For me, one of the greatest challenges of reading Scripture has been learning to recognize my own subjectivity. I was raised within a fundamentalist evangelical belief system and, as such, learned to read the Bible firmly within the confines of inerrantist doctrine.
Inerrancy, to put it bluntly, cripples its constituents and often renders them biblical illiterate. To draw an SAT worthy analogy, inerrancy is to the Bible as Kanye West is to Bohemian Rhapsody.
Someone who learned to love the song from Kanye’s performance may very well find it better, that doesn’t change the fact that his rendition is wooden and completely devoid of skill, a violence to the complexity and nuance of the original. When reading Scripture we need to keep in mind the skill, artistry, and intent of the original author before accepting the self-serving interpretations of pompous hacks.
This lesson, however, is not easily learned. There is a great deal at stake in rejecting inerrancy. In fact, the entire hierarchy of power inherent to evangelicalism is based primarily on inerrancy, the ability of a handful of elites to remind you it is dangerous to color outside the lines. A personal example will prove enlightening.
Growing up, I was taught that Genesis 19 is entirely about God’s judgement of Homosexuality. God hates homosexuals, considers them an abomination in his sight, and his response to such behavior is to eradicate it. If God decided to rain fire from the sky to annihilate the “Sodomites”, then Sodomy – the sin of Homosexuality inherent to Sodom’s culture – must be specifically egregious. I would have said on the surface I didn’t hate gays, I loved them as God loved them. But, since God “loved” them in Scripture by wiping a group of then off the face of the planet, my love looked less like the love of the crucified Christ and more like the “love” a serial killer has for his female victims. In fact, to my shame, I often used to argue that AIDS was a plague in judgment of “the gays”, it should not be cured because they didn’t deserve mercy for their perversion.
Lest one think I was full blown Westboro in my thinking, I was not. I would have abhorred the message of the Phelps cult. However, I freely and adamantly affirmed the teaching of teachers, like the late John Stott, who also connected Genesis 19 to Homosexuality, arguing people can’t be judged by “who they are”, but for “what they do”. Stott argued for an environment of love and acceptance for persons who “are” to prevent them from falling into the damned category of those that “do” (Issues Facing Christianity Today, 434-482). Likewise, I would have accepted the teachings of John Piper who believes that Homosexuality is itself a plague upon mankind or John MacArthur who says the only reason we don’t consider the AIDS epidemic a gay issue is because the “gay agenda” is prevailing against the Church. All of this was wrapped in a supposedly welcoming environment where gays could repent by recognizing the clear and undeniable teaching of Scripture.
Here’s the issue: when read both in the context of ancient Israelite history and through the intertextual lens of the NT, the 20th-21st century concerns of modern evangelicals for preserving their own moral privilege by arguing for an inerrant text which condemns Homosexuality falls apart. Such arguments are exposed as attempts to establish “self” as normative ensuring there is a denigrated “other” to compare with. They feed into the artificial categories of gender binary and traditional marriage, the attempt to preserve the power of a male elite by carefully maintaining the boundaries of christian patriarchy. Flying under banners such as complementarity and “biblical manhood/womanhood”, inerrancy allows those in power to insist their teachings cannot be rejected without rejecting the Gospel of Christ as well.
To demonstrate this, I offer 4 observations derived from the text, showing that one has to be intentionally myopic, crippling the ability of one’s constituents to read the text, in order to arrive at the conclusions of Stott, Piper, and MacArthur.
(1) It is important to recognize what Genesis 19 says, in and of itself. In verses 4-6, the text states:
But before [Lot’s guests] lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”
This led Lot to beg of them that they “not act so wickedly.” (v. 7) and offer up his virgin daughters instead. While his response seems odd and revolting to us, Lot’s motivation is made clear in his own words, “do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (v.8) These words show that Lot was concerned with his role as hospitable host. He had taken in the men to protect them and his honor and duty required that he not fail that task. In the disturbingly patriarchal society of the Ancient Near East, the rape of Lot’s daughters was less offensive to him than being known as an inhospitable host.
The fact that the men refused and insisted on trying to break down the door to attack Lot’s visitors shows that they had sexual violence in mind. This is further confirmed by the fact that all the males of the city, young and old, showed up to participate. If they were simply looking to have same-sex relations, they already had the making of quite an orgy, Lot’s guests would be superfluous to such an endeavor. This suggests they were specifically seeking to rape foreigners, who often, in the Ancient Near Eastern, did not have the same rights as residents of the city. This is also confirmed by the concern Lot shows in taking in the visitors in the first place, insisting that they not stay in the town square but instead rest and dine under his protection.
(2) It is important to read this text within the context of the concern for resident aliens and travelers built into Israelite Law. It was a central concern of Torah, rooted in Israel’s own mistreatment when they lived as aliens and slaves in Egypt. This concern is prevalent in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (cf. Lev 19:33-34; Deut 24:17-23) as well as in several other scenes in OT passages (cf. Gen 18:1-15; Ex 12:43-50, 22:21-24). Given that Israelite law ensure the resident alien and traveler were to receive the same legal rights as a citizen and ensured no law would be made which victimized anyone existing as a visitor within Israel (Num 15:11-16), it is no stretch to read this concern in Genesis 19.
