8. The Destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (32:03)
John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom
John Martin (English painter, 1789-1854), "Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah" (1852), in the Laing Gallery. 136.3 x 212.3 cm, oil on canvas. Larger image.

No two ways about it -- the destruction of Sodom is depressing. When I originally outlined a series of lessons around the life of Abraham, I planned to exclude chapter 19, since it wasn't about Abraham directly. But as I've studied chapter 18, where the three angels, one of whom is Yahweh himself, appear to Abraham -- it becomes pretty obvious that the function of the angels in the story are not primarily to inform Sarah that she would bear a son, but to destroy Sodom. And trying to study chapters 18 and 19 together would require us to gloss over too quickly the important instructions of each chapter. So, depressing as it is, let's consider the destruction of Sodom. There are lessons here that we need to learn from God.

The Angels Arrive in Sodom (19:1)

"The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground." (19:1)

The angels leave Abraham and Yahweh at the trees of Mamre in the late afternoon. By evening they are in Sodom, certainly a sign of their supernatural nature, since it is a journey of eighteen miles, if Sodom was at the northern tip of the Dead Sea, or forty miles, if it was at the southern tip, as we suspect.

"Angels" is the Hebrew noun mal'āk, "messenger, representative, courtier, angel." The Old Testament uses this term to describe both human and supernatural persons. The human mal'āk could be a message bearer, courtier, retainer, spy, executioner, diplomatic representative, or prophet. Supernatural messengers represented the same general range of functions as human messengers.[1]

The two angels find Lot sitting in the city gate, a common meeting place in the East for conversation, for business, and for the administration of justice.[2] Lot bows low before them as a sign of respect; he recognizes them as important people, though not yet as divine messengers.

Lot's Hospitality (19:2-3)

He prevails upon them to come to his house.

"'My lords,' he said, 'please turn aside to your servant's house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.'
'No,' they answered, 'we will spend the night in the square.'
But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate." (19:2-3)

His hospitality may not have been as lavish as Abraham's, but he moves quickly to meet their needs.

Homosexuality in the Ancient Near East

But the angels' stay is soon interrupted.

"Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom -- both young and old -- surrounded the house. They called to Lot, 'Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.'" (19:4-5, NIV)

Before we consider this passage in detail, let's take a look at homosexuality in the ancient Near East.

Ancient Egyptian views on homosexuality range from providing a way of mastery over the gods and homosexual lovers continuing their relationship in the afterlife, to mild disapproval, though pederasty (sex with boys) seems to have been condemned. Gordon Wenham concludes, "It may well be that Egyptians saw nothing immoral in homosexual acts where there was mutual consent."[3]

18th century Mesopotamian king Hammurabi -- author of the famous legal code bearing his name -- had male lovers[4] and male prostitution was practiced in temples. Mesopotamian laws leave homosexuality unregulated except for Middle Assyrian Laws, where there were laws against homosexual rape.[5] It seems clear that the Mesopotamians saw nothing wrong in homosexual acts between consenting adults. Hittite laws condemned bestiality, but did not consider homosexual acts as sins, except when it involved one's own son.[6] Apparently, the Canaanites practiced homosexual copulation among other sexual sins (Leviticus 20:23); Baal fertility rites involved both male and female prostitutes.

When you compare the tolerance and practice of homosexuality common in the ancient Near East with clear commands of God in the Mosaic law, you see a distinct difference:

"You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Leviticus 18:22, NRSV)
"If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them." (Leviticus 20:13, NRSV)

The word "abomination" (NRSV, KJV) or "detestable" (NIV) in these verses is the Hebrew noun tô'ēbā. The basic meanings of the verb are "abhor, loathe" and "detest, exclude", expressing in the strongest possible language that a custom or thing is repugnant to God and falls under his judgment.[7] New Testament texts seem to support this conclusion about homosexuality (Romans 1:24-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:8-11).

Aggressive Homosexuality (19:4-11)

This is not a tirade against homosexuals. The fact is that some people, Christians included, are sexually attracted to members of the same sex. What a burden this is! What a struggle for these individuals! Instead of being judgmental towards those with this attraction, we should be compassionate. For attraction is not the sin, but acting upon the attraction. Giving into illicit homosexual desires is no less sinful or more sinful than giving into illicit heterosexual desires. Both are sinful and both require repentance and self-control.

