Skip to main content

Misinterpreting Scripture: David Runcorn on Genesis 18-19

The term ‘sodomy’ for homosexuality comes from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19.  The use of this term by the Church indicates the consistent understanding of the text throughout the Church’s history: it is a story about, among other things, homosexuality in Canaan.  Not so, say a number of modern interpreters who wish to find some other meaning in the story or who, more likely, have an agenda to find anything in the text other than a story about disordered sexuality.  In the Pilling Report, David Runcorn follows the recent interpretation of several others as he puts forward a single interpretation that fits his agenda.  For these interpreters, the story of Sodom is a story about hospitality—not accepting the stranger.  In this way, the text is made irrelevant for the Church of England’s present confusion over the issue of homosexuality.[1]

So, have modern interpreters, followed by some western Anglicans such as Runcorn, discovered a better interpretation of Genesis 18-19 than that which interpreters through the centuries have previously held?  I have addressed the issue of this passage in greater length elsewhere with an examination of the text and its interpretation in Jewish and early Christian literature.[2]  As a narrative, the text lends itself to various applications, without limiting interpreters to a single point as is often the case in interpreting, for example, epistles.  The primary purpose of the story is to illustrate how completely wicked Sodom and Gomorrah were—a key point made earlier in Genesis (Gen. 13.13).  This makes limiting the text to a single sin unlikely.  Indeed, Jewish texts interpreting the story identified several sins with Sodom and Gomorrah, not just one.

Runcorn makes note of a single Jewish text interpreting the story: Ezekiel 16:

Ezekiel 16:49-50 (ESV) 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.  50 They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.

Oddly, he reduces this passage to the sins of pride and inhospitality.  However, Ezekiel intends to charge Sodom with a variety of sins, not just one or two.  Also, reference to Sodom’s ‘abomination’ (whether taken as a single sin, as in the ESV translation, or as a collective noun (as the NRSV or NIV) may well address or include its sexual abomination.  The term ‘abomination,’ after all, is used of homosexuality in Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 (though the term is not limited to this application).  Also, Ezekiel intends to draw parallels between Sodom and Jerusalem, and one of the latter’s sins is repeatedly described in Ezekiel 16 as sexual immorality (Ezek. 16.15-17, 20, 22, 25-38, 41, 43, 58).  While the indictment is metaphorical for Jerusalem (her ‘whoring’ after other nations, her idolatry), it was not metaphorical for Sodom.  The meaning of ‘abomination’ in Ezekiel 16.50, therefore, surely stands for Sodom’s sexual immorality.

Another text that makes impossible any reduction of Sodom’s sin to something non-sexual is the parallel passage of Joshua 19.  As in Genesis 19, there is a background in the story of hospitality to a stranger.  Yet the story has so much more to it than this.  In both stories, there is an attempt by males in the city to have sex with another male, and this, not violence, is the primary focus of the texts (Genesis 19.5; Judges 19.22).  To be sure, violence and rape are awful sins, and these are more pronounced than the matter of inhospitality in the stories.  Yet the ‘wicked’ (Gen. 19.7; Jdg. 19.23) and ‘vile’ (Jdg. 19.24) act is a description of the men of both cities wanting to ‘know’ the male visitors.  ‘To know’ someone in such contexts means to have sex with that person. 

If in Genesis the men are angels, in Joshua the man is human—the issue is not sex with angels but sex with other males.  In Joshua, the man succeeds in avoiding homosexual abuse by sending out his concubine instead, whereas in Genesis Lot’s daughters are offered to the crowd but are not sent out.  In Joshua, the woman dies, and the man cuts her body up and sends the parts out to the tribes of Israel.  The response of Israelites is that ‘Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak’ (Judges 19.30).  It is simply impossible to read this story as a story of inhospitality or pride.  The issues are violence, gang rape, and, especially, homosexuality.  The parallel with Genesis suggests that the town of Gibeah had taken on practices associated with the Canaanites.  The reason for wiping out Sodom or Gibeah is not that they were inhospitable—even if this is a minor aspect of the stories.  God does not wipe out a population over inhospitality.  The main reason is that they sunk so low in their unrighteousness as to engage in homosexual acts.

Beyond the issues already noted, another problem with the 'inhospitality' interpretation of the story of Sodom is that it does not explain Gomorrah’s destruction.  The angels only visit Sodom, but both cities are destroyed.  Also, they came to see if there were any righteous in the city (Gen. 18.26-32), not to see if they would be received well as strangers.  Lot’s offer of his daughters in place of the strangers for sexual abuse leaves most modern readers cold: how could he do such a thing?  At such a point, the simplistic hospitality interpretation becomes morally repugnant, for it suggests that having your daughters raped is better than being inhospitable to (male) strangers.  Yet this is not the intention of the story.  Rather, the ethical point of the story is that the men of Sodom were so sinful that they would not accept sex with females over their preference for males.  The reader is intended to gain moral instruction not from Lot’s offer of his daughters but from the depth of Sodom’s moral turpitude.  The story in Judges 19 carries the same message: the men of Gibeah had sunk to an equally low morality—homosexual acts.

Finally, Christians need to consider the Biblical canon as a whole, not just individual texts examined on their own.  In the case of Genesis 18-19, we particularly need to consider Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2.6-7:

Jude 1:7 (ESV) just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

2 Peter 2:6-7 … if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;  7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked….

Neither text, of course, suggests that Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin was inhospitality, and both texts highlight the two cities’ sexual immorality.  The problems addressed by both Jude and 2 Peter are the false teaching and practices of persons compromising Christian orthodoxy with the alien views of an ungodly culture—as is now the case in western society and, sadly, western mainline denominations.  This can happen when false teachers simply oppose the teaching of Scripture, and it can happen when people let the influence of culture weigh so heavily on their reading of the Scriptures or hearing from the Church’s teaching that they actually begin to think that the Biblical text says something else than it does.  Runcorn's error is the latter, although the Pilling Report also expresses the voice of others quite willing to set aside Scripture entirely.  Either way, false teaching is perpetrated in the Church of England and true Christian witness to the culture will have to be found elsewhere.

[1] David Runcorn, Appendix 4: ‘Evangelicals, Scripture and Same Sex Relationships—an ‘Including Evangelical’ Perspective,’ in Report of the House of Bishops: Working Group on Human Sexuality (Nov. 2013); online (accessed 24 December, 2016), pp. 176-195.
[2] S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016).