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What was Sodom's sin?

‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and how very grave their sin!’ (Genesis 18:20).

Exactly what was the sin of the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that led to their destruction, according to the Book of Genesis?[1]

In the popular view it is usually seen as sexual sin. Indeed, 19:1-11 points to lust and sexual abuse.[2] Abraham’s nephew, Lot, has just offered hospitality to two mysterious visitors and suddenly there is an aggressive mob of townsfolk at his door, demanding to have their way with his house-guests. In order to appease them and protect his visitors, Lot offers his daughters to the mob instead. Hardly a noble solution!

Interestingly, in response to the question ‘What was the great sin of Sodom that earned its destruction?’ Jewish storytelling traditions (midrash) reply that it was social inequity, mistreatment of the poor. Now where does the Bible suggest that? Approaching the Scriptures as a unity, the Jewish sages draw attention to the prophet Ezekiel:

‘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’ (Ezekiel 16:49).

Notice how the Jewish sages manoeuvre their way through the Bible, freely associating diverse passages. It is a creative method, grounded in vast knowledge of the whole of Scripture and, as we shall see, in the detail of the Hebrew text.

Through a play on Hebrew words, the sages say that the ‘outcry’ in 18:20 which the text describes as ‘great’ (rabbah) is the cry of a maiden (ribah). In the imaginative tellings of the midrash, the laws of Sodom issued the death penalty for anyone who assisted the poor. When a certain young woman fed a hungry person, her compassion was exposed as a crime and she was put to a horrible death by fire. It was her cry that God heard, the cry of a just person performing a deed of kindness, that brought down a whole system of state-sanctioned savagery.

Said Rabbi Levi, God said “Even if I wished to keep silent, justice for a certain maiden [ribah] does not permit Me to keep silent.”’ [3]

Thus, the midrash teaches that each individual is endowed with the power and responsibility to stand up and make a difference to society. Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish scholar, puts it this way:

‘If a person...performs one good deed, he has weighted the scales in his own favour and that of the world’s and brought salvation.’ [4]

When Jewish storytelling traditions point to a woman whose action determines the fate of Sodom, it expresses a truth embodied in the lives of real women, men and children who have shaped the course of history. The same point is taken up in a creative interpretation of Abraham’s attempt to save Sodom:

‘Suppose there are fifty righteous in the city’ (Genesis 18:24).

As Abraham enters into negotiations with God, the sages ponder the superfluous addition of the phrase ‘in the city’ when it is obvious he is talking about the city of Sodom. What is the word of God trying to say to us through this repetition? They conclude: this implies that the righteous ones (for whom the city might be saved) are public in their witness. They are not good people keeping their heads down, safe in their homes, fitting in with the surrounding culture. They are out there in the public eye (‘in the city’), putting themselves at risk, boldly challenging the unjust status quo.

Important contemporary challenges resound in this ancient story! •


1. Sources consulted: Bialik and Ravnitzky, eds., The Book of Legends (New York, 1992); Freedman and Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah: Genesis (New York: Soncino, 1983); Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (New York, 1994). Scripture: NRSV.

2. ‘That we may know them’ (19:5) suggests the knowledge of sexual intimacy.

3. Genesis Rabbah XLIX, 6-7

4. Quoted in Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit, 174.

Photo: Shutterstock.

© Teresa Pirola, 2011. This article may be reproduced for non-commercial use with acknowledgement of website.


Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of insights from Jewish tradition. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Vayeira (Genesis 18:1 - 22:24), the Torah portion read on this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom!

Download the latest version of the (free) Jewish and Christian Liturgical Calendar, courtesy of Etz Hayim-Tree of Life Publishing.

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