Xenia and the Sin of Sodom

Disclaimer: This post is not about homosexuality or the Bible’s position on it in general. It is about Sodom and Gomorrah in particular.

Studying classical mythology, I can’t help but be struck by the similarities to the Old Testament.  The two are often analogous in content.  Moses’ bronze snake (Numbers 21:4-9), for instance, could have come straight out of the Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Consider the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, a favorite goto for Christians condemning homosexuality.  The relevant portion:

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”
“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

“Get out of our way,” they replied. And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door. (Genesis 19:1-11 NIV)

By the way, if the men being struck blind reminds you of a certain other legend about a sin punishable by blindness, it isn’t related.  That honor goes to a detail of the tale of Lady Godiva, which was also the origin of the term “Peeping Tom.”

But back to the matter at hand.  The interpretation that God punished Sodom for being gay, as demonstrated by the men of Sodom wanting to have sex with two dudes, is so standard it has its own noun.  Yet it shouldn’t be, because the Bible itself says otherwise:

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. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.  (Ezekiel 16:49-50 NIV)

You can’t get much more straightforward than that.  God, speaking directly to Ezekiel, lists the sins of Sodom and sodomy isn’t among them.  It might have been another one of the sins of Sodom, one that happened to not be on the list.  It also might have fallen under “did detestable things,” although the parallel structure of arrogant/haughty makes it more probable that the “detestable things” refer to the failure to help the poor and needy mentioned in the previous sentence.  But either way, there’s no direct mention of gay sex, or any sexual sins at all.  If that was a concern to God at all, he didn’t find it important enough to mention.

Still, the Genesis passage does mention sex and doesn’t make any mention of being overfed and unconcerned.  How to reconcile the two?

I appeal to Greek mythology.  If the story of Sodom were a Greek myth, the sin of Sodom would be obvious, and (this being Greek) it wouldn’t have anything to do with homosexuality.  Like much of mythology, this story, viewed from a Greek perspective, revolves around xenia.

Xenia (the root of “xenophobic” and related words) may loosely be translated as “hospitality,” but it’s more than that.  It is the principle of the courteous treatment of visitors, especially those who are far from home.  It is a central virtue in mythology.  When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, he enters his home disguised as a beggar.  The suitors abuse and mock him.  This is what casts them as villains and condemns them to their later deaths, even the one who regrets his behavior: by mistreating a stranger at their door, they were in violation of xenia.

So, too, are the men of Sodom from this perspective.  They are violating xenia by trying to assault the travelers, to whom they should be hospitable.  Lot’s words support this: the reason he gives is “for they have come under the protection of my roof,” not because they’re being homosexual.  Suddenly the two verses mesh perfectly well.  Violation of xenia falls under “not help[ing] the poor and needy,” because who could be poorer or needier than a wandering stranger?  Even Lot’s offering of his two daughters, the most bizarre detail of this rather bizarre story, makes sense (sort of): they are not under the protection of xenia.

I’m not putting this forth as a serious interpretation so much as a simple observation.  After all, xenia is a Greek principle, not a Hebrew one, so there’s no reason it should feature so prominently in a Hebrew story.  Nor is this interpretation helpful in determining a Biblical approach to homosexuality, other than to further emphasize the earlier point that Sodom and Gomorrah should be left out of it.  It is, however, an interesting and different light to shine on a familiar story.

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