Some people have the notion that the sin of Sodom is sodomy -- which most people now call anal sex. Others believe it specifically refers to the sin of homosexuality. But, there are not too many people, I think, who have actually gone to the trouble of tracking down the definitive sin that sent God over the edge in Genesis 18, when he sent the angels to Abraham to announce that he was going to wipe the city and its allies off the map.
The first clue we get in the Bible that God was upset with this city comes in Genesis 13:
"But the men of Sodom [were] wicked and sinners before the LORD exceedingly."
Not really much to go on. The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy go into great detail about what actually constitutes acts of sin, and since God can kill you for any of them (and in most cases doesn't, except maybe by old age), that encyclopedia doesn't really leave us a hint of what grieved God so much that he saw fit to destroy the entire city and the valley around it.
To get a perspective on what kind of destruction this was, the words fire and brimstone are used in the King James. The verse describing the final act of destruction is
"Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven;"
The word matar is used for rain in the Hiphil perfect tense, which means that the Lord literally hailed this stuff on the city, there were solid objects falling on it. The word brimstone translates gofrith, which is a derivation of gofer, to cover. Some translations have pitch, a tarry substance full of sulfur, which is also used to cover ship's hulls like that of the Ark of Noah. This hints of an event similar to a volcanic explosion. Esh means fire, describing nearly anything that burns and gives off heat, such as a fever or an inferno. All of this taken together can arguably describe a pyroclastic event, which may have been caused by a caldera type volcanic eruption. Such events have been part of the geological picture of the region for millions of years. I've also read of a seismic occurrence appearing in geological evidence about 5,000 years ago, which would be within a 1,200 year range of the destruction of Sodom via Biblical dating. At least it proves seismicity in historical times.
Anyway, you're bored now and it's time to get to the point of why God destroyed this place. Let's talk about sin again. Here's the text that is so often cited as the reason God destroyed Sodom -- the precipitating cause according to most preachers, especially fundamentalist ones.
"And there came two angels to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom: and Lot seeing [them] rose up to meet them; and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground;
"And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in, I pray you, into your servant's house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your ways. And they said, Nay; but we will abide in the street all night.
"And he pressed upon them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat.
"But before they lay down, the men of the city, [even] the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter:
"And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where [are] the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them."
Now, you get the picture here, these angels come to rescue Lot, they're seen going into his house, and a great crowd assembles. Most preachers and some other Bible translations translate the word yada in this verse, rendered "know" in the KJV, as having sex. The following provides a possible context for interpreting the verse this way:
"And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him,
"And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly.
"Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as [is] good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof."
And so most preachers by now are thinking "Bingo, they were after carnal knowledge." However, if you read this more carefully, and go to the Strong's Lexicon (which I've been using), the word yada means "know," with almost all of its definitions referring to "know" the way we use the word most of the time. The Sodomites didn't announce to Lot that they wanted to have sex with the angels. He read that into their behavior and accused them of ill intentions, then offered them his daughters to take those ill intentions out on. This is why they become so enraged, and the following happens:
"And they said, Stand back. And they said [again], This one [fellow] came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge: now will we deal worse with thee, than with them. And they pressed sore upon the man, [even] Lot, and came near to break the door.
"But the men put forth their hand, and pulled Lot into the house to them, and shut to the door.
"And they smote the men that [were] at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great: so that they wearied themselves to find the door.
"And the men said unto Lot, Hast thou here any besides? son in law, and thy sons, and thy daughters, and whatsoever thou hast in the city, bring [them] out of this place:
"For we will destroy this place, because the cry of them is waxen great before the face of the LORD; and the LORD hath sent us to destroy it."
So we're back to square one on this homosexuality theory. It's not clear at all that the men of Sodom intended to have sex with the angels... whatever it was they intended to do, Lot wasn't liking what he saw and made the attempt to stop them from doing it. However, what they probably intended to do can be read in an apocryphal source known as the Book of Jasher, because it turns out the city of Sodom had a vagrancy law like none other in the Middle East, although one king in ancient Greece had a very similar law.
To lay the background out, the book of Jasher, chapter 18:11-17 tells this about Sodom and Gomorrah:
"In those days all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of the whole five cities, were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the Lord and they provoked the Lord with their abominations, and they strengthened in aging abominably and scornfully before the Lord, and their wickedness and crimes were in those days great before the Lord.
"And they had in their land a very extensive valley, about half a day's walk, and in it there were fountains of water and a great deal of herbage surrounding the water. And all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah went there four times in the year, with their wives and children and all belonging to them, and they rejoiced there with timbrels and dances.
"And in the time of rejoicing they would all rise and lay hold of their neighbor's wives, and some, the virgin daughters of their neighbors, and they enjoyed them, and each man saw his wife and daughter in the hands of his neighbor and did not say a word.
