The narrative of the Bible has a dream-like quality — one scene moves to the next without explanation. To a modern person it feels like a radical surrealistic poem or a dark psychedelic trip. Genesis 19, the story Lot and his family and the demise of Sodom and Gomorrah has everything: incest, gang rape, sodomy, fire and brimstone—It’s like Blade Runner on steroids. Obviously, today’s edgy dystopian fantasies owe a great debt to the epic dramas of the old testament.
As Jordan Peterson has pointed out in his biblical lecture series, Sodom and Gomorrah or the doomed ‘cities on the plain’ have very little to do with homosexuality. We should instead think of Sodom and Gomorra as dens of total and systematic corruption, where citizens are permanently distracted by mindless copulation and violence. The Bible goes way beyond a simplistic ‘moral condemnation’ of whatever acts.
Gay communities today, who are largely non-violent, have nothing to do with the men and boys of Sodom, who attempt to ‘have their way’ with the angels in the story. Buggering God’s angels is to act, symbolically speaking, from blind aggression and dehumanized greed, from the impulse of the mob. Sodom and Gomorrah are a lifeless urban wasteland of hypernarcissists, lost in solipsistic and violent impulses, who have lost a higher vision.
The cautionary tales of God’s genocidal fury and human beings ‘missing the mark’—which is the literal meaning of sin—have special resonance in today's apocalyptic times. God’s anger in the old testament can be compared to a Tsunami wave, it rolls over whole populations—it is no different than the fury of nature itself. Natural laws of inertia will punish us if we don’t make the appropriate offerings, or if we take from creation without giving something back.
The symbols in the Bible—the fall from the garden, the flood, the mark of Cain, whose cursed lineage will eventually bring us weapons of mass destruction—all symbols of man’s karmic lot and the fruits of psychic corruption within and without. Samsara, the cycle of mere mechanical existence, is like a house on fire and Sodom and Gomorrah the biblical samsara. We need to leave behind the dead, mechanical, and corrupt world and begin to build the City of God, metaphorically speaking.
Man participates in the divine world in Genesis, he is not separate from God—he can even negotiate with God as Abraham does. It would be easy to blame God for the horrors of the world, but this would absolve human beings of agency. In some mystical jewish traditions, it is said that we must ‘help’ or even ‘heal’ God of his wrath and anger, and that this is the purpose of sacrifice. If human beings don’t act in accord with higher principals, there is karmic hell to pay. On the other hand, if humans do ‘make the proper sacrifices’—what that means is another question—then there is a change of a life of blessings.
Lot is a kind of minor character in the Abrahamic lineage—he is all too human. We meet him on the edge of Sodom greeting a couple of God’s assassin angels. The angels want to sleep outside in the city square, but due to Abrahamic hospitality, Lot insists on providing them shelter. Hospitality and generosity save Lot from the fate of Sodom, despite his being a mixed character. A theme here is the sacredness of strangers. It seems that having a hospitable spirit, especially to dangerous strangers, makes one favoured by God. And yet to invite such strangers is to invite trouble, as Lot soon found out.
Lot’s questionable act was to offer his virgin daughter to be gang raped—not a heroic gesture exactly. I guess virgin daughters were expendable in those days. The angels, in turn, blind every man and boy in the town and warn Lot and his family to get out before the apocalypse. But Lot tarries again.
Lot is a procrastinator, a mixed character — it’s hard to know why God favours such a man. Like someone who remains with an abusive partner, Lot doesn’t want to leave his familiar hell, even if it is entirely corrupt—and God has to pretty much kick him out of Sodom. Furthermore, even after escaping, Lot keeps a bit of Sodom inside himself, despite being favoured by God, which may be what is meant by the fact that his daughters get him drunk and ‘lay with him’ in his old age. The stink and incest of Sodom never leaves Lot entirely. But at least he got out alive.
There are various mysteries in this story. For instance, why are two angels sometimes described as men—and where is the third angel who appears to Abraham in earlier stories? Much is left unexplained. Or perhaps we have lost the ability to read symbols. ‘Angel’ is variously translated as ‘messenger’ in this and other Genesis stories, which is interesting. And the fact that Lot meets the angels on the edge of the town is telling as well. Angels appear in the liminal, in-between spaces, were prophecy and vision are most likely to appear. The story tells us: on the edge of ourselves we meet prophetic messengers. Our job is to be hospitable to the wild mystical beings.
What about Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt? A pillar is a symbol of solidity and power and yet salt can dissolve easily in water—it has no binding force. In those days salt was more used as a preservative than a spice. So Lot’s wife ends up spiritually embalmed so to speak — preserved in the form of a creepy mummy. Her sin is nostalgia, looking back to what is already dead, like some ageing movie star in her mask of plastic surgery. The warning is: do not dwell in the past, or risk losing the the vital present—never cease to gaze into the promises of the future. Travel light.
To conclude, the early Biblical stories are a combination of symbolic code, high realism, and utopian dreams. They are about the sacrifice necessary to build the city of God, which just means a place of maximum meaning and beauty. They are realistic—with a lot of awkward characters, moral ambivalence, and real unexplained human tragedy. They tell us that our job is to build the city of God, to leave behind the burning cities on the plains and pillars of salt. Upward and onward towards the ecstatic future.
But don’t tarry. Don’t miss the opportunity when it arises. And don’t look back when the bells of the future ring.
Note: As an experiment in creating a ‘song-book’, I have included my song entitled ‘Sodom and Gomorra’. This is part 2 of a series on biblical stories in Genesis, influenced in part by Jordan Peterson’s biblical commentaries. A painting or a video should accompany it as well, to make it a real Gesamtkunstwerk — Wagners word for a total piece of art — but that is beyond the scope of my talents. Any mixing and mastering, video work, or other collaborators are more than welcome to contact me. Note: this essay (and the song) aims to be an existential and mythopoetic rather than a doctrinal or religious one.
From the Genesis Series:
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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits