One of the biblical stories from which the modern-day religious right draws the most inspiration is the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The religious right has assumed that the sin for which they merited this fate was rampant homosexuality, to the point that "sodomite" has become a derogatory synonym for homosexuals. (Consider the Jack Chick tract "Doom Town", which contains a variety of grossly offensive antigay caricatures.)
However, there is some evidence that this is jumping to conclusions. The book of Genesis simply says that God had resolved to destroy Sodom (and its sister city Gomorrah) because its sin was "very grievous" (Genesis 18:20) and its people were "wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly" (13:13). It does not, however, specify the nature of this sin.
The episode in this story from which conservatives draw this inference is in Genesis 19. When two angels come to Lot's house in Sodom to warn him of the impending destruction, the men of Sodom surround the house and demand that he "bring them out unto us, that we may know them" (19:5), using a biblical euphemism for sexual intercourse.
Readers should notice, though, that this could not have been the sin for which God was determined to destroy Sodom, because he had already made that decision before this ever happened. The angels were coming to warn Lot to flee the city. And furthermore, could it not be argued that the sin in this was the intent to rape, rather than homosexuality?
In any case, this speculation is not necessary. The book of Genesis never explicitly says what sin Sodom committed, but another book in the Old Testament does. And, as readers might guess, what it says is something very different from what the religious right believes:
Now 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.
--Ezekiel 16:49 (NIV translation, emphasis added)
In light of this clear statement, it is surprising that "sodomy" has become so universally identified with homosexuality. Even the author of the New Testament epistle of Jude fell victim to this misunderstanding when he identified Sodom's crime as "fornication" (1:7), a statement completely unsupported by any other scripture. It is completely ad hoc and unreasonable to believe that homosexuality was Sodom's capital sin and the one for which God decided to destroy the city, and yet it was completely omitted by a verse that states it was listing Sodom's transgressions. This little-known verse is an example of how presupposition and prejudice, rather than evidence, has shaped the tradition of biblical interpretation among conservatives.
There is a valuable lesson here about what is most important. Homosexuals in stable, committed, loving relationships are not sodomites, not even according to the Bible. Instead, the wealthy and arrogant televangelists and preachers of the religious right - the people who are haughty and proud, who have much wealth and influence but hoard it selfishly rather than using it to advance the cause of happiness for all people everywhere - are the true Sodomites, and should be described as such. I do not agree with much that is in the Bible, but this is a conclusion I can stand squarely behind.
Other posts in this series: