Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The sins of Sodom

by Nathan Brown

If I were to ask about the “sins of Sodom,” chances are there would be those who would almost automatically launch into an almost perversely vivid description of various sexual and other depravity. After all, that’s where the term “sodomy” is derived and “Sodom and Gomorrah” have become bywords for a plethora of lascivious and decadent behaviour.

Interestingly though, that’s not the answer the Bible gives. Consider Ezekiel’s description: “Sodom’s sins were pride, laziness, and gluttony, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door” (Ezekiel 16:49). Contrasting with our assumption of sexual outrage, Ezekiel’s focus is on economic injustice.

And it’s not something confined to Ezekiel. From Amos’ description of the rich women of Samaria as “fat cows” (Amos 4:1) to Mary’s song describing how God has “sent the rich away with empty hands” (Luke 1:53) to the “anti-Beatitudes” Luke records, which contrast the blessing of the poor with “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:24, NIV), to Paul’s repeated condemnation of the greedy (see, for example, Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5; Titus 1:7), it seems the Bible has something against the rich and their/our accumulation of wealth.

Perhaps this biblical concern has its high point in Jesus’ parable of the rich fool (see Luke 12:13-21). This story “gives no indication that the greed being condemned involves anything other than the accumulation of wealth by legitimate means” (Brian Rosner, Beyond Greed). But through this parable Jesus leads into a description of a life lived with a different set of priorities (see Luke 12:22-34). Jesus is criticising an approach to life that is “measured by how much we own” (Luke 12:15, NLT).

In Seven Types of Ambiguity, Australian writer Elliot Perlman describes this all-pervading measure of life in contemporary society:

“The relentless pursuit of the bottom line is the siren song of the times and the song is played over the public-address systems in banks, in stores and supermarkets. . . . It has never been so loud. It’s never been so ubiquitous. It has never before so routinely, so blatantly, ousted and nullified citizenship and notions of the common good. . . . It has never before so successfully colonised men’s souls.”
The economic mythology criticised by both Jesus and Perlman is that of the supposed “trickle down” effect of prosperity. While economic prosperity can bring some benefits to all, generally only a small portion “trickles down” to the people who most need it. This is compounded when the economic growth is driven by exploitation in its various forms—people, labour, the environment and other resources. So a small portion of the gains are “generously” made available to alleviate the suffering from which those gains were derived, all the while “the rich get richer.” It is a downward spiral with a veneer of economic growth and upward mobility.

And if the prosperity is derived from unsustainable development in whatever form, the prosperity will only ever be an illusion bought at someone else's expense, whether it be at the expense of the working poor, those marginalised by society, developing countries or future generations.

Clearly this is not the way of God:
“Economies built on destruction and exhaustion must be replaced with economies that model hospitality and care. We need to see that our economic lives give the most honest portrayal of how we understand salvation” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God).
The connection of economics and our appreciation of salvation is one usually only employed in announcing the offering at church, but it isn’t limited to that small part of our income. It’s about all our lives, how we arrange all our finances, our priorities in our work, our families and our faith. Jesus said, “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God” (Luke 12:21). One evidence of that “rich relationship” is our focus on material resources and what we do with the resources we are given.

In the midst of our market-driven, consumer-focused and advertising-saturated culture, the economics of the Bible call for a radical reordering of our priorities. As Will O’Brien has put it, “When we truly discover love, capitalism will not be possible and Marxism will not be necessary” (quoted by Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution).


  1. Thanks for your post, Nathan. Just one thing, however, even though this wasn't the main point of the posting. Take a look at Jude 7 before you conclude that Sodom's only sin was that of economic exploitation. Ezekiel isn't the only place in the Bible that answers what Sodom's sin was.

  2. Nathan, I really appreciate your comments on the sins of Sodom. Specifically the argument against the chief sin being sodomy. I have often wondered where the sympathy was for Lot's daughters whom he was so willing to hand out to the gang outside his residence. As a father, that blows my mind. To me, that seems to be the greater sexual sin, if you follow traditional arguments! Even if you don't follow the traditional arguments, it still is mind boggling that Lot did that.

