This entry is part [part not set] of 20 in the series Homosexuality in the Bible

In my last post, I argued that it’s unlikely that the entire city of Sodom was “gay” in the sense that we know it today, and that the city was condemned primarily for inhospitality, which included the attempted gang rape of Lot’s guests. Homosexual sex was only a subsidiary issue.

But it may have been at least an issue, according to Ezekiel.

Most scholars cite Ezekiel 16:48-49 as proof that Ezekiel only saw Sodom’s sin as inhospitality—or neglecting the poor. However, Ezekiel 16:50 uses an interesting phrase that’s often passed over too quickly. It reads:

“They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.”

Now, the term “abomination” may seem generic. Scripture talks about all sorts of sins as “abominations.” However, in the book of Leviticus, “an abomination” (toevah) refers to WhatWereSinsSodomhomosexual sex (Lev 18:22; 20:13), and of all the books that Ezekiel draws upon for his theology, Leviticus is at the top of the list. That is, Ezekiel depends on Leviticus for his ethic and theology more than any other biblical book. And—follow me—the book of Leviticus singles out homosexual sex as “an abomination;” no other sin is identified as such.

Here are the two texts:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (Lev 18:22)

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them (Lev 20:13)

So look again at Ezek 16:48-50:

As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, 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 an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.

Is Ezekiel reading the Sodom story through the lens of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13? Maybe. Notice the singular: an abomination. Therefore, it’s possible—and I’m only saying it’s possible—that Ezekiel thinks that part of Sodom’s inhospitality was not just attempted gang rape, but attempted gang rape with acts of “abomination;” that is, with homosexual intercourse.

But let’s be honest. This is not a clear, slam dunk, “how could you suggest otherwise” argument. It’s an implicit reference that may carry some relevance. Moreover, as my good friend Jon Marshall reminded me last night: Sodom was condemned in Genesis 19 before the attempted rape. No one had any sex in Genesis 19, hetero or homo: they didn’t even get to first base.

And again, even if the attempted rape of Lot’s guests added to their judgment, it was rape. There was no courting, no wooing, no chocolates or flowers. Nothing in the story of Sodom mentions same-sex attraction leading to a monogamous relationship.

Interlude: Sodom was clearly condemned for having excessive food, prosperous ease, and being unconcerned for the poor (Ezek 16:48-49). Evangelicals listen up. It’s embarrassingly hypocritical to condemn homosexuality while indulging in Sodom’s primary sin. 6,000 children die daily from hunger and preventable diseases, and you’re worried about Prop 8?

I’m always curious how early interpreters read the Bible. They often help us in our own interpretations. So, how did Jews living in the first century interpret the Sodom story? As far as we know, most of them (like Ezekiel) condemned Sodom for inhospitality (Wis 19:14–15; starving-child-5Josephus, Ant 1:194), having pride and selfish wealth (Ezek 16:49–50; 3 Macc 2:5; Tg.PsJ Gen. 13:13; 18:20), or for sexual immorality in general (Jub 16:5–6; 20:5; T.Levi 14:6; T.Benj 9:1). However, both Josephus (Ant. 1.194-95, 200-201) and Philo (Abr. 133-41; QG 4.37) also cite same-sex intercourse as at least part of the reason for their intense condemnation. (Philo is much clearer than Josephus.) But this does not seem to be shared by the New Testament writers. Jude 7, for instance, refers to the sin of Sodom as “going after strange flesh,” but this almost certainly refers to attempted sex with angels, not fellow men (see Bauckham, 2 Peter, Jude, 54). Jesus in Luke 10:10-12 assumes that the sin of Sodom was inhospitality.

Let’s bring it back to my original point. In my preliminary stage of research, I’ve found that the Sodom story is not very relevant for our contemporary debate about same-sex attraction leading to monogamous, consensual sex. The only reference that may suggest otherwise is Ezekiel 16:50, when read through the lens of Leviticus 18 and 20.

So that leaves us with Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: the only two passages that might condemn homosexual sex in the Old Testament. But do they? Take a look at them and see what you think. Then join me in my next post.


*For an argument that the Sodom story does have same-sex intercourse in mind, see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 71-146, 159-183.

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  1. The account of the sin at Gibeah also needs to be taken into account here (Judges 19:22-24). There are several parallels to the account of Sodom. This time it is clear that it is homosexual rape and not just having sex with angels that is intended. There is seen to be something peculiarly disgraceful and vile about homosexual rape, more so than rape in general, even of guests (the Levite’s concubine is offered instead of the Levite). The close parallel between the two accounts would suggest that the homosexual character of the intended crimes of the men of Gibeah and Sodom is meant to be seen as a significant exacerbating factor of their more general sinfulness.

