Tuesday of week 13 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Gen 19:15-29

In today’s reading we move to the destruction of the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as a punishment for their terrible immorality. Omitted is the scene when the two men, who are now being called ‘angels’ (Greek angelos, ‘aggelos, meaning ‘messenger’) and who represent God’s own presence, are offered hospitality in Lot’s house. It is while they are there that that all the men of Sodom, both young and old, come demanding to “know” (in the sexual sense) the visitors. Rather than abuse his solemn obligations of hospitality Lot offers his two virgin daughters instead. To our way of thinking today, it was a strange and horrifying offer but it shows that the demands of hospitality even outweighed other personal considerations. (For an even worse example of the same, cf. Judges 19:24-25.) In the end the men of Sodom are dazzled by a blinding light so that they cannot find their way into the house. The men/angels warn Lot of the coming catastrophe and urge the family to flee at once. But, when he makes the announcement to his family, Lot’s sons-in-law refuse to take him seriously. Their scepticism will seal their doom. (Is it also a device to exclude non-relatives of Abram being saved?) At dawn the following morning, the angels again urge Lot to leave with his household unless he wants to share the fate of the two cities. But Lot is still hesitant. Is he reluctant to leave behind all his wealth and prosperity? But the men took Lot by the hand together with his wife and two daughters and forcibly brought them to a place outside Sodom. This is seen as an act of God’s mercy and it might be noticed that only the direct relatives of Abram are so rescued; the in-laws are left to their own devices. Once outside the city Lot is told to flee the Plain where the cities are and take to the hills. Again, Lot is reluctant to do what he is told. “Oh, no, my lord!” he cries (using the singular). He says that the visitors have already shown great kindness by saving his life and he is afraid to go to the hills for fear some disaster might overtake him. Perhaps he is afraid of being attacked and robbed in uninhabited places. He suggests being allowed to take refuge in another smaller city which is not far away and where he would be safer. The man (only one is mentioned) grants this concession and promises that this city will not be destroyed. But again, he urges Lot to get there as quickly as possible “for I can do nothing until you arrive there”. This city, we are told, was called Zoar, a word related to the Hebrew misear, meaning ‘a trifling thing’. The town lay to the south-east of the Dead Sea. In the Roman period another earthquake occurred and the town was flooded; it was rebuilt higher up the shore and inhabited until the Middle Ages. By now the sun is already up. And at that moment fire and sulphur rained down from heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah. The two cities were destroyed and all the Plain with them, including all the inhabitants and all plant life. According to the commentaries, it is usually understood that the cause was volcanic, that it was a huge earthquake. This would naturally be accompanied by a disastrous fire, especially in a region containing bitumen and its accompanying gases. The text enables us to locate the catastrophe in the southern part of the Dead Sea. The subsidence of the southern half of the Dead Sea bed is known to be recent as geologists reckon, and the whole district is still geologically unstable. The doomed towns were, besides Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zebolim. It was understood by the sacred authors, of course, as punishment for the terrible immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah and bears resemblance to the story of the Flood, where just one family, loyal to Yahweh, survived. As Lot and his family fled, his wife, who disobeyed the order not to look back, was turned into a pillar of salt. Now only three people have survived – Lot and his two daughters (who had a double escape). The southern end of the Dead Sea features colossal salt pillars and perhaps one of them suggested the appearance of a woman and hence the legend. Meanwhile, Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had spoken with the Lord and looked down on Sodom and Gomorrah below. And “he saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace”. From the height east of Hebron, Abraham could easily see the region at the southern end of the Dead Sea, where the Cities of the Plain were probably located. And so it was, says Genesis, that when God destroyed the Plain and the two cities, he remembered Abraham and rescued Lot from the midst of the destruction, by overthrowing the cities where Lot had made his home. Our reading today concludes with the suggestion that Lot being saved was less for his own sake than for the sake of his uncle, Abraham. Earlier, when they were dividing the land between them, it had been suggested that Lot had made a less wise and more selfish choice in picking that area. He had now lost it all. As we saw in yesterday’s reflection, there is much discussion now about the real sin of the people of Sodom. Traditionally it has been seen as a condemnation of homosexual acts. Such acts were considered an abomination by the Jews. “The man who lies with a man in the same way as with a woman: they have done a hateful thing together; they must die, their blood shall be upon their own heads” (Leviticus 20:13). These acts are part of a longer list including examples of incest, bestiality, and sexual relations with close relatives. All are strictly forbidden and some involve the death penalty for the perpetrators. These acts were regarded as typical of the surrounding Gentile peoples and were not to be imitated (Leviticus 20:23). Others however would see the sin of Sodom as the violation of the respect due to visitors, a sin against hospitality. Hospitality towards strangers has almost a sacred character among the people of the Middle East. This is seen in Lot’s readiness even to offer his daughters to the lust of the townspeople rather than dishonour his visitors. Today, too, we would distinguish between homosexual acts and the orientation. This distinction was unknown until relatively recent times. Formerly, all homosexual relationships were seen as a perversion of a person’s nature, a violation of it. Now, with better psychological understanding, we know that a minority of men and women are so constituted that they are sexually attracted primarily to people of their own gender. The Church emphasises that, while condemning homosexual acts as immoral, the orientation is not culpable and people inclined in this way should not be the subject of discrimination.

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