We are all familiar with the story of Sodom, and how it is frequently used (without any justification) as an argument to justify opposition to homosexuality. I will come back later to the story of Sodom, but first, to show just how ludicrous the argument is, I will apply exactly the same reasoning to a remarkably similar story, that of Gibeah in Judges 19. (See, even the chapter number is the same.) If the argument from Sodom were sound, then the same argument applied to Gibeah should lead us to conclude that heterosexual intercourse is sinful. Of course, that conclusion is patently false. An investigation of the story of Gibeah is useful because it helps to show the inadequacy of the historical interpretation of Sodom (now rejected by most reputable modern scholars), but it also shows clearly how inappropriate it is to base modern sexual ethics on Old Testament Biblical standards – which also underpin the entire patriarchal structure of the Church as we have it.
The Story of Gibeah
Unlike Sodom, the story of Gibeah is not well known, although it should be. I present it now in the words of the Finnish Biblical scholar, Marti Nissinen.
“In those days when no king ruled in Israel” – so begins the story of Judges 19 – it happened that a certain Levite, who lived in the hill country of Ephraim, stopped at the Benjamite town of Gibeah. He was accompanied by his (anonymous) wife of second rank, whom he had recaptured from her refuge in Bethlehem at her father’s house. The Gibeahites were unfriendly toward travellers; only by late evening did an old man accommodate them. The man,also from the hill country of Ephraim, invited them to his house and showed them great hospitality. But then suddenly something horrible happened:
While they were enjoying themselves, some of the worst scoundrels in the town surrounded the house, hurling themselves against the door and shouting to the old man who owned the house: “Bring out the man who has gone into our house, for us to have intercourse with him” (19:22, NEB)
The old man wanted to protect his guest and offered his own daughter and his guest’s wife instead. When this did not appease the scoundrels, the Levite gave his wife up to the men, who then fell on her sexually and abused her all night till the morning”(19:25). The woman died of her injuries, and the incident led to a war between the Benjaminites and the other tribes of Israel.
Correlation with Sodom
The similarities with the Sodom story are remarkable. In both tales:
- There are travellers in a strange town, who settle down in a public place.
- A townsman, himself new to the town, offers hospitality to the travellers and takes them into his home.
- A crowd of angry townspeople surround the house, demanding to “know”, or “have intercourse” with the visiting men. (The same Hebrew verb, yāda, is used in both stories, and also for the sexual assault in Gibeah).
- The host pleads with the angry crowd, and offers them female victims instead, including his own daughters (in both stories) and his wife (in Gibeah).
This is where the stores diverge. In Gibeah, the mob accepts the host’s wife, gang rape her, and she ends up murdered. In Sodom, where the guests are in fact angels, they take control, the mob is blinded, and the story ends with the destruction of the town.
Now note please that in Sodom, the assault is threatened, but not executed. The only crime is one of intent. In Gibeah, the assault is real. There is a gang rape lasting all night, ending in murder. Oh, and this assault is against a woman. In Sodom, the threatened assault is against men – or angles that the mob believed to be men.
If the lesson of Sodom is about the threatened rape of the guests, then surely the real rape and murder in Gibeah is far more scandalous. If the assault in Sodom was the excuse for its destruction, and the condemnation of homosexual intercourse, then surely the sin of Gibeah should lead to equally strong condemnation of heterosexual intercourse?
Yet it does not. Whereas Sodom is frequently condemned elsewhere in Scripture for its “sinfulness”, Gibeah disappears, after its appearance in Judges 19, without trace. Why?
The Sin of Sodom.
The first part of the answer, of course, is that the threatened attack on the guests was not the reason for the destruction of Sodom. That had already been decided. The angels had been sent to the town in a last ditch effort to find good men to prevent the punishment for the sin – the assault simply cut off hope of reprieve. It was not the cause of God’s anger. What was?
The answer to that is not given in Genesis, but is given elsewhere in Scripture. The explanation in Ezekiel (16:49) is best known:
This was the iniquity (or pride) of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride of wealth and food in plenty, comfort and ease, and yet she never helped the poor and wretched (NEB).