"And they did so from morning to night, and they afterward returned home each man to his house and each woman to her tent; so they always did four times in the year.
"Also when a stranger came into their cities and brought goods which he had purchased with a view to dispose of there, the people of these cities would assemble, men, women and children, young and old, and go to the man and take his goods by force, giving a little to each man until there was an end to all the goods of the owner which he had brought into the land.
"And if the owner of the goods quarreled with them, saying, What is this work which you have done to me, then they would approach to him one by one, and each would show him the little which he took and taunt him, saying, I only took that little which thou didst give me; and when he heard this from them all, he would arise and go from them in sorrow and bitterness of soul, when they would all arise and go after him, and drive him out of the city with great noise and tumult."
Then it moves to a specific example: "And there was a man from the country of Elam who was leisurely going on the road, seated upon his ass, which carried a fine mantle of divers colors, and the mantle was bound with a cord upon the ass.
"And the man was on his journey passing through the street of Sodom when the sun set in the evening, and he remained there in order to abide during the night, but no one would let him into his house; and at that time there was in Sodom a wicked and mischievous man, one skillful to do evil, and his name was Hedad.
"And he lifted up his eyes and saw the traveler in the street of the city, and he came to him and said, Whence comest thou and whither dost thou go?
"And the man said to him, I am traveling from Hebron to Elam where I belong, and as I passed the sun set and no one would suffer me to enter his house, though I had bread and water and also straw and provender for my ass, and am short of nothing.
"And Hedad answered and said to him, All that thou shalt want shall be supplied by me, but in the street thou shalt not abide all night.
"And Hedad brought him to his house, and he took off the mantle from the ass with the cord, and brought them to his house, and he gave the ass straw and provender whilst the traveler ate and drank in Hedad's house, and he abode there that night.
"And in the morning the traveler rose up early to continue his journey, when Hedad said to him,
"Wait, comfort thy heart with a morsel of bread and then go, and the man did so; and he remained with him, and they both ate and drank together during the day, when the man rose up to go.
"And Hedad said to him, Behold now the day is declining, thou hadst better remain all night that thy heart may be comforted; and he pressed him so that he tarried there all night, and on the second day he rose up early to go away, when Hedad pressed him, saying, Comfort thy heart with a morsel of bread and then go, and he remained and ate with him also the second day, and then the man rose up to continue his journey.
"And Hedad said to him, Behold now the day is declining, remain with me to comfort thy heart and in the morning rise up early and go thy way.
"And the man would not remain, but rose and saddled his ass, and whilst he was saddling his ass the wife of Hedad said to her husband, Behold this man has remained with us for two days eating and drinking and he has given us nothing, and now shall he go away from us without giving anything? and Hedad said to her, Be silent.
"And the man saddled his ass to go, and he asked Hedad to give him the cord and mantle to tie it upon the ass.
"And Hedad said to him, What sayest thou? And he said to him, That thou my lord shalt give me the cord and the mantle made with divers colors which thou didst conceal with thee in thy house to take care of it.
"And Hedad answered the man, saying, This is the interpretation of thy dream, the cord which thou didst see, means that thy life will be lengthened out like a cord, and having seen the mantle colored with all sorts of colors, means that thou shalt have a vineyard in which thou wilt plant trees of all fruits.
"And the traveler answered, saying, Not so my lord, for I was awake when I gave thee the cord and also a mantle woven with different colors, which thou didst take off the ass to put them by for me; and Hedad answered and said, Surely I have told thee the interpretation of thy dream and it is a good dream, and this is the interpretation thereof.
"Now the sons of men give me four pieces of silver, which is my charge for interpreting dreams, and of thee only I require three pieces of silver.
"And the man was provoked at the words of Hedad, and he cried bitterly, and he brought Hedad to Serak judge of Sodom.
"And the man laid his cause before Serak the judge, when Hedad replied, saying, It is not so, but thus the matter stands; and the judge said to the traveler, This man Hedad telleth thee truth, for he is famed in the cities for the accurate interpretation of dreams.
"And the man cried at the word of the judge, and he said, Not so my Lord, for it was in the day that I gave him the cord and mantle which was upon the ass, in order to put them by in his house; and they both disputed before the judge, the one saying, Thus the matter was, and the other declaring otherwise.
"And Hedad said to the man, Give me four pieces of silver that I charge for my interpretations of dreams; I will not make any allowance; and give me the expense of the four meals that thou didst eat in my house.
"And the man said to Hedad, Truly I will pay thee for what I ate in thy house, only give me the cord and mantle which thou didst conceal in thy house.
"And Hedad replied before the judge and said to the man, Did I not tell thee the interpretation of thy dream? the cord means that thy days shall be prolonged like a cord, and the mantle, that thou wilt have a vineyard in which thou wilt plant all kinds of fruit trees.
