Hell on Earth

And it’s almost Halloween! So, another macabre art piece to go along with this blog series! This one is going to especially be fire and brimstone… because it’s art featuring Sodom and Gomorrah!

Now, I’ve seen a lot of shallow commentary about Sodom and Gomorrah which say that it’s all about sodomy and the evils of sodomy. Which… honestly, I think is a completely shallow take on that whole story, because it’s about so much more than just sodomy. In fact, the first time I read it completely, I was stunned with everything about that story.

Honestly? The reason why Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed was because it was hell on earth.

And no, I am not using those words lightly.

Let’s take a look at scripture, shall we?

Sodom and Gomorrah’s Second Chance

First of all, Abraham and God did their best to give Sodom and Gomorrah a chance for redemption. No, I’m being absolutely serious. They really did. Before everything was destroyed, the following exchange happened, after the Lord told Abraham that He intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

NABRE

Genesis 18

20 So the LORD said: The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave, 21that I must go down to see whether or not their actions are as bad as the cry against them that comes to me. I mean to find out.

Of course, Abraham rightly took that as meaning that God knew exactly how bad things were and intended to destroy all of it. Which was a problem — Abraham’s nephew, Lot lived right in town, and that meant that Lot and his entire family would be destroyed.

And Abraham loves Lot and doesn’t want Lot or his family to be destroyed. Lot is Abraham’s nephew, for goodness’ sake! And Abraham’s done so much for him already. He kind of sees him as his son, honestly, before Isaac comes around, and is willing to let Lot take his first pick on things. To see him be destroyed? That would be awful!

So, the following exchange takes place:

NABRE

Genesis 18

22As the men turned and walked on toward Sodom, Abraham remained standing before the LORD. 23Then Abraham drew near and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there were fifty righteous people in the city; would you really sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike! Far be it from you! Should not the judge of all the world do what is just?” 26The LORD replied: If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake. 27Abraham spoke up again: “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am only dust and ashes! 28What if there are five less than fifty righteous people? Will you destroy the whole city because of those five?” I will not destroy it, he answered, if I find forty-five there. 29But Abraham persisted, saying, “What if only forty are found there?” He replied: I will refrain from doing it for the sake of the forty. 30Then he said, “Do not let my Lord be angry if I go on. What if only thirty are found there?” He replied: I will refrain from doing it if I can find thirty there. 31Abraham went on, “Since I have thus presumed to speak to my Lord, what if there are no more than twenty?” I will not destroy it, he answered, for the sake of the twenty. 32But he persisted: “Please, do not let my Lord be angry if I speak up this last time. What if ten are found there?” For the sake of the ten, he replied, I will not destroy it.33The LORD departed as soon as he had finished speaking with Abraham, and Abraham returned home.

Ten people! That’s all it takes for Sodom and Gomorrah to be saved — ten righteous people! How hard can it be for ten righteous people to exist in a large town?

And, even if there weren’t ten righteous people that were native to the town, surely Lot’s family would be righteous enough to not be destroyed.

…right?

The Angels’ Entrance

It started off so well too! Before the angels really entered into town and saw how terrible things were, Lot intercepted them. Then, as is customary in the ancient world, he offered them hospitality:

NABRE

Genesis 19

1The two angels reached Sodom in the evening, as Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he got up to greet them; and bowing down with his face to the ground, 2he said, “Please, my lords, come aside into your servant’s house for the night, and bathe your feet; you can get up early to continue your journey.” But they replied, “No, we will pass the night in the town square.” 3He urged them so strongly, however, that they turned aside to his place and entered his house. He prepared a banquet for them, baking unleavened bread, and they dined.

And that hospitality is a big thing in the ancient world, because you never really knew who you could be entertaining. It could be some stranger who needs your help and thus propel you into greatness, it could be a prophet, or it could be — as in this case — two angels that are disguised as men and are ready and willing to destroy everything if they are treated with respect. So, you don’t spurn the stranger because you never know who they could be.

But upon further reading of the whole story, it also sounds as if Lot were trying to get the angels to not go into the town center. After all, if these guests were powerful, then they might get the wrong idea and destroy everything — including Lot and his family — out of righteous anger. So, in a way, Lot gives Sodom and Gomorrah yet another chance. If the town only let Lot do the entertaining and leaves them alone, perhaps God would relent and show mercy.

