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Sodom and Gomorrah: A Story about Sin and Judgment

Categories Biblical Studies Old Testament Studies Online Courses

Sodom and Gomorrah are two of the Old Testament’s most infamously sinful cities. Genesis 19 tells the story of how God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness, but spared Lot and his family (mostly).

The New Testament uses these cities as examples of behavior that God’s people need to avoid. But what exactly was the nature of Sodom’s sin? Why did God single them out? And why was Lot spared?

In his online course on the book of Genesis, Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III answers these questions and more, starting where the story actually begins in Genesis 18, when Abraham finds himself hosting three unknown visitors.

The following post is based on his online course.

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Abraham has three mysterious visitors

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” —Genesis 18:1–20

Genesis 18 opens by telling us that God appeared to Abraham, and that Abraham saw three men. It isn’t obvious who Abraham thinks the three are at the beginning of the chapter, but he certainly treats them with great respect.

His hospitality to these visitors will contrast dramatically with the lack of hospitality provided to them by the inhabitants of Sodom, though Lot, like his uncle, will extend to them protection and sustenance (chapter 19).

Abraham sees them approach as he is resting at the entrance of his tent during the hot part of the day. His urgency and deep respect for the visitors may well indicate that he is a aware that they are more than ordinary guests. He does not wait for them to come to him, but hurries out from the tent to greet them, and when he meets them, he bows low to the ground. At a minimum, he recognizes that he is their inferior, but it is much more likely that he understands that one of them is none other than God himself.

There are three visitors, but one obvious leader to whom Abraham addresses himself. The NIV translation of adonay (“my lord” and not Lord) indicates uncertainty among the translators whether Abraham recognizes that the one to whom he speaks is God. He presses them not to continue journeying (we will later understand that they are on their way to Sodom), but to spend time refreshing themselves in Abraham’s tent.

The visitors finished their rest at Abraham’s tent and continued on their journey. We now learn that their destination is the city of Sodom, the place where Lot had chosen to live. We have already been told that Sodom was an evil place, so the reader is filled with a sense of foreboding as the one we now know is God moves toward that place.

God then determines to tell Abraham, who accompanies him at the beginning of his journey, about his mission in Sodom. He does so because Abraham and his descendants will play a pivotal role in his redemptive purposes. Abraham needs to know what will happen to an evil city as the patriarch will teach his own descendants how to act in a manner which is “right and just” (v. 19) unlike the city of Sodom and its surroundings.

He informs Abraham that he is going to Sodom to check if the city is as evil as those who cry out to him for help leads him to believe it is. God is just and fair and will not punish a people who do not deserve it.

Abraham negotiates with God

The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home. —Genesis 18:21–33

Abraham intercedes with God on behalf of the innocent. He looks for assurance from God that he will not bring judgment on the innocent along with the wicked. We are not told, but perhaps his motivation is stirred by his knowledge that Lot and his family are residents of that wicked city.

Interestingly, Abraham’s intercession involves bartering between himself and God. Abraham calls on God to spare (or forgive) the city if he is able to find fifty righteous people in it. Abraham is not just calling for the sparing of the righteous, but because of the presence of righteous people in the city, he was asking that the whole city be spared.

Abraham engages in a type of bartering that is still well known in the ancient Near East (or an American car dealership) today. He starts with fifty. “If there are fifty righteous people in the city God, won’t you spare them?” And then he talks God down to ten. God agrees that if there are ten righteous people in the city that he would spare the city.

With that, God and Abraham part ways, God heading toward Sodom and Abraham going home. This episode depicts Abraham as a person who is willing to advocate for the righteous and God as one who is willing to hear the pleas of his people when they speak on behalf of the righteous.

Lot shows the angels hospitality

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”

“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”

But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. —Genesis 19:1–3

At the end of the previous chapter, God had set out toward Sodom and Gomorrah with two attending angels (they are identified explicitly as angels for the first time in 19:1). However, only the two angels actually enter the city of Sodom. Perhaps the sinfulness of the city kept the holy God from actually entering into its precincts.

When they enter, Lot is the first to greet them in the gateway of the city. The gate of an ancient city was not only its public square but also a place where the leaders of the city would meet. His presence there may well imply that he is a leader in the city, and the fact that he offers hospitality to the unknown visitors indicates that he has not fully been corrupted.

He offers them shelter and protection, thus differentiating himself from the inhabitants of the city who will soon seek to exploit them. Through his hospitality, he not only distinguishes himself from the other inhabitants of the city, but likens himself to his uncle Abraham who was quick and generous in his hospitality to the strangers earlier.

However, though Lot is more similar to Abraham than the inhabitants of Sodom, there is still a noticeable difference between the two. John D. Levenson puts its well in Inhereting Abraham:

Abraham runs; Lot only rises. Abraham offers water and food; Lot does not. And the food that Abraham actually provides—“a calf tender and choice . . . curds and milk” as well as the cakes that he bids Sarah to rush to bake—contrasts with Lot’s “feast,” of which the only item mentioned is “baked unleavened bread” (18:6–8; 19:3). . . . the largest contrast lies in the initial purpose of the visitations of the two men. The one to Abraham is for the purpose of announcing a birth; the one to Lot, for the purpose of announcing impending death.