"This is the proper interpretation of thy dream, now give me the four pieces of silver that I require as a compensation, for I will make thee no allowance.
"And the man cried at the words of Hedad and they both quarreled before the judge, and the judge gave orders to his servants, who drove them rashly from the house.
"And they went away quarreling from the judge, when the people of Sodom heard them, and they gathered about them and they exclaimed against the stranger, and they drove him rashly from the city.
"And the man continued his journey upon his ass with bitterness of soul, lamenting and weeping.
"And whilst he was going along he wept at what had happened to him in the corrupt city of Sodom."
The book of Jasher isn't done telling on Sodom though. It continues in 19:1-7,
"And the cities of Sodom had four judges to four cities, and these were their names, Serak in the city of Sodom, Sharkad in Gomorrah, Zabnac in Admah, and Menon in Zeboyim.
"And Eliezer Abraham's servant applied to them different names, and he converted Serak to Shakra, Sharkad to Shakrura, Zebnac to Kezobim, and Menon to Matzlodin." (These were mocking names; Eliezer had cause to hate them.)
"And by desire of their four judges the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had beds erected in the streets of the cities, and if a man came to these places they laid hold of him and brought him to one of their beds, and by force made him to lie in them.
"And as he lay down, three men would stand at his head and three at his feet, and measure him by the length of the bed, and if the man was less than the bed these six men would stretch him at each end, and when he cried out to them they would not answer him.
"And if he was longer than the bed they would draw together the two sides of the bed at each end, until the man had reached the gates of death.
"And if he continued to cry out to them, they would answer him, saying, Thus shall it be done to a man that cometh into our land.
"And when men heard all these things that the people of the cities of Sodom did, they refrained from coming there."
Still not done, Jasher 19:8-10 also describes this practice of the city dwellers:
"And when a poor man came to their land they would give him silver and gold, and cause a proclamation in the whole city not to give him a morsel of bread to eat, and if the stranger should remain there some days, and die from hunger, not having been able to obtain a morsel of bread, then at his death all the people of the city would come and take their silver and gold which they had given to him.
"And those that could recognize the silver or gold which they had given him took it back, and at his death they also stripped him of his garments, and they would fight about them, and he that prevailed over his neighbor took them.
"They would after that carry him and bury him under some of the shrubs in the deserts; so they did all the days to any one that came to them and died in their land."
And you can read about the rest of the works of Sodom in Jasher 18 and 19 at http://www.ccel.org/a/anonymous/jasher/19.htm, and what happened to Eliezer and Paltith the daughter of Lot, and to another woman in another city in the plain when these cities supported gross injustice against the poor and the stranger, even to the point of horribly executing people for feeding or helping strangers and the poor. Funny thing though, there's not a single reference to homosexuality in the Jasher tale, and the assemblage of the crowd in the Genesis version is skipped in the Jasher version of Lot's escape later in chapter 19. Judging from the customary behavior of the Sodomites toward strangers, though, I have no doubt that the assembled townsmen intended to take the angels, measure them on the rack, pilfer their goods if they had any, the way they did to travelers, or deliberately starve them to death -- just for being a stranger without goods. Social Darwinism at its worst.
But, you ask, are there canonical Biblical verses that corroborate the story the way Jasher tells it? Glad you asked. Got one right here.
"Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw [good]."
What? Not sex? Not perversion? They got killed for refusing to help the poor? That's what God told Ezekiel! Aw come on, now, that's just an isolated verse, you say. As Jim Carrey might say in Pet Detective, "Ohhh, Hreaallllyyyyy!" I got a whole passage from Isaiah for you. First chapter in the book:
"Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.
"To what purpose [is] the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.
"When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?
"Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; [it is] iniquity, even the solemn meeting.
"Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear [them].
"And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.
"Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;
"Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow."
"Judgement" is mishpat in the Hebrew. It can legitimately be translated "due process of law." God wants us to seek due process of law, according to Isaiah. "Relieve the oppressed" uses the verb 'ashar in the Piel imperative, which means "Set it right." You're supposed to set right what causes oppression. "Judge the fatherless" -- for that one we go into a little more depth in the Strong's notes where shaphat in this verse means "Defend (the orphans.)" It goes with the flow and context of the rest of this passage. Seek due process of law, set right the oppressed, defend the orphans, and plead the widow's cause in a court of law. Everything the people of Sodom refused to do and did the opposite of.
When you go to the polls to vote in the next elections, and someone asks you which candidate God would vote for, one would probably do well to remember that verse in Isaiah, if nothing else. This nation should not even be moving in the direction of becoming like Sodom -- not because of sexual morality, but because of plain simple human decency and respect for human rights.