So, of course, they don’t leave them alone…

The Mob Comes For Them

NABRE

Genesis 19

4 Before they went to bed, the townsmen of Sodom, both young and old—all the people to the last man—surrounded the house. 5They called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to your house tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have sexual relations with them.” 6Lot went out to meet them at the entrance. When he had shut the door behind him, 7he said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not do this wicked thing! 8I have two daughters who have never had sexual relations with men. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please. But do not do anything to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” 9They replied, “Stand back! This man,” they said, “came here as a resident alien, and now he dares to give orders! We will treat you worse than them!” With that, they pressed hard against Lot, moving in closer to break down the door.

How to begin even talking about how wrong this whole situation is? An entire mob of men — every man from the young to the old from the town — surround Lot’s house and demand to see the visitors that he is hosting. And then they ask Lot to bring out the men that came under his roof, under his hospitality, and demand that he lets them — the mob — gang-rape and sodomize the visitors.

And mobs are loud and cruel. Though the text doesn’t say anything about exactly what the mob did, it’s quite probable that they surrounded Lot’s house with weapons and were yelling at Lot to come out loud enough that Lot simply couldn’t have ignored them anymore. After all, Lot eventually does come out — and offers them his virgin daughters in order to protect his visitors.

That sounds awful when we look at the story in our modern lens… after all, one doesn’t let a mob gang-rape your children! That’s just not good! And, honestly, in ancient times, that was not good either! You just don’t let some things happen. In ancient times, fathers were supposed to protect the virtue of their daughters until they were married off to a decent guy. Letting men gang-rape your daughters, under ordinary circumstances, would be abominable.

But, these were hardly ordinary circumstances! Lot probably only came out to talk with the mob when he realized that he had a hard choice — either let his entire household die at the hands of the mob or try to bargain with the mob.

And letting the mob take his visitors was non-negotiable. Once more, hospitality in the ancient world was a sacred duty. Once under your roof, if anything bad happened to them, that would be a sin that cried out to heaven that would call for your destruction. So, while giving away his daughters to the mob was bad and abominable in five million different ways, giving away your visitors would turn God against you completely.

So, when you see Lot do this, understand that it was in desperation that he decided to do this and, while what he chose to do was evil, it was under difficult circumstances. And yes, that desperation ended up having hard consequences: by suggesting to his daughters that their being raped was permissible in dire circumstances, they believed that — and eventually rape him, their own father, when they are confronted by hard circumstances (Genesis 19:30-38 is that part of the story, though we won’t cover it in this particular blog).

…what can I say? The bible has some awful things in it.

Still, the horrific bargain that Lot, in his desperation, tries to strike with the mob only backfires on him. The mob, seeing that he is trying to protect his visitors, gets mad and threatens to destroy him — probably by sodomizing and gang-raping him, for starters, while his whole family is being destroyed. They press against his house, about to break down the door…

And then the angels spring into action.

The Final Chance for Redemption

NABRE

Genesis 19

10But his guests put out their hands, pulled Lot inside with them, and closed the door; 11they struck the men at the entrance of the house, small and great, with such a blinding light that they were utterly unable to find the doorway.12Then the guests said to Lot: “Who else belongs to you here? Sons-in-law, your sons, your daughters, all who belong to you in the city—take them away from this place! 13We are about to destroy this place, for the outcry reaching the LORD against those here is so great that the LORD has sent us to destroy it.”

The angels, mind you, have lots of power, as we’ll soon see. But, what do they do now? They use their awesome power to temporarily blind the mob so as to buy some time for Lot and his family.

Then, they explain that they have come to destroy the town, and thus Lot and his family need to go out — now. After all! The only righteous people in the town are Lot and his family, and they would have been destroyed, were it not for the angels! So, technically, they aren’t actually reneging on the agreement that Abraham made with the Lord and they’re saving the only righteous — albeit sinful — people in town.

And they allow Lot to bring his family, which is consistent — after all, Noah was allowed to bring his own family. All Lot had to do was convince his family that they should all come. Which, honestly, considering that they had a mob outside of their house screaming for their heads, should be an easy thing to do. Right?

NABRE

Genesis 19

14So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who had contracted marriage with his daughters. “Come on, leave this place,” he told them; “the LORD is about to destroy the city.” But his sons-in-law thought he was joking.

…apparently not. The mob is at their door, trying to break it down their door, death is imminent, and yet they think that Lot is joking when Lot tells them that their death is at hand and there is only one way for them to be saved.

