Friday, April 11, 2014

Today, I marched in a protest.

We gathered outside the Federal Courthouse to commemorate the moment the Roman legal system sentenced Jesus to die.

We remembered Veronica and her small gesture of kindness, wiping the brow of the condemned Jesus, outside the City-County Building, where the homeless gather in need of the smallest kindnesses.

And we remembered the moment of Jesus' death on the steps of Grace Church, where a homeless man died in the bitter cold just three months ago.

Walking the Stations of the Cross is a solemn Christian tradition. Episcopal churches offer the opportunity to gather and commemorate the final walk Jesus took through the streets of Jerusalem a couple times a week all during Lent; other denominations reserve it for Holy Week or Good Friday specifically.

Today, we took it outside, and created a path of our own through the streets of our city.

Our readers struggled to be heard amid the din of cranes, concrete mixers, vuvuzelas and Solidarity Singers. All of that felt oddly appropriate, to be honest.

Some people watched us pass with bemusement. Some with curiosity. Early on I thought, they must think we're some kind of protest. Madison is, after all, the protest capital ... going all the way back to the 1960s, any time you get eight or more people walking in the same direction, you can call it a protest.

And in a way, it was a protest. Instead of a picket sign, though, we carried a cross. Instead of chanting, we read Scripture and prayed. And instead of delivering a petition, we lay flowers on a likeness of our fallen teacher, leader and Lord.

We weren't shaking our fists at the injustices of the world, exactly, though we did remind ourselves that everything Jesus railed against -- all the inequity and oppression and poverty and violence -- is still with us, even in our idyllic, progressive little city.

We reminded ourselves to pray for those who are forgotten, and protested our collective forgetfulness. We reminded ourselves to pray for, and stand up for, the oppressed, and protested their oppression.

And in remembering the one who preached radical inclusion, who brought a whole new way of thinking about society and equity, and who willingly died in defense of that way of thinking -- in pausing fourteen times to commemorate the terrible suffering  he endured, rather than renounce those beliefs -- we took on ourselves, once again, the mantle of furthering his work. We carried a couple of branches, lashed together in the form of a cross, not as a symbol of our own suffering, but as a reminder to carry on his work of caring for the downtrodden, the weak, the humble.

And, I think, we each, individually, marched in protest of our own sin, our own weakness. We marched in protest of our own inability to see the greater good, and work for it. We marched in protest of our own fear of the unknown, of those different from us, our own inability to do as he taught and to love our neighbors as ourselves, unconditionally.

And at the end, as at the end of every good protest, we are left with the feeling that we've come a long way, but have a lot left to do.

Holy Week begins Sunday. Whatever your relationship with the Divine, whatever name you use for God, I hope God touches you and helps your spirit find peace, and purpose, and perhaps bit of protest.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Michael Sam, Chevrolet, Our Cultural Moment and the Bible

Someone with more historical acumen than I have may correct my broad view of the civil rights movement, but it seems to me that we, as a nation, went through two major phases to get where we are today. (This is just the intro here, so please forgive my overarching broadness.)

First, through the 1960s and 70s, equality became socially acceptable. Equality has yet to be fully achieved, of course, but throughout that era it became more and more accepted that different races could and should have equal access to institutions and jobs and so on. Even if that equal access hasn’t been fully realized, the idea became acceptable.

Second, through the 1980s and even into the 90s, a subtly different thing happened. In addition to equality being socially acceptable, racism became socially unacceptable.  “Racist”’ became an insult. White people went to great lengths to demonstrate their acceptance. Even now, the most vile and racist comments are often preceded by “I’m not a racist, but …” Even blatant racists make efforts not to be seen as racist. (South Park had a field day with this back in 2007.)

I think the same thing is happening right now - as in, right now, this week - in the movement for equality among sexual orientations.

I have two reasons to believe this.

First, Chevrolet put out some TV ads during the Olympics that showed gay couples, among many other diverse people and families. News stories on the ads led with this. Even though the gay couples made up a small percentage of the ad time, amounting to two or three seconds of  screen time, it’s newsworthy. The comments on those news stories, though, have been telling. Every one inevitbaly drew a slew of comments along the lines of “Way to celebrate Sexual Perversity Chevy, Our family will Not be supporting you in the future” or simply “disgusting.” But each of those comments are typically met with response from at least two or three others berating the person who didn’t like the ad as a bigot or a homophobe.

