The name evokes evil. Rape. Corruption. Hatred of immigrants.
Of course, you know that now. This week. But you did not know it last week. Not really.
Last week, in synagogue, we read that the people of Sodom are bad (Gen. 13:13). But we felt sorry for them anyway. Because we saw them as victims.
Four kings from the east invade Sodom’s region. They conquer five local cities. For twelve years, Sodom and its allies serve the conquerors. But in the thirteenth year, the allies rebel. Unsuccessfully. The four eastern kings strike back at the locals, including the refaim, emim and other tribes. Then, they take Sodom’s food and property. Sodom’s survivors flee. (Gen. 14:1-11).
But our hero Abraham appears to help them. Because the invaders have captured his nephew. And because he has a treaty with one of the tribes. When he leads the allies to victory, the King of Sodom offers to pay him for his trouble.
Sodom has a nice king.
Or so you might think.
Unless you pay attention to a favourite saying from the poet Maya Angelou. “When somebody shows you who they are, believe them.”
Torah’s details show us exactly who the king of Sodom and his allies are. And who the invaders are. How? Through intertextual hints and nuances of Hebrew language.
Here are the names of the king of Sodom and his friends. There’s Bera, whose name means “through evil.” And Birsha, “with wickedness.” Shinab, “father-hater.” Shemever, “destroyer of limbs.” Plus, an unnamed king.
In Biblical Hebrew, the word for “name” can also mean “reputation.” As in a bad one. For example, Torah calls the nefilim and their children “people of the name” (Gen. 6:4). Commentators call them infamous, corrupt. The people of Shinar build the tower of Babel in order to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). Commentators call them greedy.
The king of Sodom and his friends have horrendous names. Obviously, they also have terrible reputations.
Let’s also take a closer look at the foreign invaders who conquer them. One does come from Shinar, land of greed. But, together, what do they do? They conquer the refaim and the emim — local names for the corrupt nefilim. (Num. 13:33; Deut. 2:11).
And what are the names of the invaders? Their reputations, that is? There’s King Amraphel, “speaker of wonders.” Arioch, “striking lion.” Chedorlaomer, “boundary of measure.” And Tidal, the one who “knows about.”
These foreign invaders, it seems, do a bit of good in Sodom. They conquer corruption. Enforce just weights and measures, i.e., honesty in business. They bring knowledge and positive discourse. And they back it up with strength.
How do we, the readers, miss the virtue these foreigners bring? We don’t look at the details. Because ancient politics are just too confusing.
Abraham glosses over the details, too. Of course, he needs to save his nephew. But he also props up a wicked regime. One that hates foreigners, rips apart families, and harms people’s bodies.
But this, as it turns out, it is a bad idea.
Because, “the cry [of the oppressed in] Sodom…is great and their [the oppressor’s] sin is very serious” (Gen. 18:20).
Finally, Abraham understands the city is doomed. Still, he pleads for the lives of the few good people left (Gen. 18:23-33). But it is too late. Justice, knowledge, and civil speech have been driven out.
Friends, are you living in Sodom? Please don’t wait until it is too late to save your city.