Saturday, July 31, 2010

Attrocities of God 3: Sodom and Gomorrah

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is really nothing much to do with homosexuality. To atheists it must have seemed like a natural disaster, but the context that we are given in Genesis clearly delineates it as a matter of judgement.

We have this insight because of Abraham. Abraham is a figure revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. He it was who, after the Flood, was first chosen by God to have a special relationship with him. It was to him that God made the promise that he would be the father of many nations. Just before the encounter which sealed the fate of Sodom, God had told Abraham that his wife, long past the menopause, was to have a miracle child.

The story begins with three men appearing at the entrance of Abraham's tent. We later learn that these three are Angels, but Abraham was unaware of that - they didn't have wings or halos - they just looked like ordinary blokes. Abraham's response was to offer them lavish hospitality. The New Testament refers to 'entertaining Angels unaware' specifically harking back to this incident.

It was as they are enjoying a meal together that the Angels refer to the fact that his barren wife will after all bear a child in her old age. To her embarrassment, Sarah scoffs at the idea and is caught out lying about scoffing. After the meal the Angels then reveal to Abraham why they are there. "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous" that they are going down to the cities to see if what they are hearing is true, and if it is then those cities will be destroyed.

Now Abraham has a history with Sodom. When God called him to leave Ur of the Chaldees and then on from Haran, he took his nephew, Lot, with him. Abraham prospered in the land of Canaan and so did Lot, but it soon became clear than there was not enough grazing to support both their herds and those of the Canaanites and Perezzites who were also living there. Rather than quarrel, Abraham gave Lot the choice of dwelling in the Jordon valley or in the hill country. Lot chose the easier option of the plains and pitched his tents near the city of Sodom, even though we are told that the men of Sodom were wicked. We are not told at this juncture just how they were wicked, but they were certainly warlike. There had been the battle of the four kings versus the five kings in which Lot had been kidnapped and had to be rescued by Abraham and his 318 trained men. The King of Sodom had tried to reward Abraham, but he had treated this offer with disdain and instead accepted a gift of bread and wine form the King of Salem (peace) and in return gave him a tenth of the spoils of the battle. This King was a strange character, Melchizedek, who was also a priest of God Most High. In the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as a priest of the order of Melchizedek.

As for Lot, he does not come out of the story in Genesis very well. He chose the easy option of life on the plains rather than tending his flocks in the hill country. He soon finds himself seduced by city life, and later on, after the destruction of Sodom, allows his daughters to get him drunk and then sleeps with them. Yet we learn of him from the New Testament that he was a righteous man, that he was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard). (2 Peter 2:7-8)

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was not just an act of wanton violence, but deliberate punishment for wickedness. Even so, Abraham was looking for the best in people and begins to bargain with God. Two of the Angels had gone down into the valley to investigate Sodom, but the one remaining is now addressed by Abraham as Yahweh (in the English Bible this is represented by LORD (in capitals). Some theologians believe that this is because he was a theophany, in effect the second person of the Trinity, God in human form. "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" asks Abraham, "What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Far be it from you to do such a thing - to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?"

So Yahweh relents - for the sake of 50 he will not destroy Sodom.

Abraham begins to bargain with him. What if there are only 45? He beats him down. 40?, 30?. 20? 10 even?

And that is as low as he dares go. I think he reckons that his nephew, Lot is there, and his wife and two daughters. That's four. He probably knows that the girls are both engaged to be married, and surely Lot wouldn't let them be married to just anybody. Two sons-in-law and their parents; that's another six. Six and four makes ten. But when it comes to it the sons-in-law think that Lot is making a joke and decline to follow him.

So this is what happens. The two angels go down to the city of Sodom and there waiting at the gate is Lot. True to his upbringing he offers them the same sort of hospitality as Abraham did. At first the angels are reluctant to go into his house, but he is persistent and they relent. Later that evening a howling mob, both young and old, surround Lot's house, and demand that he surrender the strangers. Their purpose is male rape.

Lot goes outside to reason with them. He calls them friends. Don't do this wicked thing, he pleads. Then, he makes them an offer which we would find equally offensive. He offers his virgin daughters as substitutes.

Lot's priority was his honor as a host. The Sodomites were dismissive. This fellow came here as an alien and now he wants to play the judge! Get out of the way! We'll treat you worse than them!

But Angels need no protection. They pulled Lot back inside the house and shut the door, then they struck the whole crowd down with blindness. They told Lot to gather up all that were his and flee to the hills. In the end he could only recruit his wife and two daughters, and even his wife looked back. Even now, Lot pleads with them to spare a little city for him to settle in and so they spare the small town of Zoar.

Then the LORD rained down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah.

There must have been thousands killed. An arbitrary act of spite? Another atrocity? The Bible makes it clear that it is an act of judgement.

How would you like to see the wicked rewarded for their wickedness? A case has recently hit the headlines in Britain. Ian Huntley is a pedophile who somehow got a job as a school caretaker in a small town near Cambridge. While he was there he abducted and murdered two little girls. He was caught, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Some may say that he deserved not life but death, but unfortunately we no longer have the death penalty in the UK. In prison he has three times attempted suicide, and more recently a fellow prisoner tried to murder him by cutting his throat. He is now suing the prison authorities (aka the taxpayer) for $150,000) for failing in their duty of care to him while in prison). Now given that the parents of the little girls received only $16,000 from the public purse in criminal injuries compensation, this claim has raised the public ire. A member of the Prison reform trust has supported Huntley. His punishment is to have his liberty removed, she said, he is entitled to a normal life within those limits.

The public probably thinks that his liberty is being curtailed to protect other little girls and that he deserves more punishment than that. Being locked up with a load of violent men is part of the punishment.

But the truth is that there is usually no justice in this life; that is reserved for God when we meet him after death. This is what the apostle Peter says of the destruction of Sodom: He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;... the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials (meaning Lot) and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment while continuing their punishment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings ... These men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, revelling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed - an accursed brood. These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. (2 Peter 2:6-17)

Is anybody denying God the right to judge his creation? On what grounds could anyone do so? What is apparent from this story is how patient God is; how long suffering. On being challenged by Abraham he is eager to ensure that what he does is just. He will agree that just a small leavening of righteous men in a wicked city will save the city from destruction, since those men just might influence the city towards righteousness. Read the story of Jonah and how the great and wicked city of Nineveh turned to God after Jonah's warning.

We can see how keen he is to rescue sinners. Lot may have been a righteous man in that he believed God, but he was a terrible sinner, nonetheless. The difficulty is in rescuing those who refuse to be rescued. The Sodomites were deaf to Lot's pleas and blind to his influence.

The destruction of Sodom was not an atrocity, but a warning to those who persist in their wickedness. You cannot hope to reform, but you can hope to be rescued.

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