Perhaps one of the most famous or infamous stories in Genesis is the one about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Many people assume it was destroyed for homosexuality. However, in this chapter I will show that this is a misrepresentation, and I will also use the account to discuss the question of why God doesn’t intervene whenever something bad happens to us.
God appeared to Abraham in the form of three men, and told him of his intentions. “Because the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very heavy, I will go down, please, and I will see whether they act according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” 1
This is a curious picture. For one, we have three men representing God. For another, we have God saying “please,” which is usually added to a request. But what was God requesting here? I would suggest it was God’s way of inviting Abraham to discuss the matter further, and even to question him about it.
It also sounds as if God didn’t know the situation with the people of Sodom, although it doesn’t actually say that. I think he knew, but he wanted to put them to the test, so he would go and visit them personally. Who would suspect that God would effectively turn up on their doorstep in the form of a man?
Two of the men headed off for Sodom, and one remained before Abraham, who took advantage of the apparent suggestion in God’s previous words to discuss the matter further. Abraham drew close to the man and asked: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Maybe there are fifty righteous people in the midst of the city. Will you really sweep them away, and not spare the place on account of the fifty righteous ones in it?”
We can sense a certain surprise in Abraham’s tone of voice as he expressed his feelings. “Far be it for you to do this thing, for you to put to death the righteous with the wicked, and the righteous becomes like the wicked. Far be it for you! Will the judge of all the earth not exercise judgment?” 2
This is really quite a remarkable account. Abraham is, in effect, arguing with God! I have already suggested that one of the reasons atheists reject the God of the Bible is because they don’t like his values. In a sense, this was also what Abraham was struggling with here. Would God really put both good and bad people to death?
God’s response was simple. If he found 50 righteous people, he would spare the place for the sake of them. Abraham then pushed further, reducing the number of people each time, until he got it down to ten. God’s answer was similar: He wouldn’t destroy the place if even ten righteous people could be found.
At evening time, the two men, who are described at this point as angels, arrived at Sodom. Abraham’s relative Lot was at the gate of the city, and he invited them into his house. Later that night, all of the men of the city, both old and young from every part, surrounded Lot’s house and demanded to have sex with the two men. In other words, the men of the city wanted to gang rape them, although they would not have known they were angels.
Lot pleaded with the mob, and offered his two daughters instead, but the men would have none of it. Instead, they came close to breaking the door. The two angels pulled Lot back inside, and then they struck the men outside with blindness, and told Lot and his family to get ready to leave, because they were about to destroy the place because of the outcry against it.
Now, the word “sodomy” derives from the name of this infamous city, but unfortunately, the word distracts from the real crime the city was condoning, which was gang rape. This is why the outcry against the city would have been so great. Travelers passing through, needing to spend the night there, risked being gang raped by a sex-crazed mob!
As I discussed in a previous chapter, a very similar incident happened later on in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, where a mob ended up gang raping and killing a concubine. The common factor between the story of Sodom and the later account wasn’t homosexuality as many suggest, because in the story involving the men from the tribe of Benjamin, the concubine was female. Instead, the common factor was gang rape. In the case of Sodom, all the men of the city wanted to participate in the crime!
Now, this raises an important question. If God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because as cities they condoned and practiced gang rape, why doesn’t he intervene more often, to prevent bad things from happening?
I will use this as a convenient opportunity to discuss what I will call “The Intervention Point,” the point where God would need to intervene, in order to prevent suffering and badness.
Consider the following scenario. A newly married husband and wife liked to enjoy a few drinks together in the evening. The wife often worked quite late, so the husband used to have one or two drinks by himself, before she would come home. Gradually those one or two drinks turned into more and more until, without his wife even knowing, the husband became an alcoholic.
One night, after his wife had been working late, the man agreed to pick her up from work, even though he had been drinking far more than the legal limit. As he was driving her home, he lost concentration and was involved in a collision. Although the husband was unhurt, the accident killed his wife and the driver of the other vehicle.
When it was discovered he had been drinking heavily before driving, the husband was sent to prison for many years. Eventually, he was released, and he decided to share his story with the media as a warning about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Now, this scenario involved the death of two innocent people, and imprisonment for the husband. The question is, at what point should God have intervened, to prevent this from happening? In other words, where is the Intervention Point?
