Lot (1)

Abraham and the Stranger at Sodom and Gomorrah

Why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed? The answer provides a path that may help heal our relationships and our nation.

The account of the destruction of the sister cities Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 has proven to be one of the most exegetically contested passages of Scripture. Couched in the Abraham narrative cycle of Genesis 12–25, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the “sin of Sodom” provoking the cities’ obliteration has proven especially delicate, even distressing, for many modern readers who encounter the increasing visibility and acceptance of LGBT identity in mainstream culture. Writing for a conservative Evangelical Christian audience who grapples with questions and concerns about the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), biblical scholar Tremper Longman III, in Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence,  acknowledges that,

Perhaps the most controversial issue [among those raised about the Hebrew Bible] has to do with sexuality, in particular homosexuality. Until the past few decades, the Bible was pretty much universally understood to prohibit homosexual activity, and even today the vast majority of the global church holds that view. However, some evangelical scholars in the Western church have reconsidered their opinion. Civil society recognizes same-sex marriages, and many churches, typically non-evangelical churches, welcome openly gay people into membership and even the clergy.

Longman’s observation about the increasing tensions within the Evangelical Christian faith community over LGBT matters should strike a chord with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who observe similar concerns rising within our own ranks. But why has the story of Sodom and Gomorrah caused so much contemporary angst? As Longman reminds us, Genesis 18:20–21 speaks of a sin (ḥaṭṭāʾ[t]) so outrageous on the part of the inhabitants of these two infamous cities that the Lord Himself rhetorically signifies His own incredulity at the reports (“outcry”; ṣaʿăqātā) that He is hearing. This grievous sin ultimately justifies the utter destruction of the cities and their inhabitants. “But what exactly is the sin of Sodom here?” Longman asks. “[T]he story of Sodom and Gomorrah . . . over the years has often been cited as a text relevant to the issue of homosexuality,” and so “to many, the answer is obvious, and they point to the sexual nature of the sin,” he answers (referring to Genesis 19:5). 

This understanding of the text was infamously captured in Jack Chick’s 1989 sensationalist comic tract Doom Town, in which an evangelical Christian cameraman covering a gay rights rally for the news attempts to proselytize a young gay man by recounting to him the horrors of Sodom and its downfall. The tract ends with the ominous message that “[God] destroyed an entire city because of the sin of homosexuality.” As prevalent as this reading of the story might be among fundamentalist and ultra-conservative Christians, however, Longman urges us that “we should not jump too quickly to that answer.” 

This final caveat is what I wish to explore in this paper. The thesis I offer here is that because Latter-day Saints, like other contemporary Christians, do not share the ancient Near Eastern cultural knowledge assumed by the biblical authors, they have often misunderstood the “sin of Sodom” in the book of Genesis to concern what we today call sexual orientation. As I will elaborate below, this is an anachronist reading of the story that misses the primary theological and moral point. My purpose is not to elaborate on sexuality in the Bible or the modern day, although some explicit discussion will be required to explain the Sodom narrative. Rather, I intend to demonstrate that the primary concern of the story is to model and contrast Abraham’s hospitality and care for the stranger and the foreigner with the deliberate and extreme mistreatment of the stranger and the foreigner by the inhabitants of Sodom. The abusive sexual nature of the mistreatment, in the ancient mind, would have been subsumed under the crime of inhospitality.

This reading may not be culturally logical for Latter-day Saints or other Christians today, but it accomplishes two important purposes. First, it accounts for the broader textual and cultural context of the story, and explains why descriptions of it elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible do not explicitly associate the sin of Sodom with sexuality, but rather with “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease” and with failing to “aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). Second, it realigns perceptions of the story so that neither “conservatives” who misread it as a direct commentary on the modern notion of sexual orientation nor “progressives” who misread it as having nothing whatsoever to do with sexuality both find themselves having to rethink their approach. With this approach to the text, I thus hope to problematize these polarized (and polemical) readings of the narrative and redirect Latter-day Saint readers towards a positive application of care for the stranger and foreigner as well as care for their LGBT siblings in and out of the Church.

