Sermon on the Mount, The Emmaus View

Appendix I: Idolatry and the fate of Sodom (Version 1.4)

Whilst Genesis links the behaviour of Sodom’s occupants with its destruction (Gen 19:4-8), only later is idolatry identified as the root cause of that city’s demise. For example, Moses warned that, if Israel went after the gods of the nations, the Lord’s anger would be kindled (Deut 11:16-17) and curses would leave them resembling the overthrow of Sodom (Deut 29:16-18, 20-23). Later, Jeremiah declared that the adulterous Baal worship practised by Samaria and Jerusalem made them like Sodom in God’s eyes (Jer 23:13-14). He also promised Babylon would be left like Sodom because of its numerous images and lust for idols (Jer 50:38-40). Similarly, Ezekiel’s focus was on idol worship when he denounced Judah’s harlotry as worse than that of Sodom (Ezek 16:36, 47-48). The link is not quite so clear in the minor prophets, but is there in both Amos and Zephaniah. The former threatening those who shun the Lord and worship at corrupt altars with the fate of Sodom (Amos 4:11, 5:5), and the latter promising that Moab will become like Sodom because they taunted Israel (Zeph 2:8)1.

The later literature of Judaism, from around 100 to 200 years before Jesus2, carries the same inference that Sodom’s besetting sin was idolatry. For example, Jubilees declares that those who worship idols will be taken away like the children of Sodom (Jub 22:22). It also warns against fornication and becoming like Sodom before then pleading with its reader to shun idolatry (Jub 20:7-9). Similarly, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs asserts that Sodom earned its destruction by emulating the non-Israelite nations, who forsook God’s laws and ‘changed their order,’ by practising idolatry and worshipping created things rather than the creator (T. Naph. 3:3-4).

At heart, idolatry involves the rejection of God’s authority. Hence, in the Gospels, Jesus explains that communities who refuse to accept his authority and repent will fare worse than Sodom on the day of judgement (Matt 10:15, 11:23, Luke 10:12). Amongst the letters, Peter sees in the doom of Sodom an example of how God will eventually treat the ungodly (2 Pet 2:6). Elsewhere, with echoes of the already-mentioned passage from the Testaments (T. Naph. 3:3-4), Paul argues that certain patterns of sexual activity arose when those who had the truth, i.e. Israel, exchanged it for the worship of created things, i.e. idolatry (Rom 1:22-25).

In Leviticus, admonitions against child sacrifice occur almost in the same breath as laws involving sexual practice or the exposure of the nakedness of close family relations (Lev 18:6-24). Many of those laws sprang from the judgement of Ham for revealing his father’s nakedness (Gen 9:22). But whilst one could infer a sexual component in that incident, Adam’s nakedness implied vulnerability and became an issue only after a sin that involved Adam idolizing himself (Gen 3:7). With Noah’s experience so closely paralleling that of Adam, the emphasis, in this exposing of nakedness, should probably be on Ham persuading the inebriated Noah to forsake the wisdom of God in favour of his own. In other words on the emulation of Adam’s sin.

In the fiery fate of Sodom later generations found a template for the punishment of idolaters. For example, Judah considered incineration the appropriate penalty for a daughter caught in cultic prostitution (Gen 38:24, cf. Lev 21:9), and the Mosaic law decreed that any Israelite city in which idolatry was found should be burned (Deut 13:12-16, cf. Num 31:21), legislation that was applied to the letter in the aftermath of the battle that followed Gibeah’s emulation of Sodom (Judg 20:2-3, 48). The principle is also apparent in Moses’ punishment of the Midianites for their part in the events at Peor (Num 31:8-24, cf Num 25:6), the treatment of Jericho by Joshua (Josh 6:22-24), and Abimelech’s salting of Shechem and burning of its tower of El-berith (Judg 9:46-49, cf. Judg 9:4-6). Salting, as at Sodom, is also found in Jeremiah’s prophetic injunction to putting salt on Chemosh-worshipping Moab to lay it waste (Jer 48:7-9). Both burning and reduction to a salty waste are also seen as generic outcomes for evil (e.g. Ps 107:33-34).

In pre-conquest Canaan, both genders practised religious prostitution (1 Kgs 14:24) and it formed a lucrative part of the business model for many a cultic centre. Thus Moses declared it strictly taboo for the Israelite cult to profit by such practices (Deut 23:17–18). Such practices seem to have provided an easy way to distinguish those who had embraced the ideology of Israel’s surrounding nations. Hence they are often emphasised when a person or a community slid into the wickedness of idolatry, for example, in the behaviour of Judah (Gen 38:1-2, 21), the practices of those who joined themselves to Baal (Num 25:1-3, 6), the behaviour of Eli’s sons (1 Sam 2:22), and in later allusions to chasing after foreign gods as promiscuity (e.g. Jer 2:23-25, Hos 2:13) or prostitution (e.g. Deut 31:16, Judg 8:33).

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1 As Moab worshipped Chemosh (Num 21:29), a taunt along the lines of “our god is better than your god” might be inferred.

2 Charles, APOT, 2:289-90.