Rather, let's focus on what really happened in Sodom and try to understand the implications for our lives.

"Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom -- both young and old -- surrounded the house. They called to Lot, 'Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.'

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, 'No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.'

'Get out of our way,' they replied. And they said, 'This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We'll treat you worse than them.' They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.
But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door." (19:4-11)

"Have sex" (NIV) or "know" (KJV, NRSV) in verse 5 and "slept with" (NIV) or "known" (KJV, NRSV) in verse 8 translate a Hebrew verb which we've seen before, yāda', "know." Here it has the meaning of intimate or carnal knowledge, that is, sexual intercourse. It is also used to describe perversions such as sodomy (as here and in Judges 19:22) and rape (Judges 19:25).[9]

Some argue that the sins of Sodom have been misunderstood.[10] The essential sin at Sodom was not homosexuality, they say, but lack of hospitality. Lot violated custom at Sodom by inviting foreign guests into his home without permission of the city elders, so they came to "know" (yāda') who they were. Some claim that "know" here is the normal, non-sexual sense of the word. Hamilton observes, "This interpretation can only be evaluated as wild and fanciful."[11] Such an interpretation doesn't deal adequately with the fact that Lot understands that the mob is motivated by sexual lust. There is no other reason he would have offered his two virgin daughters to satisfy them. It is pretty clear that "know" is used in the sexual sense in both verses 5 and 8. Homosexual lust, not hospitality, prompted the crowd's visit.

Is the sin here homosexual rape or homosexual behavior? The Old Testament never uses the word yāda', "know," in the sense of "abuse" or "violate." Incidents of rape usually include the terms "seize" or "force."[12] This incident makes it clear that unrestrained homosexuality was common and legal in Sodom. The crowd contained of essentially all the men "from every part of the city of Sodom, both young and old" (19:4, NIV), "both small and great" (19:11, NRSV).

Legally approved homosexuality is not Sodom's only sin. The prophets indicate that the sins of Sodom include injustice, adultery, pride, indifference to the poor, and general wickedness (Isaiah 1:10; 3:9; Jeremiah 23:14; Ezekiel 16:46-48). But open, legal homosexual behavior in the city is the sin that made Sodom's general wickedness abundantly clear to the angels sent there to investigate (Jude 7). "The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it," the angels say (19:14).

In our Western culture there is a strong push to remove any kind of stigma from homosexuality and make it as right and normal as heterosexuality. But when Christians give into the pressures of culture and adopt the values of the culture in contrast to the values of the Bible, we lose any chance we have of being lights to the world. The Bible has two names for those who whitewash sin -- false prophets (Ezekiel 13:10-12; 22:28) and false teachers (Revelation 2:20):

"They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
'Peace, peace,' they say,
when there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11)

Nor was Lot himself exempt from a laxity toward sexual immorality. He had a high view of the responsibilities of hospitality by defending his guests, "for they have come under the protection of my roof" (19:8), but a low view of his responsibility to protect his own daughters. Though Peter refers to Lot as "a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men" (2 Peter 2:7), Lot was well on his way to accepting Sodom's values. Why else would he offer his virgin daughters to satisfy the men's sexual lust?

Q1. (19:4-11) How can Christians keep balance on the issue of homosexuality in our day? Is it really possible to be loving and compassionate toward practicing homosexuals at the same time as you condemn the sin? Should the church be silent about homosexuality? If not, what should we be saying? Where should we be saying it? (Be gentle and loving as you discuss this subject -- please!)




Summoning Lot's Family (19:12-14)

No more investigation of Sodom's sin is required. Its wickedness is self-evident. Now the angels begin their mission to destroy the city -- but not before they deliver Lot and all associated with him.

"The two men said to Lot, 'Do you have anyone else here -- sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.'

So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry his daughters. He said, 'Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!' But his sons-in-law thought he was joking." (19:12-14)

Lot has little credibility with his future sons-in-law.

Hesitating in the Face of Imminent Destruction (19:15-16)

Through the night, preparations are made for escaping the city, but when the sun begins to rise, it is difficult for Lot and his family to leave.

"With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, 'Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.'

When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them." (19:15-16)

"Hesitated" (NIV) or "lingered" (KJV, NRSV) is the Hebrew verb māhah, "linger, delay." Hamilton translates it, "dawdled." Why is it so hard to leave? Unbelief? Attachments? Satisfaction with life here?

