The Lord’s fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which stands as a type of eternal judgment, is one of the most fearsome stories in the Old Testament. We often hear that Sodom was destroyed because of their homosexuality, and at one time “sodomy” was used as a synonym for homosexual behavior. It is true that homosexuality is sinful (1 Timothy 1:10); God will judge unrepentant homosexual behavior (1 Corinthians 6:9); and God took into account all of Sodom and Gomorrah’s wickedness, including their homosexuality, before destroying the cities (Genesis 13:13). Jude 7 warns that the cities “indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire,” and “serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (cf. Romans 1:26–27). However, sexual sin is not the only reason that Scripture gives for the cities’ destruction; another sin of Sodom is in focus in Genesis and the prophets.
Genesis 18:20–21 says that the Lord went down to Sodom and Gomorrah because of an outcry against the cities:
20 Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”
Genesis 19:13 points to this outcry as the reason why God destroyed the cities:
13 For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.
In Scripture, an outcry refers to someone crying out to God for justice against those who have mistreated them. Carefully read and consider Exodus 22:22–27:
22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
25 If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. 26 If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, 27 for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.
Who was crying out to God against Sodom and Gomorrah? Ezekiel 16:49–50 specifically mentions the poor and needy:
49 Behold, 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. 50 They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.
At the root of Sodom’s oppression of the poor and needy, and also of their sexual sin, was pride and arrogance—a self-centered, self-indulgent orientation that pursued selfish interests at the cost of others.
Isaiah rebukes Judah as “you rulers of Sodom!” and “you people of Gomorrah!” (Isa. 1:10), then instructs them to put off their vain sacrifices and turn from their evil deeds, specifically their injustice towards the needy: “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:16–17).
Although Sodom and Gomorrah were prosperous, they didn’t bother to help the poor and needy among them. Given their behavior towards the visitors in Genesis 19, they likely abused them. Just as God promised to judge Israel if they oppressed the weak, poor, widows, and orphans (Ex. 22:22–27), God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for the same injustice.
God Does Not Tolerate Injustice
God does not tolerate injustice, especially towards the weaker members of society. God warned Israel about the consequences of injustice: “‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deuteronomy 27:19). When Israel ignored this solemn warning, the Lord sent prophets to call his people to repent and obey his laws concerning social justice (a term which is sometimes used in very un-Christian ways but has a long history of use in Christian teaching, and refers to caring for and treating fairly the poor, widows, orphans, and oppressed members of society). When the oppressed cried out to the Lord, he heard their outcry and sent Israel into exile: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” (Isa. 5:7).
The same fate that befell Sodom and Gomorrah, who “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy,” can befall us today, as James solemnly warns the rich who mistreat their poor workers:
5:1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
As Christians, we must be firmly committed to both moral purity and social justice (properly defined); we must be actively opposed to both progressive sexual ethics and injustice towards the marginalized members of society. James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” It is true that some Christians focus on social justice (“orphans and widows”) to the neglect of moral purity (“undefiled”). But doing the opposite by fixating on Sodom and Gomorrah’s homosexuality while overlooking their mistreatment of the poor may be an indication that we have neglected an important biblical theme. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is a sober reminder that God does not tolerate injustice, and failing to help the needy is as dangerous as moral impurity.