Rape, Hospitality and the Sin of Sodom

A friend seeking asylum walked into the Home Office one Monday morning to discover that his new caseworker was the random guy he’d got off with, in a gay club on the Saturday night, and whose boyfriend (as he’d found out later that night) was a former flatmate! The granting of his refugee status took a week. After years of ineffectual campaigning to prove he was gay, my friend snogged his way to freedom.

I think it’s a funny story but when I recounted it to a friend who is a very traditional Muslim, his only response was: “That is condemned in the Book of Lūt.”

Here I must say that, technically, I’ve never read the Book of Lūt. It forms part of Arabic sacred scripture that is regarded as authoritative only in the original language and I’ve only read an authorised English translation, regarded as simply giving the ideas of the original. The unnamed place is only alluded to, by the mention of the people of Lūt, and the sin condemned is a failure of duty towards God and Messengers of God. The idea in the Book of Lot (to give it its English title) is not, necessarily, that the sin of the people was homosexuality. That idea turns up as a certain interpretation of the text, in sidebars, footnotes and endnotes (or even in brackets, especially in online versions). That interpretation depends on a certain interpretation of the Sodom (and Gomorrah) story in Ch. 19 of the Book of Genesis, which forms part of Hebrew sacred scripture.

In Arabic, Hebrew and Greek (the language of Christian sacred scripture), ‘messenger’ also means ‘angel’. This meaning is included in the Arabic word ‘alamin (“mankind, jinn and all that exists”) which, interestingly, the second time it’s used in this story, is glossed by the (online) interpreter as only “mankind”, in order to give this certain interpretation.

My Arabic is practically non-existent, my Hebrew is decidedly shaky and my Greek, well, at least I try! However, I have lived in lots of countries, including very hot ones, and so I don’t dismiss the ‘hospitality’ interpretation of the sin of Sodom as most conservative ‘Anglo-Saxon’ interpretation is inclined to do. Anyway, I’m not Anglo-Saxon, I’m Celtic, and in terms of interpretative heritage, that does make a difference.

One of the main reasons why the Anglo-Saxons, in the land now known as England, made the transition of mercenaries to monarchs so quickly is their repeated ruse of the murderous abuse of hospitality. This is not an aspect of their character that the Venerable Bede, in his political propaganda, dwells on and to their Celtic hosts it was unthinkable. Still today in Scotland, out of all the evils of inter-clan conflict, the Massacre of Glencoe, ordered by the English King, is considered to be the most shameful. Generations of English literature, and politicians, have trumpeted the English virtues of fairness and sang froid; it’s only fair that other cultures are accorded praise where due and you can’t have everything.

English culture has never been famous for its hospitality and what you don’t value in your own culture you may find it difficult to value in another but, despite the appropriating sentiments in the song, Jerusalem, England is not the promised land and the Biblical events took place somewhere else and to another people. They took place in a desert culture where to offer or refuse hospitality was to offer or refuse life.

Other cultures which do prize hospitality highly, such as that of the ancient Greeks, also have stories of divine beings being placated or offended as they are offered hospitality – or not. Yet the physical climate of Greece is itself hospitable. A traveller refused hospitality there, at least in ancient times when the land was more fruitful, was less likely to perish than someone out of doors without provisions in more southern desert climes – or in the Arctic north.

As I make clear in Only Say The Word: Affirming Gay and Lesbian Love, the men surrounding Lot’s door and demanding that his (angelic) visitors be brought out to be raped were, in this ancient patriarchal desert culture, sinning on several counts:

  • By abusing hospitality
  • By abusing men
  • By attempted rape

Lot’s offer (to throw his virgin daughters out to be raped by the mob) and the parallel story in Judges 19-21 (of the murderous gang rape and dismemberment at Gibeah of an unnamed female concubine, when this kind of offer was accepted) show that the homosexual interpretation of this story was the least of the concerns of its ancient authorship. For that rape and murder, a tribe is almost entirely wiped out. However, the Gibeah story is hardly first wave feminism: the tribe of Benjamin survives only by the abduction (i.e. rape) of 600 women.

It is said of Arabic sacred scripture that it has seven layers of meaning; the same may be said of its sister scriptures. One of the insights of a kind of interpretation called ‘hermeneutics’ is that the meaning we see may depend upon our perspective. Some truths, as my friend found out, take a while to be accepted; but truth, as his home office caseworker realised, will out!

Some have decided that these terrible tales should form no part of our modern life, and this is a choice I respect. Others, like myself, do battle with their continuing narrow and life-denying interpretation in order to open them up to new insights and to remember what is valuable about ancient cultures while we throw out the trash.

So what I remember, from my own Celtic tradition, is a rune of hospitality, which comes with a Christian interpretation but is open to any human or divine being:

I saw a stranger yestre’en, I put food in the eating-place, drink in the drinking-place, a bed in the resting-place, and in the morning the stranger was gone; and the lark, in her clear song, sang, ‘often, often, often, goes the Christ in stranger’s guise’.


Thanks to Petr Kratochvil for releasing his photo ‘Plant Growing in Desert’ into the Public Domain