The angels are charged with protecting them because they are Abraham's relatives, so they "grasped" (NIV) the hands of Lot and his family and led them forcibly to safety. KJV has "laid hold," NRSV translates it "seized," Hamilton renders it "grabbed." The Hebrew verb is hāzaq, "be(come) strong." In the Hiphil stem it has a causative sense "take hold of, seize ... constrain, urge."[13] Do the angels take them against their will? Yes. Why? Because of God's promises to Abraham, that he will not destroy the wicked with the righteous. So they are led to safety, "for the Lord was merciful to them" -- that is, they got what they didn't deserve.[14]

Q2. (19:15-16) Why did Lot and his family hesitate? Have you ever hesitated when you should have been fleeing a danger? What is the lesson for us?




Lot Flees to Zoar (19:17-23)

Once they are out of the city and shaken out of their inaction, the angels command them to run for their lives without stopping.

"As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, 'Flee for your lives! Don't look back, and don't stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!'

But Lot said to them, 'No, my lords, please! Your servant has found favor in your eyes, and you have shown great kindness to me in sparing my life. But I can't flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I'll die. Look, here is a town near enough to run to, and it is small. Let me flee to it -- it is very small, isn't it? Then my life will be spared.'

He said to him, 'Very well, I will grant this request too; I will not overthrow the town you speak of. But flee there quickly, because I cannot do anything until you reach it.' (That is why the town was called Zoar.)
By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land." (19:17-23)

Lot complains. Catastrophe is about to overtake Sodom and he argues about the escape route. Perhaps he is feeble and thinks he can't run fast enough. Perhaps he doesn't believe he can get up into the mountains in time. I'm amazed that the angels grant his request to flee to Zoar. But their charge is to deliver him from danger. If they have to pamper him a bit to get him away, they'll do it. They began at dawn. By now, the sun is high in the sky. Destruction is nigh, so they allow Lot to flee to Zoar. Zoar can't have been too far from Sodom. Most place it at the south end of the Dead Sea.

The Geology of the Dead Sea

The destruction of Sodom obviously involves some kind of seismic or volcanic phenomenon. The Dead Sea is currently about 1,300 feet below sea level, the lowest point on earth -- and its water depths in the northeastern sector go down another 1,300 feet. The Dead Sea lies in the Jordan Rift Valley along one of the deepest, longest, and widest fissures on the earth's surface -- the Afro-Arabian fault line. At its deepest point the fault is 24,000 feet below sea level.[15] The fault which runs through the center of the Dead Sea separates the African and Arabian tectonic plates of the earth's crust. As these plates gradually move farther apart, the rift valley sinks even lower.

Earthquakes are common in this area, but the geological catastrophe described in Genesis 19 is one from which the region still has not recovered. R.K. Harrison writes, "Archaeological investigation has shown that about 2000 BC, a devastating natural catastrophe occurred there, which denuded the area of sedentary occupation for over a half a millennium."[16]

Fire and Brimstone (19:24-25)

"Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah -- from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities -- and also the vegetation in the land." (19:24-25)

If you've ever visited volcanic regions, such as Yellowstone National Park or the Bumpass Hell region of Mt. Lassen National Park, you know the rotten egg smell of hydrogen sulfide bubbling to the surface from deep beneath the earth.

Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) gas is extremely explosive at concentrations between 4.3% and 46%. It is also highly toxic and can be fatal if inhaled. Inhalation of a single breath at a concentration of 1000 parts per million (0.1%) may cause coma. 

In 79 AD, volcanic gases from Mount Vesuvius overcame the residents of Pompeii within a few seconds and their bodies were covered with ash from the eruption. The words traditionally translated "brimstone and fire" (KJV) probably should be translated together as a hendiadys, "sulphurous fire" (New American Bible) or "burning sulfur" (NIV). Here, lightning may have ignited the gases causing an explosive wave of fire and burning sulfur that overcame the cities and destroyed both animal and plant life in the whole area. The Bible makes it clear that this is not just a freak seismic occurrence, but a planned punishment upon Sodom that came "from the Lord."

Two awesome verbs describe the event of which the Lord is the subject.

"The Lord rained ... out of the heavens" is the verb mātār, "rain, deluge"[17] The burning sulfur rained down upon them with no escape. The vegetation in this area has never recovered. What was once good grazing land that attracted Lot to this wicked city is now bare or submerged in 20 feet of water.

