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Was Sodom and Gomorrah Really About Homosexuality?

Mary Healy

Audio only:

The Bible has relatively few passages about homosexuality, and modern thinkers have found ways to explain some of them away. For example, is Genesis 19 really about homosexuality or is it really about a failure of hospitality? Dr. Mary Healy, a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, gives us a bracing Catholic answer.


Cy Kellett:                    Hello, and welcome to Focus the Catholic Answers podcast for Living, Understanding and Defending Your Catholic Faith. One very delicate area of Christian apologetics in our times is homosexuality. There’s a great deal of confusion about what exactly the Bible says. This is in part because the Bible has relatively few passages that deal directly with homosexuality, and those that it does have can be somewhat controversial. Among them, the Genesis 19 account of Lot’s visitors and the people of Sodom and the ultimate destruction of Sodom. What is all of that about? Well, in general and social media, you’ll see a kind of contestation about what that’s about. And we wanted to share one very respectable view from a respectable minister. This is Reverend Brandon Robertson telling us what Genesis 19 is really about.

Brandon Roberts…:       So this is wrong. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible were not destroyed because of homosexuality. In fact, the Bible tells us exactly why they were destroyed. Ezekiel 16:49 says, and I quote, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom. They were arrogant, over fed and unconcerned, and they did not help the poor and the needy.” According to the Bible, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, not because of homosexuality, but because they were inhospitable, they were selfish. They didn’t care for the orphan and the stranger. In fact, if you know the story, they were destroyed because a gang of men came to rape two angels when they appeared to Lot’s house. I find it really interesting that we Christians continually misinterpret stories that have a word that convicts us to be stories that convict those people that we’re afraid of. Christians are often inhospitable and unwelcoming to the stranger, but it’s far easier for us to make this story about homosexuals than to own up to that.

Cy Kellett:                    So, like I said, this is one very respectable position that is out there. We thought we’d ask a Catholic Bible scholar to help us through this passage and see, is Dr. Robertson, right, or is the more traditional view that this is actually a passage about homosexual rape, in fact, the case? So, which is the case? So we decided to get Dr. Mary Healy, and she’s been very kind to come and speak with us about this. She, of course, is professor of scripture at Sacred Heart major seminary in Detroit. She’s the bestselling author and speaker. And she does a great deal of work for Pontifical councils, including the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. And she was one of the first three women to serve on the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Dr. Mary Healy, thank you for being here with us today.

Mary Healy:                  You’re very welcome.

Cy Kellett:                    So when I listened to Reverend Robertson talk about that, it actually doesn’t sound terribly different from some of the things that the Pontifical Biblical Commission has said. Did you have the same sense?

Mary Healy:                  Well, it may seem like that at first glance, but actually there is a complete difference. This Reverend, he quotes from a passage in Ezekiel 16 as if to say this is the definitive word on what actually happened at Sodom and Gomorrah, but he conveniently left out the very next verse of what he quoted.

Cy Kellett:                    Yeah. I wondered about that.

Mary Healy:                  The very next verse in Ezekiel 16, Ezekiel 16:50 says they were haughty and did an abomination before me. And abomination is a word that’s used in Leviticus in the singular, as it is here, to refer to gravely immoral sexual acts, in particular, homosexual acts. So he seems to be, I hate to say deliberately quoting out of context, but it’s hard to miss the fact that he simply omitted the very next verse of the passage he quoted. So he seems to imply that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality, but really it’s a false dilemma. It’s not, was it inhospitality or was it homosexual behavior? Rather, it was both, and we see that in the Sodom story itself in Genesis, and then we see it in later references to it, as in Ezekiel.

Cy Kellett:                    I noticed, and I wonder if a non-Catholic would pick up on this in your language, you were careful to refer to homosexual behavior. So as a biblical scholar, as a Catholic biblical scholar, why do you say that and not just homosexuality? Why specifically say homosexual behavior?

Mary Healy:                  I’m glad you noticed that because it is a crucial distinction that too often is muddied. The distinction between our interior attractions and our exterior behavior, it’s an all important distinction, because the reality is we cannot completely control our attractions. We can’t completely control our emotional impulses. Now, we do have some control over it by the grace of Christ, but nevertheless, desires rise up in us that we did not choose. And therefore, they’re not sinful. Only what we deliberately choose by an act of the will can be sinful.

                                    So God clearly tells us in scripture not to commit homosexual acts, not to have sex with someone of the same sex. It’s crystal clear in the Old Testament and the New Testament. So to engage in those acts is contrary to the plan of God, it’s contrary to what God has designed the human being with for our flourishing. And it is something that whoever engages in those acts is called to repent of. However, if you have attractions, if you have attractions, you can pray that the Lord would bring all of your sexual inclinations into good order, but there’s nothing sinful about having a certain attraction rise up in you.

