In Ireland, where I spent the last ten years in rural parish ministry, travelling around was a continual challenge. Taking the wrong turn was easy with a plethora of small roads and few signposts, so I sometimes had to stop and ask the way. But asking for directions could also be a hazardous undertaking. A favourite Irish response was, ‘If I was going to go dere I wouldn’t take dis road’. Another equally helpful one was, ‘Let me see now – there’d be t’ree ways….’ – all of which would then be explained at length and with lots of references to local landmarks and then weighed carefully to establish the best option, consulting others on the scene where possible! In the summer of 2000, travelling to my first service at one of my churches in Kildallan group, we stopped to ask the way. The man said, ‘Now let me see, there’d be t’ree ways – but let me ask me mammy. Mammy knew of a fourth way. Which was the quickest? – I asked. ‘Well let me see now….’ The pros and cons were carefully weighed. Over Sunday lunch later, we told this story to a table of clergy, readers, spouses and children. Ways 5, 6 and 7 were added. They all went there, as I subsequently found, some more tortuously or dangerously than others….
This could be a parable of biblical hermeneutics. For I think this is a case of ‘Let me see now there’d be t’ree ways’. But unlike a road map it isn’t a case of alternative ways. It is a matter of taking all three or more ways in order to arrive at the right destination. Taking hermeneutics seriously means stepping back from the text itself and considering how best to get to the text. Hermeneutics is about how we interpret. It is about complementary ways, not alternative ways. Although it is not like a road map, it is like the sort of braiding of roads that you find in rural Ireland where roads to the same destination keep joining one another. And that braiding is what lends strength and confidence to the endeavour.
So when we approach the narrative in Genesis chapter 19 we take the road of the narrative itself. But this main story-road is joined by roads that come at the story from other directions.
The road of narrative reading, the story as it is told in the context in which it is told, is the road of the plain sense. If the story makes sense as it is, in its setting, then don’t mess with it. Don’t go looking for problems. Take it at its face value. To do anything else is to risk reading our own agenda into it – not that we can avoid doing that anyway because any reading does that – but we want to do it to the least extent possible. We may not like the text’s drift, but we are stuck with that. If it aint broke, don’t fix it. ‘The way the words go’ is the correct reading unless we have good reason to doubt it.
Yet readability isn’t the end of it. Do the elements of the passage fit logically? This is connected with its making sense, of course, but it may go beyond that. Does the story have internal consistency? Does the way it is told – does the way the words work together – give a consistent result? If there is a choice of meanings when it comes to certain words or phrases, which reading makes the whole thing hang together?
That’s all fine as far as it goes, but of course the story could be simply a fable, or a parable. Parables convey important truths but they are not usually about real people or events. Are there external references that point to a factual basis, that reveal a foundation of factual reporting? In his commentary on Genesis, Gordon Wenham talks of the way place names and people’s names, the sort of food eaten and how it was prepared and other cultural practices and the family groupings described in the Patriarchal Narratives match up with the areas and times the narrative places them in. These consistencies give the narrative the ring of historical truth, however much editorial additions or re-shapings may have read different nuances into earlier tellings of the story.
For this story along with the whole of this narrative would have been told and retold over generations and centuries before it was finally written down. This would be a worry in relation to accuracy of reporting except that the way this oral transmission is done hasn’t changed much in the Middle East over the millennia. It can be observed today in the tent story telling of Bedouin Arabs. It is a group process, the listeners correcting the story teller if he or she strays from the remembered details. In this way complicated family histories are handed down with amazing accuracy over hundreds of years – far more complicated stories than the Abrahamic family history. And of course we experience this much closer to home in the recounting of Whakapapa in our Maori culture.
But that’s not all. There is yet another road to traverse. How does our reading of this story square with what the Bible has to say about it elsewhere? How do other biblical passages interpret this story, and are they consistent in what they say with the way I am reading this passage, or do they instead qualify the way I am reading it?