"He overthrew" may describe the destruction of an earthquake. The Hebrew verb is hāpak, "turn, overturn." The word, which means "to turn upside down," occurs a number of times when Bible writers describe the Lord's destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19:21, 25, 29; Deuteronomy 29:23; Isaiah 13:19; Jeremiah 20:16; 49:18; 50:40; Amos 4:11; Lamentations 4:6).[18]

Remember Lot's Wife (19:26)

"But Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt." (19:26)

I don't think Lot's wife just glanced back. Apparently, she stopped running and gazed back at the city of her birth, now being destroyed. The Hebrew verb is nābat, "look, regard, gaze." She had been told specifically "Don't look back and don't stop anywhere in the plain!" (19:17) But she did look back. She did stop. Perhaps she didn't believe that the danger would reach her, but it did. The sulfur cloud reached her. Perhaps the sulfur salt or ash (as in Pompeii) coated her body and solidified.[19] We don't know. Hamilton writes:

"The existence of salty marl at the southwest end of the Dead Sea that forms odd-shaped hillocks in the salt cliffs of the area more than likely provide the inspiration for the tradition found in Wisdom 10:7 that says:, "and where -- monument to an unbelieving soul -- there stands a pillar of salt," and in Josephus (Antiquities 1.11.4), "Lot's wife ... changed into a pillar of salt, for I have seen it and it remains at this day."[20]

Lot's wife has become a symbol for the person who has almost achieved deliverance, but just can't leave the attachments of the past behind and is ultimately lost. Jesus' reference to Lot's wife appears amidst his description of the suddenness of the coming of the Son of Man, the importance of readiness to meet him, and the tragedy of those who seek to preserve their old way of life and suffer the utter loss of any life whatsoever. 

"On that day no one who is on the roof of his house, with his goods inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot's wife! Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it." (Luke 17:31-33)

The writer of Hebrews is probably referring to Lot's wife when he reminds us: "We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved." (Hebrews 10:39)

Q3. (19:26) After being nearly delivered, why did Lot's wife stop and gaze rather than escaping? What was in her heart? Have you ever struggled with this in your heart? What lesson does Jesus draw from Lot's wife in Luke 17:31-33?




When you begin to understand the magnitude of the destruction, the utter devastation of the people and the land, a huge sadness creeps into your soul. I am sure that God, too, felt this sadness that follows judgment. It was righteous judgment, but how sad that it had to be!

Abraham Sees the Destruction (19:27-29)

Now the narrator turns to Abraham:

"Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace.

So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived." (19:27-29)

The words, "he remembered Abraham" (19:29) explain the rescue of Lot. God did not forget his promise to Abraham. He didn't deliver Sodom because he couldn't find ten righteous people, yet he delivered the object of Abraham's concern -- Lot. God is faithful. We can count on him.

Lot's Daughters Get Pregnant by their Father (19:30-38)

We conclude with the tawdry tale of Lot's daughters:

"Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. One day the older daughter said to the younger, 'Our father is old, and there is no man around here to lie with us, as is the custom all over the earth. Let's get our father to drink wine and then lie with him and preserve our family line through our father.'

That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and lay with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

The next day the older daughter said to the younger, "Last night I lay with my father. Let's get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and lie with him so we can preserve our family line through our father." So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went and lay with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

So both of Lot's daughters became pregnant by their father. The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today." (19:30-38)

Lot's wealth -- his flocks and herds -- have been destroyed along with Sodom. All he has is what he can carry in that desperate escape from the doomed city. He is now afraid to live in the small city of Zoar, so he retreats to a cave for safety. Lot is reduced to eking out an existence in the mountains. He has no friends. He has no dowry or status with which to arrange marriages for his daughters. The valley is depopulated, the land barren.

Once he was part of Abraham's household and shared Abraham's faith in Yahweh. Now he is alone except for his daughters. At night he consoles himself with wine until he falls asleep -- a sad end for a man with such potential and such dreams of prosperity.