The angelic visitors at first refuse his invitation, saying that they will spend the night in the square. Lot, however, will not hear of it, probably aware of the danger to which they would be exposed if they stayed in the square. “Lot . . . by insisting on hospitality, he exercises his power not only to protect them from harm but also to bind them to an implicit social contract not to harm his household” (Ronald Hendel, Reading Genesis). He successfully persuades them to spend the night in his house, and he provides food for them.

The locals attempt to rape the angels

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing.” —Genesis 19:4–7

As the day ends, the reader now learns why Lot was so insistent on the visitors leaving the public square where they would be totally unprotected.

The men of the city, and the emphasis is on the whole city’s male population (“men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old”), come and lay siege to Lot’s house, demanding that he turn over the visitors so they can have sex with them. In an ancient context, such lack of hospitality and protection to visiting strangers is horrendous, not to speak of the attempt to coerce sex.

Lot offers the men his daughters

Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” —Genesis 19:8

Lot, at least, steps forward as the one who has offered them shelter, not yet knowing their true identities. He names their intended action a “wicked thing,” but then he goes ahead and offers his two virgin daughters in their stead, raising questions about Lot’s moral thinking as well.

The law of hospitality was an important one in this ancient society (“they have come under the protection [literally ‘shade,’ a metaphor of protection] of my roof ”), and by offering protection and sustenance to strangers who might otherwise be vulnerable, it is a virtuous custom. Lot, though, perverts it by attempting to substitute his daughters for the men. Lot tries to maintain his virtue as a host only to shame himself as a father.

The fact that the men reject Lot’s offer does not focus their crime on homosexuality as such. The sin is still coercive sex and an attack on strangers who are due hospitality.

Also, modern audiences need to be aware that the desire of the men of the city to have sex with the visiting men was almost certainly not because the former were gay themselves. Rather, it was a way of exerting power over these visiting foreigners.

The angels blind the Sodomites

“Get out of our way,” they replied. “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door. —Genesis 19:9–11

These men now threaten Lot, who is a foreigner who lives in their town. He himself is a stranger, though he has lived there for some time, and now he becomes the object of their violence.

It is at this point that Lot’s visitors take action in a way that indicates they are more than regular travelers. They grab Lot and pull him inside while striking the spiritually blind men of Sodom with physical blindness so they can’t find the door to break it in.

Lot’s family flees from Sodom

The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.”

So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry his daughters. He said, “Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!” But his sons-in-law thought he was joking.

With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.”

When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them. As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!”

But Lot said to them, “No, my lords, please! Your servant has found favor in your eyes, and you have shown great kindness to me in sparing my life. But I can’t flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I’ll die. Look, here is a town near enough to run to, and it is small. Let me flee to it—it is very small, isn’t it? Then my life will be spared.”

He said to him, “Very well, I will grant this request too; I will not overthrow the town you speak of. But flee there quickly, because I cannot do anything until you reach it.” (That is why the town was called Zoar.) —Genesis 19:12–22

The supernatural visitors tell Lot that they’re going to destroy Sodom. Sodom will experience God’s judgment. It is interesting to note that God is not just responding from his own revulsion to the evil of Sodom, but he is acting in response to the “outcry . . . against its people,” though we are never explicitly told who exactly is crying out to God.  God’s judgment comes from his holy nature, but it also provides help to the oppressed.

While Lot, in his misguided way, worked to protect the angels, now they protect Lot and his family. They call on him to gather his children and their spouses so they can escape from the city before it is destroyed and its inhabitants killed. Those pledged to be married to Lot’s daughters laugh off Lot’s suggestion that they flee the city. Their reaction indicates their lack of spiritual sensitivity and reveals that they participate in the sin of the city.

Even Lot, his wife, and their two daughters are not quick to leave. The angels have to grab them and pull them out of the city.

After offering his daughters to the men of Sodom, we know that Lot is not a paragon of virtue. In the stories to come, we will see the same about his wife and daughters. Unlike Noah (6:9), Lot and his family are not saved because of his or their righteousness.

While perhaps fair to say that Lot is righteous compared to the inhabitants of Sodom, he and his family instead may be saved out of God’s concern for Abraham, who pressed God not to destroy the city even if there are ten righteous people living in it (19:27–29). When it comes down to it, there are fewer than five who are even relatively righteous in the city. God does not spare the city, but he does act to save Lot, his wife, and his two daughters.

The angels urge Lot to take his families far far away from the city, because they intend not just to destroy the city but the entire area. Lot and his family are not to stop and they are not to look back. Lot, though, beseeches the angels to allow them to seek refuge in a small town within the area. The name of the city is literally “Small” (Zoar).

In his request, Lot acknowledges the grace and kindness that the angels have extended to him, even as he requests even more mercy. He does not feel like he can make it to the mountains before the destruction comes, perhaps because of his age. The angels agree to let him seek refuge in Zoar, and this perhaps explains how Zoar managed to avoid the destruction of the general area.

