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Sodom and Gomorrah

Why is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis?

James Tissot
James Tissot

Q. Why is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis?

A. A golden rule of all literary analysis is the importance of context.

Viewed in its complex literary context, the event of Sodom and Gomorrah is pivotal for the story told in Genesis, namely the maturing of Abraham into a partner able to embrace God’s covenant. You’ll notice that the Abraham and Sarah stories of Genesis are organized around seven carefully arranged visits, each with identical formal markers: a challenge/testing of the covenantal partner (see visit one, Gen 12:1-3 in particular); a promise or “reward” for responding well to the challenge; and a response from Abraham. The purpose of these visits is covenantal, that Abraham takes his part in God’s will and that the world be restored to Edenic harmony—that “all the families of the earth … be blessed” (Gen 12:3).

Abraham progresses in his role as a covenantal partner to this grand purpose of God. Not until visit four does he engage in conversation with God, and not until the Sodom and Gomorrah incident, in visit six, do we find him actually initiating conversation with God. As the two heavenly beings depart to destroy the two cities, “God remained standing before Abraham” (Gen 18:22, Masoretic Text); Abraham proceeds to speak, pleading with God about the dire fate awaiting these towns. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” he asks (Gen 18:25). Abraham’s question recalls the ultimate goal of the covenant, expressed in the very first visit, that in blessing Abram with a nation, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3). By visit six, involving the Sodom and Gomorrah incident, Abraham is more fully realizing his role as partner to God’s great plan: to help restore harmony and to bless all peoples and not just him, his family, and his nation. Only after this intercession on behalf of the two evil towns is Abraham designated “prophet” (Gen 20:7).

At the most narrow point of literary context we have the episode itself, beginning with God and two other heavenly beings showing up out of the heat of the day. They stand before the dwelling of Abraham and Sarah. The couple proves breathtakingly hospitable (Gen 18:1-8). Juxtaposed, as dark a foil as can be imagined, is the outrageous inhospitality of Sodom and Gomorrah toward their two visitors. Here is the most immediate answer to the question of what the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is doing in Genesis: the towns burn because of their unthinkable inhospitality.

But the larger context suggests a greater point for the inclusion of this story about the two towns. Witnessed in the slow maturing of Abraham, God’s grooming of this first covenantal partner has come so far as to find Abraham emerging as an intercessor between grossly faulty humankind and God—a “prophet.”  Without such maturing—indicated by his and Sarah’s generous response in Gen 18—the big picture of God’s will for humankind will not be realized.

  • Paul Borgman

    Paul Borgman is a professor of literature at Gordon College. He is the author of three literary studies of biblical literature: Genesis, The Story We Haven’t Heard (InterVarsity Press, 2001); The Way According to Luke: Hearing the Whole Story of Luke-Acts (Eerdmans, 2006); and David, Saul, and God (Oxford University Press, 2008).