Homosexual Behavior and Sexual Orientation in the Ancient Near East

Most Latter-day Saints living in the twenty-first century are probably at least somewhat familiar with the concept of sexual orientation. As explained by Latter-day Saint licensed marriage and family therapist Ty Mansfield in a 2016 article, “

Given that we feel different kinds of [sexual or romantic] attraction toward different people for different reasons, and given that various attractions or even patterns of attraction may either change over time or remain more stable, the idea of ‘sexual orientation’ refers to those patterns of attraction that tend to be persistent. 

As Mansfield elaborates, a “variety of individual factors and experiences have influenced and shaped the nature of sexuality, sexual desire, and our personal sexual identity,” and so the categories that are assumed under the concept of sexual orientation (straight, gay, bisexual, and potentially others) are not universally delineated or recognized across cultures and subcultures. What’s more, in contemporary understanding there is often, but not always, a distinction made between sexual orientation (how one orients their self-conceived identity relative to their sexual and romantic attractions) from sexual behavior (the pattern of behavior or habits that is enacted through sexual or romantic relationships). These and other factors play together in complicated ways as the individual constructs a personal identity, which is why “being gay” or “being straight” are not “scientific idea[s], but rather a cultural and philosophical one[s], addressing the subjective concept of identity.”

Although this all may seem straightforward and logical, it is, in fact, essentially an entirely modern construct. As scholars of the ancient Near East have pieced together how the ancients understood human sexuality, they have stressed two points. First, ancient Near Eastern cultures widely acknowledged and understood that homosexual behavior was a real phenomenon, but second, they did not really seem to imagine the existence of sexual orientations or identities the way we do today. “In the ancient Near East one cannot speak either of uniform approval or uniform disapproval” of homosexual behavior, observes Robert A. J. Gagnon in The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. “Viewpoints varied among different population groups (ethnic, socioeconomic, religious) and during different periods of history.” However, what does appear to be constant across ancient Near Eastern societies is that there was not really any sense that engaging in homosexual behavior made one a “homosexual” as a categorical identity. Writing in 1998, the Finish theologian Martti Nissinen perceptively framed the problem in his important work Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective thus:

The essential question is how ancient texts, whether biblical or other, pertain to today’s understandings of same-sex interaction. Mechanical paralleling of the modern and ancient worlds often results in distorted perspectives in which modern questions are carelessly put into the mouths of ancient speakers. Not only are the ancient sources culture-bound, reflecting the values of their own environment, but so also are modern readers. To achieve a meaningful comparison and to avoid anachronism and ethnocentricity, it is necessary first to outline modern questions and then to see how these questions correlate with the old texts and their particular issues.

Nissinen himself provides just such an analysis on Mesopotamian, Hebrew, and Classical (Greco-Roman) sources, concluding after his study that “the biblical material that relates to same-sex eroticism is sparse, scattered, and ambiguous. What the texts have in common is their negative attitude toward sexual contact between people of the same sex.” Elaborating further, Nissinen explains how “no single passage in the Bible actually offers a specifically formulated statement about same-sex eroticism. The topic appears as a secondary theme in a variety of contexts, with different texts answering different questions.” Because of this, Nissinen concludes that, on its own, the Bible actually offers little in addressing the various factors that interplay with each other in the formation of “sexual orientation” in the modern sense.

The image of homosexuality in the Bible and other ancient sources differs basically from modern images in that no distinction is made in the ancient sources between gender roles (man/woman), sexual orientation (homosexual/bisexual/heterosexual), and sexual practice. In those sources, erotic-sexual interaction on the part of people of the same sex is not considered a question of individual identity but a question of social roles and behavior. “Identity,” like “sexuality,” is an abstraction that became conceptualized only in modern times.  . . . The biblical authors, like other Jews, could obviously not think of homoerotic behavior as arising from any particular identity or orientation.

