this narrative.

The papers collected here were presented at the Sixth Groningen Conference on Themes of Biblical Narrative held in June 2002. Every year the Research group Jewish and Christian Traditions of the University of Groningen Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, together with colleagues from other departments, study the history of reception of a narrative from the Hebrew Bible. Naturally, it is not possible to cover every aspect of the rich but cruel history of reception. We hope, however, that enough of the central aspects of the narrative have been treated here to give an impression of the texts interpreted in different times and by different groups.

The papers are arranged in four sections. Part One, “Intertextualities“, deals with aspects of the history of reception within the Hebrew Bible. Part Two, “Readings”, illuminates the use of the Sodom narrative in Jubilees, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Revelation, the Targumim and Early Jewish Literature. A survey of the figure of Lot in the Koran and early Islamic commentaries concludes this section. Part Three, “Themes”, focuses on single motifs: the role of the Dead Sea and the command to Lot’s wife not to look back. Part Four, “Sexualities“, deals with the unholy legacy of the Sodom narrative in the discussion about homosexuality.

The first paper, by Ed Noort, “For the Sake of Righteousness“, describes the dialogue and negotiations between God and Abraham in Gen 18:16-33 as the first commentary on the Sodom story. This part of the history of reception follows one line of thought: is God still a righteous God if he destroys wicked and righteous men together. It is not the prosperity of the wicked – as in many parts of wisdom literature – that is at issue here, but the punishment of the righteous. This problem culminates in the rhetorical question “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”(Gen 18:25).

The problem of the relationship between God and evildoers is tackled by six other models reflecting possible answers in the Hebrew and Greek Bibles: Hosea 11, Jonah, Genesis 6-9, Ezekiel 18 and 14; Qoheleth 9; Wisdorn 3. The nearest parallel is the older version of the Flood narrative. Therefore, Gen 6:5-9:17 and Genesis 18-19 may be regarded as competing stories about the breach after the good creation. The answer of Genesis 18- 19 is that God does not eradicate the wicked and the righteous together. Individual rescue is possible and no more than ten righteous ones are needed to save an entire community.

Raymond de Hoop studies the intertextual relations between the Sodom and the Saul narratives. He posits a triptych with Genesis 19 as the left opening panel, the outrage at Gibeah (Judges 19), the punitive expedition against Gibeah (Judges 20) and the survival of Gibeah thanks to Jabesh (Judges 21) in the central panel, and the rescue of Jabesh by the Benjaminite Saul (1 Samuel 11) as the right closing panel. Judges 19-21 is the key text. By means of a subtle play on place names and tribal names and the links between Sodom and Gibeah stories on the one hand, and the links between Gibeah and Jabesh Gilead on the other, this triptych demonstrates that the good king of Israel comes from Bethlehem/Jerusalem and not from the Sodom of Benjamin, i.e. Gibeah. The chain of stories functions as a hidden polemic against King Saul, undermining his authority by casting doubt on his descent.

With a study of Jub. 16:1-9, Jacques van Ruiten takes us beyond the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Jub. 16:1-4 describes the announcement of a son to Abraham and Sarah; the destruction of Sodom is mentioned in Jub. 16:5-6, the incest of Lot’s daughters with their father is related in Jub. 16:7-9. The dialogue between Abraham and God (Gen 18:16-33) is absent from this rewriting of the biblical text. Only some phrases can be linked to that part of the story. In the Hebrew Bible, the sin of Sodom is seen as social injustice, only Jer 23:14 hints at sexual connotations. It is only in later times that sexually unacceptable behavior is connected so closely to Sodom and Gomorrah that Sodom and sexual sin became synonyms. In Jub. 16:7-9 it is Lot, not his daughters, who plays the active part in the incest. As a result, the figure of Lot is sharply contrasted to that of Abraham. Jubilees sees Abraham as a totally blameless, righteous and pious figure. Lot, however, has two faces. Starting off as the beloved nephew of Abraham, he turns into an exemplary sinner.

