Dana Robert Hicks
In an ironic twist, the sin of Sodom is wildly different than what most people think it is.
The five of us arrived in Bujumbura, Burundi during a hot and sticky July night. Only one of us had ever been to this east African country before, but a brief look at the US State Department’s website suggested that, for our safety’s sake, it would be best to rethink our plans. We were there at the encouragement of a Nazarene District Superintendent whom we call Luke. We call him Luke because we Americans find it too difficult to say or remember his complex African name. Luke wanted to partner with us in developing some new ministries in Burundi and invited us to join him for dinner, in his home, in the center of the capital city of Bujumbura.
Crammed into an old and barely road-worthy Toyota Corolla, we bounced through the rutted streets of Bujumbura to Luke’s apartment. The lack of a moon or streetlights was foreboding and reminded us that we were a world away from home. The smell of the open fires in barrels greeted us and provided most of the light for the five strange and mysterious muzungus (the Swahili word for “white people”). One of us mumbled something about heeding the State Department’s suggestions as we took a deep breath and moved toward Luke’s humble home.
Luke and his wife provided us with a wonderful meal of tilapia, rice, and beans that we guessed cost him about two weeks’ salary. We later learned that he had borrowed furniture from his neighbors to ensure that everyone had a place to sit. We ate and laughed and despite being half-way around the world in a mysterious and dangerous country, we felt safe, welcomed, and loved.
We were all Americans, and so this was the first time in our lives that we were in a situation in which our safety and well-being were completely dependent on the good graces of people we did not know well. But for our African brothers and sisters, this is not an unfamiliar position to find oneself. Luckily for us, Burundian attitudes about hospitality have remained intact for centuries. The ethos of hospitality today in Burundi is very similar to what life would have been like in the Ancient Near East.
In the Ancient Near East, hospitality toward strangers was considered a sacred duty. Because people were so nomadic in the ancient world, travel was almost always out of necessity, not for vacations. As a result, as people would travel from one region to another, often they would encounter hostile environments and would find themselves in vulnerable and dangerous situations. Hospitality was literally a matter of life and death for many people.
So deeply rooted was this ethic of hospitality that a stranger had the right to expect hospitable treatment. In fact, a stranger did not need to thank their host because the host was only doing what they were obligated to do. No expense or labor was too great for the traveler, who was treated as the master of the house.
The Hebrew scriptures reinforced this ethic in part through the commands given to them (such as Leviticus 19:33ff and Deuteronomy 10:13ff) but also through the recurring theme of remembering what it was like to be strangers in Egypt and Babylon (Exodus 22:21). Over and over the Hebrew scriptures admonish groups of people for their lack of hospitality: the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Benjaminites, and, most famously, the Sodomites.
The Sodomites were the worst. From some extra-biblical literature, we know that the ancient city of Sodom was famous for its cruelty and unwillingness to care for strangers: the vulnerable, marginalized, and people that were different from them. While following the journeys of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, the Hebrew scriptures provide a cautionary tale in Genesis 19.
Two strangers arrive in the city of Sodom and meet one of the city’s newest residents: Lot. Unbeknownst to everyone, the two strangers are God’s angels. As a person of good character, Lot shows gracious hospitality to the two men and prepares a feast. But as word spreads of the men’s presence, people become fearful of the individuals Lot is hosting. A mob surrounds Lot’s house and demands that Lot turn over the men to them so that they may “yada” (יְדֲע) them (Gen 19:5).
Yada is a common word in the Hebrew scriptures, and 99% of the time the word is translated in English, “to know.” So, some English versions of the Bible (KJV, ESV, and NRSV) translate the motives of the men of Sodom to “get to know” the angels. But sometimes the Hebrew scriptures use yada as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. (Like in Genesis 4:1 when it says, “The man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain”). As a result, some English translations (NIV and NASB) interpret the motives of the men of Sodom to rape or molest the angels.
The story continues with Lot offering up his daughters to appease the mob. Our modern sensibilities (understandably) have a very difficult time wrapping our heads around this response. However, this is a good example of the degree to which people would go to in the ancient world to practice hospitality. Nevertheless, the Sodomite mob decline Lot’s offer and storm the house. The angels blind the mob and the next morning Lot, his family, and the angels all flee Sodom as God destroys the city along with the neighboring city, Gomorrah.