This explains why there is no word in biblical Hebrew for “homosexual” (either as an adjective or a noun), and indeed why there is no citable example from the Bible of any individual, good or bad, who is so described. What the Hebrew Bible condemns as an “abomination” (tôʿēbāh) are acts of homosexual behavior between two men (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). However one understands the intent underlying this condemnation and its applicability to modern same-sex relationships, there remains the fact that it does not categorize the participants in these acts as “homosexuals” the way we might today. Richard B. Parkinson comes to a similar position in describing the ancient Egyptians, arguing in a 1995 article in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology that the Egyptians clearly recognized sexual behavior between members of the same sex (especially men), but they never appeared to have conceived of those who participated in this behavior as “being gay.” “Textual evidence shows that Egypt did not witness any sense of categorization by sexuality,” writes Parkinson, “but that sexual acts between men were acknowledged to occur.” 

Hospitality in the Ancient Near East

Besides acknowledging the lack of a concept like “sexual orientation” in the ancient Near East, to best understand what is being depicted in Genesis 18–19 it is also important to know something about hospitality norms in the biblical world. The reason for this is because when most modern, Western readers of the Bible think of “hospitality,” they likely imagine not much more than being courteous to house guests or putting up with the in-laws when they visit during Thanksgiving. This, however, misses what was a crucially important ancient Near Eastern social convention. As Latter-day Saint biblical scholar Ben Spackman explains, “The ancient Near East was a harsh environment. Consequently, extremely strong taboos and duties arose . . . requiring you to provide for the traveler [and] the outsider passing through” your place of residence, be it your village, city, countryside, or, in the case of Abraham, your pastoral lands. Hospitality was, as Abraham J. Malherbe put it in the Oxford Companion to the Bible, “one of the most highly praised virtues in antiquity. In nomadic societies, hospitality was an unwritten law, and the stranger was regarded as divinely protected.”

Typically, ancient hospitality included a host providing food, water, shelter, and protection to the stranger (defined as one who was outside the immediate kinship or communal group), who in turn reciprocated by showing deference, loyalty, and graciousness back to the host for as long as they remained. This brought with it an unspoken but mutually understood structural hierarchy between the host and the guest. The stranger was, basically, subservient to and at the mercy of the host, and lacked many of the privileges enjoyed by members of the host’s communal or kinship group. However, being in the position of greater power, the host was burdened with an enormous responsibility to ensure the needs of the stranger were met and to avoid any wanton disregard for what limited rights the stranger might claim. The visitor, for example, might refuse some of the host’s hospitable gestures, although this brought with it the risk of offending the host. Certainly, too, the stranger or visitor had rights to personal privacy as well as bodily autonomy and safety (which, we will see, factors into the Sodom narrative in a pronounced way).

Typically, ancient hospitality included a host providing food, water, shelter, and protection to the stranger.

Reciprocity and mutuality was an integral part of ancient hospitality norms, and if both the host and the guest played their roles well, the outcome would be mutually beneficial, since, on the one hand, it “meant that the traveler had a greater chance of survival on the road,” while on the other it “lessened the instances of theft, raiding, and murder that might have occurred” in the host’s country or village, as explained cogently by Victor H. Matthews. Showing proper hospitality and care for the stranger and alien could quite literally be a matter of life and death in the ancient world, which is why Israel was commanded in the law of Moses not to abuse or neglect the needs of such persons in the land (Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:34). Having themselves once been a vulnerable, oppressed minority, ancient Israelites codified hospitality norms to make it a moral imperative that the safety of aliens was ensured (Deuteronomy 1:16–17; 16:11, 14; 24:14, 17–18; 26:12–13; 27:19; Leviticus 19:10; 23:22; 25:6). All of this cultural background must be kept in mind as we proceed to our reading of Genesis 18–19.