Second, we learned this week that former University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam will become the first openly gay player in the NFL. (If he goes undrafted, I will start an expansion team and sign him as a free agent.) The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, or the positive kind of neutral (as in, “It doesn’t matter, as long as he can play football.”) 

Some anonymous team executives expressed some reservations about drafting him, citing teams’ aversion to “distraction,” to which retired stud wide receiver Donte Stallworth responded in an epic Twitter rant.

One of the real heartwarming bits of the story is that Sam came out to his University of Missouri teammates six months ago, in August. The team embraced him, allowed his private life to remain private, and together created a season for the ages -- 12 wins and 2 losses, second place in the storied Southeastern Conference, ranked the fifth best team in the nation and a stone’s throw from playing for the national championship. After Sam came out, many of his teammates expressed their pride in him.

But the next day, Sam’s roommate, tight end Eric Waters, took to Twitter with a bit of a downer: “Half of y’all posting these pics saying how proud you are. But most of y’all was the ones talkin shit behind his back in the locker room.”

Let’s recap: people who react negatively to gay-friendly ads are marginalized. The only people critical of Sam’s decision chose to remain anonymous. College football players who were apparently not 100% ok with Sam’s sexual orientation, but who nonetheless conducted themselves in a professional manner during the season, made a concerted effort to appear supportive after Sam came out.

And Saints Linebacker Jonathan Vilma backpedalled faster than a cornerback chasing down a fly route when reminded of his own earlier remarks that sounded pretty anti-gay.

See what’s happening?

The initial wide public reaction from players and fans and commentators alike, almost universally positive, indicates how very far we’ve come in that first step of the gay civil rights movement. Yes, full equality is a ways off. And yes, Tea Party politicians say vile things in their continued upstream efforts to criminalize marriage equality. But the almost-entirely-man's-man world of sports talk radio immediately and openly accepted Sam and verbally expressed their hope that he'll be judged on talent alone. That seems like a strong indication that being gay has become, for the most part, socially acceptable.

But the secondary stuff. … the echo, if you will ... indicates to me that the second phase is happening as well.

Homophobia is no longer socially acceptable.

That’s a tremendous cultural shift. It used to be -- and by “used to be” I mean, seriously, a few months ago -- that anti-gay sentiments were sort of a legitimate minority view. Just a difference of opinion. A religious belief that should be respected.

Now, though, quite quickly, you can only say anti-gay things anonymously; even if you have a problem with a gay guy, you publicly show support; and if you say homophobic things, you’re forced to apologize and clarify.

This has happened very quickly. And that’s what has inspipred, I believe, the increasing ferocity of the Creationists.

Anti-gay conservatives anti-gay conservatives can feel the winds shifting rapidly. To move so quickly from acceptance of homosexuality to the unacceptance of homophobia has them very nervous.

You see, they have nothing to go on beside the Bible and their own icky feelings about dudes touching weiners. “That grosses me out” is not an argument for discrimination. Even they know that, so they have to cling to the Bible. The Bible mentions homosexuality six or seven times, and not once does it mean what we mean by homosexuality, and not once does Jesus mention it at all. (We can dig into those verses in another post, maybe.) It takes a very basic level of exegesis and thought to see that the Bible does not prohibit homosexuality -- certainly not for our modern society. But it does require some examination of scripture, and some questioning of it. You have to look at the original language, and think about its original intended audience, and pick apart the intent and decide what those verses meant then and what they mean to us now.

Conservatives who so desperately need to lean on the Bible to prop up their homophobia can’t have us doing that. In fact, it seems to me they’re so worried about losing those six or seven verses as justification for their fear of and disgust for gays that they now, more than ever, have decided they can’t give an inch on any portion of the Bible. If I want the Bible to uphold my prejudice against gays, I need those six or seven verses to be taken literally, in English. The best way to prove that those verses must be taken literally is to prove that the entire Bible is to be taken literally. Put another way, in a perfectly linear statement they would never consciously state, “If the Creation story isn’t literally true, then the Bible isn’t literally the Word of God, and I can no longer use it to confirm my own prejudice against gays.”