Cy Kellett:                    So the sense I’m getting then is that the biblical person or the person of that time would just simply not have thought about an identity being a fact, say a homosexual or heterosexual identity. So this is not about homosexual people, in other words. Am I getting you right there?

Mary Healy:                  Yes, absolutely. It’s been repeated so often in the last several decades, the idea that there are homosexual persons and heterosexual persons, as well as bisexual, transgender, et cetera, cetera, that we’ve come to simply take it for granted as true. But in reality, the very idea that a person is defined by their sexual attractions is a novel idea. It really began in the 20th century. It’s not something that any ancient culture would’ve recognized. And in fact, even the very idea that a person is defined by their sexual attractions or their sexual inclinations is contrary to the truth of who we are as men and women created in the image of God, defined by being created in his image as his beloved children. That’s where our identity comes from. Our identity cannot be based on our sexual inclinations, whatever they might be. That’s so shallow, right? So superficial.

Cy Kellett:                    Exactly. Right. Right. We’re always so much more than that than any particular aspect of ourselves. I was struck, and I want to get to this eventually, but I kind of want to, I really only have three questions for you about this, or three they come in a row. But I was struck that it does seem to me that in the letter of Saint Jude, we have a definitive Christian interpretation of this. I mean, it’s a definitive in the sense that it’s God’s word interpreting God’s word for us. But I thought I would ask you, here’s my three questions.

                                    I’ll give them to you in order. You take them in any order you want. But I thought maybe you could tell us about how are we supposed to, from the context of Genesis itself, understand this story? And then maybe from the context of the wider scripture, maybe including the letter of St. Jude, and then how should I look at it today? Because it doesn’t seem to me that everything that, and I think you didn’t get the sense either that the Reverend said was wrong. There’s a great deal in here about inhospitality. So could we take it in those three stages? Maybe start with, if I just look at Genesis, what does the story mean?

Mary Healy:                  Sure. Yeah, sure. Well, like every passage in the Bible, this passage about Sodom and Gomorrah can only be understood well if it’s read in context. What’s in the surrounding context? Well, right before this story, we have God’s visit to Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of Monterey. And here we have a picture portrayed through the last several chapters of a couple that is faithful to God and his plan. And here they are married, but they don’t have the joy of having a child. They’re infertile. And God visits them. And Abraham welcomes God with extraordinary hospitality and humility.

                                    So here we have a story of the ultimate virtue of hospitality. And it turns out it’s hospitality to God himself. It’s welcoming God. And what’s the outcome of the visit? God says, I’m going to come back next year and you’re going to have a son. So we see fidelity to God, hospitality toward God himself, and the result is blessing. And they do end up having their son, Isaac, who becomes one of the patriarchs of Israel and God multiplies the descendants of Abraham just like he promised. So this is a beautiful portrayal of living in accord with God’s plan for marriage and sexuality, that they ultimately, even through hardships and trials, they see God’s blessing.

Cy Kellett:                    Okay.

Mary Healy:                  Then right after that, you have the Sodom episode. And what happens there? Well, the same angels who visited Abraham through God represented by his angels visit Lot, his nephew, in Sodom. And you find the men of Sodom demanding that Lot bring the men outside so that they can know them, which means have sex with them. So here we see the counterpoint, we see the foil. We see a vicious inhospitality, not only to strangers, which in itself is bad enough that they would treat these strangers with sexual coercion, and ultimately they want to commit a violent gang rape. So it’s inhospitality to strangers in general, which is serious enough, but these strangers are representing God. So at a deeper level, it’s actually a rejection of God. And it’s also rejection of God’s design for sexuality. They want to simply indulge their sexual appetite and they want to do it even with coercion and violence, forcing themselves on others.

                                    So the contrast between what you see in Abraham and Sarah, and then what you see in the people of Sodom is it’s an enormous contrast. And what happens as a result? Well, God destroys the city because such wickedness, not only this wickedness, but as later biblical texts will show that their sexual sin was only part of a bigger picture of greed, of not caring for the poor, of other kinds of sexual sin. So it’s a [inaudible 00:12:32] of sin. It’s just a picture of a depraved city. It’s not simply one sin, but that the one sin of homosexual acts attempted in this case is clearly, for the biblical narrator, it’s an exacerbating factor.

