Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sodom and Gibeah: A Tale of Two Cities

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. (Matthew 10:14-15)

Body of Work

When coming attractions of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading (2008) hit theaters, I couldn’t wait for it to open. Primed by the preview for a maniacally funny political farce, I stumbled out of the picture in a daze. The clips shrewdly strung together to market the film turned up in its subplot, yet the primary story involved a woman’s desperation to get a face-lift. With not a glimpse of this in the preview, I left the picture uncertain about what the Coens wanted me to see and what they meant to say. Being a veteran film student, I fell back on a discipline I learned long ago: auteurism, which holds a filmmaker’s body of work reveals perennial themes that surface in every film. The most reliable means of understanding Burn After Reading’s moral would entail comparing it with other Coen films: Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou? etc. There it was, plain as day: vain ambition turns nice people into morons.

Oddly enough, the auteur theory also works remarkably well in identifying the morals of deceptively marketed Biblical texts. Approaching Scripture as a “body of work” is fundamental to our belief it’s the divinely inspired medium through which God speaks to us. Recurrent themes, perspectives, and motifs become prominent fixtures. While we may note variations in style and tone, the voice and message we hear are astonishingly consistent. Thus, when texts leave us befuddled, rather than project onto them or read into them what we want to see and hear, we’re wise to survey the entire body of work. If our skew doesn’t square with Scripture’s portrayal of God’s nature and message, we’re confused.

More Far-Reaching and Disturbing

If the God of Scripture doesn’t suit our agenda, we may splice together previews that prime others to view tales and texts our way. The most egregious example of this, hands down, is the account of Sodom’s destruction. The coming attractions promise a lurid tale of perversion—which figures into the story (though not as advertised)—with not a glimpse of the primary story line. Those unfamiliar with Scripture’s recurrent themes, perspectives, and motifs are apt to leave the story seeing only what they’re told to find. But the sensational gays-gone-wild promos don’t fool believers sufficiently versed in Biblical imperatives. They know what the story’s really about long before the posse pounds on Lot’s door, demanding he release his angelic houseguests into its mean hands. They’ve already connected it to a nearly identical episode in Judges 19, what God says about Sodom in Isaiah and Ezekiel, and how Jesus characterizes the city. And (surprise!) these texts define Sodom’s sin as more far-reaching and disturbing than same-sex attraction. In fact, not one scriptural reference to Sodom explicitly mentions homosexuality; those alluding to the city’s depravity describe it as “perversion” vis-à-vis the posse’s violent intentions to wield sex as a weapon.

The astute Bible reader easily recognizes what we see in Sodom is no different than what we see in Abu Ghraib and observe in prisons: intent to commit dehumanizing gang rape that defies orientation and gender. The previews may prime us for oversexed gay men prowling for fresh flesh. But the story isn’t about sexual gratification, gay or straight. It’s about extreme violence fueled by paranoid fear of strangers. How can we assert this with any degree of certainty? Judges 19’s story of the Levite’s concubine replicates Sodom’s circumstances and reveals exactly what the hostile crowd had in mind for Lot’s visitors. Then God and Jesus explain what Sodom means.

Lasting Harm

Scripture at large detests hostility toward strangers (passive or aggressive) as gross sin. We note this consistently in Old Testament texts and Jesus’s teaching. That’s the moral crisis portrayed in the stories of Sodom and Gibeah, a village in Judges that carries out Sodom’s intentions to their gruesome extreme. For brevity’s sake, we’ll stick to the key events. Yet I urge reading the two texts (Genesis 19; Judges 19) in tandem to discover their many eerie similarities. A Levite travels home after visiting his concubine’s father. Seeking a place where he, she, and a servant can stay the night, he follows the custom of his day. They enter Gibeah and sit in the village square, waiting for someone to offer them shelter. But they’re ignored—a bad omen, especially since he’s a Levite, a born priest. Finally, a local takes them in. Wicked men surround the house, shouting, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.” (v22) The owner pleads, “Don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing.” (v23) As Lot does, the host offers them his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine; like the men of Sodom, the Gibeah posse has no use for the women. (True to their time, they regard women as replaceable property.) The men seek to do lasting harm to the Levite’s person. The two cities’ tales diverge due to the nature of the guests. Lot’s visitors are angels; they blind the men of Sodom and the city is razed. No such supernatural intervention occurs in Gibeah.

The Levite surrenders his concubine. Judges 19.25-26: “They raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.” The Levite finds her corpse clutching the threshold. Enraged, no doubt stricken with guilty regret, he dismembers her body into 12 pieces, sending one to every tribe in Israel. The national outcry indicates the horror of Gibeah’s sin: “Just imagine! We must do something! So speak up!” (v30)

The men of Gibeah carry out what would have transpired in Sodom had Lot’s guests been mortal. They violently act out their fear of people whom they believe threaten their security and way of life. Their hostility is primal, embedded in human fight-or-flight response to fear. Like all rapes, it employs sexual aggression to express perverse desire to dominate another, physically and psychologically. Sodom and Gibeah are all about leveraging power—not pandering to libido. Both brutally violate God’s command to welcome strangers and treat them respectfully and compassionately. (As Jesus defines it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”) Israel’s reaction to the Gibeah atrocity says it all. It’s unthinkable, intolerable, and must be dealt with.