Interestingly, this also gives them the chance to appear not as homophobic as they are. "It's not me," they can say. "It's in the Bible."

But, of course, that doesn't hold water. The only way anyone can really seem to follow the Great Commandment to love God and our neighbors is to, you know, actually love God and our neighbors. If Michael Sam can play professional football and Chevy can market to gay families, we can surely handle our duty to love.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

When it rains … continents move, or something like that.

Are you not entertained by waterborne animal husbandry?
So, there’s a movie coming out starring Russell Crowe as Noah and Emma Watson as his adopted daughter Ila. Apparently test screenings haven’t gone over real well among Christian and Jewish audiences. This could be, at least in part, because the script adds some subplots and characters and narrative elements that aren’t in the Bible, including the existence of an adopted daughter named Ila, which is verboten among conservatives. Plus, as always, the book is just better.

The book - well, the story, which is part of the Book of Genesis - is well-known. Or, rather, we think of it as well-known. Which is to say, we think we know it. But, like the story of Creation itself, or Sodom and Gomorrah, the Biblical account of worldwide flood has some details that might surprise and confound you.

It’s a story that has worked its way into our modern discourse in weird ways, too. Biblical conservatives don’t seem to use it to make a point about a particular social issue. Rather, they use it as some form of “evidence” of Creation and, by extension, Biblical inerrancy.

For example, carbon dating kinda rains on the parade of those who believe the earth to be 6,000 years old. But obviously, carbon dating isn’t reliable, since a global flood could alter the earth’s atmosphere and render all future carbon-dating inaccurate. So, if a flood happened, then carbon dating isn’t reliable, so clearly the Bible is inerrant and the flood must have happened just as depicted. (See my previous post on circular logic.) (And I have a future post planned about the problems with any argument predicated on could.)

The flood is also used to explain away continental drift. It is accepted that the continents are moving, and have been for some time. Even creationists can’t argue the existence of dinosaurs on Antarctica at a time when Antarctica was located in a much more favorable climate. Obviously, continents have moved. And at their present rate -- inches per century -- they must have been moving for millions or billions of years. Unless! Unless, and just hear me out, unless there’s a global flood that immediately tears them asunder and scatters them here and yon like 10-million-square-mile hunks of driftwood. Yes, this is a real thing. My daughter’s science teacher once posited the Biblical flood as a possible explanation for continental drift. Not just a possible explanation, but the explanation that she, the science teacher, actually believed. Yes, this was in a science class.

Before we dig into the story, let’s note a few things about it.

  • Nearly every religion has some cataclysm myth, a story about a massive disaster that serves both to demonstrate the wrath of God (or the gods) and to separate the long-ago past from recent memory and the present.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Koran, the Bible and a recently-discovered cuneiform even older than Gilgamesh all contain strikingly similar cataclysm stories, all of which describe a flood and a single righteous family that survives it. Details vary.
  • Some evidence suggests that a massive flood may have engulfed the Middle East around 5,000 BC.
  • It seems plausible, or maybe even likely, that a major flood did wreak some (or a lot of) havoc in the ancient Middle East, and that the story of that flood made its way down through generations, taking on a variety of details in many retellings.

So let’s take a look at the Bible’s version of the story itself. As in the Sodom story, the bits that jump out to me have very little to do with the narrative that we tell our kids.

If you want to read it yourself (and why wouldn’t you want to?) here you go.

Our story begins with a 500-year-old Noah fathering three children: Ham, Shem and Japheth. Yes, 500 years old. Everyone back then lived for centuries, it seems.

To me, starting this story with “When Noah was 500 years old …” is the equivalent of “Once upon a time in a magic forest …” It’s a clear signal that this is not real, and is not meant to be taken as real. This is a story that takes place in some other time, some other realm of reality. It may depict the cultural memory of a real event, and it may have important truths to teach us, but this telling immediately sets itself up as fantasy. And I think too many modern Biblical conservatives simply ignore that.