God sends raining sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah

By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land. Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land. —Genesis 19:23–25

The morning after the men of the city tried to storm Lot’s house, Lot and his family reached Zoar (v. 23). At this moment God brought his punishment in the form of raining burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah. We are likely to think here of volcanic activity, of which there are signs today in the region surrounding these ancient cities. Even today the area around the Dead Sea looks like a wasteland.

Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt

But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. —Genesis 19:26

God’s angelic messengers had warned Lot and his family not to look back on the city. We are not told why, though it is often thought that looking back signifies a longing for the city which God will destroy. Verse 26 simply states that Lot’s wife looked back and God turned her into a pillar of salt.

In his commentary on Genesis, Bruce Waltke gets at the significance of the salt here when he points out that “in the biblical world, a site was strewn with salt to condemn it to perpetual barrenness and desolation (see Deuteronomy 29:23; Judges 9:45; Psalm 107:34; Jeremiah 17:6).”

What was the sin of Sodom?

Many people think Sodom’s sin is obvious: homosexuality. This biblical story is where the term “sodomite” came to be applied to male homosexuals. The narrative of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah finds currency in modern culture wars due to the controversy over the issue of homosexuality more than any other reason.

The sin of rape

But as we look at the story itself, it is hard to be certain that it is homosexuality or the practice of it that leads to God’s judgment on the city. After all, we are not talking about consensual sex in this story, but rape.

Any sex outside of marriage, homosexual or heterosexual, would be considered wrong. Even if the story concerned heterosexual sex, it would be sinful since the intent was rape.

There is one passage that names the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as a sexual perversion. Jude warns his readers about the sexual transgressions of the false teachers who are leading them astray by comparing them to “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns [who] gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7).

But even here, the sexual immorality could be gang rape rather than specifically homosexuality.

The sin of inhospitality

Further, the story itself also concerns a lack of hospitality, which was considered an egregious crime in the ancient world. After all, the Bible was written in a time where there were not an abundance of hotels and restaurants in which a traveler can find shelter and food. A stranger’s sustenance and safety depended on the willingness of others to offer them lodging and food.

Other Scriptures typically cite the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as the horrific judgment that would come on God’s own people or some other foreign people because of their sin, without specifying the nature of the sin that led to their punishment (Isaiah 1:9, 10; 13:19; Jeremiah 23:14; 49:18; 50:40; Amos 4:11; Zephaniah 2:9).

When Sodom’s sin is specified, it is typically not homosexuality that is singled out or even mentioned. The prophet Ezekiel announces, “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. They were haughty and did detestable things before me” (16:49–50a).

In the Gospels, Jesus says that those cities that do not show hospitality to his disciples are worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, suggesting that it is in the lack of hospitality that we are to locate the sin of those cities (Matthew 10:9–15; Luke 10:8–12).

Thus, one must be careful about bringing the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah into the modern discussion of homosexual practice. It is not clear from the story itself or from its later citations that homosexuality per se was what led to the horrific judgment of those cities.

Living in a toxic culture

Lot was different from the rest of the inhabitants of the city of Sodom where he lived. He offered the strangers hospitality, while the rest of the city tried to violate them. That said, a close reading of Genesis 19 shows that Sodom’s toxic culture had influenced Lot and his family. He maintained his fundamental relationship with God, but he found himself attracted to and caught up in Sodom’s evil culture as well.

We can see Sodom’s influence on Lot when he offers his own two daughters in place of the strangers (vv. 6–8). His sons-in-law think he is joking when he tries to warn them about the coming destruction of Sodom (v. 14), which could also indicate Lot had a reputation for not being forthright. Lot was hesitant to leave the city (v. 16) and refused to follow the angels’ instructions to flee to the mountains, talking them into letting him go instead to a small, nearby town (vv. 18 – 20).

Lot’s wife’s actions speak even more loudly of a toxic influence of the evil culture in which she lived, when she looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt.

Lot’s story is a timely reminder that we are all influenced subtly and even more blatantly by the culture in which we live. We all live in a toxic culture. We can debate how much our modern Western culture resembles the culture of Sodom, but we are on very dangerous grounds if we do not recognize that our culture is toxic and dangerous to our faith.

There is not a simple formula for how faithful Christians are to live in the context of a toxic culture. It does not seem right that we should simply treat our faith as a different compartment of our life. Faith affects all of life. But should we withdraw or fight against our culture? Should we infiltrate the culture and change it from within? Should we try to change the laws of the land in order for it to be less toxic? Should we develop a separate distinct Christian culture?

The story of Lot reminds us that even today and even in the West we live in a culture that is not friendly to our faith. These stories do not give us a formula for how to live, but they do call us to give thoughtful consideration to how we should preserve and stimulate our faith.

Learn more in Tremper Longman’s online course on the book of Genesis ›

Genesis Tremper Longman III
An extremely valuable and long overdue series that includes comment on the cultural context of the text, careful exegesis, and guidance on reading the whole Bib...
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Genesis Instructor: Dr. Tremper Longman III
The Genesis course, taught by Tremper Longman III, illuminates the book of Genesis in light of the Bible’s grand story.
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