Essays by Rictor Norton on the Historical Roots of Homophobia from Ancient Israel to the End of the Middle Ages

2 The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

The story of these two ill-fated cities of the plain is the single most influential vehicle for the transmission of anti-gay prejudice. The sad irony is that the story originally had nothing whatsoever to do with homosexuality.

The Inhospitable Sodomites

The account — told in Genesis 19.4-11, and repeated in Judges 19.22 — in a nutshell goes thus: Lot decided to settle in Sodom, a city reputed to be as wicked as its neighbour, Gomorrah. In order to determine the truth of this reputation, God sent two angels to investigate. These two foreign travellers were met at the gate of the city by Lot, and they accepted his hospitable invitation to sojourn at his home. That night the inhabitants of Sodom clamoured round Lot's house, pounding on his door and demanding: "Bring the visitors out unto us, that we may know them." Lot refused to comply with this "evil" request, and instead offered them his two daughters. When the Sodomites would not relent, the angels smote the crowd with blindness. The next morning Lot fled the city with the angels and his family, and God let loose a torrent of fire and brimstone to consume these wicked cities of the plain.

The difficulty of interpretation is that the "sins" of Sodom and Gomorrah simply are not specified in the Bible. Christians with no linguistic expertise assume that "know" means "engage in coitus." But the term for "know" — yadha — is used in the sexual sense only 10 times in the Old Testament and all of these cases are heterosexual. Yadha is used in the sense of "get acquainted with" 924 times. Thus the odds against the homosexual usage of this term are nearly 1000-to-1, and many modern Biblical scholars have now abandoned this theory.

The interpretation now accepted by many Biblical scholars (excluding the most evangelical sects) is as follows: Lot was a ger, a sojourner, a resident alien in Sodom. He had certain civic obligations in return for the protection which the city offered him, and there are indications that he was unpopular in the city. He did not have a right to open his house to foreigners, and the citizens of Sodom were merely demanding to see the credentials of these two foreigners, that is, to "know" whence they came and their intentions. Lot had to refuse, however, because he himself was under the obligations of the Jewish code of hospitality to his guests. He offered the Sodomites his daughters as the first appeasement that came to his mind, not as a heterosexual substitute for a homosexual demand. The cities were then destroyed for not recognizing the obligations of hospitality, and the whole story is a moral allegory on the dire effects of inhospitality.

The sins of the Sodomites may have been great and grievous in the eyes of a wrathful god, but the Bible does not cite homosexuality as one of them (cf. Genesis 13.13, 18.20). Jeremiah 23.14 suggests adultery and lying, and Ezekiel 16.49-50 suggests pride and sloth and idolatry. Since the word for "idolatry" is to-ebhah, and one form of it could have been homosexual temple prostitution, it is remotely possible that homosexuality was included, but it must be emphasized how remote this possibility is. If it was believed to be an example of homosexuality, it is remarkable to the point of being an inconceivable omission that Sodom is never mentioned in any of the Biblical condemnations of homosexuality that I discussed earlier. The Apocrypha demonstrates the standard interpretation: "Whereas the men of Sodom received not the strangers when they came among them, so the Egyptians made slaves of the guests who were their benefactors" (Wisdom 19.13-14, Ecclesiastes 16.8).

Sodomizing the Story

Why is it, then, that the "sins of Sodom" have become the prototype for "sodomy"? Basically it is the result of the same kind of nationalistic fervour that we have seen much earlier. The Palestinian Jews and Jews of the Dispersion during the period from about 100 BC to AD 100, confronted by pagan Hellenistic "immorality" alien to them, deliberately foisted a homosexual misinterpretation upon the story. They began reacting against "the ways of the Gentiles" just as they had earlier reacted against "the ways of Canaan" and "the ways of Egypt."

The Palestinian Pseudepigrapha, particularly the Book of Jubilees, a product of the most rigid and conservative Jewish orthodoxy, specified the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as fornication, uncleanliness, and "changing the order of nature." The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (109-106 BC), particularly the Testament of Naphtali, says that the Sodomites "changed the order the nature," and Jude says they "went after strange flesh." This is still rather vague, but by 50 BC the Rabbinical interpolators had more or less agreed that the Sodomites were "sodomitical."

The Book of the Secrets of Enoch, written in Egypt before the middle of the first century by a Hellenistic Jew, says that the Sodomites committed "abominable lecheries, namely one with another" and "the sin against nature, which is child-corruption after the Sodomitic fashion, magic-making, enchantments and devilish witchcraft." This is nonsensical embellishment when compared with the actual Biblical text, and obviously a result of coming into contact with the "underworld" of first-century Alexandria, where pederasty and homosexual prostitution existed alongside competing mystical sects, astrology, fortune-telling, and cults involving castration and transvestism.

Philo during this period gives us the full-blown story we are familiar with today: "Not only in their mad lust for women did the Sodomites violate the marriages of their neighbors, but also men mounted males without respect for the sex nature which the active partner shares with the passive; and so when they tried to beget children they were discovered to be incapable of any but a sterile seed. . . . little by little they accustomed those who were by nature men to submit to play the part of women" (De Abrahamo, 26). A similar account of the Sodomites is related by Josephus (who died around AD 96), who emphasizes the rape of beautiful boys. In very short order this false story superseded the original.

