A few years ago I wrote a series of posts on the four fall stories in Genesis. Ever since, I've been thinking about writing a series on the Patriarchs, the cunning tricksters who are the forefathers of the nation of Israel. Before I do I thought I'd write about Abram/Abraham's nephew and foster son Lot and the divine destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The city of Sodom provides the source for our English word "sodomy", meaning anal sex, because of the incident in this tale where the men of Sodom threaten to pack-rape their male visitors. However, this is not a story about homosexuality, it is a story about hospitality.
Our story begins in Genesis 18 with Abraham sitting at the door of his tent, pitched in a shady spot under a grove of oak trees. It starts by telling the reader that 'the Lord appeared to Abraham'. However, when Abraham looks up he sees three men. Does he know that this is the Lord and his two angels? The story is ambiguous on that point. In any case, Abraham shows what true hospitality involves. He gets up and runs to the three men, bowing before them and addressing their leader as 'my lord', and begs them to come and sit in the shade of his tent and have something to eat and drink. This is not just a drink of water and a biscuit. He provides a feast - he has a servant butcher and cook a calf for them, he has his wife Sarah make fresh cakes, he brings them curds and milk and he waits on them himself, standing by them while they sit and eat.
This is a classic example of the ancient Middle Eastern code of hospitality. A guest is sacred and needs to be treated like royalty, better even than your own family. You give up your best bed, your best food, the best seat in the house, the head of the table. This is how righteous people act. Abraham has proved his righteousness.
He is rewarded for this in two ways. First, the Lord reiterates his promise that Abraham and Sarah will have a son. Secondly, he takes Abraham into his confidence regarding his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah.
‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.’
Abraham is immediately concerned. He doesn't explicitly mention Lot, but the reader already knows both that Lot is living in Sodom and that despite some tension between the two Abraham still retains a fatherly concern for his nephew. Indeed he recently launched a military expedition to rescue him from a Canaanite raiding party. So he asks the Lord a series of questions. Will he destroy the city if they find some righteous men there? What if there are fifty? What if there are only 45? 40? 30? 20? 10? Each time the Lord answers that for the sake of these few righteous he will spare the entire city. However Abraham never gets down to what turns out to be the pertinent number - what if there is only one?
There is something strange about this fact-finding mission. Why does the Lord, who knows everything, need to walk through the gates in order to find out what is going on? And why do three men leave Abraham's tent but only two arrive at Sodom? It seems that somewhere along the way the Lord himself leaves them, and his two companions (who for the first time in Chapter 19 are referred to as 'angels') continue on the mission on their own.
While it's ambiguous whether or not Abraham knows immediately who they are, there is no such ambiguity in Sodom. These messengers don't appear as fiery cherubim or seraphim, glowing with light or wielding flaming swords. They appear as ordinary men, walking through the gate of Sodom where Lot is sitting. It seems to me that the pair are conducting a test, a kind of mystery shopper exercise. What will happen if they turn up incognito at Sodom's gates?
Lot's response is identical to that of his uncle. He walks out towards them, bows to them and invites them to his home. They propose instead to camp out in the town square but Lot will not have it - he insists that they be his guests, takes them to his house and makes them a meal.
So Lot, at least, has passed the test. They have found at least one righteous man. But why has the task fallen to Lot, himself a foreign resident in the city? Why have the city elders not taken this responsibility on themselves, as they should? The answer is soon clear. That evening the entire adult male population of Sodom appears at Lot's door and demands that he surrender the visitors to them "so that we may know them" - in the usual euphemism of the Hebrew Scriptures, "so that we may have sex with them". They are proposing a pack rape. This is how strangers are treated in the city of Sodom.
How will Lot respond? How righteous is he? Will he give the strangers up to his hostile and threatening neighbours? Far from it. He takes the sacred duty of hospitality very seriously. Guests are more important than even your own family. This leads Lot to a shocking, and to us offensive, offer for the men to abuse his own daughters rather than his guests. If this was a story about homosexuality the offer would be pointless and perhaps provocative, but in a story about the sanctity of hospitality its meaning is clear. By becoming guests in Lot's house these men have more claim to protection than even his own children. Lot's neighbours understand what he is saying perfectly well. ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.'
The contrast is stark. Lot, the representative of righteousness, protects his guests even at the expense of his own family. The Sodomites do not merely ignore or neglect strangers, they are actively hostile towards them and seek to harm them. The Lord's suspicions, the reports that have reached his ears, are proved true. The sequel is well known - the angels rescue Lot and his daughters while the Lord rains down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, destroying them completely.
This story is echoed in various places in the New Testament. John may have been thinking of it in the prologue to his gospel.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
Like the angels, Jesus came incognito, looking like an ordinary man, and those who should have welcomed him treated him instead like the men of Sodom treated their guests. Yet there were also some like Lot who welcomed him at great risk to themselves.
It was clearly in Jesus' mind in the passage in Matthew 10 where he sends his disciples out in pairs to the towns of Galilee.
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.
The test for these towns is just like that of Sodom - a pair of messengers of the Lord, who appear to just be ordinary men, arrive in their town. How will they treat them?
Finally, this story was almost certainly in the mind of the author of the letter to the Hebrews when he said, 'do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.'
At first glance the test seems easy. How hard is it to offer a stranger a meal and a place to rest, and then send them on their way refreshed? Yet is is something we humans constantly struggle with. To welcome a stranger is to take a risk. It is to step beyond the comfortable boundaries of our daily lives and our established relationships. What if these strangers are in fact enemies, or spies? Just a few chapters earlier in Genesis, Sodom and Gomorrah were invaded by a raiding party and many of their people and possessions were carried off (including Lot and his family) before being rescued by Abraham. Their suspicion of strangers is not irrational. Nor is ours. There are people who would take advantage of our hospitality, who would rob or exploit us or even hurt and kill us.
Hence there is not a large step between the notion of being hospitable to strangers and loving our enemies, as Jesus asks us to do in Matthew 5.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This is the new kingdom God is building. It is not easy. It is not safe. Sometimes it doesn't even seem sensible. But what if it turns out that the homeless person we ignore, or the refugee we arrest and send to detention, is actually an angel, or perhaps the Lord himself? This is exactly what Jesus tells us is the case in Matthew 25.
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
God is in the stranger, he is the stranger. How will we treat him?