The next few verses is the real “Wait, what?” section for me:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them,  the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.  Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

OK so two things. First, there’s this offhanded mention of the decision that no one will live past 120 years anymore … for … population control reasons? Maybe? (The actual reason that’s in the Bible at all, of course, is to explain why people used to live 950 years and don’t anymore. Because God said so.)

But second, and more interestingly, who are these “sons of God”? That’s the most common translation in modern use, but some older translations call them “divine beings” or even “angels.” They get down with human women, who then give birth to this race of people called Nephilim. I understand a direct translation of this name is something like “The Fallen.” These half-human, half-divine people exist at the time of the flood and notably after the flood, which was supposed to have wiped out all human (and presumably half-human) kind.

These half-human, half-divine creatures also bear a striking resemblance, especially when referred to as “heroes of old, warriors of renown,” to Hercules, Perseus, Achilles … all the heroes of Ancient Greek myth. Just reminds us that the very beginnings of our faith were not all that different from the other so-called pagan faiths of the time.

The next few verses also cause much consternation among conservatives. Ask a conservative -- or if you’re a conservative, ask yourself-- did God ever feel regret? Did God make any mistakes? The knee-jerk answer is no, God is and always has been perfect, and has never and will never make a mistake, so God has nothing to regret. It takes some real textual gymnastics to explain this:

And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

Other translations use the word “regret.”

Again, this God is far more human than the God we think of today. The God of Genesis is somewhat moody, and imperfect, and neither omniscient nor omnipresent. This God is a person, a being, with emotions and sadness and anger and regret, to go along with the everlasting love and kindness we attribute to God today.

The Bible, as far as I can tell, doesn’t really say why Noah was favored and chosen to survive, though the Koran fills it in a bit. In that telling, he warns people not to turn from God, lest they be destroyed. He’s a dang fine preacher, and maybe the only person who really believes in God.

Whatever the reason, God speaks to Noah and gives him pretty direct, detailed instructions. He’s to build an ark 300 cubits long by 50 cubits wide by 30 cubits tall. A cubit is about 20 inches, so the ark would have been about 500 feet long, 83 feet wide and 50 feet tall. It is to be covered in pitch, presumably for waterproofing, and have a door in the side, a roof, and three decks. God tells Noah to put two of each animal onto the ark, divided into three categories: animals, birds and creeping things. God further tells Noah to bring all the kinds of food that are eaten, which will sustain life aboard the ark.

Then God appears to realize that maybe two isn’t enough of each animal. Either that, or some tellers of the story told it differently, and the written account reflects that. God tells Noah actually, no, bring seven pairs of each clean animal, but just one pair of each unclean animal. God gives Noah one week’s notice to gather seven pairs of every clean animal and one pair of every other animal.

And Noah does it. In one week, Noah gathers his family and their many, many new pets onto the ark.

How many new pets? Conservatives point out that God’s command is to gather two of each “created kind,” which does not mean two of each species. That means Noah could have brought as few as 16,000 or as many as 50,000 animals onto the ark (including dinosaurs, of course). And they didn’t have to be adults, either - 50,000 animals is easy if it’s just puppies and cubs and baby stegasauruses.

Anyway, on the seventeenth day of the second month of Noah’s 600th year, the flood begins. (That makes his eldest son 100 years old at the time of the flood … just interesting to note.) It’s not just rain. On that day, “the fountains of the great deep burst forth,” which is frankly in line with one hypothesis of the real flood - an overflow of the Mediterranean following a huge glacial melt. In addition, in the story, it rains 40 days and nights, and by the end of the rain, even the mountaintops are 15 cubits underwater. After 150 days, three months after the end of the rain, God sends a wind to make the waters recede.

Apparently, Noah spends part of his cruise training birds. He sends a raven to look for land, but the raven disappears. So a week later, Noah sends a dove, who returns empty-handed. Or, empty-taloned. Another week later, he sends the dove again, and the dove returns with an olive leaf, signifying that somewhere out there is dry land. And on that dry land, there is an olive tree that has survived, fresh leaves intact, underwater, for almost five months.