In his survey of the Sodom and Gomorrah motif in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Eibert Tigchelaar contradicts J.A. Loader (1990) who observed a remarkable absence of the two wicked towns in Qumran literature. More than a decade later the material has expanded and tools have been improved.

It is now possible to conduct a more extensive search. Some manuscripts refer to the names of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the absence of Sodom in the Genesis Apocryphon and the Damascus Document can be explained by the overall tendency of the texts. Thus far, 4Q172 fragment 4 is the only text which draws a connection between Gomorrah and sexual sins. 4Q180 quotes Gen 18:20-21, but the reason why is unclear. It is probably part of a commentary on problematic parts of the text, such as the nature of the visitors at Mamre and the foreknowledge of God. 4Q252 III 2-6 deals with Sodom and Gomorrah in a way related to the problems raised by the idolatrous city of Deuteronomy 13 and the individual responsibility of Ezekiel 14. A thorough discussion of 4Q177 reveals the possibility that an actual and eschatological understanding of the text is implied. The sons of Belial in Jerusalem will be destroyed. In the surviving holy city, however, the required number of ten righteous ones will be found, unlike inside Sodom. From the Dead Sea Scrolls a switch is now made to the New Testament. Bert Jan Lietaert Peerbolte concentrates on the difficult text of Rev 11:8. Here the corpses of two murdered witnesses will lie on the streets of the city that “spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt”. Rev 11:2, 8 indicates that this city must be Jerusalem, so the problem is why is Jerusalem called, of all names, Sodom and Egypt. Lietaert Peerbolte presents a verse-by-verse exegesis of Rev 11:3-6, rejecting the claim that Lactantius was a source for Revelation 11, and studies the prophetic figures of Elijah and Moses as candidates for the roles of the two witnesses. Sodom is the symbol of violence and evil, whereas Egypt stands for the oppressive power that once enslaved Israel. By calling Jerusalem by these two names, two negative epithets from the prophetic language are used. They stand for the town where the Lord of the two witnesses was crucified and where the Christ movement was maltreated.

Florentino Garcia Martinez surveys the Targumim, demonstrating how the biblical text was developed and transformed there. He concentrates on three topics: 1. Who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah? 2. What were the sins of Sodom? Who was Pelitit?

The Targumim view a direct link between Genesis 17 and 18: the three angels come to Abraham on the very day of his circumcision, each with his own task. The names of the angels can be found in rabbinic tradition: Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, the latter being responsible for the destruction of Sodom. Again it is remarkable that in the Targumim, too, there is no focus on sexual misbehaviour. A link with “sodomy” cannot be found. Sodom’s sins have social dimensions: the oppression of the poor as demonstrated by Pseudo-Jonathan. Most striking here is the figure of Pelitit, introduced by Pseudo-Jonathan on the basis of the feminine suffix used in MT Gen 18:21, and functioning as a daughter of Lot. The Sodomites forbade helping the poor and that is just what Pelitit was doing. Even in this midrash the sin of Sodom is a social sin. Starting with a case from modern times in the Muslim world, Fred Leemhuis studies the relevant passages in the Koran and its early commentaries.

Although Sodom is not mentioned by name, it plays a role in the middle and late Meccan sura’s with the warning “punishment stories”. Lût functions as a prophet, a messenger of God (rasūl), who warns his countrymen about their crimes of lewdness and robbery. His status is not ambiguous, as it is in the Hebrew Bible. He is one of the eight predecessors of Mohammed. The death of Lut’s wife is announced in advance and is known to Ibrāhīm and Lût himself. The early commentaries offer supplementary material. Of course, the names of the angels are known here. Ibrāhīm negotiates the number of believers down to five households. Lût preaches to his people but is reluctant to receive the angels out of fear that they are coming with the punishment of his people. The sins are more concrete. Homosexuality and male rape play an important role, but social crimes are also mentioned. The execution of the punishment is related in more detail. The towns are lifted up to heaven, turned upside-down and dropped onto the earth again. There is no mention of the motif of the incest between Lot and his daughters.

