Notes on Genesis (vii)
‘Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening…’ (Gen 19:1)
Sometimes the time of day at which something is said to have occurred gives you a way of understanding its significance. God encounters Adam and Eve in the afternoon (Gen 3:8), and there is a dreadful finality in the phrase ‘and it was night’ (John 13:30). The arrival of the messengers to Lot in the evening is in contrast to the appearance to Abraham ‘during the noon hour’ (Gen 18:1); ‘Good things are likened to light, bad things to evening, since the “sun of justice” has set on them.’ (Theodore of Mopsuestia) This is one of a number of points that connect the stories of the appearances to Abraham and Lot. Beginning as it does as the day declines, the second story will not be a happy one, despite the hospitality Lot kindly offers the strangers. The story told in Genesis is not for the faint hearted. The people of Sodom demand that Lot make his guests available for gang rape; he counters with an offer of his virgin daughters (who later take a similarly appalling initiative; Gen 19:30-38.) The last straw is the attack of the people of Sodom on Lot, himself a visitor, for judging them, and the destruction of their city follows apace. Why is it destroyed? The sins of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were already known to be exceedingly great (Gen 18:20), and were notorious (e.g. Is 1:10-15; Matt 10:15; Mark 6:11), but it is not made clear just what they might have been. ‘Sodomy’ was not necessarily the worst aspect of the behaviour of these people (the Greek word translated ‘sodomites’ in some English versions of 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 contains no reference to Sodom), and the preceding story of the generous hospitality Abraham and Sarah offered their visitors, which is echoed in that in turn offered by Lot, may suggest another interpretation. Perhaps the key issue was the bad way in which visitors to the city were treated, an evil of which the sexual demand was a manifestation. And the way the people of Sodom treated visitors may itself have been a symptom of a still wider malaise in their society.
Treating strangers with generosity can be difficult; it demands a kind of vulnerability we can find ourselves reluctant to offer. And what is true of us as individuals can be painfully true of whole societies. The arrival of foreigners who wish to live among us can unleash all kinds of defensive mechanisms. But the appropriate response seems clear.