by John Corvino
Though it may sound perverse, I get excited whenever religious fundamentalists speak up during the Q&A portion of my public events. While fundamentalists are hardly a dying breed, they seldom participate in such functions. And though I find their silence generally pleasing, it does rob me of what we college professors like to call “teaching moments.”
So I was pleased when, at a debate in St. Louis last week, an audience member concluded an anti-gay tirade with, “Haven’t you ever heard of the Sodom and Gomorrah story?!”
You see, I had actually read the Sodom and Gomorrah story the evening before – out loud, to a Detroit audience. If you’ve never actually read the story, find a bible and read Genesis 19 (it’s near the beginning). You may be in for a surprise.
A quick summary: two angels come to Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham’s nephew Lot invites them into his home. An angry mob surrounds the door and demands, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot protests, offering them his virgin daughters instead. (Yes, you read that right.) But the mob keeps pressing for the visiting angels, who suddenly strike them blind. The angels then lead Lot and his family to safety, and the Lord rains fire and brimstone on the cities.
Most scholars take the mob’s demand to “know” the visitors in a sexual (i.e. “biblical”) sense. Assuming they’re right, this oft-cited story is about an attempted gang rape. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that gang rape is BAD. But what does that have to do with homosexuality?
At this point fundamentalists will point to the fact that the mob declined Lot’s offer of his daughters, instead demanding the (male) visitors. “Aha,” they say. This proves that the story is about homosexuality!”
I always find this response surprising, since Lot’s offer of his daughters is an embarrassing detail of the text – for fundamentalists. Lot is supposed to be the hero of the story, renowned for his virtue. When faced with a mob of angry rapists, what does he do? Why, he does what any upstanding man would do. He offers them his virgin daughters. If you ever want an example of the bible portraying women as expendable property, you need look no further than the Sodom and Gomorrah story.
Some biblical scholars have suggested that the true sin of Sodom is inhospitality. Inhospitality? Failing to offer visitors a drink, after they’ve traveled a long way to see you, is inhospitality. Trying to gang rape them is quite another matter. (And let’s not forget about offering them your daughters, which apparently is biblical good form.)
Lest you think Lot’s offer is a quirk, a strikingly similar story occurs at Judges 19. In this story, an angry mob demands to “know” visitors, and the host offers both his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine. As in the Sodom story, the mob declines the women and keeps pressing for the visitor. This time, however, the guest tosses his concubine outside and closes the door. (Again, he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.) The mob violently rapes her until morning, when she finally collapses dead.
The lessons to be drawn here are several. First, most people who cite the bible against homosexuality have little idea of what it says. Either that, or they have a rather strange moral sense. A story where the bad guys attempt gang rape and the good guys offer them their daughters is supposed to teach us what, exactly?
Second, the bible contains some pretty wacky stuff. This isn’t news to those who study it carefully, but it does surprise the casual reader. For example, later in Genesis 19 Lot’s daughters get him drunk, have sex with him, and bear his children/grandchildren, without eliciting the slightest objection from the brimstone-wielding God.
After I explained all of this to my questioner in St. Louis, my debate opponent (Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family) interjected that the bible contains more salient references to homosexuality than the Sodom story. This is undoubtedly true, but it misses the point. The point is that the bible reflects the moral prejudices and limitations of those who wrote and assembled it. Genesis 19 makes that abundantly clear (as do passages regarding slavery, and numerous others).
Once you grant that point, you can’t settle moral claims merely by appealing to the fact that “the bible says so.” The bible says lots of things–some true, some false, and some downright bizarre.
So when fundamentalists quote the bible at my events, I don’t try to silence them. On the contrary, I ask them to continue reading.