Apart from the Gospels, Genesis is arguably the best known book in The Bible. It’s got the creation, the fall, the flood, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his coat of many colors, and so on, all tied nicely together with the occasional so-and-so begat so-and-so. Now, until last month, I had not read Genesis since I was about twelve, at which time, not having formal religious guidance, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah went completely over my head. Later in life, it seemed obvious that the derivation of the word sodomy could be traced to the biblical story, and I assumed that this must have had something to do with the “wickedness” of the towns in question, but I admit that I was shocked when I recently read the actual account.
Now, bear in mind that God has already been planning to destroy the city, but Abraham talks him into sparing it if ten righteous men can be found within its walls. That evening, his nephew Lot accepts two angels disguised as men into his house. And here is how the King James Bible describes what happens next:
“But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter:
And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them.
And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him,
And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly.
Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes; only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.” (Genesis 19:4-8)
If one were unfamiliar with the Biblical sense of the verb “to know,” one might believe merely that the men of the town were being friendly, and wished to become acquainted with the strangers. In fact, in a Gideon’s Bible, which I found in a hotel room, to my neverending surprise, the word “carnally” had been added to the passage in order to clarify its meaning. So how are we to interpret this particular story? Since the angels whisk Lot away from the city before it is destroyed with brimstone and fire, it must be presumed that his acts are righteous. Speaking to the very strict code of hospitality to which the ancients generally adhered, he protects the strangers under his roof, if necessary, even at the expense of sacrificing the virginity of his own daughters, which leads one to suspect that perhaps chastity was of less value in biblical times than previously believed. (Of course, afterwards, he goes on to impregnate his two daughters himself, but that is a subject for another post.) By contrast, in their “unrighteousness,” every single man of Sodom turns out to barge in Lot’s door in order “know” the men within, an orgy of homosexual indulgence which even the gayest of men could hardly be expected to endure.
If we wonder at the veracity or import of this account, we must acknowledge that nearly the same story is told again in a different setting in the Book of Judges. A certain Levite and his concubine are taken in by an old man, when “certain sons of Belial beset the house round about, and beat at the door . . . saying ‘Bring forth the man that came into thine house, that we may know him,’ ” (Judges 19:22) to which the master of the house replies,
“. . .Seeing that this man is come into mine house, do not this folly. Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you: but unto this man do not so vile a thing.” (Judges 19:24)
Well, the Levite brings forth his concubine, and after the men have “abused her all the night until the morning,” (Judges 19:25) she dies on the doorstep, after which her man divides her corpse into twelve pieces and sends them to all of the coasts of Israel. What lesson are we to learn from this? That it is better to rape a woman than a man seems obvious; for a man to lie with another man is an “abomination” which leads the Lord to destroy entire cities, whereas to rape a woman is a crime which, in the Biblical context, may or may not be punished. And the intense fear of male homosexuals revealed in such stories may have been a reaction to the homosexuality openly practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who often focused their attentions upon young and relatively helpless boys.
But what is particularly fascinating about the Biblical depiction of homosexuality is the manner in which it seems to have carried over into modern-day homophobia. The gay men of today are more often stereotyped as effeminate or weak; their masculinity is questionable and therefore, not intimidating. Yet the Biblical homosexual is not only uncontrollably promiscuous, but aggressive in the extreme, and it is perhaps this attitude which has led to the widespread yet unfounded perception of the predatory nature of the homosexual community, even in the current day, and even in spite of the characterization of homosexual men as fairies, queens, and other feminine creatures. Granted, I do not have statistical information at my fingertips to support this assertion, but to my knowledge, outside of prison and other all-male environments, which contain many more opportunistic than natural homosexuals, it is rare for a man to find himself with a penis in his posterior merely because he bent over in the presence of a gay man. In fact, isn’t it straight men who typically gang up on homosexuals and not the other way around? If heterosexual men are supposed to be tough and manly, it certainly makes little sense for them to fear a gay man, much less to require the assistance of a crowd to take one down. Then why the attitude?
Current wisdom in the non-homophobic community contends that homophobes fear homosexuals and homosexuality because it speaks to their own hidden inner tendencies. In some cases, yes, this is probably true, but in most, I would disagree. I now believe that it is far more likely to derive from The Bible and the issues of its own time which it has carried forth through the centuries. If your first impression of homosexuals is that they will cluster about your house en masse and then beat down the door in order to defile you, of course you will fear them; it’s natural to go on believing what you’re taught when you’re young – that’s how most of us get religion in the first place. It would also tend to explain why female homosexuals are so much more readily accepted than males; again, except in certain special contexts, women are generally perceived as non-threatening, and even people who are disgusted by lesbians in principle are much less likely to be afraid of them. And, interestingly enough, although The Bible laments male homosexuality on countless occasions, the sole oblique reference to lesbianism that I have located is in the epistle of Paul to the Romans:
“For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature.” (Romans 1:26)
Of course, if you read Paul’s epistles, you get the distinct and sometimes overt impression that he’s supplementing a good portion of his given faith with his own beliefs (also a subject for another post), and perhaps that is why his remark seems so particularly out of place given that female homosexuality is mentioned nowhere else in two massive testaments. In any case, although the homosexuality of today encompasses members of both sexes, it appears that, in biblical times, this was apparently not so, and one wonders whether it was because lesbianism was so uncommon, so clandestine, or so unoffensive in a way that male homosexuality never could be. Indeed, it makes one wonder whether it is the concept of homosexuality that the Biblical God finds so abhorrent or merely some of the forms in which it is practiced.