• Light of Torah

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 issue