    In both cases inhospitality is a central issue. However, it doesn’t seem accidental that homosexual rape is the intended form that this takes in both instances, suggesting that there may be something paradigmatic about predatory homosexuality as a form of rejection of the other, much as homosexual relations function as a paradigmatic sin in Romans 1.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Alastair! Yes, indeed, there are strong links between Gen 19 and Judges 19. For the sake of space, I didn’t discuss this connection…maybe I should have!

      However, I don’t see it contributing anything more than Gen 19 does (or doesn’t) to the debate about homosexuality. Yes, homosexual rape is wrong. But who disagrees with this? And the fact that the Gibeonites raped a woman shows that rape was the main issue, not acting upon same sex attraction. I seriously doubt the Gibeonites were gay. Their attempt to rape the Levite was most probably a way to shame him by treating him like woman–something particularly horrific in a patriarchal culture.

      But even beyond this, the main point of the Judges 19 story is to show that Israel has become like the Canaanites they were commanded to conquer. In the words of Dan Block, in seeking to conquer Canaan, Israel has been “Canaanized.” Point being, I think there are other much more significant authorial purposes to the Judges 19 story than to give us one more text to condemn homosexual sex.

      • Thanks for the response, Preston. A few thoughts:

        There are a host of things going on in Judges 19, one of the most artfully written texts in the Old Testament. However, it seems to me that one thing that Judges 19 does is to place the homosexual dimension of the intended sin into sharper relief. It suggests that the homosexual character of the intended rape wasn’t incidental. While I don’t believe that we can draw anything like a straight line from this to homosexuality in the present day, I believe that it is important that we don’t let contemporary concerns skew our reading of such texts.

        The idea that Sodom or Gibeah were ‘all-gay cities’ is obviously nonsensical. The gang rape wasn’t something that every man in the city would have been participating in. Rather, it was a way of humiliating and violating the visitor. It has its closest contemporary parallels in prison rape. The sex was an appropriate tool for their desired evil ends, not the directly desired object itself. The concept of sexual orientation in this context is somewhat of an anachronism, but we can presume that the crowd was driven by the desire to humiliate the visitors and that members of the crowd prepared sexually to humiliate a man or sexually to humiliate a woman would easily have been found. Predatory and rapacious homosexuals are not hard to find in groups of evil men, much as their heterosexual counterparts. Only a fairly bald literalism would presume that every man in the city expected personally to rape the visitor.

        The rape and murder that actually took place was a huge outrage throughout Israel, a sin so large that its repercussions almost led to the annihilation of one of the tribes. However, it was presented as a lesser sin to that of raping (and murdering) the man. The homosexual character of the rape would have compounded the offence.

        And, yes, this passage does teach us that Israel has been ‘Canaanized’. However, part of the Canaanization seems to involve engaging in homosexual acts, which, whether consensual, cultic, or coercive means of humiliation were characteristic of the Canaanites and reasons for which they were expelled from the land.

        Stepping back from this particular discussion, one of the things that concerns me about the approach that you are taking in this series more generally is how prooftext-driven it seems to be. If we are to understand the biblical teaching on homosexuality we really need to situate the discussion within a robust and detailed engagement with the positive teaching of Scripture on sex, sexuality, and marriage. Then we can come to the isolated texts that might be seen directly to address homosexuality (in reality, the Scriptures don’t need to address a practice directly in order to condemn it in the strongest manner). By isolating your approach from such a general account (which, to be frank, is unapologetically heteronormative), doubt can be sown in our readings of isolated individual texts and through the leverage of an opened question we can move towards an affirmation of something that runs directly against the grain of broader biblical teaching. This just doesn’t seem to be the healthiest way of approaching the text to me. Biblical teaching on sex and marriage (and the inseparable binding of the two together) can’t be approached piecemeal without aiding and abetting its obfuscation.

        • Whoa. Long comment, dude.

          Mine will be shorter.

          First, I’m still having a tough time seeing the relevance of Judges 19 (along with Gen 19) for the contemporary debate. It sounds like you’re agreeing me with. But your comment is framed as a pushback.

          Second, don’t you think it’s a bit unfair to criticize “the approach that you are taking in this series” when all I set out to do in these blogs is sum up my research on the texts that explicitly talk about homosexuality? I never claimed to write a definitive series of blogs on all the relevant issues related to homosexuality. If I did, I would have started with Genesis 1-3. My blogs are teasing out and testing some exegetical thoughts on the most discussed passages.