(Some also posit that plants could have survived on massive floating berms that have since turned into coal. For real. This theory holds that the olive leaf could have come from one of these vegetative islands, which… there’s that could again. And besides, how does that olive leaf say anything about dry land?)

Anyway … Noah, and his family, and their pets are on the ark for a full year. They then emerge, and it turns out a few of those “clean” animals survived the whole trauma of the flood only to be killed and sacrificed to God. God then promises Noah and his descendents dominion over the animals, saying they can eat any animals they want, as long as there’s no blood in the animals. God also issues a friendly reminder that people shouldn’t shed each others’ blood, which seems reasonable. God then promises never to destroy all life on earth ever again, which is a nice thing to say. God says “when I set my bow in the sky (the rainbow) … I will remember the covenant I have made.” Which is, basically, to have mercy.

And that’s the nugget of the story, to me. Just as people miss the point of the Sodom story -- God’s desire for us to reject sin -- when they spend too much time looking for gayness, people completely miss the point of the Flood story when they spend too much time and energy looking for (or postulating or creating) archaeological evidence that it happened, or could have happened, and using that to prop up their Biblical literalism generally.

It’s that word, covenant. I brushed over it in the play-by-play of the story, but early on God makes a covenant with Noah -- trust me, do as I say, and I will spare you and your family. Noah does, and God does.

That forms a model for another covenant, this one no longer between God and one man but between God and all people, and for that matter all creatures. Trust me, do as I say, learn from me, walk with me, and you will be spared. Spared not only of global extinction, but of sin, of death, of separation from God. You will not only be spared, but lifted up. Redeemed.

This covenant, then, the covenant of the rainbow, leads directly to another covenant. God fulfills his promise, and then some. More than simply refraining from drowning us if we behave, God offers a means to free ourselves from sin entirely, through the redemption of Jesus.

Rather than attempt fanciful explanations to take a literally physically impossible event and make it plausible, let’s reflect on our relationship with God, God’s promises to us, and what God asks in return. God promises eternal life, redemption and salvation, and offers it directly through Jesus. In return God asks us to trust God and, as Noah did, do what is asked of us even when it feels impossible. Whereas Noah was asked to build a giant boat and fill it with animals, we are asked to love our neighbors unconditionally, sacrifice of ourselves to care for the poor, live with humility and love justice. And there are days, aren’t there? There are days when loving my neighbor feels as impossible as putting a pair of dinosaurs on a boat, yet I try. And that’s what God asks.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Story of Sodom and Gomorrah is Way More Insane Than You Think.

The sad tale of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of a half-dozen or so Bible passages that conservatives use as evidence that homosexuality is sinful. The argument is usually something like, “God destroyed two cities because they accepted homosexuality,” sometimes with a suggestion that a similar fate awaits America if we allow marriage equality and take other steps to accept homosexuality.

I think neither those who use that argument nor those who reject it have really read the story recently. There is one tangential reference to homosexual acts. The story has more than homosexuality. Oh, so much more. Enough to make any Christian squeamish and maybe even doubtful … and enough to put Biblical conservatives in a tough spot.

I encourage you to read the entire story yourself before you dig through my synopsis and reactions. I am not a Biblical scholar, so my take on certain words and translations, along with my interpretations, will not necessarily be authoritative. I do rely on others’ scholarship, though, so this isn’t entirely me shooting from the hip. But because I don’t want you to take my word for it, read it yourself, if you have time:

Crazy, right? Like, complete lunacy.

I don’t know whether this really happened, or whether these two cities were real. If they were real, were they destroyed by God directly, or by some natural disaster that was later attributed to God, in the manner that some modern religious people still do? In any case, though, the story is fascinating for what it tells us about the way God was viewed at the time of its writing, what it says about righteousness, what it doesn’t say about homosexuality, and what it can teach us about sin.

Let’s dig in. I’ll just synopsize and drop in a verse here and there.

The Intro

Abraham is hanging out in his tent when three men appear. We later learn they are God and two angels. They tell Sarah, who is 90 years old, that she’ll have a son within a year. She laughs, they take umbrage at her laughing. (SPOILER: She will give birth to Isaac about a year later.)

Does God Know All?