Sodom’s Lesson

How is it, then, that Sodom (and its ally, Gomorrah) gets all the attention—in Scripture and pop culture—while Gibeah goes missing? We answer that with a modern parallel. Why do we talk about 9/11, yet seldom mention the 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Both sprang from identical motives. Both cost innocent lives. But 9/11’s epic destruction eclipses 1993’s collateral damage. If we told both stories in tandem, the villainy of a tiny terrorist cell would be so obvious vilification of Muslims we've witnessed since 9/11 would be utter nonsense. Nine-eleven, 1993, Oklahoma City, and other terrorist attacks would be seen for what they are: mass violence perpetrated by wicked lunatics. Like 9/11, Sodom’s spectacular demise makes better copy. Unfortunately, also like 9/11, ignoring Gibeah invites homophobic believers to cast a wide net demonizing an entire community rather than dealing with the real lesson Sodom teaches. Exploiting the tale to excuse LGBT prejudice and exclusion merely proves how woefully they abuse the text. For are they not perverting Scripture to promote the very sin that destroyed Sodom?

The true nature of Sodom’s lesson cannot be questioned because Scripture authoritatively seals it from alternative readings. In Ezekiel 16.49, God declares, “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” In Isaiah 1, God scandalizes Israel’s disobedience by calling its people “rulers of Sodom” (v10), reviling their hollow piety and unequivocally demanding they repent: “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (v16-17) Jesus confirms this message in Matthew 10.14-15, when He tells the disciples to leave any home or town where they’re not welcomed and “shake the dust off your feet.” (In Luke 10.10-11, He instructs them to “go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you.’”) The warning: “Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” The Gibeah parallel notwithstanding, these texts clearly define Sodom’s sin and its consequences.

To hijack the narrative as rationale for LGBT condemnation and exclusion not only replicates Sodom’s wickedness, it brazenly contradicts what God and Jesus say about it in no uncertain terms. There is no Scriptural basis for this reading. Instead of being troubled by people who’ve been seduced by this wickedly naïve distortion of Scripture, we pray God opens their eyes and speaks to their hearts. Whether or not they realize it, they’ve got extremely urgent, spiritually crucial, and intensely personal conflicts with God and God’s Word they must resolve. They need our compassion and prayers.

To interpret the Sodom story as a gays-gone-wild tale is to misread it entirely—and to disregard all that Scripture, God, and Jesus say about it.

Postscript: Facts to Know

As we test the contextual and theological legitimacy of anti-LGBT clobber texts, there are a few enlightening facts to know about homosexuality and Scripture:

  • No words or phrases that strictly translate as “heterosexual,” “lesbian,” or “homosexual” appear in Scripture. None exists in ancient Hebrew and Greek, as “straight” and “gay” categories didn’t exist in pre-modern cultures. The terms—and identification of people by sexual preference—are recent phenomena, having been coined and instituted by 19th-century psychologists.
  • The number of scriptures that mention same-gender sex (which is not the same as same-sex orientation) totals 15. Those calling for compassion, justice, equality, and hospitality exceed 3,000.
  • No unified sex ethic exists in Scripture, let alone one that sanctions heterosexual orientation to the exclusion of all others.
  • Dozens of sexual practices ordered by Biblical edict are now universally banned in Christian circles, outlawed in most nations, and socially regarded as dangerous taboos. (We’ll review several of them in an upcoming postscript.)


Philomena Ewing said...

Brilliant Tim.

Tim said...

Thanks, Phil! I owe the lion's share of credit for the post's content to my pastor and fellow members of our Bible class. So much light comes to these texts when you're able to discuss it with diligent, level-headed folks!

Blessings and much love,

Sherry Peyton said...

Tim, I think the good news is that S & G is seldom mentioned by the right in their condemnation of homosexuality based on biblical interpretation. Even they pretty much concede that this was a crime of rape and of lack of hospitality, something essential in a desert environment, where failure to take in the stranger could be a death sentence. Your writing is exquisite and lovely. I so love this series. It's pastoral gentleness is highly persuasive, more to that the equally persuasive (to me) but more pedestrian "scholars" argument. Beautiful job!

Tim said...

Sherry, I agree the "S&G defense" (or should I say offense?) has largely fallen by the wayside. Yet as the parent of all the impish children gay-fearful believers summon to their bidding, it seems the best place to start dismantling this "clobber family's" legitimacy. What strikes me most soundly about this text is that if God wanted or needed to call out same-sex practices as arbitrarily evil, Sodom and Gibeah would have been the place to do it. That both stories emphasize the violence and inhospitality sets the course for all that follows.

Thank you for your terrific summary of hospitality imperative in desert cultures. The whole while I was working on this, the need to explain that was hovering overhead, but I couldn't tack it down. (I wish I'd saved three wasted paragraphs that tried to say what you've captured in one sentence; I'd pass them your way for laughs.)

Your compliments flatter me, but as I said to Phil, much of what's here is passed along. The spirit and attitude of these posts reflect that of the fine people I'm blessed to fellowship with (not only at church, but here as well).

I trust you're staying dry and warm during this latest cool blast across the prairies!