          And even if you still don’t agree with my approach; man, at least let me finish the series before you criticize me for what I didn’t cover! For what it’s worth, I totally agree with your point about sex, sexuality, and marriage being essential for the debate, even if I don’t know what “approached piecemeal without aiding and abetting its obfuscation” means 🙂 Are you a Ph.D. student?

  2. Yes, I am concerned about prop 8. I’m also concerned about poverty. The breakdown of marriage and absence of dads doesn’t help with the poverty issue. It sounds like a nice rhetorical point to beat up on evangelicals for being concerned about prop 8, but it is really a rather shallow and immature point.

    • Chad, thanks for the comment. I appreciate the pushback and your point is well-taken.

      I would like to point out, though, that if you are concerned with the breakdown of marriage AND the horrific pain of poverty, then the comment wasn’t directed at you. I specifically addressed those who only care about the former: “It’s embarrassingly hypocritical to condemn homosexuality while indulging in Sodom’s primary sin.”

      The “while indulging” part is key. And since the American Evangelical church is a multi-trillion dollar industry, I think there are plenty of feet that can fit my rhetorical shoe. But your push for clarity and more maturity is well taken. I’ll try to do better next time.

      Thanks again for weighing in!

      • Preston–I appreciate that. However, I still find it to be a non sequitur. Have you established that there is a large group of evangelicals who care about prop 8 and don’t care about the poor? Who is this group of people? I have yet to read a study that demonstrates the average evangelical concerned about prop 8 doesn’t care about the poor. In fact, the group of people who are shown to be most engaged in helping the poor are those who are also most engaged in issues like prop 8 i.e conservative evangelicals. I’m just not sure why that comment even belongs in the article. It just sounds like a false guilt being tossed at a bogeyman foe. Straw men are easy to defeat. I’m not saying there are no hypocrites. I’m just wondering who your audience is and whether your admonition has much to do with them. “6000 children die daily from hunger and preventable diseases, and you’re worried about prop 8?” Yes, I am. I am worried about both. I would love to know who this group of people is who care about one part of Ezekiel’s admonition and not the rest. I tire of the rhetorical device of beating up conservative evangelicals for caring about prop 8 by making the accusation that perhaps they don’t care about the poor. Thanks.

        • Bro, I still think you’re missing it. Again, the comment was explicitly directed at those who, as I said, “condemn homosexuality WHILE indulging in Sodom’s primary sin.” By definition, this can’t be a non-sequitur since I’m not saying that being pro-prop 8 leads to not helping the poor, nor did I say that prop 8ers don’t help the poor, not did I say that anti-prop 8ers DO help the poor.

          Are there such people; that is, Evangelicals who condemn homosexuality while not helping the poor? Honestly, man, I hardly feel like I need to defend this. The closest stat I can give would come from Ron Sider’s “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” (2nd edition), who shows rather decisively that the Evangelical Christians (and churches) have a ton of money (trillions of dollars), yet still only give 2.4% to the church. And in turn those churches generally spend most (if not all) of that 2.4% (I’m not sure on the %, actually; it’s a ballpark) on their own internal operations and programs. Thus, a very tiny % of our trillions of dollars goes towards helping the poor. I think Ezek 16:49 is eerily prophetic.

          Combine Sider’s work with the Barna study (in the book “UnChristian”) that the primary thing Evangelicals are known for by the world is that we are “anti-gay.” We are not known for “living like Jesus,” and not know for “loving our enemy,” and certainly not known for “helping the poor.” The primary message we send to the world is that we are anti-gay.

          So that’s at least the more factual reason for the rhetorical comment. On a personal level, growing up in the church I’ve heard many thousands statements about homosexuality being wrong yet rarely hear statements about helping the poor being right. It sounds like you are in a different environment where both homosexuality and helping the poor are issues that are addressed. In which case, I envy your church! My experience has been more along the lines of the Sider/Barna view.

          You said: ” I’m just not sure why that comment even belongs in the article.” Honestly, I can’t imagine a better place for a comment like that, since it’s pretty much what Ezekiel does in ch. 16. He takes the well-known, well-worn condemnation of Sodom and turns it against his religious audience, encouraging them to take care of their own sin before they condemn others.

          Now, to concede your point about “Prop 8.” Yes, that was a more concrete, rhetorical point to grab the attention of my (Californian) readers. Certainly not all who stand for Prop 8 are “anti-gay,” and certainly not all pro-Prop 8 people neglect the poor (but again, I never said they did).