In the Wisdom of Solomon, Sodom is acused of
“abandoning wisdom and of “leading their lives as a monument to folly”. (Wisdom 10:6-8).
Later, it is also compared with the Egyptians in their hostile treatment of strangers:
There had been others [Sodomites] who refused welcome to strangers…(Wisdom 19:13 – 15).
Nowhere in Scripture is it said that the sin of Sodom had anything to do with homosexuality – except indirectly, as homosexual rape, and that after the destruction had already been determined. The sins of Sodom were quite clearly pride, indulgence in luxury – and xenophobia, a hatred of foreigners. Remember that in Biblical times, when travelling was always arduous and hazardous, there was a strong obligation to offer hospitality to travellers, an obligation that both Sodom and Gibeah flouted most directly, by threatening rape instead of protection.
The Sin of Gibeah.
From a modern perspective, the gang rape and murder of the Levite’s wife seem horrific. The very idea of a man “giving” his wife to a mob to be raped is almost beyond belief, but this gets hardly a passing glance, and is not remarked on elsewhere.
This is a direct result of the appalling status of women in Jewish society, and other societies at the time. Recall the opening of the story: The Levite was accompanied by his wife “of second rank” (or “concubine”)
“whom he had recaptured from her refuge in Bethlehem at her father’s house.”
This highlights two features of importance: the obsession with rank; and the idea that wife or concubine was treated as property, and could be reclaimed by her husband from refuge with her father. Later, this idea of women as at the disposal of their husbands or fathers is illustrated in both stories by the idea that they could indeed be “given” to the mob by the men who controlled them. The idea that the women involved might have an objection, or right to protection themselves, simply did not come into it.
Male and Female Rape Compared.
This all begs the question: why should the women have been offered instead of the male guests? Why did the mob in Sodom reject the offer? Again, this comes back t the position of women in society. Women were seen as naturally inferior to men and subservient to them. It was part of the natural order that they should be the passive partners in sex, which was not primarily an expression of love between partners, but a means of procreation, or of relieving men’s physical urges. This natural order dictated that men should dominate, women should yield; men should take the active part, women should be passive; men should penetrate, while women were there to accept penetration. Indeed, then and after, it was routine in many Near Eastern and other cultures that in time of war, the victors would rape any male surviving losers, just to assert the new relationship between them, of victor and vanquished. Sex was about establishing and demonstrating a pattern of dominance.
This is why it was seen as so appalling to threaten the rape of male guests – for a man to be raped was an appalling injury to his dignity, to his status as a man. It was turning him into that worthless creature – a woman.
The maintenance of gender roles was of crucial importance. The actual gang rape and murder of a woman was of minor importance.
The Modern Significance
The true sin of Sodom is not homosexuality, but xenophobia – fear or hatred of foreigners, leading to a refusal to give them welcome and hospitality. It remains true today that correctly viewed, the sin of Sodom is an appalling one, crying out, as they say for vengeance. But the Sodomites are not those who engage in loving same sex relationships, but the homophobes, who in their hatred attack them and refuse to offer welcome.
The much neglected sin of Gibeah also remains with us: the pervasive sin of treating women as second class citizens, fit only to be treated as inferior to men, subservient to them in all important decision. Fortunately, secular society in much of the world has moved well beyond that attitude. Yet the Church continues to build its system of sexual ethics on what is surely an inappropriate Biblical pattern – even as the Pontifical Biblical Commission advises that the interpretation of Scripture should be sensitive both to the context of the historical conditions in which it was written, and to the conditions in which we live today.
It is also the same outmoded insistence on male domination that is responsible for the shameful and destructive patriarchal nature of the Catholic Church, a structure that, in the name of justice, simply must be undone.
Two sins intertwined, both crying to heaven for vengeance: the homophobia that is the modern sin of Sodom, and the misogyny ingrained in the church, that is the legacy of the sin of Gibeah.