Perhaps it should have been the moment before they started to enjoy their first drink together. If God had physically prevented them from drinking alcohol, it would certainly solve the problem of the husband drinking and driving, but it would also limit their free will.
Maybe God should have intervened before the man became an alcoholic. In which case, specifically how many drinks should God have allowed him before intervening? One? Two? Three? Besides, this wouldn’t necessarily stop the man from driving after drinking alcohol, which was the real issue here.
Perhaps God could have intervened on that fateful evening, to prevent the collision. But this wouldn’t prevent the man from drinking and driving again. If God intervened that night, he would have to intervene to prevent every drink driving incident that involved injury or death. But then, how would anybody learn that drinking and driving was bad? It would, in fact, no longer be bad, since it wouldn’t have any negative consequences.
Besides, what do we mean by “bad” or “suffering”? Why should we limit its scope to death or injury? If we define it as anything that causes physical, mental or psychological harm to ourselves or another creature, then humans would suddenly find themselves very restricted in what they could do. For example, if the man’s addiction to alcohol caused his work to suffer and his health to decline, this would surely qualify as harming himself, so God would have to intervene to prevent him from drinking in the first place.
Imagine living in a world where no bad could ever be done. Perhaps some kind of force field prevented you from doing physical or psychological injury, or from even saying something bad. I suppose it would be a better world in many ways. The problem is, because people would be completely shielded from anything bad, they would never actually learn the difference between good and bad, and therefore they could never freely choose to do good.
Assuming God exists, this is certainly a world he could have chosen to create. But I would suggest its inhabitants would be the equivalent of children, never growing to full maturity, never understanding cause and effect, and requiring constant supervision. In some ways, this is the story of humans in the garden of Eden.
When a parent tells a child not to do something, what is the basis for what the parent says? We could argue that the authority of the parent is enough, but if we want our children to grow up into mature adults, they ultimately need to know why something is good or bad. Sometimes a simple explanation is enough, but sometimes they need to learn the hard way, and experience the consequences for themselves.
I believe this is the path God has chosen to take with humans. In one sense, God’s own authority should be enough for us to know what good and bad is. Surely God would have a better clue than flesh and blood as to what is actually good for us. At the same time, I also think God knew this wouldn’t be enough, because we are intelligent, inquiring and questioning creatures. Therefore, he has permitted the human race to go its own way for a time, and learn good and bad for itself.
This is why he can’t intervene every time something bad happens. This is also why the story of Adam and Eve is a critical opening story, regardless of whether we take it literally or as an allegory. It tells us that bad things happen because, as humans, we are collectively still in the process of learning good and bad for ourselves.
Besides, in a sense, there is actually an invisible force that, while it doesn’t prevent us from doing bad, alerts us in a gentle way. We call it a conscience. We have developed it because we have learned the difference between good and bad, which has come about through both our own personal experiences, and the collective experience of humanity.
While God has generally allowed us to do our own thing, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is meant to show that God does intervene at times, mainly to prevent human badness from getting out of hand. All of the men of Sodom were engaging in gang rape of foreigners to their city. God chose an admittedly extravagant way of dealing with the situation, that would have served as a warning example for future generations – the destruction of those cities by fire and sulfur.
The historian Josephus related that traces of the cities could still be seen in his day, and the fruits of those places, while having the appearance of being suitable for eating, dissolved into smoke and ashes. 3
Archaeologists in modern times have located several possible sites for Sodom and Gomorrah. One of them, by the Jordan river, shows signs of being destroyed by intense heat and wind. Pottery was melted into glass, along with zircon crystals that form under extremely high pressure and temperature. The destruction has been attributed to a meteoric airburst event.4 Whatever the case, the story, and the event itself, if it happened the way the Bible says it did, was meant as a warning example for cities that might otherwise condone and practice gang rape, an outrageous form of criminality. It served as a restraint on human badness, even if the account is misinterpreted by some theologians and the modern skeptical mind.
1 Genesis 18:20,21. 2 Genesis 18:23-25. 3 Josephus, The Wars Of The Jews, Book 4, Chapter 8, Section 4. 4 See the article “Is The Biblical Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah Based On A Real-Life Impact Event?” by David Bressan, published at forbes.com on November 29, 2018.