Sodom and Gomorrah

views updated May 23 2018

Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah—as a series of historical events, as an archaeological site, as a set of biblical claims, and as an enduring and protean set of cultural myths—has been burdened with both the complexities of biblical and theological interpretation and of cultural metaphor. The recitation of the biblical account of events in Sodom and Gomorrah and the extensive extratheological uses of these narratives represent the fears and preoccupations of the populations that have given this story ongoing vitality.

Geographically, Sodom and Gomorrah were two cities of the Pentapolis, a group of five towns of the plain of the Jordan River thought to be located approximately 11 kilometers (7 miles) south of the Dead Sea. Archaeological evidence since the mid-1980s and revisions in translations have been instrumental in a contemporary shift in interpretation of the meaning of Sodom and Gomorrah in biblical and contemporary contexts.


Sodom and Gomorrah are referred to throughout the Bible, including references in the books of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, Luke, Jude, and Revelation. According to the biblical outline, Lot elected to live in Sodom because of the quality of abundant grazing land for his flocks, necessary to him because he, as had his uncle, Abraham, had become wealthy with livestock. God advises Abraham that he plans to destroy Sodom. Abraham beseeches that God not destroy the city—that he not destroy the righteous along with the wicked. In response to Abraham's plea, God declares that he will spare the city if fifty righteous people can be found in Sodom. Ultimately, God settles for the discovery of ten righteous people in the city as sufficient reason to spare it from destruction. When Lot alone is found to be righteous, God plans to destroy the city. Two men meet Lot at the gates of Sodom. Lot knows them to be angels, and he takes them into his house as guests. Soon after their arrival the men of Sodom demand that Lot send his guests out so they could know them, commonly interpreted as bearing sexual implication. Lot offers the men his two daughters instead, and the men of Sodom became angry, rushing the door of Lot's house. The angels stop the men, blinding them. They warn Lot that they have been sent to destroy the city and that he should remove his family from Sodom. Lot and his family are directed by God to refrain from looking back as they flee their home and city. Lot's wife, however, cannot resist her urge to turn around, perhaps suggesting her unwillingness to relinquish her material goods. The resulting punishment: Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt, but Lot and the rest of his family escape safety to the city of Zoar.

The central question posed by this story remains: What was the sin of Sodom that resulted in its destruction? In traditional Christian interpretations, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah represents the literal recounting of actual events, including the rain of brimstone and fire that destroys the cities. In this view the sin of Sodom concerns the desire for strange flesh and the men of Sodom desiring to know the angels. These expressions, in English translation, have been understood as expressions of homosexual desire, and the expression of such desires brings the wrath of God. The traditional interpretation in Judaism understands the central sins of the people as greed, lack of compassion, and failure to extend hospitality to visitors. The Koran and Islamic tradition tell the story somewhat differently without direct reference to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah but with explicit identification of the behavior of the men of Sodom as homosexual and beyond bounds. The contemporary secular view, informed by geological, archaeological, and historical evidence, holds that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah concerns two issues: a revised understanding of the geophysical events reported as God's destruction of the cities through a rain of fire and brimstone, and a revised understanding of the linguistic problems associated with the translation of key terms and concepts.


Archaeological findings and satellite imaging reveal that subsurface activity and tectonic shifting produced an earthquake and forced masses of sulfuric acid out from underground, resulting in fires and massive destruction. Situated on a fault line south of the Dead Sea, the Pentapolis experienced the pressurized release of subterranean bitumen into the atmosphere. Interacting with fires or sparks on the ground, the petroleum-rich bitumen ignited and resulted in massive fires. Prior to this environmental activity of approximately 5,000 yeas ago, the land around the salty Dead Sea was lush, and the area where Sodom was situated was particularly verdant and congenial to farming. This would explain its attractiveness and the accumulation of wealth by the residents, providing a context for the biblical view that greed and lack of generosity characterized the people of Sodom.