Reading Genesis 18–19

Chapter eighteen of the book of Genesis opens with Abraham being visited by three mysterious men, who appear to him at his tent near the oaks of Mamre in Hebron (NRSV Vv. 1–2; cf. 13:18). Upon seeing these men, whose identities are a secret to Abraham, the patriarch immediately brings them under his hospitality by providing water for their feet and preparing food for their consumption (Vv. 3–5). Despite his feigned modesty in wanting to give his guests merely “a little water” and “a little bread” (Vv. 4–5), Abraham turns around and urgently directs Sarah his wife to prepare cakes out of “choice flour” and commands a servant to dress a fatted calf (Vv. 6–8). As Robert Alter has noted in his magisterial translation of the Bible, it is precisely Abraham’s outlandish effort to accommodate the strangers that has immortalized the patriarch as an “exemplary dispenser of hospitality” in the Western tradition. “Extending hospitality,” writes Alter, “is the primary act of civilized intercourse,” and Abraham shines in the story for going above and beyond. After a brief exchange with the mysterious men (Vv. 9–15), the narrative shifts focus toward Sodom, which has been looming in the scene since chapter thirteen of Genesis when Lot and his family relocated there (13:10–12). It is here, in the Lord’s words at verses 20–21, where the momentous pronouncement against Sodom and Gomorrah is made: “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.” Afterward, the mysterious men depart from Abraham and enter Sodom, leaving the patriarch behind to famously attempt his bargain with the Lord in a vain attempt to save the city (Vv. 22–33).

The opening of chapter nineteen sees the men—now only two, and now identified as malʾākîm, “angels,” but not necessarily of an otherworldly, glorious type—entering Sodom “in the evening,” setting a foreboding tone for the scene and signaling the liminal, uncertain narrative space the readers are about to enter (v. 1). Immediately we encounter a perceptible contrast with the depiction of Abraham in the previous chapter. Whereas Abraham encountered the men in the middle of the day with the blazing hot sun illuminating the scene, in Sodom the men are greeted by Lot as the sun is setting, thereby literally and figuratively “setting the sun” on Sodom and foreshadowing its demise. The darkened atmosphere of the scene also evokes a sense of dread or apprehension absent in the previous chapter. Lot, like Abraham, offers his hospitality to the men, bidding them to enter his home for the night and, like Abraham, offering them food (Vv. 2–3). Like Abraham, he offers them a little water and bread, but unlike Abraham, that is all he gives them. Missing are the fatted calf and other delicacies that Abraham brought out for his guests. Again, the contrast between the two figures is clear. Abraham goes overboard, while Lot provides the bare minimum. 

Before the men could rest for long, however, the text narrates how “the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house” and demanded Lot surrender his guests to the mob (Vv. 4–5). Their illicit purposes are made clear with what is now a notorious euphemism: “Bring them out to us, so that we may know them” (v. 5). Lot’s equally notorious response, to offer up his virgin daughters as a substitute for the Sodomites’ ghastly intentions, is rejected by the mob, who again demand the strangers and now begin to threaten Lot and his family (Vv. 6–9). Suffice it to say, the morality of Lot’s increasingly desperate actions could not stand in sharper contrast to those of Abraham’s in the preceding chapter.

The men of Sodom eventually attempt to force their way into Lot’s home, an act of violence that the narrator uses effectively to rachet up the tension of the scene and to show that the mob means business (Vv. 9–10). Whereas chapter eighteen had passed in a scene of tranquil conversation between Abraham and the mysterious men, now the stage is jolted with violence and turmoil. At just this moment the strangers reveal their identities to the characters within the story—to Lot and his family—by striking the men of Sodom blind and warning Lot to flee the city, pronouncing, “Up, get out of this place; for the Lord is about to destroy the city” (Vv. 11–14). In a farcical display of deep irony that highlights his folly (in contrast to Abraham’s coy wisdom of chapter eighteen), Lot delays his escape, despite, incredibly, the impending destruction of the city, which the readers are anticipating at this point. So the angels are forced to drag him, his wife, and his two daughters out of the city, leaving behind the stubborn sons-in-law who, like the rest of the wicked men of the city, are left to perish (Vv. 15–23).

