Morning Prayer: Ps. 56, 57, 58 | Genesis 19:1-29 | John 6:27-40
Evening Prayer Psalms and Lection replaced by the appointed Psalms and Lections for the Eve of the Presentation
[TW: Sexual Violence, Rape]
Some of the readings from Genesis over the last weeks, and today’s in particular, have been pretty tough going for me. It’s been a reminder that, despite the continuity that Christians claim with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs,* the moral universe that they inhabit is one that is alien and frankly shocking to the modern reader. For me, it’s often difficult to figure out where good news or moral guidance or anything useful at all, honestly, is in these stories. The story of Hagar and Ishmael, say, reads to me as morally unintelligible at best and profoundly immoral at worst. While Abram and Sarai’s sadness over their childnessness is perfectly comprehensible, Abram’s particular concern about the future of his line (see Gen 15:2, say) is quite hard to relate to, at least for me, and certainly the solution they devised is hard to countenance; by contemporary standards, Hagar was almost certainly raped insofar as she had no choice but to have sex with Abram at her mistress’ command, to say nothing of the treatment of Hagar and her son after Ishmael’s birth, or God’s (God’s!!) command that Hagar return to her jealous and cruel mistress! Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a vividly imagined account of the toll that such a role would take on women like Hagar; it is an excellent book but an emotionally difficult read. Now, to be fair, one might cynically (but, Kyrie eleison, not unjustly) note that fathering children by one’s slaves was in fact something of a venerable white Christian tradition, but the point remains that any rendering of Abram and Sarai’s actions as moral is pretty much impossible within the moral universe that at least most of us share.
And then there’s today’s account of the destruction of Sodom of Gomorrah. Of course, this is an account which Christians have made use of for thousands of years to condemn certain sexual practices particularly associated with sex between men. Many Christians today continue to use it to condemn LGBTQ people and gay men in particular.** Now, there are, in my opinion, myriad problems with such a reading. Just to name a few, Ezekiel 16:49-50 suggests that the primary sin of Sodom was a lack of hospitality, especially towards the poor – “she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” – which re-frames the story as less about same-gender sex as such and more about the appalling lack of hospitality which the men of Sodom showed to the divine strangers in their midst (by attempting to gang-rape them). Then, there’s the whole problem that the very notion of a stable gay identity central to contemporary debates about Christianity and same-gender sexuality simply didn’t exist until a few hundred years ago; I don’t think anyone reads this text and argues that literally all the men in Sodom were gay in the sense that we understand the world today (to put it a bit crudely, it’d be hard to sustain a city that way!) and Lot himself assumes that the lust of the men in question could be redirected away from his visitors towards his daughters. Of course, this is not to suggest that this passage is in any way affirming of same-gender sexual practices or what we today would call homosexuality/LGBTQ identity/whatever — it’s obviously not! — just that things are a bit more complicated exegetically than the typical use of this passage would suggest.
But I don’t want to spend the rest of this post on the use and misuse of this text in current debates about Christianity and sexuality; rather, I want to argue that even for those who take the traditional position on Christianity and same-gender sexuality, this is a tough, foreign, and even repellent passage. It’s worth highlighting, although it was uncomfortable for me to read this morning and is uncomfortable to write about now, that Lot’s solution to the mob’s demand is to offer them his daughters (without consulting them, as though they were his property, as indeed they were) to be raped and abused in his guests’ place. One can, no doubt, explain Lot’s actions in terms of norms of hospitality in the Ancient Near East; perhaps one can even sympathize with Lot to an extent, torn between the ethical duty which the hospitality code demanded (that is, that his guests be protected at all costs) and whatever natural affection he had for his children. But at the end of the day, we contemporary American Christians don’t actually follow ancient hospitality codes anymore; if anything, my intuition is that most of us, to turn the story of Lot into a (rather ghastly) hypothetical of the sort beloved by a certain species of moral philosopher, would choose to save our children rather than our (adult) guests. Further, though the trope of paternal control of daughters, and of their sexuality in particular, does still have a great deal of power in contemporary society, my sense is that hardly anyone would suggest that daughters are the property of their fathers to the extent that a father could justly offer them as sexual objects to a rapacious mob, as Lot does.
So what are we supposed to do with this? At one level, the story does have a somewhat happy ending: the divine visitors intervene and prevent harm from coming to Lot’s daughters and God judges the evil of Sodom’s men immediately (and, one must admit, rather satisfactorily). Yet even here the modern conscience, made nervous by notions of collective guilt, can’t but think about the women and children of Sodom who perished alongside the men: did they deserve to die for the sins of their men? Yet it is a happy ending of a sort, one which the similar story in Judges 19 wholly lacks. Don’t read that one right after eating.
If one’s desperate to find something satisfactory, one could perhaps make Lot’s wife’s actions into an allegory of the spiritual life: there’s a hoary old organizing saying that says that the movement is like a shark: if you don’t keep moving forward, you die; does Rahab have a similar message for those pursuing union with Christ? Yet this feels to me like something of an evasion rather than a resolution of the problem. And one could, I suppose, find some rather compelling evidence for a theory of total depravity in this passage. But beyond that, how are we Christians to read this account as anything other than an awful ancient story with moral stakes we either don’t understand or disagree with?
*N.B.: the precise nature of that continuity is, of course, deeply contested, both among Christians and between Christians and Jews. The passages we’ve been reading from Hebrews are, among other things, an early Christian attempt to sort out that exact question!
** It’s worth noting the conservative Christians often argue that it is note LBGTQ people qua people but in fact particular sexual practices that are condemned; the relationship between sexual practices and identity, the use of and subsequent problematization of hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner rhetoric in Christian discussions of same-gender sexual attraction and sexual practices are all important but well beyond the scope of this post.