When the Jewish nation was crossing the Wilderness on its way to Eretz Yisrael, it was instructed that it must not allow the Seven Nations of Canaan to remain in the Land. Israel was warned that the Land would spew forth its sinful inhabitants.
But there was another element in Eretz Yisrael, one even more wicked than the Seven Nations; a culture even more corrupt than Canaan – Sodom. Despite the abominations that were so intolerable to the very essence of the Land, the Canaanite Nations were permitted to remain there for four hundred and seventy years after Abraham first received title to it at the Covenant Between the Parts. At that time he was told that a four hundred year exile would intervene – one that began with the Birth of Isaac thirty years later. Even thereafter his descendants spent another forty years in the wilderness, before the Canaanite and Amorite quota of sin was reached (Genesis 15:16), but Sodom and its tributary cities were wiped from the earth is an unprecedented manner after only fifty-two years of settlement. The generation of the Flood was wiped out, but the world was rebuilt on its remains. The Generation of the Dispersion was banished and scattered, but it lived to populate and develop the earth. Sodom, on the other hand, was overturned; it’s people were killed, it’s possessions totally destroyed, and its very locale – the rich, grassy plain which had enticed Lot to leave his mentor and protector (13:10-11) – was transformed into the salty, sulphuric wilderness that to this day is called the Dead Sea.
What was it about Sodom?
The cruelties of Sodom have entered the language as the epitome of selfishness, callousness and depravity. But there was a method, a rationale, behind their perverse behavior. Not unless we find the pattern behind their excesses can we understand the extent of their evil and the revulsion God felt for them.
The region of Sodom was rich and fertile. Of all the Land lying before him, Lot chose only Sodom in which to settle and make his fortune. We can well imagine that if it held such a powerful attraction for someone like Lot who, for all his deficiencies, had still been raised by Abraham and Sarah and who was a relatively righteous person as well as a wealthy one, then it must have been even more attractive for thousands of others.
The Sodomites knew this too. And they were the first to devise policies to close their gates to the unwelcome ordinary people who threatened to dilute the economic base and mar the prosperity of the limited, but comfortable population of the region. In effect, Sodom was the originator of anti-immigration laws.
They did more than take down the welcome signs. They made it a terrifying experience for a stranger to even visit Sodom. A traveler would find no door open to him. Not a crust of bread or a drop of water would be offered to him. If he dared to seek lodging, he would be violently tormented, even maimed! The traveler by foot in Sodom would be subject to perverse sexual abuse. The Sodomite who dared violate the social and legal restraints against hospitality would be treated as an enemy of the people and would be subject to abuse even worse than that handed out to the unsuspecting visitor – for, after all, the unwelcome migrant was but an unwitting and relatively harmless annoyance, but the citizen who broke the Sodomite tradition was a corrupting influence and a danger to the social and economic order.
Seeds of Sodom
The Mishnah (Avos 5:10), in describing attitudes toward follow humans, says: “The one who says ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’ (i.e., he wishes neither to give to nor to receive from others) – this is the manner of ordinary people. Some say it is the manner of Sodom.”
The Sages have given us an insight into the source of Sodomite iniquity and at the same time a sobering lesson in the evaluation of our own behavior. We are not surprised to read that ‘the manner of ordinary people’ calls for one neither to give nor to receive. ‘Neither lender nor borrower be’ has come into the language as a well-accepted maxim of conduct. This runs counter to the Torah’s teaching that a Jew is required to lend and to give – nevertheless, it is hardly a code of conduct that can be described as wicked. Therefore, the first opinion cited by the Mishnah describes it as the code of ordinary people: it shows little sensitivity to the needs of others, but one would prefer it to the grasping, selfish attitude that has been the cause of suffering and misery throughout history.
The second opinion sees it differently. In itself, the code is not evil, but what seeds of wickedness it contains. Sodom, too, began as a society that said ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’. Sodom was not an aggressive, warrior nation that plundered its neighbors. To the contrary, the one time in Scripture where we find Sodom engaged in battle, they were humiliated in defeat (14:10-11). But Sodom was concerned in protecting what it had and in not sharing it with others. To do so, it erected a new social code, one that did not stop with ‘charity begins at home’, but which erected barriers against the unfortunate, terror against the helpless, that pronounced a sentence of a slow and painful death upon a girl whose only crime was that she secretly gave a crust of bread to a hungry stranger. People can go to frightening lengths to protect ‘legitimate interests.’ The person or nation whose eyes turn inward in selfish concern for the protection of only his own concerns, should search long and hard lest he become a Sodomite.
In the eyes of God, the greatest abomination of all is a social contract founded on selfishness, descending to cruelty, resulting in perversion of decency. Licentiousness is a grievous sin because of it the nations of Canaan were vomited out of the Land, and Israel was warned against it in the harshest terms. But it is understandable that human beings, possessed of animal passions, may fail to control them. Even a selfish unwillingness to help others is understandable. But to erect a society with a social and legal code in defense of selfishness and in opposition to kindness – that is an abomination which both in God’s eyes and in Jewish tradition is described with the contemptuous epithet – ‘the manner of Sodom.’ That behavior, God will not tolerate. It resulted in the total upheaval that left no trace of the period’s wealthiest city.
Indeed, the people of Sodom, unanimously and brazenly, acted to oppose the elementary dictates of decency, for that reason they could not be endured nor permitted to survive. The property of Canaan was neither destroyed nor forbidden: the property of Sodom was removed from the face of the earth, so grievous was their sin.
Would the same thing have happened if Sodom had been in Africa, Europe or America? Most assuredly not. The sin would have been grievous, and it would have been punished somehow and at some time. But the Sodomites committed their blight in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of holiness, the land which cannot abide sin. A sin there is worse. In the words of Ramban:
- “Know that the judgment of Sodom was due to the spiritual elevation of Eretz Yisrael, for it is the inheritance of God and it does not tolerate abominable people. Just as it would later vomit out the entire nation (of Canaan) because of their abomination, it preceded and vomited out this nation (Sodom) which was the worst of all, to heaven and to humans, and rained desolation upon it from heaven and earth, and ravaged the land beyond cure forever. For they were haughty because of their prosperity, and God saw that it (the total destruction of the selfish society) would be an omen for rebellious people, for Israel which was destined to inherit it (the Land) ….. For there are among the nations very wicked and sinful people, but He did not (utterly destroy) them. But (He did so to Sodom) because of the spiritual elevation of Eretz Yisrael for it is the Temple of Hashem (Genesis 19:5).”