Linguistic challenges to the conventional interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah focus on three elements. First, the names of these two cities are derived from the Hebrew Sodom, meaning burned, and Gomorrah, meaning ruined heap, suggesting that the name by which these towns are known were coined after their destruction, because the cities were neither burned nor ruined before their claimed destruction by God. This view tends to support the idea that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah emerges largely as a parable rather than in faithful service of a set of historical events. Second, the centrality of the homosexual desire in the men of Sodom rests heavily on the understanding of the word know as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Modern interpretations suggest that the men of Sodom intended to know the strangers and thereby discover the identity of Lot's guests. Finally, the supposition of homosexual desire on the part of the men of Sodom for the guests relies on a translation from Hebrew to English in which the Hebrew enoshe is taken as meaning men, when esh would have likely been used to indicate that the Sodomites who wished to know the guests were male. In fact, the Hebrew enoshe likely demarcates the mortal residents of Sodom from the angels who were Lot's guests. Indeed, both esh and enoshe are used in this contested passage from Genesis, differentiating male-gendered humans from mortals.

In actuality, the sin illustrated by the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is less likely the menace of homosexual contact than is the violation and serious breach of cultural practice represented by Lot's selfishness and the selfishness of the people of Sodom. Greed, unwillingness to share, and the widely recognized, traditionally Middle Eastern, violation of the rules of hospitality lie at the heart of the moral of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, if any sexual misdeed or violation of cultural protocol is described in the story, many scholars suggest that the discussion in Genesis of strange flesh refers to the citizens of Sodom seeking sexual relations with nonmortals rather than seeking homosexual congress.


The legend of Sodom and Gomorrah has, at least since the thirteenth century, occupied a special place in European and North American theological and secular narratives, signifying evil, sin, and, in particular, the perils of homosexual contact between men. In the United States prior to the colonial period, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah did not carry the moral imprecations more familiar in contemporary discourse. Contemporary political and cultural preoccupations have provided particular support to some of the less informed interpretations of this story. The particular emphasis on a mythology that surrounds the claimed homosexual desire in the story has enjoyed popularity since the 1980s and a widespread popular renaissance, with implications for drawing contemporary lines of moral judgment.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah has moved beyond simple biblical interpretation. It has formed the basis for religious training, been cited for its moral authority in public policy contexts, and been mistakenly used in knowing-but-tongue-in-cheek ways, such as the exchanging of Saddam and Sodom in humorous contexts. As with many lasting foundational narratives of civilization that transcend time and circumstance, this story's cultural uses stem largely from bad or inadequate translations, cultural fantasy, and lack of archaeological knowledge. Increased archaeological excavation, enhanced satellite imaging, and ongoing improvements in translation and interpretation will yield a more balanced understanding of the various genuine meanings of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.


Alter, Robert. 1994. "Sodom as Nexus: The Web of Design in Biblical Narrative." In Reclaiming Sodom, ed. Jonathan Goldberg. New York: Routledge.

Ehrman, Bart D. 2005. Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Goldberg, Jonathan, ed. 1994. Reclaiming Sodom. New York: Routledge.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. 1994. "The Age of Sodomitical Sin, 1607–1740." In Reclaiming Sodom, ed. Jonathan Goldberg. New York: Routledge.

                                               Melinda Kanner

Sodom und Gomorrha

views updated Jun 11 2018


(Die Legende von Sünde und Strafe ; The Queen of Sin and the Spectacle of Sodom and Gomorrah)

Austria, 1922

Director: Michael Kertész (later Michael Curtiz)

Production: Sascha-Filmindustrie AG, Vienna; black and white, 35 mm, partly colored. Originally in two parts: Part I, 2,100 meters, prologue and four acts; Part II, 1800 meters, 6 acts. Reconstruction by Josef Gloger, Filmarchiv Austria, in 6 reels, length: 3,253.7 meters; running time: 150 minutes. Released 13 October 1922 (Part I: Die Sünde) and 20 October 1922 (Part II: Die Strafe) in Vienna; released in Berlin, Germany, 15 August 1923. Filmed 1921/22 in Laaerberg, Vienna, in the city of Vienna, at Schönbrunn, at Hermesvilla in Vienna, Laxenburg near Vienna, and Erzberg in Styria.

