by Ellen Sims
Today’s reading has been used to argue that homosexuality is a sin–even though the “sin” of Sodom obviously has nothing to do with same-gender love. The story from which the legal term sodomy was derived has nothing to do with a consensual act between adults–since this story describes attempted gang rape by ALL the men in a city, as if ALL the men of Sodom (“to the last man” v. 4) would have been gay, to use a modern term. This narrative is rooted in an ancient practice some conquering armies used to degrade the vanquished enemy by symbolically putting defeated soldiers in the position of women. After all, what could be more humiliating than to be in the position of a woman? The men of Sodom are depicted as violent and lawless–but not gay. Several vague references in other parts of the Bible allude to the “sin of Sodom” as indifference to the poor or the outsider, and in only one place does the “sin of Sodom” mean a general category of sexual sin. Later readers ripped this story from the context of the previous chapter (Genesis 18) about welcoming strangers and twisted it to justify the opposite of the biblical injunction to offer hospitality to those on the outside, to those who are Other.
But as part of our series on “The Women of Genesis,” our focus today is on the women in a story in which the women are “othered” more than the other “others”–the guests of Lot. The unnamed women are known to us only by their connection to Lot. “Lot’s wife” is turned into a pillar of salt for taking one last look at her hometown, and “Lot’s daughters,” the nameless Thing 1 and Thing 2, learn how little they are valued the hard way. They narrowly escape the two worst possible fates that could come to women in that culture: rape and barrenness. After all, women were valued for their sexuality and reproductivity.
Recall that all the men of Sodom demanded that Lot give the two male strangers/angels he’s harboring to the men of Sodom “so that they may ‘know’ them.” The Hebrew word translated here as “know” can have a sexual connotation. In fact, when Lot responds that his two daughters have not “known” a man, he is attesting to their virginity. Clearly, the men of the city have become a mob threatening Lot’s two houseguests. Lot is so faithful to the code of hospitality to the stranger that he offers his virginal daughters instead, the only solution this unimaginative man can think of to save the two angelic guests. Some commentators see this exaggerated solution as merely a literary device to underscore the utmost requirement of hospitality to strangers. Even so, the point is at the expense of these young women—-and Women generally. No thanks to the father, the women escape gang rape and likely death, and the angels warn the family to flee Sodom before it’s decimated. But afterward, the women remain in a precarious state because their fiancés were killed in the fire and brimstone and their father becomes a recluse living in a cave, so they have no hope of marrying and bearing children — the only sanctioned roles for women.
The next part of the story may not have made its way into any sermon you’ve ever heard, but here’s what happened next. Daughters 1 and 2 get Daddy drunk in order to get impregnated — with nary a negative comment from the narrator except to explain that the resulting sons became the ancestors of two neighboring tribes the Israelites tussle with for generations: the nearby Moabites and Ammonites. This part of the story sounds like a genre of literature called an etiological story. Its purpose is to explain the origin of a name or a natural phenomenon: like a distinctive salt formation or a sulfur deposit in an area, or an ongoing rivalry between neighboring tribes who sort resemble one another.
But how in the world do we theologize about Sodom’s destruction and its effect — especially from a feminist point of view? Maybe we just cede the point that the story is so rooted in patriarchy it’s not retrievable or applicable for women. Therefore, we could decide to omit this text from our informal “canon.” In practice, most Christians do avoid the story of Lot’s daughters’ impregnation. Or we could use it to expose the harm such a story does to women through its internal contradiction. That is, it both sympathizes with the Other (the strangers Lot harbors) while also, ironically, unconsciously, “othering” the other Other: the women. Remarkably, the narrator does NOT condemn the daughters’ trickery in getting pregnant, their only hope of a future. In fact, throughout Genesis the underdog MUST use trickery to exact justice and gain some small degree of power.
So should feminists sigh and use Lot’s daughters to exclaim, “This is how women are treated!” and decry what the story reveals?
I suggest we are authorized to at least IMAGINE the women’s perspective in this story, imagine why the Bible, written and compiled by men, needs us to engage it and recognize that the female perspective that Jesus sought out is often missing.
From this story let us now reflect on two related questions: How might this story open us to exploring what are “sins” of the desperate?
And what are the virtues of the secure and elite? In every culture there are some sins that are easy for the elite to avoid—-and there are virtues that are easy for the elite to achieve.
Mothering God, you love all your children, the runaways and the righteous, those who are too ashamed to stand before you and those too smug to see a need for you. Still, you love. Still, you offer your very body to us. Prepare us now to receive what you offer us at your table. Amen.