The pericope ends in a terrible display of the Lord’s fury, as was divinely promised: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground” (Vv. 24–25). For good measure, in one of the most memorable moments in the Bible, the Lord turns Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt when she looks back at the city (v. 26). Where was Abraham during all of this? Keeping his safe distance by overlooking the Jordan valley from Hebron, which from his vantage point looked like “the smoke of a furnace” (Vv. 27–28). The concluding lines of the account enshrine both its moral and narrative climax, “So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had settled” (v. 29).

The “Sin of Sodom” Revisited

With the story fresh in our minds, and with a bit of broader ancient Near Eastern cultural background, we can revisit the question of what, precisely, was the sin of Sodom. “God destroyed [the city of Sodom] because of the terrible things that were being done there—but what exactly were those things?” asks James L. Kugel in his sweeping overview of classical biblical interpretation. He reminds us that the biblical authors themselves answer this question differently (compare Jeremiah 23:14; Ezekiel 16:49–50), to say nothing of biblical interpreters since Antiquity who have gone back and forth over whether the sin was primarily “sexual profligacy” or “pride or stinginess, [and] an unwillingness to help the unfortunate of this world.” In either case, there is little reason to argue with Nahum Sarna’s succinct description of the sin of Sodom as a “heinous moral and social corruption, an arrogant disregard of basic human rights, [and] a cynical insensitivity to the sufferings of others.” Indeed, I believe my reading of the text offered here can satisfactorily harmonize these two interpretations.

On the one hand is the sexual nature of the sin. This cannot, and indeed should not, be minimized by readers of the text. As both historical and contemporary interpreters have stressed, an act of homosexual sex, or at least an intended act of such, was a clear component of the sin of Sodom. But what many interpreters, including many Latter-day Saints, have failed to appreciate about this sexual component of the sin of Sodom is that it does not involve notions of sexual orientation (homosexual or otherwise) as such. The men of Sodom were not “gay” in even the remotest sense of contemporary LGBT identity if for no other reason than the ancients did not share modern conceptions of sexual orientation. This point has been argued persuasively by Ken Stone in a recent exegesis of the passages under consideration. Stone, along with other scholars such as Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, rightly recognizes that, to use indelicate but necessarily blunt language, the men of Sodom basically attempted to gang rape Lot’s guests. “The men of Sodom demand[ed] access to Lot’s guests in order to rape them,” Stone writes. “Although this demand contributes to the negative characterization of the city of Sodom as an evil place, any application of this characterization to contemporary forms of homosexuality ignores the connotations of same-sex sexual violence in the ancient world. Within that context, sexual penetration is understood not in terms of sexual orientation but rather in terms of social submission.”

I hasten to add that this does not negate the fact that the Hebrew Bible elsewhere deems homosexual acts an “abomination” (tôʿēbāh). The Mosaic law condemns such acts, an attitude undoubtedly shared by the author of Genesis 18–19 and his ancient Israelite audience. “[T]he inherently degrading quality of same-sex intercourse [in an ancient Israelite mindset] plays a key role in the narrator’s intent to elicit feelings of revulsion on the part of the [ancient] reader/hearer,” Gagnon reminds us. The ancient Israelite audience for which this text was intended certainly would have agreed that the homosexual acts of the men of Sodom were wrong, and in that sense, the modern conservative Judeo-Christian understanding of this passage that recognizes homosexuality as (sinful) behavior matches up with the cultural assumptions of the author. Notwithstanding, as Longman rightly insists, “We should not consider the city of Sodom to be filled with men who have same-sex attraction. Rather, these men want[ed] to humiliate their foreign visitors” through a heinous act of sexual violence.