Why has this seedy story been preserved for us? For the Jews of Moses' time, it connects the dots between Lot and Israel's enemies as they enter the Promised Land -- the Moabites (Deuteronomy 2:9; Numbers 22 and 24) and the Ammonites (Deuteronomy 2:19; Judges 10:9).[21]

But the most important lesson for me is the realization that Lot reaps what he has sown. Lot decides to move to Sodom and lives among the wicked residents of the city. His decision results in son-in-laws who don't respect him, a wife who doesn't believe the Lord enough to obey and survive the escape from Sodom, and a pair of daughters who can see no other way to have children but by incestuous intercourse with their drunken father.

The decisions we make as parents affect our children and their children. The spouses we marry determine our ability to pass on godly values to our offspring. The environments which we call home mold our children's lives.

Q4. (19:30-38) Why did Lot's daughters turn to incest? What does this tell us about their values? About their faith? Why does Lot turn to intoxication? What does this incident tell us about his faith? His hope? His influence? His choice of residence? What lessons should we learn from this story?




Sometimes in our headlong quest for success we forget that it is the blessing of God that we must seek. The blessing of God will shed his peace and his presence in our lives and in the lives of our children. The blessing of God will preserve our families. The blessing of God is irreplaceable. Contrast Lot's family with Abraham's and you see how the blessing of God protected Abraham. Seek God. Seek his blessing.


Father, we live in a culture that is ripe for destruction, just like Sodom. Forgive us for our silence in the face of wickedness. Forgive us for or compromises and adaptations to pervasive sin. Deliver us from evil! In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it." (Genesis 19:13)

"But Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt." (Genesis 19:26)


Common Abbreviations https://www.jesuswalk.com/abraham/refs.htm

  1. Andrew Bowling, TWOT #1068a.
  2. Hamilton, Genesis 2:32, note. 20. The gate is seen as a gathering place in Genesis 23:10, 18; Deuteronomy 21:19; 22:15; 25:7; Ruth 4:1-2, 11; 1 Kings 22:10; Job 5:4; Psalm 127:5; Proverbs 31:23; Amos 5:10, 12, 15.
  3. Gordon J. Wenham, "The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality," Expository Times 102 (1991): 259-363. Dennis Prager, "Homosexuality, the Bible, and us -- a Jewish perspective," Public Interest (Summer, 1993), cites two coffin texts.
  4. Prager, loc. cit., cites W. L. Moran, "New Evidence from Mari on the History of Prophecy," Biblica (50) 1969.
  5. Falsely accusing a man for being a "female" partner for homosexuals was punishable by 50 blows with a rod, a month of servitude and a fine. Sodomizing (raping?) another man was punishable by being sodomized, then castrated. (Middle Assyrian Laws §§A19-20, cited by Joe M. Sprinkle, "Sexuality, Sexual Ethics," DOTP 747).
  6. Hittite Laws §189, cited by Sprinkle, DOTP 747.
  7. Ronald F. Youngblood, TWOT #2530a.
  8. Paul R. Gilchrist, TWOT #848.
  9. This position is argued by, among others, Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (Longmans, 1955); and John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1980).
  10. Hamilton, Genesis 2:34.
  11. Hamilton, Genesis 2:35.
  12. Carl Philip Weber, TWOT #636.
  13. The Hebrew noun is hemlâ, "mercy." "The root connotes that emotional response which results in action to remove its subject from impending difficulty." Here the noun describes God's mercy in delivering and/or protecting from danger (Leonard J. Coppes, TWOT #676a).
  14. By comparison the Turfan depression in northwestern China is only 490 feet, the Qattara depression in the Sahara 435 feet, and California's Death Valley 282 feet below sea level (Barry J. Beitzel, The Moody Bible Atlas of Bible Lands (Moody Press, 1985), p. 40-41.
  15. Roland K. Harrison, "Cities of the Valley," ISBE 1:704.
  16. Walter C. Kaiser, TWOT #1187.
  17. Victor P. Hamilton, TWOT #512.
  18. See Hamilton, Genesis 2:48, note 16, and Donald J. Wiseman, "Lot," ISBE 3:172.
  19. Hamilton, Genesis 2:48.
  20. John I. Lawlor, "Lot," DOTP 556-559.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

Sign up now!To be notified about future articles, stories, and Bible studies, why don't you subscribe to our free newsletter,The Joyful Heart, by placing your e-mail address in the box below. We respect your privacy and never sell, rent, or loan our lists. Please don't subscribe your friends; let them decide for themselves.
Country(2-letter abbreviation, such as US)
Preferred FormatHTML (recommended) Plain text