What was the sin of Sodom?

A collection of classical Jewish texts
Compilation and commentary by Robert Kaiser
With an additional note from Arthur Waskow

Classical Jewish texts concur that God did *not* destroy Sodom and Gemorrah because their inhabitants were homosexual. Not at all. Rather, the cities were destroyed because the inhabitents were nasty, depraved, and uncompromisingly greedy. Classical Jewish writings affirm that the primary crimes of the Sodomites were, among others, terrible and repeated economic crimes, both against each other and to outsiders. Saying "God killed them because they were gay" is, to say the least, not the Jewish teaching on the subject.

Consider the following texts:


Your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters. You not only followed their ways, and acted according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways. As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Ezekiel 16:46-50


the Sodomites, overweeningly proud of their numbers and the extent of their wealth, showed themselves insolent to men and impious to the Divinity, insomuch that they no more remembered the benefits that they had received from him, hated foreigners and declined all intercourse with others. Indignant at this conduct, God accordingly resolved to chastise them for their arrogance...

Josephus, Antiquities I: 194-5


The men of Sodom waxed haughty only on account of the good which the Holy One, blessed be He, had lavished upon them...They said: Since there cometh forth bread out of (our) earth, and it hath the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth. Come, let us abolish the practice of travelling in our land...

There were four judges in Sodom named Shakrai (Liar), Shakurai (Awful Liar), Zayyafi (Forger), and Mazle Dina (Perverter of Justice). Now if a man assaulted his neighbour's wife and bruised her, they would say to the husband, Give her to him, that she may become pregnant for thee. If one cut off the ear of his neighbour's ass, they would order, Give it to him until it grows again.

If one wounded his neighbour they would say to the victim, Give him a fee for bleeding thee [bloodletting was sometimes considered medically beneficial in those days; Here the Sodomite judge cruelly ruled that if one beats you until you bleed, you owe your attacker money for this "beneficial" medical service"...]

... they had beds upon which travellers slept. If the guest was too long they shortened him by lopping off his feet; if too short, they stretched him out...

If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a denar [coin], upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given [the store owners recognized such coins, and refused toa accept them]. When he died, each came and took back his (denar)...

A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, hiding it in a pitcher. On the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus it is written, And the Lord said, The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah, because it is great (rabbah): whereupon Rab Judah commented in Rab's name: on account of the maiden (ribah).

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a


Said R Levi, Even if I wanted to keep silent, the requirement of justice for a certain girl will not allow me to keep silent. There was the case of two girls, who went down to draw water from the well. One said to her friend, Why are you pale? The other said, All the food is gone from our house and we are ready to die. What did the other do? She filled the jug with flour and exchanged it for her own. Each took the one of the other. When the Sodomites found out about it, they took the girl (who had shared the food) and burned her. Said the Holy One, blessed be He, Even if I wanted to keep silent, the requirement of justice for a certain girl will not allow me to keep silent. What is written is not, 'In accord with their cry', but, 'according to her cry', referring in particular to the girl.

Genesis Rabbah, Parashah 49:6


R Menhama in the name of R Bibi: This is what the Sodomites had stipulated among themselves. They said, As to any wayfarer who comes here, we shall have sexual relations with him and take away his money.

Genesis Rabbah, Parashah 50:7


Rabbi Ze era said: The men of Sodom were the wealthy men of prosperity, on account of the good and fruitful land whereon they dwelt... Rabbi Nathaniel said: The men of Sodom had no consideration for the honour of their Owner by not distributing food to the wayfarer and stranger, but they even fenced in all the trees on top above their fruit so that so that they should not be seized; not even by the bird of heaven... Rabbi Joshua... said: They appointed over themselves judges who were lying judges, and they oppressed every wayfarer and stranger who entered Sodom by their perverse judgment, and they sent them forth naked...

Rabbi Jehudah said: They made a proclamation in Sodom saying: Everyone who strengthens the hand of the poor or the needy with a loaf of bread shall be burnt by fire. Peletith, daughter of Lot, was wedded to one of the magnates of Sodom. She saw a certain very poor man in the street of the city, and her soul was grieved on his account... Every day when she went out to draw water she put in her bucket all sorts of provisions from her home, and she fed that poor man. The men of Sodom said: How does this poor man live? When they ascertained the facts, they brought her forth to be burnt by fire. She said: Sovereign of all the worlds! maintain my right and my cause (at the hands of) the men of Sodom. And her cry ascended before the Throne of Glory. In that hour the Holy One, blessed be He, said: I will now descend and I will see whether the men of Sodom have done according to the cry of this young woman, I will turn her foundation upwards, and the surface thereof shall be turned downwards.

Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer


Nachmanides commenting on the verse "AND WE SHALL KNOW THEM".

Their intention was to stop people from coming among them, as our rabbis have said, for they thought that because of the excellence of their land... many will come there and they despised charity... they continued provoking and rebelling against Him with their ease and the oppression of the poor... In the opinion of our Rabbis, all evil practices were rampant among them. Yet their fate was sealed because of this sin - i.e. they did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy - since this sin represented their usual behaviour more than any other. Besides, since all peoples act righteously towards their friends and their poor, there was none among all the nations who matched Sodom in cruelty.

Nahmanides (Ramban) Commentary on Genesis, 13th century

****** For similar views see Numbers Rabbah 9:24 (midrash), the JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis by Nahum M. Sarna, page 135, note #5, and the 'Stone Edition of the Chumash' [better known as the Artscroll Chumash] by Mesorah publications, commentary on page 81.

So the next time someone tries to use Genesis as an excuse to justify homophobia, we can educate them by giving them these sources to read and consider.

Robert Kaiser

****************** Many many thanks to Robert Kaiser for doing the work of collecting those powerful passages about the sin of Sodom. They clarify the story (for which unfortunately I can't site a source) about the great Gaon of Vilna, who sat with voice but no vote on the Council of the Jews of Vilna. His task was to comment from a Torah perspective on new legislation proposed before the Council. When there was no such new legislation, he did not take part in the meeting.

One day a member of the Council put forward a proposal for ending or greatly reducing the influx of Jews from poorer regions into Vilna, where they hoped for a better life. The Gaon rose to leave the meeting. "But Rabbi," said a Councilmember, "we need your comment on this proposed new legislation!"

"What new legislation?" said the Gaon. "This was already the law of Sodom, long ago!" And he left.

The proposal was dropped.

Arthur Waskow
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