This brings us to the second component of the sin of Sodom. As noted already, biblical texts responding to the Sodom narrative describe the “guilt” (ʿăwôn) of Sodom as being “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease,” and, above all, failing to render “aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). This failure to provide Lot’s strangers the expected hospitality dictated by ancient Near Eastern custom, as explored earlier, was detected by the evangelists, who quote Jesus as using the example of Sodom in his own condemnation of those who refuse to show hospitality and care to his disciples (Matthew 10:14–15; cf. Luke 10:10–12). But what, precisely, did this inhospitality look like? Here we see the interplay with the sexual component of the sin. The intention of the men of Sodom was nothing less than to violently rape Lot’s guests; to render them into helpless victims robbed of their honor and humanity. With such an appalling portrayal the narrative displays the total moral breakdown of Sodom.

Crucial to this depiction of such a horrendous violation of hospitality norms and basic human decency is the utter depravity of the men of Sodom. “The stress is entirely on the mob’s horrible plans for mistreating the seemingly helpless visitors—not just that they wanted to mistreat them but the way in which they chose to mistreat them,” writes Gagnon. The ancient audience of this text would thus have seen the “abominable”/tôʿēbāh sexual acts of the men of Sodom as the culmination of gross inhospitality, not as sexual desire per se, and certainly not as a signifier of any kind of underlying LGBT sexual orientation. This is to say that the sin of Sodom has both a non-sexual and a sexual component, but it is not focused on sexuality the way many contemporary readers lacking this ancient cultural context might otherwise assume. Attempts to reductively define the sin of Sodom as either concerning only homosexual acts or concerning only aggressive inhospitality towards visitors are thus both problematic.

Caring for the Stranger Today

The issues discussed in this paper are unavoidably sensitive, and I have spoken frankly about what is depicted in the Sodom narrative. I have not done this to intentionally shock anybody, but rather to fully lay out what is and is not at stake with the moral and theological claims being made by the author of this account. I believe it is important to take scripture seriously even when it is uncomfortable and does not easily resonate with modern sensitivities. It is imperative that we frankly confront this undeniably hard text and understand it, to quote Nephi, “in plainness” so that there is no misunderstanding (cf. 2 Nephi 25:4). I hope that my exegesis of the text and analysis of the context has been helpful in that regard. But before I conclude, I wish to offer a few words on how we as Latter-day Saints today might  “liken” this passage of scripture “for our profit and learning” as it pertains to present societal and cultural concerns (1 Nephi 19:23).

As both historical and contemporary interpreters have stressed, an act of homosexual sex, or at least an intended act of such, was a clear component of the sin of Sodom.

First, from my reading of this text, we find Abraham as a role model for righteous hospitality and care for the vulnerable. In this way the patriarch can be seen as a type of Christ, as he selflessly sacrificed to ensure the needs of others, even strangers, were met before his own. As Hugh Nibley has perceptively noted in his classic work Abraham in Egypt, Abraham is upheld in both the Hebrew Bible and in Restoration scripture as a leading example of one who, through sacrifice and covenant, was able to secure the blessings of eternal life. “The history of Abraham is a story of contrasts and extremes. If meanness and inhospitality reach an all-time high in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham holds the record for charity and hospitality.” The patriarch’s unhesitating concern for the wellbeing of the stranger and the foreigner can serve as a model for Latter-day Saints today who witness the displacement and forced migration of peoples in the wake of war, famine, or economic disorder. The example of Abraham thus nicely complements Elder Patrick Kearon’s urging of members of the Church to be mindful of how they can reach out and assist refugees and other displaced persons in Christlike ways.