Tortures for the sin of Lust, from Taddeo di Bartolo's fresco of Hell at San Gimigniano, Italy. An adulteress is lashed by a demon, while a sodomite (wearing a hat labelled 'Sodomitum') is impaled on a stake from anus to mouth, one end held in the mouth of another homosexual, while a devil turns the spit over the fire.

Rabbits and Weasels

The Fathers of the Christian Church would eventually adopt this homosexual misinterpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah lock, stock, and barrel, and when the first Christian Emperors formulated it into the highly influential Roman Law Code, we arrive, by AD 600, at the anti-gay legal attitude that is still in effect today in most Western societies.

It is a bit misleading to suggest that the homophobia of the Christian-Roman Empire was the direct result of adopting this attitude of the Jews of the Dispersion, for there is plenty of anti-gay satire in works by Juvenal, Suetonius, Martial and others, particularly criticism of the cult of Cybele which first entered Rome in 204 BC. Quite independent of the Jews, the early Romans had the similar beliefs that copulation was an expression of violence that had to be controlled, that the "active" partner somehow conquered over or perpetrated a crime upon the "passive" partner. Women were "protected" — that is, oppressed — as "defenceless creatures," and men who assumed a so-called "passive" sex role were often ridiculed.

But early Roman anti-gay attitudes were not so severe as to require official condemnation or legal sanction. It is not until 226 BC that we come across the first anti-gay law, the Lex Scantia, so-called because a tribune of the plebs named C. Scantinius Capitolinus was charged with homosexuality before the Senate and heavily fined. The meaning of the law and the tale of its origin is open to dispute. It really seems unlikely that a law would take its name from a criminal defendant. Be that as it may, the law was several times invoked against political enemies, particularly during the reign of the Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), but there seem to have been no convictions, and it seems to have been obsolete by the late fourth century. Most important, it forbade homosexual intercourse between freeborn men and slaves, an indication that it merely regulated relations which crossed class barriers rather than totally condemned all homosexuality.

During the first four centuries AD it is difficult to differentiate between the anti-gay attitudes of the Church Fathers and the Roman Emperors. St John Chrysostum emphatically denounced male homosexuals for having "devised a barren coitus, not having for its end the procreation of children," and he equally denounced lesbians, "for women ought to have more shame than men." Discussion about this "barren coitus" is really interesting when we understand the folklore origin behind such prejudice.

For example, Clement of Alexandria condemned homosexuality because it means coitus per anum, and he justified his condemnation by referring to Moses's injunction against eating the flesh of the hare (Deuteronomy 14.7). It was a commonplace belief that every year the hare acquired an additional anus, and its superabundance of orifices led to its proverbial promiscuity. The Epistle of Barnabas condemns pederasty for the very same reason about the hare, and proceeds to condemn fellatio by referring to Leviticus 11.29 wherein the weasel is described as an unclean animal because it was believed to conceive through its mouth. If homosexuals were compared to such mythical hares and weasels, little wonder that we were called "unnatural". Today we have lost the folklore, but retained the epithet.

The supposed relationship between homosexuals and hares and weasels is broadly relevant. "Sodomy" is usually condemned in the same breath as bestiality. And the Jewish/Christian/Roman view that male homosexuals resemble women is related to the view that women are mere animals. St John Chrysostum said: "among all savage beasts, none is found so harmful as woman." Even as late as AD 585 the Council of Macon debated the question "Are women human?" — an affirmative answer won by a majority of only one vote. One of the roots of sexism is not so much a separation between men and women as a separation between men and animals (in which latter category are placed homosexuals and hares, women and weasels).

To this list of unclean animals must be added the dog. The Jews called the Gentiles "dogs," kunes (from Greek kuon, "dog," modern term: canine), and the priests of Cybele were called "Gallic hounds," or cinaedus, from canus, "dog." The frequent Renaissance epithet was "you Sodomite dog" — and the modern equivalent is "you son of a bitch."

So again, as demonstrated in Part 1 of this series, we find the very same combination of religious and political motivations behind anti-gay prejudice, determined primarily by the need of the Jews to assert their separateness from foreign cultures. There were three important additions to the repertoire of homophobia illustrated in Part 1: First, the belief that homosexuals are pederasts and child-corruptors. Second, a pronounced anti-feminism: an explicit degradation of women, the first explicit condemnation of lesbians, and the view that male homosexuals are "deformed" by assuming a "woman's role" in "passive" intercourse. And third, the first direct equation of "unnatural" with "non-procreative" — but not so much a refusal to procreate as an attempt to procreate like the hares and weasels were supposed to do.

The major point here, of course, is that what amounts to a deliberate lie — about Sodom and Gomorrah — was created in order to justify such prejudices. That story has not changed much since AD 100, except that the man carrying the sign "Repent Ye Sinners" probably believes that sodomites lived in Sodom and lesbian lived in Gomorrah.

[ continued in Part 3 ]

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.
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Rictor Norton, A History of Homophobia, "2 The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah" 15 April 2002, updated 10 February 2010, 23 January 2011 <>.

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