Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Kindness of Strangers

Genesis 19:24-25 (NIV)

24 Then the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens. 25 Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land.

Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by the hand of God as punishment for their sins. Although the Bible is unclear as to their primary sin, most people assume it must have been so atrocious to have brought complete annihilation from the Almighty. At least that's what we have come to believe throughout history, and what could be more vile than sexual immorality? Perhaps, inhospitality?

[Flight of Lot by Gustave Doré]

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah begins in Genesis 18 when the Lord pays Abraham a visit in physical form which is the first time God comes down and walks among his creation since humanity and God parted ways in Eden. Genesis 18 and 19 parallel each other in common themes of blessing and hospitality towards strangers. Both begin with the Divine coming down in physical form and both Abraham and Lot are anxious to serve them. Abraham is sitting in the "entrance to his tent in the heat of the day" as he sees three men approaching. Likewise, Lot is sitting at the entrance of the Gate to Sodom almost as if he were a member of Sodom's welcoming committee. Before asking their names, where they came from, or what business they may have both Abraham and Lot rush out to greet them, humbly bowing offering their personal services. Already we can tell that being hospitable to strangers is incredibly important and a part of their moral code.

How many of us would try that with a stranger today in the 21st century? At my house we have multiple locks on our doors and windows, a dog, and a peephole to protect us from strangers (we're installing a moat once I get a job after college ). We never leave our doors unlocked and we never leave it open to enjoy the cool breeze of the afternoon. We don't keep a gun at home but we have many friends and neighbors who do. I find it amazing that these two men literally run to meet mere strangers who might cause them harm which is very likely while living a nomadic life. Some may assume that Abraham and Lot knew these men were the Divine in mortal disguises and that may be the case, but the theme of both chapters, in my humble opinion, seems to be hospitality to your fellow man. In fact, being a hospitable host is an important aspect of Judaism.

Abraham's three visitors blessed Abraham and Sarah and said that when they return next year they will have a son. It didn't go nearly as well for Lot and his family in Sodom. When Lot met the two visitors at the gate you can almost hear Lot's hurried anxiety to get them into his house for the night. Initially, Lot's remarks to his visitors in Genesis 19:2 comes across as a bit rude as he urgently wants his guest to leave the city as soon as they are rested, but Lot sounds more fearful than impatient. The visitors ("Mal'akh"מַלְאָ, Hebrew for messengers or angels) objected saying they wanted to stay in the square. Lot's opposition to his visitors spending the night in public sounds as if it is based on either intense shame or dreadful fear. Angels or not, he would be immensely ashamed to live with such "animals" as he desperately tries to play the good host in a city of savages. On the other hand, as angels there would be no need to for Lot to fear for their lives, yet he is bound to protect them under his moral code. There are horrific stories within Jewish tradition that describe people from the Cities of the Plain treating strangers cruelly. And if Lot witnessed anything like these tales, this alone would be enough to frighten Lot into putting his life (and the lives of his daughters) in danger when he took these two visitors under his roof.

The focus on the sin of homosexuality is based on Genesis 19:5 where all the people (commonly translated as all the men which hints at a homosexual mob) surround Lot's house demanding to know the two visitors. יָדַע Ya,da is a Hebrew verb which means " to know." Out of almost the 1000 times the word is used in the Hebrew scripture only about a dozen actually allude to sex. So the text can be read as if the mob wanted to interrogate (maybe even torture) the visitors or that the mob came to "know" the two visitors. Homosexuality is assumed because even after Lot offers his two virgin daughters, the mob refuses and attempts to break into the house. The Cities of the Plain were guilty of a laundry list of sins, and not just homosexuality. Not helping the poor and the needy, unconcerned and letting them starve in the streets sounds 1000 times worse than any sort of "sinful" homosexual activity. Whatever the sins of Sodom and her daughters were Jewish tradition links their sins with the natural disaster that took out these ancient cities.

Lot risking his life to protect total strangers is one of the most overlooked and most important theme of Genesis 19. As Abraham is blessed with news of a son, Lot is blessed with escaping with his life. Which would sound odd if God did allow Lot to live if he did indeed offer up his own daughters to a mob of rapists. Whenever Sodom and Gomorrah is mentioned throughout the Bible (and throughout Jewish and Christian tradition) it is used as a vehicle and an example for condemnation of living the sinful life instead as an example of redemption. Even though Genesis 19 ends with a dysfunctional family assuming they are the last survivors of their family line (or worse, the planet!) poor Lot redeems his life of misery, shame, and regret in this one act of bravery and kindness towards strangers. Is this not the lesson we should remember when we think of Lot, Sodom and Gomorrah? Must we continue to use this one chapter (along with a handful of other verses) to condemn people for who they are, or can we use this to increase our kindness to strangers?

1 comment:

Don said...

I'm really getting some good lessons on Genesis. I appreciate that.

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