Now this might seem like a can of worms. Why should, say, a later text on the same topic be allowed to qualify the way I read an earlier text. Wouldn’t times and views have changed? Well yes, but there are two things to remember. When the patriarchal narratives were written down, probably in the time of King David, the author would have been trying to make the story understandable to his readers in his present context – editorial glosses are present everywhere in the Bible. Also, just as we Christians read the OT through the New – old covenant in terms of new covenant, all as pointing to or fulfilled in Christ, so Jewish readers read their scriptures through the Mosaic Law which is the interpretative framework for the story of God’s dealings with his people.
And so to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. How might these principles of hermeneutics cast light on this?
The first road: the plain sense of the narrative. This is really a story in two parts: before and after the blast; the story of the rescue from and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the story of Lot’s daughters’ incest with their father. The sense of the latter story is unequivocal, spelt out. The sense we make of the former hangs on the meaning of one Hebrew word – yada – ‘know’ in verse 5 – which may relate to sexual ‘knowledge’ or to something as unremarkable as making the acquaintance of someone. This verb occurs frequently in the Bible and is used in all the ways we use the verb ‘know’ in English, both transitive and intransitive, as well as to refer to sexual intercourse. So to try to cast light on which sense of the word is intended by the author means travelling a second hermeneutical pathway.
Which reading fits with the internal consistency of the story itself? There are two possibilities: the lack of reference to any of the citizens of the city meeting and greeting the visitors at the city gate, implying that only Lot was there (although this may simply mean that Lot’s being at the gate was the only important thing for the family history to note), could point to a xenophobic anxiety about the identity of his guests – are these visitors who slipped in without being noticed a threat to the security of the city? (Well yes!) ‘Bring them out so that we can size them up and interrogate them!’
The second possibility is less inferential. The verb ‘yada ’ occurs again three verses later, in verse 8, this time explicitly in relation to sexual knowledge. Lot’s daughters had not yet known a man. It is likely that the author employed the word with the same sense in both verses coming so close together. Five of the eight transitive uses of yada in the book of Genesis refer to sexual activity. The interpretation that the men of Sodom intended to force themselves sexually on the visitors as suggested by this conjunction of the two uses of the word is supported by Lot’s plea to them not to act so wickedly and the ensuing threat that if he didn’t get out of their way they would do something even worse to him. This is not the language of sizing up and interrogation!
Then which meaning fits with the way this story has been interpreted or utilized elsewhere in the Bible?
The name ‘Sodom’ stands out like a red traffic light from its first mention in Genesis 13 (which points to Genesis 19) through to the book of Revelation, in no fewer than 39 references outside of the story itself. It is consistently synonymous with both wickedness and judgment – a biblical symbol of divine judgment. The destruction which turned two prosperous cities on a fertile plain into a salt wasteland was an indication of extreme divine displeasure to Jews down the ages, including Jesus and the Jewish Christian NT epistle writers.
So what caused this extreme displeasure? In Genesis 18v20 God is reacting to the outcry of (or about) the sin from these two cities. Treating strangers inhospitably was certainly dishonourable behaviour, as is emphasised by Lot’s offering his daughters to preserve his guests, but it was not a capital offence. And the incest in the latter part of the passage, while certainly condemned in Leviticus, does not attract much censure from the author, perhaps because it was considered to provide simultaneously a sort of rough justice and a family survival remedy! So there was something else going on which was more wicked and more deserving of judgment. The plain reading of the text which indicates a violent homosexual component to the sin which brought down such judgment is supported by the way the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is used in both Testaments. Whatever we may think of the biblical proscription of homosexual activity, and the way Sodom has been used as a byword for this down the centuries of Christian tradition, it seems inescapable that the sin of Sodom was more than inhospitality and to read it thus is to ignore the consistency of meaning both within the text itself and within the Bible as a whole.
Revd Dr Sue Patterson
Bishopdale Theological College
29th June, 2010
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