THE STORY OF SODOM and Gomorrah will be familiar to you, if only because you have been exposed to the horror story version or the sexualized version in some movie or TV show. You may also know the Bible Version in Genesis 18 and 19. Americans (religious or not) are prone to taking brief passages of the Scripture to make their point and ignoring what comes first and follows after. It is, however, the context that makes the story – not the meaning we add to it.
And the Lord appeared to him in the vale of Mambre as he was sitting at the door of his tent, in the very heat of the day. And when he had lifted up his eyes, there appeared to him three men standing near to him: and as soon as he saw them, he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and adored down to the ground. And he said: Lord, if I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away from thy servant. But I will fetch a little water, and wash ye your feet, and rest ye under the tree. And I will set a morsel of bread, and strengthen ye your heart, afterwards you shall pass on: for therefore are you come aside to your servant. And they said: Do as thou hast spoken. Abraham made haste into the tent to Sara, and said to her: Make haste, temper together three measures of flour, and make cakes upon the hearth. And he himself ran to the herd, and took from thence a calf, very tender and very good, and gave it to a young man, who made haste and boiled it. He took also butter and milk, and the calf which he had boiled, and set before them: but he stood by them under the tree.
This story of Hospitality is the prologue to the story Sodom. After a wonderful conversation where Sarah laughs at God, the three men get ready to go.
And when the men rose up from thence, they turned their eyes towards Sodom: and Abraham walked with them, bringing them on the way. And the Lord said: Can I hide from Abraham what I am about to do: Seeing he shall become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth shall be blessed? For I know that he will command his children, and his household after him, to keep the way of the Lord, and do judgment and justice: that for Abraham’s sake, the Lord may bring to effect all the things he hath spoken unto him. And the Lord said: The cry of Sodom and Gomorrha is multiplied, and their sin is become exceedingly grievous. I will go down and see whether they have done according to the cry that is come to me; or whether it be not so, that I may know.
Traditional and very conservative Jewish Biblical commentary is filled with many entirely non-sexual reasons for that cry that ascended to God: greed, abuse of slaves, injustice, pride; lack of care for the poor that was so extreme you could be punished for feeding the homeless – like in Fort Lauderdale and some twenty other locations in the USA.
The Midrash tells two tales of righteous women who dared extend a helping hand to beggars and were put to death:
Two maidens of Sodom met at the well, where they had both gone to drink and fill up their water jugs. One girl asked her friend, “Why is your face so pale?” Her friend answered, “We have nothing to eat at home, and are dying of starvation.” Her compassionate friend filled her own jug with flour, and exchanged it for her friend’s jug of water. When the Sodomites found out about her act, they burnt her to death.
A second tale:
It was announced in Sodom, “Whoever will give bread to a poor person will be burnt at the stake.”
Plotit, the daughter of Lot, who was married to a prominent Sodomite, once saw a poor man who was so hungry that he was unable to stand. She felt sorry for him. From then on, she made sure to pass him every day on her way to the well, and she would feed him some food that she had stashed in her water jug.
People wondered how the man managed to live. Upon investigation, they discovered her act and prepared to burn her. Before she died, she turned to G-d and cried, “Master of the world, carry out justice on my behalf!” Her cries pierced the heavens, and at that moment G-d said, “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached Me.”
Moderns with a more liberal political agenda like to make much of such stories and say Sodom was destroyed for violations of the Desert Code of Hospitality. This is truth! The Synagogue lays the Hospitality of Abraham for the three angels specifically in sharp contrast to the lack of hospitality in Sodom. These texts are read every year together on the same Sabbath. We can learn much by meditating on how Abraham (and, later, Lot) treats the Three Strangers, who happen to be the Holy Trinity in Christian typology and iconography, as compared to how all others in Sodom treat the same Three Strangers.
This understanding is good and true as far as it goes but, of course, words matter: when we moderns hear “hospitality” we do not hear “matter of life and death in the desert” but rather “Grandma was always a gracious hostess” or something about Waffle House, and a number of Yelp stars. No matter how many times it might be explained, the divine obligation of care for the stranger (regardless of culture or divinity) is totally lost as a social responsibility in today’s culture. In rejecting Syrian refugees, or Latin American children, America becomes another Sodom. Such hospitality, in the better places (not Fort Lauderdale), is relegated as an obligation to the state and forgotten by individuals and, God help us, even by Churches. In the worst places, like Sodom and Fort Lauderdale, it is outlawed all together. Even Churches in Fort Sodomdale fail to protest.
Words matter on the other side of the equation too: and the sexual content is not entirely missing from the traditional Jewish reading. Conservatives hear “this is about hospitality” and rightly think that liberals are trying to turn the Church into a secular Denny’s: open for all comers regardless of moral comportment after conversion. Certainly, though, “hospitality” should include not wanting to have your guests raped by strangers or by one’s bar buddies.
When the cities were destroyed, God led Lot and his family out of the way of harm. Yet while they were fleeing, Lot’s wife turned around to look back and she was turned into a pillar of salt. Scripture never relates a new marriage and so Lot, returning to his people as a widower became, to create a title for him, a Celibate Ex-Sodomite. It is this title that will carry us through these meditations: What is a Celibate Ex-Sodomite?
As an American, I’m used to hyphens. Nearly everyone is hyphenated: Irish-Americans, African-Americans, Carpatho-Russyn-Americans, whatever: there are hyphens everywhere. When they left their home and moved elsewhere, did Lot’s family become Sodo-Somethingites? When Lot and the kids (minus the Missus, remember) showed up at Abraham’s tent after the destruction of Sodom and all the plain, did they identify themselves as former or ex-Sodomites? Or did they just try to blend in, becoming Abrahamites and good citizens of whatever country they found? Much of the rest of the world does not share our American fascination with hyphens. Members of another culture may move to a new country and yet mentally stay whatever they were when they left. Certainly, many aboriginal people want no part of the invading culture: no hyphens, thank you. They have our own name for invaders – for you and me. The idea of a sort of portable identity you plug into a new thing like a USB drive is not quite so common outside of the USA. I’m betting it would have been even less portable if your city had been destroyed by an act of God.
If you live in a wealthy city, in a prideful city, in a city known not only for her wealth but also her excess, greed and arrogance, what do people think of you? Pay attention to how many times San Francisco gets destroyed in movies. In a way Sodom was worse than the Fort Lauderdale of its day: it was the Rome of its day, the New York of its day; the source of the American Tourist scourge of its day. If you showed up and people found you were from Sodom, how would they have treated you? If you were a stranger traveling from a city known internationally for its lack of care for strangers, would you have dared to say, “Hi, I’m a Sodomite”? Lot and the kids would have discarded this now-terrifying identity as quickly as they could. Some fond memories (and some horrifying ones, I’m sure), may be more than a little educational – even told as fascinating stories – but, “that’s not who we are, any more.”
There are three more parts to this essay, so I will wrap up here, with the basic point made: after Sodom was destroyed for lack of hospitality, for greed, for driving consumption that included sex, I doubt Lot and the kids would have claimed to be from there any more.