Sunday, 19 October 2014

Raining burning sulphur and inclusive marriage

I have had two discussions about inclusive marriage on Facebook recently. 

One was a very balanced debate with a former vicar who clearly read the bible very differently from me. Despite our differences it was a respectful exchange of views. The other was less pleasant. One contributor simply said that I was wrong and that they would pray for my enlightenment – possibly the ultimate evangelical put down!

But what was interesting was that on both occasions reference was made to Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of the ‘sin’ of homosexuality. I have recently re-read Genesis 19 in some detail. To be honest it was a bit of a surprise.

We all know the plot. Two angels visit Sodom and are welcomed by Lot. A gang gathers at the house demanding that the angels are brought out – ‘so that we can have sex with them..’ This is shocking behaviour, only matched by Lot’s offer to the gang that they take his virgin daughters instead. We are all familiar with the destruction of the cities as they face God’s judgement. The argument seems to be that the actions of the men of Sodom are the same as those who are gay in the 21st Century; therefore they should not be allowed to marry.

Now there are a few obvious flaws with this. It places more emphasis on the same sex issue more obvious crime of ‘gang rape’. The intended victims were not, of course, human men at all. But let’s leave all that aside for a minute and look at the story in detail.

The first thing to note is that the angels were there to destroy the cities in any event. They tell Lot in verse 13 that they have been sent to destroy them. So they were going to get the burning sulphur treatment anyway. In fact if you go back and read chapter 18 you see that Abraham is told about the grievous sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.

So there must another reason beyond the actions of the mob. I suppose the obvious response is that this was just one episode and if this is how they lived, then they deserved all they got. But there is nothing in the story to suggest that this was the main problem.

So what was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? According to the prophet Ezekiel it was something quite different. In Chapter 16 of that book we read – ‘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.’

That moves the discussion in a completely different direction. So the real sin was not caring for the poor. There is far far more in the bible about that, than there is about same sex relationships.

I have written before about the need to take care with factually literal reading of the bible.



We have to be even more careful about grafting our ideas onto stories written in a different age. This is a story of shocking violence. I think it highly unlikely that hot sulphur really came down from the sky to destroy everyone in these cities. There is a broad message about God’s protection of those who are faithful to him. And at his anger at those who ignore the cries of the poor and weak. 

On a closer reading this is a million miles away from any current debate about the nature of marriage. It is one of those difficult Old Testament stories that might contain some broad message. But to extract an argument that somebody in a committed gay relationship is somehow guilty of the sin of these two cities is both inappropriate and a bit embarrassing.