In trying to untangle the vexatious issue confronting us of LGBT identity and expression in the contemporary Church, Latter-day Saints should exercise the utmost caution not to carelessly brandish scriptural texts such as Genesis 19 in a misguided attempt to defend the Church’s position on the morality of homosexual behavior. It does nobody any favors (not the Church, not its moral teachings, not those who sincerely want to know how they can love and help their LGBT friends and family, and certainly not LGBT Latter-day Saints themselves) to misuse scripture in what might otherwise be a sincere attempt at balancing the two great commandments. As I have taken pains to demonstrate, the sin of Sodom does not pertain to sexual orientation as conceptualized today. The men of Sodom were not sinful for “being gay,” but for attempting to commit an appalling crime—the humiliation of vulnerable foreign guests through an act of sexual violence. Despite the ugly caricature in Jack Chick’s Doom Town, the men of Sodom are emphatically not representative of loving, consensual same-sex couples today. To be clear, this is not to say that consensual homosexual behavior is therefore morally permissible in the eyes of God, but rather that the Sodom narrative is not useful in buttressing the Latter-day Saint doctrine of eternal marriage between heterosexual couples. Rather than misapply old proof-texts, Latter-day Saints who seek to affirm and defend the Church’s teachings on marriage are better positioned to do so by grounding themselves in the teachings of modern prophets as captured effectively in the Family Proclamation and subsequent discourses by Church leaders.  

When ministering to their LGBT friends and family members, members of the Church would do well to heed the counsel of Elder M. Russell Ballard when he instructed, “We need to listen to and understand what our LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing. Certainly, we must do better than we have done in the past so that all members feel they have a spiritual home where their brothers and sisters love them and where they have a place to worship and serve the Lord.” Listening to and understanding their LGBT siblings and offering them a spiritual home in the Church of Jesus Christ cannot be accomplished by thoughtlessly wresting scripture or by being more interested in winning an argument than trying to sincerely understand the plight of the gay Latter-day Saint. Consider, then, in this light, the following way in which a Latter-day Saint today might “liken” the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to him or herself. Imagine that an LGBT Latter-day Saint comes seeking refuge and a spiritual home in the Church. Imagine that this Saint has endured feelings of loneliness and alienation in the Church because they do not feel like they belong, or perhaps because they have, regrettably, endured bullying among their peers. Non-LGBT Church members have a choice. They can, like Abraham, respond with love and work hard to help this weary traveler; or, they can, like the men of Sodom, subject this poor soul to further abuse. Since the plainly obvious moral point of the story in Genesis is to praise Abraham’s behavior and condemn the behavior of the men of Sodom, the choice should be clear enough.   

Hopefully, my analysis has shown that even difficult passages of scripture can be profitably applied to the faith of the Saints when carefully interpreted. Although discomfort or unease with this text will undoubtedly linger, I nevertheless hope that I have provided an example of how Latter-day Saints can reclaim and reapply the “hard sayings” (or, we might say, “hard narratives”) of scripture in a productive, worthwhile manner. In this case, the important truths taught by the story of Abraham and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah run much deeper than might otherwise be detected with superficial or purposefully polemical readings.

This paper was originally delivered at the annual FAIR Conference on Thursday, August 5, 2021. It has been slightly modified for publication. Additional information on the FAIR Conference can be accessed at www.fairlatterdaysaints.org. Stephen O. Smoot is a doctoral student in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literature at the Catholic University of America. He previously earned a master’s degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, with a concentration in Egyptology, and Bachelor’s degrees from Brigham Young University in Ancient Near Eastern Studies, with a concentration in Hebrew Bible, and German Studies. His areas of academic study and research include the Hebrew Bible, ancient Egypt, and Latter-day Saint scripture and history. From 2015 to 2020, Stephen was a research associate with Book of Mormon Central and is currently a research associate with the B. H. Roberts Foundation.

About the author

Stephen O. Smoot

Stephen O. Smoot is a doctoral student in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literature at the Catholic University of America. He is a researcher for Book of Mormon Central and an editorial consultant for Interpreter. He previously earned a Master's degree in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations from the University of Toronto
On Key

You Might Also Like

What is an Oath?

As we look to make sense of the news of this last week, it may be wise to look back on a more than 50 year old film that asks what exactly is an oath.

Prepared, Not Scared

Shortages of important goods have suddenly become real in America—and there is reason to believe that could even get worse. There are several steps any family can take—without panic—to prepare and become more self-reliant.

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Stay up to date on the intersection of faith in the public square.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This