    Regarding your analysis of money, I don't agree as much, though there is definitely extremely important truth there. Remember, it is the "love of money" that is the root of evil, not money itself. I find it interesting that it tends to be the conservative and wealthy that donate a lion's share of all moneys to charity. For reference see this link and this link.

    I will agree, we live in a society that markets wealth as the answer to all that life throws at you - ironically, it tends to be secular society that does the marketing. It behooves us as believers to do all we can to counteract that philosophy, specifically in teaching the importance of money as compared to things eternal. Philanthropy plays a huge role in that endeavor. The more money you have, the more money you can give to the "poor and needy suffering outside your door." In closing, I will share a quote from the first link:

    "The book's basic findings are that conservatives who practice religion, live in traditional nuclear families and reject the notion that the government should engage in income redistribution are the most generous Americans, by any measure.

    Conversely, secular liberals who believe fervently in government entitlement programs give far less to charity. They want everyone's tax dollars to support charitable causes and are reluctant to write checks to those causes, even when governments don't provide them with enough money.

    Such an attitude, he writes, not only shortchanges the nonprofits but also diminishes the positive fallout of giving, including personal health, wealth and happiness for the donor and overall economic growth. All of this, he said, he backs up with statistical analysis."

  3. This may well be a case where the prophet failed to mention one of the sins, which is totally understandable if that fit his message better.

    Just to quote Jude 7: "Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire."

    No doubt prosperity and laziness lead to the fornication or sexual sin, and we can verify that in our society today. I can't come to grips with the fact that God is still waiting to bring judgement on this world: Enough already!!

    Much more striking should be Jesus' statement in Matt. 11:24:

    "I can guarantee that judgment day will be better for Sodom than for you."

  4. I don't think Nathan's point was that sexual sins weren't a problem in Sodom. I think Nathan meant we usually point to that one sin and forget the others, as specifically noted in Ezekiel.

    I believe we do the same thing with Malachi. I've heard it used repeatedly for tithing sermons, but I don't remember ever hearing it used in sermons on social justice (Malachi 3:5), not that social justice sermons appear with any kind of frequency in the SDA churches I've been a part of.

    And didn't Jesus teach that justice is a more important matter of the law (Matt 23:23)? He said to tithe and to seek justice, but he established justice as a higher priority. Is it for me? Is it for my church? Is it for the SDA church? How seriously do we take the theme of economic justice (Jer 22:16, Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:8, Prov 31:8, James 1:27, etc.)?

    I've come across Ezekiel's teaching recently in two books--"Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 5th Edition" (Ron Sider) and "Toward an Evangelical Public Policy" (Edited by Sider and Knippers).

    I strongly recommend "Rich Christians" for anyone wanting to study this topic more in-depth, something that I believe is greatly needed.

    Sider has a terrific chapter in "Public Policy," 'Justice, Human Rights, and Government.' It's well worth your time as it studies biblical teachings on four forms of justice--commutative, retributive, procedural, and distributive--among other things.

    Part I of "Public Policy" was rather dry, but Parts II (methodology) and III (themes) have been much more engaging.

    I was glad to see Pastor Sung Kwon write at least briefly in the Adventist Review about SDA churches working for justice in their neighborhoods and beyond (

    May we truly be about our Father's business.

    The books you mentioned sound interesting. Are you familiar with Kalle Lasn's work? Good stuff.

    Thanks, Nathan. I'm going to link this to my blog (

    Peace, Jeff

  5. I failed to mention what a grand thing it would be for every reader of this post to read Claiborne's "The Irresistible Revolution" immediately!

    Buy it new, and the funds go to The Simple Way. Buy it used, and you get it without downing more trees. Get it from the library, and you save money. Win-Win-Win.

  6. Correction: I said Sider mentioned this verse in Ezekiel in his chapter on justice in "Toward an Evangelical Public Policy." However, I was just reviewing it for a writing project, and I don't see it. He mentions a few other Ezekiel verses, but I must have read it in another essay this week. My apologies. Now you know.

    I still highly recommend the chapter as an intro to biblical thought on justice. Peace.