Why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed?

What if it wasn’t for that reason?

Recently, in my personal Bible reading, I came across this famous Bible story in the Old Testament book of Genesis. The quick summary is this: Abraham’s nephew Lot finds himself and his family in the city of Sodom. One day, a couple of (male) angels arrive in Sodom, and Lot insists that they stay overnight in his house. That evening, the men of Sodom demand that Lot surrender these two angels so they can have sex with them; Lot offers his two daughters to the crowd instead.

(Let’s just pause right there. Why do we condemn the men of Sodom for their attempt to rape the angels, but we don’t condemn Lot for offering his two daughters to experience that same abuse?)

The angels then cause the crowd to go blind, Lot and his family escape, the angels disappear, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone (what did the people of Gomorrah do?), Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt, and Lot ends up sleeping with and impregnating his own two daughters. Thus ends the biblical account of Lot. (Read all about it in Genesis 19.)

What is going on here? Why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed?

The popular answer in modern-day Christianity is because the men of Sodom practiced homosexuality. In fact, that’s a fairly historical answer, too; the English word “sodomy” takes it meaning from this biblical story.

But what if it happened for another reason? Can we separate the story of Sodom from the highly-charged, emotional, political, religious issue of homosexuality? Let’s try.

What do we know about Sodom from the Bible? (This a more interesting question than asking about Gomorrah, because scripture always pairs Gomorrah with Sodom, but not vice versa.)

  • Sodom is first mentioned in Genesis 10:19 as a border city in the ancient land of Canaan. (Review the sketchy beginnings of the Canaanites, descendants of Ham the son of Noah, in Genesis 9:18-29.)
  • Sodom then shows up a few times in Genesis 13. In verse 10, it’s mentioned parenthetically as a town that God will eventually destroy. This is important: the Bible is aware of Sodom’s fate from the outset.
  • But Genesis 13:10-13 is all about Abraham’s nephew Lot, who chooses a parcel of land for his family. He settles near Sodom, which is populated with wicked men who were sinning greatly against the Lord – but for undisclosed reasons.
  • Then in Genesis 14, the king of Sodom goes to war with several other kings and against several other kings. It’s all very messy and bloody, but Sodom loses the battle, and Lot and his family are carried off into captivity. Abraham quickly rescues his relatives.
  • The king of Sodom then has a unique meeting with Abraham himself in Genesis 14:17-24. In the middle of this meeting, quite unannounced and unexpectedly, Abraham has a powerful encounter with Melchizedek, priest of God Most High. This story forms the basis for our understanding of the tithe.
  • Things settle down for Sodom until Genesis 18. In this chapter, God promises descendants to Abraham and Sarah, who are old and childless at the moment. After this promise, God mentions to Abraham that he’s going to destroy Sodom because of its wickedness (again unspecified). Abraham bargains with God: if God can find ten righteous people in Sodom, he will not destroy it.
  • Then Genesis 19 happens, and Sodom is destroyed, but Lot and his daughters are saved.

So why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed? I think the answer lies in the goal that the book of Genesis is trying to achieve: Genesis is all about explaining how God blessed Abraham and his descendants and made them into powerful nations. And God’s promise to Abraham is that God will bless all nations through him (Genesis 12:1-3).

The reason Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed is that they got in the way of God’s plan to bless the nations.

Take another look at Genesis 19, specifically verses 9 and 10. The nighttime conflict between the men of Sodom and the two angels ends when the men threaten Lot, not the angels and not his daughters. Lot is rescued by the angels. Lot survives the destruction of Sodom. Lot continues his family line through his two daughters (sketchy as that is). Lot becomes the ancestor of two of Israel’s ancient neighboring nations, Moab and Ammon.

Sodom is destroyed because God has plans for Lot, plans to bless him and to make a nation or two out of him. And let’s not forget the whole sweep of scripture: the entire Bible is about Jesus, whose human ancestry is traced (Luke 3 and Matthew 1) directly through a woman named Ruth, who is a Moabite, the great-grandmother of King David. No Lot means no Moab, which means no Ruth, which means no David, which means no Jesus.

I think the moral question of homosexuality – while still very important – is actually very far removed from what the Bible is trying to accomplish through the story of Sodom.

Just take a look at what the New Testament says about Sodom:

  • Jesus refers back to Sodom and Gomorrah as a way of pointing toward God’s future judgment of all people. And that final judgment has everything to do with how people respond to Jesus himself. (See Matthew 10:11-16, 11:20-24; Luke 10:1-16, 17:20-37.)
  • Romans 9:29 quotes Isaiah 1:9, which refers to Sodom and Gomorrah in a way that gives thanks for God’s provision for his people in the time of his judgment.
  • 2 Peter 2:4-10 mentions Sodom and Gomorrah in a passage that encourages Christians to endure trials in the present world.
  • Revelation 11:8 mentions Sodom in passing as John describes the greatest evil in the world.
  • The only verse in the New Testament that connects Sodom to some kind of immoral sexual practice is Jude, verse 7. But even then the passage is more about God’s final judgment than it is about moral codes of sexuality.

Please hear what I’m trying to say. I’m not advocating for free sexual practice among all people; I’m not saying that I approve of homosexual activity.

What I’m trying to say is that the story of ancient Sodom is more about God’s plan to save people through Jesus than it is about creating laws regarding sexual behaviors.

What if we learned to retell the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a story of how God protected his people, created nations, and carved a path in history for the future arrival of the Messiah?

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