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Genesis 19

15As dawn was breaking, the angels urged Lot on, saying, “Come on! Take your wife with you and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city.” 16When he hesitated, the men, because of the LORD’s compassion for him, seized his hand and the hands of his wife and his two daughters and led them to safety outside the city. 17As soon as they had brought them outside, they said: “Flee for your life! Do not look back or stop anywhere on the Plain. Flee to the hills at once, or you will be swept away.” 18“Oh, no, my lords!” Lot replied to them. 19“You have already shown favor to your servant, doing me the great kindness of saving my life. But I cannot flee to the hills, or the disaster will overtake and kill me. 20Look, this town ahead is near enough to escape to. It is only a small place. Let me flee there—is it not a small place?—to save my life.” 21“Well, then,” he replied, “I grant you this favor too. I will not overthrow the town you have mentioned. 22Hurry, escape there! I cannot do anything until you arrive there.” That is why the town is called Zoar.

This whole process takes hours. Remember, when the mob comes, they are about to go to bed. Then, by the time the angels force them out, dawn is about to break. Lot stalls for so long, trying to get everyone saved, that finally by the time that the angels force him, his wife, and his daughters to leave, there is no more time left and he has to bargain with the angels to at least not destroy a small town close by because otherwise he and his family will not be able to make it to safety.

So Lot bargains with the angels and they can be safe and make it through. All they have to do is not turn back and look at the city that treated them terribly.

The Angels of Death

NABRE

Genesis 19

23The sun had risen over the earth when Lot arrived in Zoar, 24and the LORD rained down sulfur upon Sodom and Gomorrah, fire from the LORD out of heaven. 25He overthrew those cities and the whole Plain, together with the inhabitants of the cities and the produce of the soil. 26But Lot’s wife looked back, and she was turned into a pillar of salt.

And thus they destroy everything, and the only survivors — of that whole town, are Lot and his daughters. Even his wife, who was almost saved, turns back to look at the town, at the last moment — out of curiosity or nostalgia, perhaps? The text is not clear. But, it doesn’t matter. Because of her actions, she is destroyed.

Here is some artwork depicting that scene:

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, by John Martin, c. 1852. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom.

The structures of Sodom and Gomorrah melt away in a massive inferno, Lot’s wife is twisted toward the city and turned to a pillar of salt, and Lot and his daughters flee from the scene.

Like I said, hell on earth.

NABRE

Genesis 19

27The next morning Abraham hurried to the place where he had stood before the LORD. 28As he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and the whole region of the Plain, he saw smoke over the land rising like the smoke from a kiln.29When God destroyed the cities of the Plain, he remembered Abraham and sent Lot away from the upheaval that occurred when God overthrew the cities where Lot had been living.

And finally, Abraham, who has spent so much time and effort trying to save Sodom and Gomorrah, looks down at the scene of smoldering ruins of the once expansive town. What his thoughts are as he watches everything burn is unknown. It isn’t clear whether he meets up with Lot again, or even if he knows whether Lot is alive, though some Jewish scholars believe that Abraham did know all that went on through prophetic vision.

Still, the next thing Abraham did was leave the area, and it was likely due to the events that he saw that day.

Final Thoughts?

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is very frightening, not only because it shows us how evil sin can truly be when left unchecked, but also how easy it is  to think that maybe the seriousness of sin is over-stated or ignore the sin, both the sins that we perpetuate and the sins all around us. For instance, the sons-in-law of Lot could have been saved, had they simply realized that death was imminent and they had to turn back and leave everything that they’ve ever had to be destroyed. That’s all they had to do — leave everything behind and follow Lot, the only righteous man in the town. But they didn’t. They thought Lot was joking when he tried to warn them.

And they were destroyed.

That may seem to us like utter idiocy that they didn’t follow Lot, who could have easily saved them. However, we face our own dilemma that is almost exactly the same, except instead of being asked to follow Lot — who, despite his righteousness, was a sinful man who made plenty of mistakes — we are asked to follow God. After all, we are called by Jesus to turn back from our former lives of sin and to follow Him, while keeping His commandments. And, unfortunately, even for us, we are tempted to ignore the sins we commit or the sins all around us. When Jesus calls us to leave our sinfulness behind us and follow Him, it can seem insurmountably difficult at times.

And yet, if we choose to stay in our sinfulness, then we too face destruction.

In what seems to be a deliberate reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jesus says the following:

NABRE

Matthew 13

49Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous 50and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

So, what choice will we choose to make?

Dear Jesus,

Deepen our trust in Your Word and give us the strength to carry our crosses and follow You into Your Glory.

Amen.

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