The next section gets into the beginning of the end of Sodom. God has already decided, or is strongly leaning toward, destroying Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. There are no specifics here about what specific wickedness is happening. God considers whether to tell Abraham of his plan, and ultimately decides that he will fill Abraham in. The he says to Abraham:

“How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”

Notice anything? If you’re just sifting through this story looking for homosexuality, you might miss kind of a big thing here. Something that causes considerable discomfort, especially if you want to take the Bible literally:

God is not omniscient.

We are taught now that God is all-knowing. Knows everything, past, present and future. Yet here, someone had to come and tell him that Sodom and Gomorrah were full of wicked people, and then he has to go check it out for himself.

Does that mean God isn’t all-knowing, as we’ve been taught? I doubt it. My own sense is that God was viewed very differently at the time this text was written. In many other places in Genesis and Exodus, God is much more like the gods of the old polytheistic religions. He’s a person, kinda. He takes physical form. He has magical powers, but they’re limited. And he’s a bit capricious and vengeful.

This is not a God we are comfortable with today. But that’s how God is sometimes described in the book that is so often called His Word -- his inerrant, infallible Word. If God is the all-knowing, all-loving God we worship today, why would he let himself be depicted so differently? I don’t know.

That’s just the first uncomfortable moment in this story. There are more to come.

Abraham Dickers With God

God tells Abraham that he’s going to go see whether the reports of the sinfulness of these two cities is true, and if it is, that’s it. Both cities will be wiped from the earth.

Abraham asks, what if there are 50 righteous people? Surely God wouldn’t kill all of them alongside the wicked. And God agrees. And then Abraham, with an almost-humorous humility, talks him down to 10. If there are ten righteous people in Sodom, it will be spared.

SPOILER ALERT: Sodom will not  be spared. Which means there were fewer than ten righteous people. If we believe this is all about homosexuality, that means fewer than ten people didn’t practice homosexuality. Which makes no sense.

Not From Around Here, Are Ya?

God “goes on his way” while the two angels visit Sodom. At the gate, they run into Abraham’s nephew Lot, who tells them to stay with him rather than in the town square, though he doesn’t say why. They agree and dine with him in his house. But before bedtime, men from the city surround the house and start banging on the door, and yell to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”

That word “know” is a troublesome one. The original in our alphabet is yada, and in various places it means just what “know” seems to mean -- to become acquainted with. In other places it clearly means “to know in the Biblical sense” -- to have sexual relations with.

Liberals want it to mean just “know,” and contend that the men are just looking to interrogate the visitors. But in the next verse, Lot offers his daughters, who have not known a man, using that same word, yada. Obviously he’s not saying “my daughters have never been interviewed.” He’s offering them for sex, so it stands to reason that when the men say “know,” they mean sex also.

I know, I know - Lot offered his daughters for sex. Hold onto that thought. We’ll get back to that in a second.

First, though, this moment in which the men of the city want to have sex with the angels is pretty much the singular basis for the contention that Sodom was destroyed over homosexuality. But let’s look at the rest of this encounter … Lot says, “do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” The angels grab Lot and pull him inside, and the mob tries to break down the door, and don’t stop even when the angels strike them blind.

So it seems to me this is not a group of men coming over and saying, “Lot, those boys you brought in are really cute. Introduce us so we can make sweet love with them.” Rather, this seems to me a riotous mob who hates any outsiders, and comes marauding over to Lot’s house to teach the foreigners a lesson through violent rape. Seems to me the wickedness here is not that they want to have sex with men; rather, it’s that they want to use forcible sex as a weapon to subdue and injure people who are different from them.

Also, keep in mind -- God pretty much decided to destroy this city some time ago. Nothing these men do in this encounter causes the destruction. Their riotous, xenophobic, violent, oppressive behavior just confirms God’s suspicions that these are pretty awful people, and that’s what seals the city’s fate.

Let’s take a step back to that other thing.