(3) It is imperative that we consider the relationship between Genesis 19 and Ezekiel 16. This is a rather blunt passage with a great deal of strong language used to describe the unfaithfulness of Judah. The nation of Judah is described as an unfaithful wife, who gives herself freely to any man who will have her. This adultery, however, is not some simple sex act. Instead, they took up both the cultic and cultural practices of their neighbors, forsaking their chosen, holy status before Yahweh for the abominations of other religions (vv. 1-22).
These abominations included sex practices but also entailed child sacrifice, and the building of idols in the presence of Yahweh (vv.36-38). Thus, Israel is depicted as the daughter of the Hittites and the Amorites, the sister of Samaria (capital of the Northern Kingdom Israel) and Sodom. Most notable is that Judah is described as having followed the example of her mother, father, and sisters, yet become more wicked than all of them.
This is where things get interesting for discussion of Sodom and Gomorrah. Apart from the sexual immorality and abominations committed before these idols (v. 43), the legacy of Sodom is described in very clear terms as being guilty of pride, gluttony, and privilege. They were prosperous, yet they abused in every way the poor and unprotected. There is no mention of sex acts whatsoever. And, the accusation of committing “abominations” before God cannot qualify, as in this passage the word “abomination”, as noted above, includes building idols and child sacrifice. If their abomination is the things of which they have been described as “guilty” (vv. 38-50), then it is most certainly, according to Ezekiel, the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable in their midst.
(4) In discerning the intertextual biblical interpretation of the sin of Sodom – Sodomy if you will – the book of Jude is invaluable. In Jude 5-16, the author interacts with extra-biblical traditions that have bearing. For instance, he repeatedly draws ideas from the Watchers tradition of 1 Enoch, even directly quoting 1 Enoch 1:9 in verse 14-15.
This causes Jude, in verse 6, to speak of a group of angels who came to earth and were punished for their actions. This is a reference to 1 Enoch’s interpretation of Genesis 6, where the “Sons of God” who took the “daughters of men” were angels who mated with humans and bore offspring, whom God sought to destroy by the flood. These rebellious angels were captured and chained in the underworld until the day of judgment. This context is confirmed by Jude’s further reference to the prophecy of Enoch in verse 14.
Jude assumes this interpretation, and uses it as a window for looking at the Sodom and Gomorrah incident. According to Jude, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah committed a sin that deserved a “Likewise” comparison to the sin of the angels in Noah’s time. That is, when Jude speaks of “sexual immorality” and “unnatural lust” he is connecting these ideas to human/angel sex acts. Just as the angels of Genesis 6/1 Enoch left their proper (natural) dwelling, the people of Sodom sought to cross this divide by sexually assaulting the divine messengers in Lot’s care.
These four points lead me to the assertion that the Sin of Sodomy has everything to do with discerning the Christian response to Homosexuality. However, it is not about determining an “other” worthy of God’s judgement at all. Instead, the text serves as a prophetic witness against God’s people, calling them to covenant faithfulness with himself (cf. Deut 29:23) and warning them of the consequences of injustice (Isa 3:5-9). To adapt a saying of Jesus himself, the focus is on discerning our own plank, not the speck of our brothers (Matt 7:1-5).
In fact, if to love neighbor is to love God (Mark 12:28-34), then Sodomy is properly defined as the the hatred of both God and people. It is the act of rejecting persons who are considered “other”, the desire to oppress the weak as a way of demonstrating our own power. It is also the desire to abuse those who represent God, who bear his image and represent his mission, to establish ourselves as independent of him (cf. Jer 23:13-14; Matt 21:33-46).
The irony, then, is that in reading the Bible according to the strict systematic propositions of inerrancy, I have myself been guilty of Sodomy. I had eschewed the difficulty of God’s actions and rejected a considered application to my own life by making the passage entirely about an “other” so foreign to my own identity. By the grace of God, the work of the Spirit through skilled teachers in my life has been to show me that reading Scripture to find fault in others IS SIN. Instead of reading Scripture to maintain my own moral superiority, confirm my own bias, I must be willing to be convicted by Scripture and allow my preconceptions to be challenged, even dismantled. This has led me to the difficult admission that so often I have been among the men of Sodom. I have oppressed, exerted my power/privilege at the expense of an “other”. I am a Sodomite, guilty of seeking to promote my own agenda while rejecting God’s emissaries. If the story ends here, I am worthy of God’s wrath.
However, I also live in profound grace. As I read Scripture, I see time and again God’s grace when wrath is the expected outcome (cf Jonah 4). I am reminded that I am called to the radical grace of the cross of Jesus, invited to be transformed from Sodomite into member of his “chosen people and royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9-10, cf. Ex 19:3-6).
If to love God is to demonstrate the love and grace of Christ even towards those we considee our enemies (cf. Matt 5:43-48, 22:36-40; Luke 10:25-37), it is impossible to accomplish this while wielding Scripture as a weapon. We must realize the call of Scripture is not to equip us to marginalize but to call us holiness, imitation of God in his love and grace (Lev 11:44, 20:26; Matt 5:48; 1 Pet 1:16). When we trade grace for wrath, we abandon the Spirit who inspires and forsake the cross of Christ crucified. We are made weak fools, as our victims are exalted by Christ (1 Cor 1:18-30).
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve , and to give his life a ransom for many.
– Matthew 20:25-28
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