Note: I should preface this by stating that my interest in theology is primarily an epistemic one. That is, I’m interested in how we form beliefs, and how the beliefs that we already have influence our perspective on new information. Miranda Fricker uses an example from To Kill a Mockingbird, though out her book, Epistemic Injustice, where, in the face of counter veiling evidence, the white jurors of the story simply could not let go of their notion of what it was to be a black man. Because of their prejudicial background beliefs, they could not see the truth.

In the following, I suggest that long-standing misinterpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has had a similar prejudicial effect on the way that much of Christian society views homosexuality.

When it comes it politics, in a pluralistic society, I tend to think we should leave theological arguments off the table when possible. Political issues can be divisive enough, even from a more philosophical starting point—so why throw fuel on the fire? But, with the Catholic Church in Minnesota sending out anti-same sex marriage DVD’s to every Catholic in their state it’s clear that opponents of legalizing same-sex marriage are strongly motivated by their religious ideals. Despite what I see as a distinction between marriage as a civil institution and marriage as a religious institution, I realize that, for some folks, secular arguments on this issue will never be enough.

For many, the Bible and homosexuality is a done deal with no room for even the possibility of reconsideration without simply ignoring certain Biblical passages. However, I am not so sure.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is probably the most recognizable biblical narrative that’s historically been used to condemn same-sex sexuality; theologians like Augustine and Luther held the view that Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin was homosexuality. Because it’s a narrative—and one with fire and brimstone no less—as opposed to a mere prohibition, it seems to carry more weight in the cultural psyche. But when we look at the text itself, it’s not clear that sexual orientation had anything to do with Sodom’s sin.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story in Genesis 19, God sends two angels down to Sodom to see just how bad the city is; depending on what the angels find, God plans to destroy it. This fellow Lot (Abraham’s nephew), meets the angels at the city gate, and invites them to stay in his home for the night. Subsequently, all the men of Sodom show up at Lot’s house, and demand the angels be sent out so that they may “know” them (i.e., have sex with them). Lot pleads with the men of the city, and offers up his two virgin daughters to them instead. The wicked men of Sodom refuse Lot’s offer, and attempt to attack Lot in rage. The angels save Lot, and then warn him to take his family and run for the hills because God is going to destroy the entire city.

There are two reasons people tend to think that the men of Sodom were gay: they try to rape two men, and they turn down the offer of two women. The standard line of reasoning then goes, since God destroyed all of them gay sex must be sinful. There are a couple of serious problems with this interpretation though.

First, the men of Sodom tried to rape the two angels. They didn’t try to have consensual sex. That’s a relevant distinction. Second, God saved Lot. Lot offered up his own two daughters to be raped. If the sin was a violation of sexual ethics, and Lot was worth saving, but the men of Sodom are not, then it seems like the difference between heterosexual rape and homosexual rape is the difference between salvation and total destruction. That seems morally problematic.

The other serious problem is that there’s another story in Judges 19, it’s relevantly similar, and it just can’t be interpreted the same way people tend to look at Genesis 19. Like the story of Sodom, non-natives seek refuge for the night in a town; the non-natives are told that they should not spend the night in the town square; the non-natives are taken in by another non-native; the native townsmen surround the house and demand that a man be sent out so they can rape him; two women are offered to the crowd instead; and the crowd refuses the offer. But unlike the story of Sodom, a woman ends up getting raped anyway by the same crowd that originally wanted to rape a man.

If there’s anything Judges 19 tells us, it’s that a story, in which men intend to rape men, is not intrinsically tied to homosexuality. The threat of rape in is not motivated by sexual desire, but the desire for domination. It’s a way of saying, “We don’t want you here—and if you insist on staying, we will make it so miserable for you that you will no longer want to.”

There is another similarity in each of these stories though—and that is the “good guys” each offer shelter for the night to complete strangers ; each is an immigrant to the communities in which they reside ; and each offers up someone (presumably) valuable to themselves for the sake of protecting their (male) guest . Their hospitality is set in direct opposition to the hostility of their larger communities towards strangers.

When the men of Sodom refuse Lot’s offer of his daughters, they don’t just say no. They disparage him because he’s an immigrant in their community: “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge!” Lot has usurped the social order by deigning to refuse the native class what they demand- and they want to put him in his place.

When Lot is the “good guy” of the story, and the men of Sodom are the “bad guys,” might we understand it better in terms of immigration policy than same-sex marriage? Should those who want to take scripture seriously and apply it to their lives be thinking of this in terms of Arizona’s new immigration law rather than in terms of marriage? Is it possible that a long-standing misinterpretation has prejudicially influenced people who take Genesis as part of their scripture? I the text gives us good reason to think so.

And now, just for fun: