~ Thomas Bolin ~
SODOM & GOMORRAH
The Flood Story speaks of the destruction of the world. In vivid terms, the reader is told of God’s complete destruction of “everything that breathes” (6:17, 7:21-23). Ancient near Eastern cultures, the Israelites included, believed the sky to be a solid dome over which waters were held back, while the flat earth also floated upon vast waters. God inundates the entire cosmos with these waters, as Gen 7:11 makes clear: “All the fountains of the great deep were broken, and the windows of the skies opened up.” The amount of water, we are told, rises to cover the peaks of all the mountains (7:19). This biblical text does not ask us to envision a lot of rain, nor even a monsoon. It paints a picture of water pouring into the cosmos from every direction, blotting out all life. This is worldwide ruin.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. This dimension of the Flood Story makes modern readers uncomfortable, given that most believers today envision God to be more benevolent and forgiving. It seems also to have bothered the author, since the text makes it clear that humankind are completely corrupt—literally that, “every human thought was always only evil” (Gen 6:5). The idea of corporate punishment—the punishment of an entire group of people for the sins of some—clearly bothered some of the biblical authors. It is rejected by Ezekiel (chapter 18) and most famously debated in Genesis 18 by Abraham and God concerning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The story of Yahweh’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 also offers another biblical tale of worldwide cataclysm, which links it to the Flood Story. The story recounts how two angels, after having accompanied God to visit Abraham, continue on to Sodom in order to investigate the rumors of its wickedness. While Abraham and God remain behind to debate whether or not a few good people (How few? Fifty? Twenty? Ten?) will save the entire city, the angels arrive at nightfall. Having nowhere to stay, they are invited by Lot to be his guests. The men of Sodom, “both young and old, all the people to the last man” (Gen 19:4, NRSV) surround the house and demand that the guests be sent out to be assaulted. Note how the text makes clear that the entirety of the city is evil, in much the same way as Genesis 6 does with all humankind prior to the flood. Lot refuses to expose his guests to violence, but in a move that has shocked modern readers, offers his two virgin daughters to the mob in place of his guests. The angels intervene, striking the entire crowd blind and warn Lot of the impending destruction. Lot, his wife, and two daughters flee Sodom in time, but Lot’s wife looks back, against the angels’ command, and is turned to a pillar of salt.
For more than a century, biblical scholars have known the story in Genesis 19 to be based on a traditional folktale and adapted to help further the plotline of the biblical patriarchs in Genesis. Like many folktales, this one seeks to reinforce values and behaviors through use of stark positive and negative examples, with a rigorously consistent justice which rewards the good and punishes the evil and rewards the good. The specific folktale is that of the noble stranger in disguise, and it can be found across the spectrum of ancient Near Eastern and classical cultures for well over a thousand years. The basic outline of this tale is that a powerful personage (either a god or a king) goes about disguised as a wanderer or beggar. People who welcome the stranger without knowing his true identity are rewarded, while those who treat the traveler with scorn receive deserved punishment. This tale forms the heart of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus the king of Ithaca returns to his own palace disguised as a beggar to be mistreated by the suitors of Penelope. One of the doomed suitors puts it nicely:
For, in fact, gods make themselves appear like foreign strangers, assuming many shapes and haunting cities, to investigate men’s pride and their obedience to the laws. [Homer, Odyssey: Book 17 lines 621-624]
The morality of these tales has no nuance at all, especially with the finality of the punishment on those who mistreat the stranger. In the Odyssey, all of the suitors are slaughtered as they feast in the palace of Odysseus by the outraged king himself. It’s ideally suited to the Sodom story, given the totality and finality of the city’s punishment.
It’s apparent how Genesis 19 is an example of this tale type. Disguised as travellers, the two angels come to Sodom at nightfall where they are welcomed by Lot and threatened with violence by the rest of the city’s men. True to the tale’s plotline, the angels save Lot and his family while destroying Sodom in a rain of fire and sulfur from the heavens. The text makes clear that the devastation is total, including all of the vegetation (19:25), and that the land was on fire and smoking “like the smoke from a furnace” (19:28). The story thus explains the barren, blasted landscape around the Dead Sea, including the salt formations, one of which (Jebel Usdum) tourist guides to this day will point out as Lot’s wife.
The connection between events in folktales and observable natural phenomena is common. A very similar tale preserved by the Latin poet, Ovid, tells how a pious old couple are saved by two disguised gods while the nearby town is destroyed and turned into a swamp to be seen ever after.
It’s after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah that the story’s links with universal cataclysm in general and the Flood Story in particular come into focus. On the run in the now barren landscape with just his two daughters, Lot finds refuge in a cave. As he sleeps, the older of the two daughters says to her, that “there is no other man” (19:31) on earth to impregnate them and keep the species going. Thus, they carry out a plan wherein they get their father drunk for two successive evenings and each sleep with him in order to bear offspring.
The story now reveals two points of contact with the Flood Story. First, in the daughter’s realization of the need to repopulate a destroyed world there is a parallel with the divine command to Noah and his sons to “be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth” (9:1). More specifically, the daughters’ sexual use of their father while he is drunk bears striking resemblance to the transgression of Noah’s son Ham, who “saw the nakedness” of his father after Noah had made himself drunk (9:20-22).
What’s different is that in the context of the larger plot in Genesis, the daughters are wrong to think that the entire world has been destroyed. Rather than reestablishing the human race, the two children born of this incestuous relationship are the ancestors of the Ammonites and Moabites, intractable enemies of the Israelites. Here the two narratives join up again, since the result of Ham’s violation of his father in Genesis 9 is the cursing of Ham’s son, Canaan, whose descendants will be killed or driven out by the Israelites. The author of Genesis 19 may have used the “starting over after cosmic destruction” scene in Genesis 9, including the element of paternal drunkenness and filial sinfulness leading to the birth of an enemy’s forefather.
Stepping back to look at the big picture shows that biblical narratives use, adapt, and recycle plots and scenes from other stories and shape them to fit specific purposes that are dictated by the political and religious views of the Bible’s authors. If you’ve read any of the ANE essays at floodofnoah.com, you’ll know that the flood story in Genesis is itself an adapted Babylonian tale. Here in Genesis 19 we can see use of a folktale that argues for the just treatment of the good and evil by God, coupled with a reuse of elements in Genesis 9 concerning the “reboot” of humanity after cosmic destruction.
The punishment of an entire group of people for the sins of some—clearly bothered some of the biblical authors
Map of the Biblical Cosmos
courtesy of Barry Bandstra