Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Good versus Bad Relationships in the Scriptures: The True Message of Sodom & Gomorrah

The story of Sodom & Gomorrah is an exploration of what makes a good relationship versus what makes a bad one.

Some Clarifications

First, the Old Testament (I am using Christian terminology) is a mix of documents. When the first ancient scholars pulled these documents together, they knew exactly what they were doing. The narratives themselves may be incomplete in places and sometimes even contradict each other but the order/presentation of them is no mistake.

Genesis Chapter 18 and Genesis Chapter 19 are set next to each other for a reason.

Second, the story of Sodom has absolutely nothing to do with sexual orientation. That is a later interpretation which does not make sense in the context of ancient societies. Sodom is a dangerous city (think Gotham City), so dangerous that staying out at night in the town square is ill-advised. Sex is about rape, dominance. Sex between men would have exactly the same connotation as it did in many (not all) ancient societies. And the same connotation that it often has in modern-day prisons.

Think of Sodom as a brutal prison with no guards or deeply corrupt ones.

The story of Sodom (Chapter 19) is set in direct contrast to Chapter 18, the visit by the Heavenly Visitors to Abraham. The two chapters cannot be separated.

Basically, this is a narrative of contrasts: Abraham versus Lot. Unfortunately, once again, Lot comes out looking fairly shabby.

1. What do both Abraham and Lot do when they met the Visitors?

They both offer sanctuary and food. So far, so good.

2. What do the brothers bargain for? 

Lot bargains to go to a nearby city, Zoar.

The guy lives in an extremely dangerous urban environment, which is about to be blasted to literal kingdom come. And he wants to hang around the area for his own convenience.

Abraham bargains for lives.

4. What happens to the wives? Why the difference?

In the family's scramble to leave Sodom, Lot's wife looks back and turns to salt. Again, it is necessary to look at the narrative in context. A modern audience might feel a little bad that Lot's wife was punished (or suffered the outcome of a natural disaster) simply because she was curious.

But in ancient literature, looking back carries a stronger motive of distrust (as opposed to re-examination). Consider the Greek myth of Orpheus & Eurydice--he doesn't trust she is behind him and looks back at the final moment. Eurydice retreats into the Underworld (in the Cynthia Voigt book Orfe, the roles are reversed).

What or whom doesn't Lot's wife trust? If you were Lot's wife, would you trust Lot?

On the other hand, Sarah laughs at a Visitor's statement that she will bear a son. She is questioned for her laughter but not punished. Her laugh is natural, normal, even kinda cute. This is a pleasant, civilized party. Why would anybody get punished?

5. Do Isaac and Ishmael ever demonstrate any rage, disrespect, or direct disobedience against Abraham? 

Isaac & Ishmael come together
to bury Abraham.

Lot's daughters get their father drunk and sleep with him in order to get pregnant.

The Lesson

The Bible editors did not make a mistake. The contrasts between Abraham and Lot are deliberate and not hard to spot. The overall message is clear and rather remarkable:
A good relationship--including a good relationship with deity--involves questions, compromise, kindliness, hospitality, and consent.
Abraham is encouraged to ask questions. He bravely pursues certain issues. He asks for help. He thinks about others.

Lot asks few questions. He tries to bully the Visitors. He never asks for help for others, not even for his daughters. He bargains for his own convenience.

I personally find it fascinating that the idea of consent, discussion, and agreement to terms would be so old--and would include not just other people (spouse, parent, child) but the relationship between humanity & God as well.