Tuesday of Week 13 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 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, 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 a 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 an abhorrent and horrifying offer, but it shows that, at that time and in that culture, the demands of hospitality even outweighed other very personal considerations. Sadly, a more terrible example of the this is in Judges 19:22-28.

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 (perhaps this is also a device to exclude non-relatives of Abraham 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 take Lot by the hand together with his wife and two daughters and forcibly bring 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 Abraham 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 lords!” he cries. 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 also 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.

“He replied” (only one person now is mentioned, and it is presumably the Lord) and 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 southeast of the Dead Sea. Later, during the Roman period, an 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, and there 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’s 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 has now lost it all.

As we saw in the First Reading commentary for Monday of Week 13 in Ordinary Time, there is much discussion now about the nature of the real sin of the people of Sodom. Traditionally it has been seen as a condemnation of homosexual acts (Lev 20:13). Such acts were considered an abomination by the Jews and were regarded as typical of the surrounding Gentile peoples (Lev 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 anguished thought to even offer his daughters to address the lust of the townspeople, rather than dishonour his visitors.

The Church today (see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2357-2359) distinguishes between homosexual acts (teaching that these are objectively sinful) and homosexual inclination (attraction to members of the same sex that is not subject to one’s own free will). The Church now recognizes that a minority of men and women are so constituted that they are sexually attracted primarily to people of their own gender. We are called to treat all people with compassion and to support and encourage all persons to live out Jesus’ call to holiness. We do this by obeying the Commandments, following the teaching of the Church as it evolves over time, and acting in accord with our informed conscience.

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