Producer: Count Alexander Kolowrat; screenplay: Ladislaus Vajda, Michael Kertész; photography: Gustav Ucicky; art directors: Julius von Borsody (chief architect), Hans Rouc, Stephan Wessely; costume design: Remigius Geyling; music arrangement: Giuseppe Becce.

Cast: Lucy Doraine (Miss Mary Conway; Sarah, Lot's wife; Lia, Queen of Syria); Erika Wagner (Mrs. Agathe Conway); Georg Reimers (Mr. Jackson Harber, banker); Walter Slezak (Eduard Harber; student; gold smith in Galilea); Michael Varkonyi (Angel; priest); Kurt Ehrle (Harry Lighton); thousands of extras (some sources say 3000, others 14,000), including Willi Forst, Paula Wessely, Hans Thimig, and Béla Balázs.



Gottlein, Arthur, Der österreichische Film. EinBilderbuch, Vienna, 1976.

Fritz, Walter, and Götz Lachmann, editors, Sodom und Gomorrha—Die Legende von Sünde und Strafe, Vienna, 1988.

Pluch, Barbara, Der österreichische Monumentalstummfilm—EinBeitrag zur Filmgeschichte der zwanziger Jahre, Master's thesis, University of Vienna, 1989.

Fritz, Walter, Im Kino erlebe ich die Welt. 100 Jahre Kino und Film inÖsterreich, Vienna, 1997.


Krenn, Günter, "Sodom und Gomorrha 96—Die unendliche Geschichte einer Rekonstruktion," in Österreichisches Filmarchiv Jahrbuch, Vienna, 1996.

Büttner, Elisabeth, and Christian Dewald, "Michael Kertész. Filmarbeit in Österreich bzw. bei der Sascha-Filmindustrie A.-G., Wien, 1919–1926," in Elektrische Schatten. Beiträge zur österreichischenStummfilmgeschichte, edited by Francesco Bono, Paolo Caneppele, and Günter Krenn, Vienna, 1999.

* * *

Sodom und Gomorrha remained a near mythical film for many decades. Only a few fragments of the most grandiose film, not only of producer Sascha Kolowrat, but also of the Austrian silent film era, were available to film historians. The present copy, restored by the Filmarchiv Austria, presents a substantial portion of the original film with missing scenes replaced by intertextual commentaries to maintain the narrative flow.

The demise of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1918 forced the enterprising Kolowrat to look for new business strategies and markets for his Sascha-Film industrie, the largest film company in Austria. On a trip to New York in 1919/20, where he set up the Herz Film Corporation as an American distribution outlet, he was inspired by D.W. Griffiths's Intolerance (1916) to create his own spectaculars.

For the biggest project, Sodom and Gomorrha, he assigned the direction to Michael Kertész, a Hungarian director with great organizational skills who had fled to Vienna for political reasons, but also because Budapest had become too small for his aspirations. Eventually he also outgrew Vienna and responded to an offer from Hollywood, where he became famous as Michael Curtiz. He co-wrote the script with his fellow Hungarian Ladislaus Vajda. The director's then wife, Lucy Doraine, played the leading role; soon after the film was completed they were divorced. The son was played by Walter Slezak, who also moved to Hollywod.

Other members of the crew went on to fame. Julius von Borsody became a highly regarded set designer for many decades in Austrian film. The cameramen were Gustav Ucicky, who worked as a director in Germany in the 1930s and from 1938 to 1945 at Wien-Film, and Franz Planer, who became a highly successful cinematographer in Hollywood. In short, the film was a concentration of young talents who later made their mark in Hollywood or Austria; among the crowd of extras were also the future stars Paula Wessely and Willi Forst.

