Growing up a Seventh-day Adventist, I was taught that the Bible was literally true--all of it. Sure the Bible was written by men, but they were directly inspired by God, and their words, the stories they told, were considered inerrant truth. (For example, when confronted with the fact that whales don’t have the physiology that would allow them to swallow a man whole, as is related in the book of Jonah, they would point out that God had prepared a large fish--not a whale--to swallow Jonah.) I might also mention that we were taught using the Kings James Version, and that is how I thought the Bible was written, with “thees” and “thous.” I am too embarrassed to say how old I when I finally realized that the KJV was simply one of many translations from the original Hebrew and Greek.
We learned all of the familiar Bible stories, from Adam and Eve to the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and of course we taught they were all literally true, every jot and tittle. But that’s actually not what happened. We were told some of the stories but not others. Moreover, in the stories we were taught some of the details, while other details were omitted, reworked, or glossed over. This was done, not just to render the stories acceptable to our young sensibilities, but also to ensure that they conformed to the teachings of our specific brand of religion. In short, there was a great deal of selective editing going on. And that is what I want to talk about here. To some extent I addressed this concern in an earlier essay on the story of Gideon (see http://skepticreflections.blogspot.com/2013/08/gideon-real-story.html). Here I would like to address the expurgation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, found in Genesis 18-19, one of the more sordid accounts in the Old Testament.
Here is my recollection of the story that I was taught:
Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family were living in the city of Sodom. Although they were generally righteous, God-fearing people, most of the people of Sodom and the neighboring city of Gomorrah were living wicked lives. The Lord had appeared to Abraham and warned him that he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the wickedness of the cities’ inhabitants. Subsequently, two angels of the Lord, appearing simply as strangers, came to visit Lot and warned him that God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and their inhabitants because of their wickedness. Lot invited the angels into his home. Not knowing that the two strangers were actually angels, the men of the city came to Lot’s house wanting to harm them and demanded that Lot release the strangers to the men of the city. Lot refused to release the strangers, who told Lot that he had to flee the city before God destroyed it. Lot, his wife, and two daughters did in fact flee the city just ahead of the destruction. They were warned not to look back at the destruction but Lot’s wife did and was turned into a pillar of salt.
Sound familiar? But of course that is not the whole story. Here are some of the details that were omitted or reworked:
- Abraham negotiated with God regarding the number of righteous people needed to spare the cities from destruction. God “started the bidding” at 50, but Abraham ultimately negotiated this number down to 10. Weird, actually. But the text makes clear that Abraham is accusing God of being willing to kill innocent people to assuage his wrath. And God agrees! Presumably God could have arranged a way to save any other righteous individuals in the cities, just as he did with Lot. Instead, God was willing to kill up to nine innocent, righteous people.
- The men in the city demanded that Lot release the strangers so that the men could rape them.
- Lot tried to negotiate with the men of the city by offering to let them rape his virgin daughters instead. Keep in mind that at that time it appeared that Lot did not know that these strangers were actually angels. He thought that they were simply strangers and he was being noble in being willing to sacrifice his own daughters to protect them. How egregious was that?
- God brought fire and brimstone down on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroying all of their inhabitants, except for Lot and his family. That would include not just the adults but presumably all of the children, including infants.
- Lot’s wife, despite the angels’ warning, turned and looked back at the conflagration. As a result, God turned her into a pillar of salt. Wasn’t that just a bit harsh?
- Lot and his daughters fled to an isolated region without any close neighbors. The daughters were concerned that, because there were no men in the area, they might never bear children. (Keep in mind that these were virgins [or at least Lot thought] who had been engaged to be married.) So on successive nights they got their father drunk and had sex with him, in turn, which led to pregnancies to carry on the family line.
This is difficult story and it is understandable that it would require some bowdlerization to make it appropriate for young persons. Even so, it has some very disturbing elements that are difficult to reconcile. God comes across as so angry about the sinfulness of the cities’ inhabitants that he is willing to destroy all of them, including children who could not be considered responsible for the acts of the adults. Lot offers to let his virgin daughters be raped to protect the strangers (angels) from homosexual rape. Lot’s daughters engage in incest with him in order to produce offspring. Why are these elements included in the Biblical account? What lessons are we to learn from these elements?
A number of my Christian friends have told me that they have read the entire Bible, in some cases several times. I would ask them the following: As you read the account of Sodom and Gomorrah as an adult, how did you react to the issues I have addressed above? Did you recognize them for what they were or did you gloss over them? Did you assume that this was simply an historical account and think that it was what it was? Did you think that the passage was mistranslated? (In the KJV sex is often euphemized as “knowledge,” as in Adam knew Eve.) How did you feel about the mass killing of all of the cities’ inhabitants, including the innocent children, or did you think that they must have been worthy of capital punishment also? Were all of the inhabitants so wicked that they were deserving of being killed then and there without chance of redemption? Were you simply intent on reading the day’s “assignment” of scripture and didn’t really think about what you were reading? Or did you, because or your faith, simply trust that there must be an explanation and just move on?
Perhaps it’s too easy to take shots at this story. After all, it’s in Old Testament and many Christians feel that God had a change of heart following Christ’s sacrifice in the New Testament. But it does raise again the question of how the scripture should be treated--as the inerrant word of God; as in part historical, in part metaphorical; or as simply a collection of writings of very uneven, inconsistent perspective.
And who makes that determination?
© 2014 John M. Phillips