                                    It’s something that shows how seriously grievously sinful this city is. And so they get punished by God. Does that mean that God hates the city? No, because God, before carrying out the destruction of the city had this long negotiation with Abraham. He actually basically set up Abraham to be an intercessor for the city because God longed to not carry out this destruction of the city. And Abraham did intercede and he negotiated, well, even if there’s 50 righteous people, 45, 40, down to 10, for their sake, don’t destroy. It turns out there aren’t even 10 righteous in the city. And it’s basically, it’s not that God has a grudge or wants to be vindictive, but it’s sin coming to its ultimate consequences. And it’s God saying, I cannot allow such grievous sin to be passed on to corrupt another generation. They have forfeited the blessing of God.

Cy Kellett:                    So this juxtaposing of these two stories, both of them having implications that are both sexual and having to do with hospitality, these are two different images of the reception of God.

Mary Healy:                  Right? Exactly. So what do we see as, really in a way, the deepest sin of Sodom is their rejection of God in the person of his angels. And it’s very interesting that when Jesus himself mentions Sodom and Gomorrah in the gospels, he mentions it in the context of his prophetic indictment of cities that have rejected him.

Cy Kellett:                    Oh, right. Yeah

Mary Healy:                  And rejected his apostles.

Cy Kellett:                    If the signs that had been done in Sodom.

Mary Healy:                  Yeah, it’ll be worse for those cities than for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment. Why? Because they’re rejecting Jesus and his apostles who bring the gospel of salvation, the offer of salvation. So he’s saying, Sodom didn’t have that. If you reject that, what have you got? I mean, this is the offer for you to be saved. If you don’t take it, you can’t be saved. So it’ll be worse for you than for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment. So really the deepest sin of all is the refusal of God and his will, and his plan for us, which is for our good and our blessing and our flourishing.

Cy Kellett:                    Could you say a word about that, what St. Jude has to say, because St. Jude does make an interpretation of the Sodom and Gomorrah story.

Mary Healy:                  Yes. He says they went after other flesh. He characterizes their sin in that way. So he is very clearly, and also in Second Peter, very clearly referring to the sexual part of the whole picture of their sin. So biblically speaking, because Jude is in the canon of scripture and it’s giving a biblical interpretation of Sodom, we can’t say that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with sex, because then we’re denying the New Testament. This is what the New Testament says about this passage. And I think it has good reason to say it. Jude is not reading Genesis out of context by saying that. So if we accept the authority of the word of God, then we have to accept the authority of the New Testament interpretation of the Sodom event.

Cy Kellett:                    So I feel like in many ways you’ve already answered the question that I was working to, but I ask if you could just kind of summarize for us, what does the person today take from this? What is the person today meant to take from what happens to Sodom and Gomorrah?

Mary Healy:                  That to commit grave sins contrary to God’s plan, particularly in the area of sexuality, but also in the area of hospitality, of how we treat the stranger, the vulnerable, the needy in our midst, each of those things are extremely important to God. And to the degree that we refuse God’s plan and reject his will, we will experience the consequences. And they can be very severe. Ultimately, the ultimate consequence is separation from God himself. So the invitation from the Lord is choose the way of Abraham and Sarah, choose the way of living according to God’s plan and receiving his blessing. Even if it means a lot of waiting, even if it means hanging on through difficult times, through trials, God’s blessing will come, absolutely infallibly for those who trust him and live according to his plan. And if anyone is not living in accord with his plan now, the invitation is to repent. The invitation to all of us, because none of us is living in full accord with God’s will.

                                    The invitation is to repent, turn back to him, let go of that sin, proclaim the power of the cross and resurrection in Jesus, by which we are cleansed. Paul has this beautiful line in One Corinthians where he’s discussing a whole list of sexual sins, I think it’s 1 Corinthians 6:9, and he says, “Such were some of you.” You were engaged in all these sins, and he mentions homosexual sex as one of them. But you were washed, you were cleansed, you were justified, you were sanctified in the blood of Christ and in the spirit of our God. So nobody has to be stuck in a particular lifestyle. Nobody has to be bound to an addiction, to a certain kind of sexual compulsion or a certain kind of sexual fulfillment. There’s something so much higher and better that God calls us to, whether it’s in marriage or in the celibate life, as I’m in. Celibate life isn’t always easy. But living according to God’s plan is what brings fulfillment and joy and peace that the world can’t offer.

Cy Kellett:                    Praise God. Dr. Mary Healy, it’s always such a great, great privilege for us to get to talk with you. Thank you for helping us to clear the air on this one. And this will help us a great deal to have this to be able to share with people. I appreciate your time. Thank you.

Mary Healy:                  You’re most welcome. Thanks for inviting me.

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