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“Sodomy” Does Not Mean What You Think it Means

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Earlier this week, BuzzFeed reporters Andrew Kaczynski and Ruby Cramer highlighted a 1994 Miami Herald editorial by Jeb Bush, written during his first and unsuccessful bid to be Florida’s governor. Bush’s editorial, titled “NO SPECIAL LEGAL STATUS FOR GAYS,” argued that “Homosexuality is wrong” and that “sodomy” should not “be elevated to the same constitutional status as race and religion.” (Bush’s spokeswoman told BuzzFeed News, “This opinion editorial from 20 years ago does not reflect Gov. Bush’s views now, nor would he use this terminology today.”) But let’s discuss that terminology. Sodomy. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. Technically, Merriam-Webster defines sodomy as “anal or oral copulation with a member of the same or opposite sex.” But for many, like Jeb Bush, sodomy is basically a synonym for gay sex. The term comes from Ecclesiastical Latin peccatum Sodomiticum or “sin of Sodom,” referring to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. And the “sin of Sodom” must have been pretty serious, considering that, in Genesis 19:24-25, “the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.” It seems clear that God wasn’t happy with them. For some, the sin of Sodom was clearly homosexuality. In 1986, for example, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote, “There can be no doubt of the moral judgment made there [in Genesis 19:1-11] against homosexual relations.” But the Bible never explicitly identifies homosexuality as the sin that did Sodom and Gomorrah in. In fact, if we look at the text critically, it’s difficult to conclude that the story is a condemnation of consensual, monogamous, same-sex relationships. In Genesis 19:1-11, two angels came to Sodom and were staying with a man named Lot. The men of Sodom “both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house,” and called to Lot asking to “know” the two angels — basically, the men of Sodom were trying to gang-rape two angels. Lot then went outside and begged them to “not act so wickedly”; instead, Lot tells the men that he has two virgin daughters and that the men could “do to them as you please.” The men then try to break into the house, before the angels “struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.” It’s important to note that, unlike Pope Benedict XVI, many scholars disagree that it was the homosexual actions that led to the cities’ downfall. Some, such as Jennifer Wright Knust, claim that the intended homosexual gang rape was only one of Sodom’s many sins — such as pride, hatred, injustice, oppression, and inhospitality. In March 2003, Andrew Sullivan explained: Most modern scholars believe the original sin of Sodom was a refusal to be accommodating to travelers. Others believe it might have been the sin of rape. The Book of Ezekiel explains that Sodom and “her daughters had pride, overabundance of bread, abundance, and leisure, but they did not extend their hand to the poor. They were raised up and committed abominations before me.” Even in the New Testament, Sodom is condemned in terms of its connection with “uncleanness” and “adultery.” When the Book of Leviticus condemns men who lie with men, no reference is made to Sodom itself. Furthermore, even if you believe that God condemned the cities because of homosexual activity, it’s important to understand that their actions are not the way we understand homosexuality today. In contrast with today’s world, sex in biblical times was usually for procreation or to show dominance over another person. Far from looking for a consensual and meaningful relationship that happens to be between two people of the same sex, homosexual acts in parts of the ancient world, such as the intended gang rape in the biblical story of Sodom, were often intended as a way to humiliate and dominate other men. As recently as 2003 — when the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas overturned laws that criminalized consensual sex between adults of the same-sex — 13 states had sodomy laws. (I’m not aware of any laws that specifically addressed the gang-rape of angels). Even today, some are still trying to “pray the gay away.” Of course (and unfortunately), those concerned about homophobia in the Bible can find plenty to worry about in the text. But it’s time we stop letting “sodomy” mean something it was never intended to mean. In this case, it’s better to let the Bible have the final say about sodomy.