It is a hair-raising story, and everyone would agree that the city of Sodom was an evil mess and we would do well to pay attention to this cautionary tale and avoid being “Sodomites.” In the last few centuries, some people have understood that the story was a warning about men having consensual sex with each other. This is, of course, where we get the modern expression, “sodomy.” The use of this term is very misleading, however, because the mob was trying to rape the angels as an act of terrorism (something that was neither uncommon in the ancient world nor in our world), not attempting to have consensual sex with them.
Years later, the prophet Ezekiel, speaking on behalf of God, would highlight the story of Sodom by saying: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)
According to Ezekiel, what made Sodom such a dumpster fire was not consensual gay sex; rather, it was those who turned their backs on the “poor and needy”, the vulnerable, and those who were different. In other words, the sin of Sodom was their inability to practice hospitality.
In the New Testament, the writer to the Hebrews reinforces the urgency of practicing hospitality by alluding to the Sodom story—“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)
In Jesus’ teachings, the practice of hospitality towards the stranger among us is, in reality, the reception of Jesus himself (Matthew 25:43). And conversely, the lack of hospitality is a rejection of Jesus himself.
In Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, he takes it one step further by declaring that one of the requirements of church leaders is people who practice hospitality (1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8). When we hear this with our American ears, we might assume that it means we should occasionally throw dinner parties or have a spare room for visiting friends. But Paul is thinking and writing with more of an ancient mindset, similar to what my church leader friend Luke in Burundi modeled for us. The practice of hospitality means to welcome, embrace, and love people that we may not understand, that we may not agree with, and that we may even find repulsive for one reason or another. And even to protect them from others who may mean to do them harm.
The whole concept of hospitality is hard for me to wrap my head around. I am a white, straight, middle-aged man who lives in the most prosperous country in the world. As a result, I literally had to travel 8,944 miles to Bujumbura, Burundi in order to get far enough out of my element to be regarded as a strange and mysterious muzungu. I had to travel 8,944 miles in order to appreciate what it means to be the beneficiary of true, authentic, God-inspired hospitality—to feel the vulnerability and to experience the effort, the sacrifice, and the love of my friend Luke.
The point is this—to call our LGBTQ brothers and sisters “sodomites” is to completely miss the point of this ancient story. Instead, perhaps the deepest irony of the modern church is that the Sodomites in our midst are those of us who refuse to practice hospitality with the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable—those who we may not understand, that we may not agree with, and that we may even find repulsive for one reason or another. The LGBTQ are the strangers among us, the forgotten ones of impoverished opportunity. The Sodomites among us, therefore, are those who refuse to welcome them.
Pride is at the root of the sin of Sodom as we close the door to those God is sending to stand in our midst. We are guilty of wanting sanctification on its own terms while condescendingly refusing to extend hospitality to these strangers. If we have the spiritual integrity to reject the sin of Sodom, we entertain angels while embracing all that God is doing among those whose sexuality is different than ours.
This is not a fashionable position to take. Lot and his family had to flee Sodom because of their fundamental commitment to practice hospitality. The question remains for all of us—will you be among those who are willing to entertain the angels among us?
The Reverend Dr. Dana Robert Hicks is a third generation Nazarene. He received a Master of Divinity from Nazarene Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Besson Pastor Doctoral Fellowship at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is author of The Knot (SacraSage Press, 2022) and blogs at DanaHicks.blog. He currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona.
. Extra-biblical stories included the Sodomites’ physical torture of travelers as well as their burning of a young woman who had dared to share food with a family that was starving of hunger.
. Some thoughtful readers may recognize the Jude 7 reference to Sodom and Gomorrah as a seemingly different interpretation of Genesis 19. However, the phrase σαρκὸς ἑτέρας in Jude 7 literally translates as “strange” or “other” flesh. In this context, I would argue that the phrase refers to the divine, or other-worldly, nature of the angelic visitors to Sodom. As a result, the Sodomite mob’s desire to rape God’s angels is likened to the sins of the mysterious “sons of God” in Genesis 6 who had sex with human females and led to the Great Flood in Genesis 7.