This year I was asked to teach a few extra classes in the synagogue school, on Saturday mornings, focusing on the week’s Torah portion (the chapter of the Hebrew Bible that is read by Jews around the world at the same time). I was nervous and excited about the opportunity, because it was new to me, but also because I’ve never really had the chance to teach the stories from the first and second books of the Hebrew bible. I usually teach the book of Leviticus, which is full of laws and holiness, but not many plotlines or characters or dramatic scenes. And then I found out which Torah portion I’d be teaching the kids, and I thought, when it rains it pours, because I would be teaching the Torah portion that contains Sodom and Gomorrah, The banishing of Ishmael, and The Binding (and almost sacrificing) of Isaac. You know, the light stuff.
I could, almost, imagine how to teach the drama of a parent who is willing to risk the life of his child on the say-so of God (kids sort of feel like this is what happens every day of their lives when their parents insist on sending them to school against their will), but Sodom and Gomorrah, with its themes of unforgivable evil and sexual violence, and God turning two whole towns into rubble? Not so much.
I wrote up my lesson plan, tap dancing and editing and omitting my way to a version of the Torah portion that would be interesting to the kids, without giving them too many nightmares. But I still found myself thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah, and how hard this story is to reckon with, and why.
The biggest problem, for me, is that the English word “Sodomy,” clearly based on the town of Sodom, has come to refer to homosexual acts, and many religious people have decided that this story is meant to teach us that God will punish you with death and destruction for engaging in homosexual acts, or allowing/supporting others to engage in those acts. Now, I know that the Hebrew Bible is often brutal, and I know that there is a biblical law against homosexual behavior (it’s in Leviticus, so I see it a lot), but it still felt unreasonable that God (and/or my ancestors) would see homosexuality as such a heinous crime that it should earn the destruction of whole towns, whole families, including children. So I decided to re-read the story to see what I was missing.
In Genesis 18-19, three men come to Abraham in the plains of Mamre, two angels and God in disguise, to tell him that the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah will be judged and punished for their grievous sins (unspecified). Abraham tries to bargain with God, because his nephew Lot lives there, and he says, if there are fifty righteous people, or forty, or thirty, will you save the town? And God agrees to save the town even if there are only ten righteous people, but there aren’t even ten, so God tells Abraham that he will have to destroy the towns after all. But he sends his angels to warn Lot ahead of time, so he can save himself and his family.
The two angels, in disguise, then go to the main square in the town of Sodom, and Lot invites the strangers into his home, without knowing who they are, and serves them a meal. The men of Sodom then surround Lot’s house and tell Lot to bring the two strangers outside so they can know them (to “know” is sometimes a euphemism for sex in the Hebrew Bible). Lot refuses to hand over his guests and instead offers up his two virgin daughters to the crowd. The men of Sodomrefuse his offer and try to break down Lot’s door.
The angels then blind the men of Sodom and tell Lot about their mission to destroy the city. They command Lot to gather his family and leave, and not to look back. And then the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed with fire and brimstone, and Lot’s wife looks back at the destruction and becomes a pillar of salt (I could do a whole essay on Lot’s wife, and how looking back at what you’ve lost is natural and not a crime, but I’ll save that for another time).
Israelite prophets, in later books of the Hebrew Bible, named the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as adultery, pridefulness, and un-charitable behavior. Many Rabbinic commentators have focused mostly on the lack of hospitality to the stranger as the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, hospitality being the one Mitzvah (commandment) that Lot performs in the story, by inviting the strangers into his home.
The habit of blaming homosexuality for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is much more recent. No Jewish literature, until the writings of Philo in the first century of the Common Era, actually mentioned same-sex behavior as a possible cause for the destruction of the towns. And the term Sodomy wasn’t coined until the 11th century of the Common Era, and even then it was widely used to refer to all non-procreative sexual acts (including heterosexual acts) rather than specifically to same sex relationships.
There is a strikingly similar story to Sodom and Gomorrah in chapter 19 of the book of Judges. An unnamed man from the tribe of Levi is traveling with his concubine and his servant. He arrives in the town of Gibeah and plans to spend the night in the town square. A local man, from the tribe of Ephraim and therefore not a native of the town (like Lot wasn’t a native of Sodom), offers the Levite and his concubine and his servant shelter in his home. Soon the men of the city surround the house and demand that the owner send out the Levite “so that we may know him.” The owner, like Lot, offers up his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead, and the crowd rejects the offer, just like the men of Sodom did. Except, in this version there are no angels to intervene, and to save himself the Levite forces his concubine out the door, and the men of Gibeah rape her to death. There is no response from God, no fire and brimstone, instead the Levite carries his dead concubine home and cuts her corpse into twelve pieces, sending one piece to each of the twelve tribes, showing them the results of their baseless hatred of strangers.
It’s a brutal way to send such a message, and the Levite doesn’t seem like the best messenger, since he offered up his concubine to save his own life, but the message in this version of the story is clear: If you don’t wise up and learn how to treat the strangers in your midst, destruction will come to you. If only because, at some point in your life, you yourself will be the stranger.
The mitzvah of hospitality to strangers was very important in the ancient Middle East, where traveling on arid land was a life or death venture. The conventions of hospitality were created to protect both the traveler, who would die without food and water, and the host, who could easily be killed by a traveler in need. These were basic codes of behavior that were meant to keep everyone safe, so when the Sodomites tried to attack the two men in Lot’s house simply for being strangers, it threatened the moral code of the area, and the safety of everyone.
Sodom and Gomorrah feels like a lesson we keep having to learn, and a lesson we keep choosing to learn incorrectly. If you recognize rape as a weapon, rather than as a variety of sexual behavior (heterosexual or homosexual), then you can see Sodom and Gomorrah for what it is: a story about how selfishness, and violence, and baseless hatred of the stranger ultimately leads to the destruction of the people who commit these sins. The punishment doesn’t have to come from an outside force, like God, because it is already an inevitable result of making enemies out of everyone around you. If you send your daughters out to be raped by a crowd, they will die, or they will come back to you full of rage; either way you have destroyed the future of your family. If you treat strangers as enemies and abuse them, you will not receive any help from future strangers; in fact, they may strike out at you first, to protect themselves, knowing your reputation.
If we read Sodom and Gomorrah through the lens of its sister story, the evil here, the “sodomy,” is clearly the baseless hatred of people who are not like us, and has nothing in particular to do with homosexuality. At some point the story was turned inside out, but that doesn’t have to be the last word. We can re-read the story and turn it right side out again to see the power of hospitality and welcoming the stranger to save all of our lives.
By the way, when I taught my students about the banishing of Ishmael from his home, after the birth of his half-brother Isaac, they said that Ishmael should have been allowed to stay so that he and Isaac could have grown up together. And if Ishmael had been able to stay, then the descendants of Ishmael (commonly seen as today’s Arabs) and the descendants of Isaac (the Jews) would have been one family, one people. We are so quick to see each other as strangers, imagining that our differences are unbridgeable oceans, but maybe we are all half-brothers and sisters, feuding over our birthrights and our parents’ love, fighting over resources that don’t have to be scarce if we can heal the wounds of the past. Maybe, if we re-read our own stories, we can find a way forward that makes all of us safer and better off.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?