There are two explanations of the wickedness of Sodom: the Popular one and the Scholarly one.
Genesis 19 gives us the biblical account of Sodom’s destruction. Two angels venture into Sodom and to the home of Lot (Abraham’s nephew) . The men of Sodom hear about these two visitors and surround Lot’s house demanding that Lot send out the angels so that the men can have sex with them. Lot refuses, offering his daughters to the mob of rapists. Then the angels struck the men blind, Lot and his family fled, and God destroyed the city.
The Popular explanation of Sodom’s wickedness is the one we often hear from televangelists and fundamentalist protesters. It says that Sodom was a den of iniquity, their primary sin being that of homosexuality. This is why gay people have been referred to as Sodomites.
The account above certainly gives us a picture of sexual depravity in Sodom, but scholars (both Jewish and Christian) tell us that there is much more to the story than God’s condemnations of homosexuality. An educated understanding of ancient Hebrew culture and of the scripture shows us that the conviction of Sodom had to do with its lack of hospitality and its egregious treatment of outsiders.
This may sound trite compared to accusations of violence and sexual deviance. It is important, though, that we see the story of Sodom’s condemnation in light of God’s revelation to ancient people. Hospitality, treatment of the stranger, and blessing of the helpless outsider are central themes of the Old Testament. These were extremely important ideas for the ancient Hebrews. They were a part of God’s mandate for them as a nation. In Sodom we see the selfish mistreatment of the “other” taken to the extreme. We see selfishness and prejudice turn to violence.
This interpretation of Sodom’s sin is clearly expressed in Ezekiel 16:49. As the prophet Ezekiel looks back at the accounts of Sodom’s destruction, he understands the problem. “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.”
This is a significant indictment. Ezekiel makes no mention of homosexuality. He identifies Sodom’s sin as arrogance, gluttony, and neglect of the poor and needy.
Whether we view the condemnation and destruction of Sodom as a literal occurrence or not, it is important that we understand the underlying idea of the story: The harshest judgement of God is directed toward those who are overcome with their own selfish desires and do not extend care and grace to the poor, the helpless, and the outsider.
To see the story of Sodom as a condemnation of homosexuality is to tragically miss the heart of God. The story of Sodom implores us to extend love to every person, especially those who are not like us. Most of us do not understand the judgement of God in the same way as ancient people. We do not expect that God will violently destroy those who displease Him. Perhaps this part of the story of Sodom should be left in the past, but the revelation of God’s heart toward the poor, helpless, alien, and stranger is something that is relevant to every one of us no matter where or when we live.