When the mob calls on Lot to hand over the strangers, he says no, and offers an alternative: his two daughters, who have never known a man. He doesn’t offer their hands in marriage -- oh no, he tells the men to “do to them as you please.” And of course the men not-very-politely decline his offer. (By the way, some modern conservatives view this as evidence of the definite gayness of the men in the mob. Don’t wanna rape a virgin? You must be gay.) Anyway, the zaniest part of this, to me, is that Lot would rather his virgin daughters be gang-raped than let harm come to the men visiting him -- men he has just met. And this is perfectly okay.

God, the angels, Lot, and the author of this text all think this is a perfectly reasonable response. In fact, in the morning, the angels tell Lot of their intention to destroy the city, and tell him to take his whole family and flee. A later verse indicates that they do this because Lot is a relative of Abraham, but surely, they wouldn’t do that unless they found him at least mostly righteous, right? There’s no sense here that they feel anything like, “That thing with your daughters was not cool, but you were under pressure. You’re pretty good otherwise.” No, there is no indication that anyone, even the daughters themselves, thought that offering them up to be raped was a bad idea.

Please point this out to anyone who says the Bible is kind to women. Because in many cases it’s not. It accurately depicts the ways in which various cultures in various eras and epochs treated their women. But it fails to pass judgement on some pretty deplorable, oppressive behavior by men.

The Escape

Lot’s stunt with his daughters is so perfectly acceptable that the angels decide to spare him and his entire family. He goes to the men who were to marry his daughters -- oh wait, that’s another thing. The daughters were engaged. Anyway, he goes to those two gents and says come with us, God is about to destroy the city. They laugh and stay put. Lot also hesitates, but the angels physically drag him, his wife and his daughters to the edge of the city and tell them to head for the hills with stern instructions not to look back. They obey, except that Lot’s wife does look back and becomes a pillar of salt, because, you know, of course that’s what happens. And then fire and brimstone rains down, and from his place up on a hill Abraham sees the smoldering ruins and “the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace.”

The Denouement

That’s pretty much the end of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but Genesis 19 has another couple of interesting paragraphs. Their future husbands having been killed in the fire and brimstone, Lot’s daughters worry that their family line will end. So they do the only logical thing -- get their father drunk, have sex with him without his knowledge, and bear his children, Moab and Ammon.

The Bible’s full of good old-fashioned family values, innit?

I should mention that this particular telling of the story does not say anything specific about whether Lot having relations with his daughters was good or bad. It does say, however, that the two sons would go on to become the fathers of the Moabites and the Ammonites -- two tribes that did not get along particularly well with the Israelites. The people reading the book at the time would have had pretty low opinions of the Moabites and the Ammonites, so the names of the sons born of the incest would imply that the incest was deplorable and not condoned.

So to recap …

In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah ….

  • God plans on destroying the cities for some unspecified crimes;
  • God has heard of these crimes secondhand and does not know for sure what’s going on;
  • The men of Sodom seal their own fate by behaving very badly;
  • That bad behavior probably has more to do with getting rapey than being homosexual;
  • It’s better to let your virgin daughters be raped than your grown male guests whom you’ve just met;
  • When you flee a sinful place, don’t look back.

And that last point is really what this is all about, for me. It’s difficult for me to say this story is told as it literally happened, or that it gives us specific information about specific ways we should behave today.

To me, this story is all about rejecting sin. Sodom becomes an allegory for our sins; the mob at Lot’s door represents all of our sinful desires, the loud, obstreperous voices urging, begging us to go ahead and do whatever we want. This story, to me, shows that God wants us not just to avoid sin, but to flee from it. To run and never look back. God wants us to try to bring those we love with us out of and away from sin. And in the end, when we have overcome our human desires to stay where we are comfortable, when we have let the angels drag us away and when we have finally resolved to leave sin behind, we must not look back. We mustn’t remember our sin fondly; we mustn’t leave it behind with the hope or even the thought that we might return to it one day.

And that lesson, sadly, is completely lost on many readers, because they’re looking for a specific thing rather than remaining open to what God’s Word really has to say. Focus on one particular act that may or may not be sinful, and that is only tangentially part of this story, distracts from this central lesson, and prevents the reader learning it. The Bible becomes a book about what other people are doing wrong, rather than instructions on what we should do right. It is misread and misused, and misuse of God’s gift -- his Word -- is, to me, sinful and deeply tragic.