  3. Sodom committed an abomination before the Law of Moses was written. So definitions of that word from the Law don’t necessarily apply. Sodom was likely involved in infanticide, cannibalism and temple prostitution. Those things were known to exist in the region. So why assume that Ezekiel’s text refers to homosexuality? Where is the evidence that there was widespread homosexuality, or that it was even a factor, in Sodom?

  4. I think you should read the previous post. But to answer your question: (1) there is slight evidence that Ezekiel may have same-sex intercourse in mind when he used the term “abomination” in 16:50, since this word (in the singular) is only used of same-sex intercourse in Leviticus; but (2) I also admitted this was not a very strong argument. So I think you’re assuming more than I actually said.

    If I can go out on a limb, perhaps you’re assuming that since I’m an Evangelical writing in this issue that I’m going to race to find every piece of evidence against homosexuality that I can. If you put me in that box, I’m going to slip right out of it. I don’t think that the condemnation of Sodom is relevant to the modern issue of homosexuality.

    • First, I apologize if you felt I was trying to put you in a box. I wasn’t really aiming my comments at you specifically, but at the topic itself. You have actually gone much further than most to uncover the truth about this subject.

      While the word abomination is only used in Leviticus in connection with same-sex intercourse, it is used a total of six times in the Torah, as well as eight times in the prophets, and twice in Proverbs. (Note that I am speaking of the Hebrew text, not any particular translation, and am speaking only of the word in the absolute state. There are ten more places in the Torah where it is in the construct state.) The OT as a whole uses the word to describe non-kosher food, a man remarrying his ex-wife after she had married someone else, the prayer of a man who turns his ear away from the Law, the sacrifice of the wicked, adultery, incense, idols, etc. So you are correct, any argument trying to connect Ezekiel 16:50 to Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 would be weak indeed.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Rev. I appreciate it. I never want to be label for what people think I’m saying about this issue rather than for what I’ve actually said. So thanks!

        The stats I have for “Abomination” (toevah) are much higher than yours: 6x in Leviticus, 17x in Deut, 8x in Jeremiah, 43x in Ezekiel, 22x in Proverbs, and 21x elsewhere. But maybe some of these are not in the absolute state? Haven’t doubled checked.

        Re: my argument. First, it was more of a suggestions that I don’t totally embrace. I honestly thought I made this clear. (Gagnon is much more confident about this argument than I.) Second, the argument was more precise that you seem to notice. It’s very clear that Ezekiel latches on to H (Lev 18-26) for his ethic more than any other book. So, when Ezekiel uses toevah, it’s POSSIBLE, some would say likely, that he uses it in the same way that H does. So the argument is that it’s possible that Ezekiel reads the Sodom story through the lens of H’s unique use of toevah when he mentions toevah in relation to the Sodom story in Ezek 16:50.

        It’s not a slam dunk argument, but I don’t think it can be entirely dismissed either.

        • I think your stats for toevah might not be limited to either the absolute state or the singular. I have a program which will search the Masoretic text for any word or portion of a word. After reading your post, I did a search for תועב… without any ending, since all possible forms would have those four letters. It found 42 uses in 41 verses. Some of these were plural, some were construct state. Another possibility, which I will check in a moment, is “defective” spelling, that is, where the letter ו would be omitted, with the sound represented solely by a vowel point. OK, I found only one use of the defective spelling of toevot (plural), but no examples of defective spelling in the singular or construct. I found eight examples of toevot with full spelling. Does your source list specific verses? I would really like to follow up… if my program is not working properly, I really want to know, because I rely on it for searches in Hebrew, Greek and English.

          • Thanks so much, Rev. Carey, for cross-checking this with me! Super helpful.

            My sources are three-fold:

            1) Gagnon’s “The Bible and Homosexual Practice,” where he discusses Lev 18.

            2) My own search on a program called “Scroll Tag” (created by one of my colleagues; it’s been reliable so far.

            3) My research assistant did a search on (I think) Accordance.

            Let me double check my sources. As always, I want to have my facts straight!

  5. Preston, you wrote: “Interlude: Sodom was clearly condemned for having excessive food,
    prosperous ease, and being unconcerned for the poor (Ezek 16:48-49). Evangelicals listen up. It’s embarrassingly hypocritical to condemn homosexuality while indulging in Sodom’s primary sin. 6,000 children die daily from hunger and preventable diseases, and you’re worried about Prop 8?”

    So well said. Thank you for digging deep into the text, refusing the standard, simplistic pat answers that plague our Evangelical tradition, and making (much needed!) challenging statements like this one.