Two studies in this volume focus on one single motif. Ton Hilhorst enquires into the relation between the Dead Sea and the Sodom narrative. The land of the wicked towns is punished and barrenness becomes its part. But what about the saltiness of the Dead Sea? Was this understood as part of the punishment? Hilhorst reaches a conclusion in three steps. The first step is a study of Sir 39:22-24 in the Hebrew, Greek and Latin versions. Only the Greek version attributes the saltiness of “the waters” to God’s wrath. No reason, however, is given. Julius Africanus, preserved in the Ecloga Chronographica of Syncellus, states that not only the land but also the lake was overturned because of the impiety of the inhabitants. Here, a direct link can be found between the sins of Sodom and the saltiness of the Dead Sea. But the climax comes in the Martyrdom of Pionius. Here the sea has been punished because of man. The saltiness of its water is thus simultaneously a means of keeping humans away from it, in order that the sea not be punished again as in the time of Sodom.

Jan Bremmer focuses on the wife of Lot and the transgression of the command “not to look back”. Commentators have failed to explain the motif and Bremmer looks for parallels in the Graeco-Roman world. Surveying the material he finds five fields where the same command plays a role: 1. in contact with the underworld and chthonic powers; 2. in magic; 3. In acts of purification; 4. when going abroad; 5. during acts of creation. His paper concludes with notes on the most famous prohibitions on looking back: Orpheus and Eurydice and Lot’s wife. The motif of not looking back in the narrative of Orpheus and Eurydice as a condition to leave the underworld is a literary invention, and cannot be explained from fear of the gods of the underworld. In Genesis 19 there is a close connection between haste and not looking back, a topos regularly occurring in Greek and Roman Literature.

The final section of the book starts with an extensive article written by the psychologist of religion, Patrick Vandermeersch. In the first part of his study, Vandermeersch challenges exegetes to reflect on their hermeneutic approach to the field of the philosophy of history. He warns against a tendency to restrict oneself to language and history, without regard for ideology.

The same may happen when scholars study the bible in the context of a moral evaluation of homosexuality. Vandermeersch demonstrates his point by studying two influential books on homosexuality: Bailey (1955) and Bouwman (1990). Bailey desexualizes Sodom (yāda’) and Bouwman heterosexualizes it (matriarchate). These authors are only the first step in Vandermeersch’s discussion of Petrus Damiani (1007-1072), the key figure in the homosexualization of the Sodom story. The central text is the Liber Gommorhianus (1049) in which Damian gives definitions of sodomy and asks the Pope to decide which types of sodomites should be excluded from the clergy. Damian’s battle against sodomy prompts Vandermeersch to ask whether this intriguing figure is defending himself against homosexual feelings for Christ.

The last paper, by Els Jongeneel, studies the crucial role of homosexuality, “sexual inversion”, in Proust’s Sodome et Gomorrhe, the fourth volume of A la recherche du temps perdu with its main themes of desire and art. Here the love-hate relationship between the first-person narrator and his Lesbian beloved Albertine is told. Jongeneel describes the ways Proust reworks the ideas of the psychiatrists of his time. Proust explains sexual inversion as a natural phenomenon stigmatized by human culture. Homosexuality is the consequence of a law of nature. Proust uses sexual inversion to reflect on the mystery of human love with its affection, eroticism, jealousy, cruelty and hatred. On the narrative level the story is told as a continuation of Gen 19. Two angels, taken from Genesis 3, who guard Sodom, allow some of the “inverts” to escape. Their descendants have spread worldwide. In the novel, Sodom stands for overt sexuality and Gomorrah for hidden sexual practice. The article concludes with Proust’s own view of sexual inversion: “mixed with the dust of the earth, Sodom and Gomorrah are part of our everyday reality”.

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