The film opens at the London stock exchange, showing Harber as a ruthless capitalist. He wants to marry Mary Conway, the daughter of his former lover. The young girl does not love him, but both she and her mother want the life of luxury he can provide. She rejects her true love, the sculptor, who tries to commit suicide. Mary's personality has changed: she flirts with Harber's son Eduard and tries to seduce his teacher, a priest. To present her altered character, the first of the symbolic acts shows Mary as the cruel Queen of Syria, capable of ordering the execution of a young jeweller (played by the same actor as Eduard), who has tried to help her. The action returns to the present with Eduard and his father planning to meet Mary in the garden pavillon. Before they arrive, Mary falls asleep and dreams that Eduard kills his father in a fight over her. She now suddenly finds herself in biblical Sodom as Lot's wife, who serves the love goddess Astarte. The film revels in lavish orgiastic scenes until God destroys the town in punishment. Mary, denounced by the priest, is being led out for execution, when the horror of the situation awakens her from her nightmare. Purified in spirit she recognizes that a loveless marriage for money and her flirtatious behaviour will end in disaster. She returns to the sculptor Harry and a moral life.

With its elaborate structure—a frame story with a plot within a plot—there is no doubt that Sodom und Gomorrha is confusing. Kolowrat and Kertész were clearly striving for sensationalism with the enormous cast, the daring (for their time) orgy scenes, and the cruel, shameless, seductive behavior of Mary. Today the mass scenes border at times on the unintendedly comic, showing as they do hundreds of people moving around aimlessly waving their arms or palm fronds. Remarkable are Lucy Doraine's extravagant contemporary gowns, sexy historical skimpy dresses, and bizarre head wear in the biblical flashback, all created by Remigius Geyling, head set designer at the Vienna Burgtheater. Lucy Doraine plays the roles of Mary Conway, Lot's wife and the Queen of Syria.

The imposing buildings in the film, with the temple of Sodom as the centerpiece, were erected in the south of Vienna on Laaerberg; the studio in Sievering was much too small for such grandiose sets. In this time of economic depression the film offered work for many of the area's unemployed, including technicians, painters, carpenters, hair-dressers, sculptors, and extras. While the film cannot be considered a cinematic masterpiece, it commands admiration as the grandest monumental film of the Austrian silent film era and an important milestone in filmmaking.

—Gertraud Steiner Daviau

Sodom and Gomorrah

views updated Jun 08 2018

Sodom and Gomorrah

According to the Old Testament of the Bible, Sodom and Gomorrah were two cities destroyed by God because of their wickedness. Apparently located near the southern end of the Dead Sea, the cities were known for the crude behavior and lack of hospitality of their inhabitants.

In the book of Genesis, the Hebrew patriarch Abraham begged God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of the few good people living there. God agreed not to destroy the cities if as many as ten righteous men could be found in them. Accordingly, he sent three angels to Sodom. The angels were greeted by Lot, the only good man in either city. Lot invited the angels to his home and treated them graciously. However, that night a group of Lot's neighbors surrounded the house and demanded that he send the angels out to them. When the neighbors tried to break in, the angels told Lot to leave Sodom immediately with his family. They also warned him that no member of his family should look back at the city after leaving it.

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God then sent a raging fire to consume Sodom and Gomorrah. As the cities went up in flames, Lot's wife could not resist looking back on the destruction, and God punished her by turning her into a pillar of salt.

See also Angels; Fire; Semitic Mythology.

Sodom and Gomorrah

views updated May 29 2018

Sodom and Gomorrah. Two cities near the Jordan river. According to Genesis 18 and 19, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God despite the pleas of the patriarch Abraham because of their extreme wickedness. The biblical understanding of the offence of the cities seems to have been that it is one of disregarding the obligations of hospitality.

Sodom and Gomorrah

views updated May 17 2018

Sodom and Gomorrah In the Old Testament, cities located s of the Dead Sea, notorious for their carnality and vice. God could not find even ten good men within Sodom, and so destroyed both it and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone. Lot and his family were allowed to escape the disaster, but Lot's wife lagged behind, was turned to a pillar of salt, and died.

Sodom and Gomorrah

views updated May 18 2018

Sodom and Gomorrah ★★ So-dome et Gomorrhe; The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah 1962

The Italian-made, internationally produced epic about Lot, the Hebrews and the destruction of the two sinful biblical cities. Moderately entertaining— but ponderous, to say the least, and very long. 154m/C VHS . IT Stewart Granger, Stanley Baker, Pier Angeli, Anouk Aimee, Rossana Podesta; D: Robert Aldrich; M: Miklos Rozsa.