Sodom's Great Sin?

Sodom. Arguably the most notorious city in Scripture. We cannot read or hear its name without our thoughts running to certain sins (most likely sexual in kind) that famously found a home there.

Given John Calvin's reputation for a certain moral rigidity and/or prudishness, we might expect him to find much fodder in the biblical narrative of Sodom's demise (Gen. 19.1-29) for pontifications against sexual perversion. Indeed, we might expect to find in Calvin's comments on Sodom moral judgments and consequent rhetoric applicable to our present day cultural setting, wherein certain sexual acts which Scripture denounces have been normalized if not glorified.

On both scores Calvin disappoints. Indeed, if we approach Calvin expecting him to guide us, with his comments on Sodom, into a parable of the modern West's moral failures and pending destruction at God's hand, we will walk away frustrated and -- best case scenario -- alert to the fact that Calvin, in the moral judgments he forms on the basis of Sodom's history, is pointing a finger at us more than our secular contemporaries.

It's not that Calvin is uninterested in the apparent attempt of Sodom's male populace to rape two visitors to the city. He labels that attempt "execrable wickedness" and "vial and outrageous barbarism." He deems it "diabolical" that "all [of Sodom's men] so readily conspired to perpetrate [that] most abominable crime." But his judgment of that "crime" is tempered by at least three convictions: firstly, that "it is probable that there were some" among Sodom's residents "who fanned the flame" more than others; some, that is, who were culpable above and beyond others for inciting the "collected troop" to propagate such wickedness. Secondly, that this level of wickedness in Sodom was "quite a new thing." Calvin supposes, in other words, that immorality in Sodom reached its peak at precisely that point when God sent his ministering Angels both to judge Sodom and rescue Lot and his family from the same. And thirdly (and most critically), Calvin believes the "execrable wickedness" on display in Sodom in Gen. 19.1-10 has roots which run much, much deeper than sexual perversion.

Calvin takes his cue in this regard from Ezekiel 16.48-49, in which text God reproves his bride, Israel, by likening her to Sodom, and in that process names Sodom's fundamental sin. "Now this," God himself says to his people, "was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." Calvin comments: "Although Moses ... explains [in Gen. 19] the most filthy crime which reigned in Sodom, we must nevertheless remember what Ezekiel teaches, that the men of Sodom did not fall at once into such execrable wickedness; but that, in the beginning, luxury from an abundance of bread prevailed, and that, afterwards, pride and cruelty followed." Calvin judges this development of more heinous practices in Sodom an instance of that divine retribution for sin described in Rom. 1.18-28. "At length," he writes, "when they were given up to a reprobate mind, they were also driven headlong into brutal lusts." Nevertheless, there is notable continuity between Sodom's final and most brutal act of perversion, the attempt to rape strangers, and their earliest and fundamental perversion, the hoarding of food and wealth and reluctance to share the same with those in need. A lack of love for others is apparent from the beginning to the end of Sodom's moral slide.

Sodom stands in stark contrast, then, to Lot, who much like Abraham in Gen. 18, proves to be an exemplar of charity in the particular form of hospitality offered to Sodom's angelic visitors (Gen. 19.1-3). Sodom's citizens seek to exploit these strangers; Lot offers them accommodation, food (indeed, "a feast" according to Gen. 19.3), and -- at length -- protection (at rather considerable peril to himself). Lot receives much praise from Calvin in this regard: "It appears from the fact that Lot went out and exposed himself to danger how faithfully he observed the sacred right of hospitality. It was truly a rare virtue that he preferred the safety and honor of the guests whom he had once undertaken to protect to his own life. Yet this degree of magnanimity is required from the children of God: that where duty and fidelity are concerned, they should not spare themselves." In sum, Lot preferred the needs and desires of others -- even those who could not to all appearances reciprocate his kindness -- to his own, while his compatriots were happy to sacrifice the dignity and well-being of others on the altar of their own lust.

The crucial question for us, then, is this: do we more reflect the character of Lot (and Abraham, as like Lot a paragon of charity) or Sodom's citizens in our own lives? If we define Sodom's sin by its most extreme manifestation, we very likely lose the opportunity -- and it is, by God's grace, an opportunity -- to see that sin reflected in our own lives, and so to repent of it. But if, like Calvin (and following Scripture's own lead), we define Sodom's sin according to its root -- if we define it, that is, as arrogance and abundance coupled with disinterest in the plight of those in need -- we might find that we have more in common with Sodom's infamous citizenry than we initially supposed. Arrogance, abundance, and disinterest in the poor and needy can, after all, be found in persons and institutions that take the name of Christ as much, arguably, as they can be found in persons and institutions that don't.

"Therefore," Calvin advises, "let us cultivate temperance and frugality" -- as well, of course, as charity -- "and let us always fear, lest a superfluity of food should impel us to luxury; lest our minds should be infected with pride on account of our wealth, and lest delicacies should tempt us to give the reins to our lust." 

But in the midst of such warnings, Calvin reserves an implicit word of comfort and encouragement for those who find themselves without a superfluity of food and/or other necessities and goods: "Let us also hence learn that God best provides for our salvation when he cuts off those superfluities which serve to the pampering of the flesh; and when, for the purpose of correcting excessive self-indulgence, he banishes us from a sweet and pleasant plain to a desert mountain."