Who Were The Sodomites? What Did They Do Wrong?
Ever since I was a child, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah fascinated me. The people of Sodom were evil, and G-d punished them in G-d style. Fire and sulfur raining down from heaven, an angel overturning the entire area, and Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt. However, the Bible doesn't tell us what the Sodomites did to deserve this. All it says is that they were really evil.
So in the following post, I will be quoting some sources from the Talmud and commentaries, that will shed some light on who the Sodomites were, what they did, and why they did it.
I'll begin by quoting a few stories the Talmud says about them. The following stories are from Talmud Sanhedrin, 109
How the Sodomites killed property owners
Rava taught: What is the meaning of that which is written: “How long will you seek to overwhelm a man? You will all be murdered like a leaning wall or a tottering fence” (Psalms 62:4)? This teaches that the people of Sodom set their sights on property owners. They would take one and place him alongside an inclined, flimsy wall that was about to fall, and push it upon him to kill him, and then they would come and take his property.
How the Sodomites stole from rich people
Rava taught: What is the meaning of that which is written: “In the dark they dig through houses; by day they shut themselves up; they know not the light” (Job 24:16)? This teaches that they would set their sights on rich people. They would take one and they would give him balsam, whose smell diffuses, and the rich person would place it in his treasury. In the evening, the people of Sodom would come and sniff it out like a dog and discover the location of the rich person’s treasury, as it is stated: “They return at evening; they howl like a dog, and go round about the city” (Psalms 59:7). And after discovering the location they would come and dig there, and they would take that money.
Rabbi Yosei taught in Tzippori the methods of theft employed in Sodom. That night three hundred tunnels were excavated in Tzippori in order to employ those methods. Homeowners came and harassed him; they said to him: You have given a way for thieves to steal. Rabbi Yosei said to them: Did I know that thieves would come as a result of my lecture?
The Sodomite shepherd rule, and river passage price
The people of Sodom would say: Anyone who has one ox shall herd the city’s oxen for one day. Anyone who does not have any oxen shall herd the city’s oxen for two days. The Gemara relates: They gave oxen to a certain orphan, son of a widow, to herd. He went and took them and killed them. The orphan said to the people of Sodom: Let anyone who has one ox take one hide and let anyone who does not have an ox take two hides. The people of Sodom said to the orphan: What is the reason for this? The orphan said to them: The ultimate rule is parallel to the initial rule; just as the initial rule is that anyone who has one ox shall herd the city’s animals for one day and anyone who does not have any oxen shall herd the city’s animals for two days, so too, the ultimate rule is: Let anyone who has one ox take one hide and let anyone who does not have an ox take two hides.
Furthermore, they declared in Sodom: Let one who crosses on a ferry give one dinar as payment; let one who does not cross on a ferry, but walks in the river, give two dinars.
Sodomite thievery, one brick at a time
When there was anyone who had a row of bricks, each and every one of the people of Sodom would come and take one brick and say to him: I am taking only one, and you are certainly not particular about so inconsequential an item, and they would do this until none remained. And when there was anyone who would cast garlic or onions to dry, each and every one of the people of Sodom would come and take one and say to him: I took only one garlic or onion, and they would do this until none remained.
The Sodomite justice system
There were four judges in Sodom and they were named for their actions: Shakrai, meaning liar, and Shakrurai, habitual liar, Zayfai, forger, and Matzlei Dina, perverter of justice. These were the judgments that they rendered: In a case of one who strikes the wife of another and causes her to miscarry, they would say to the woman’s husband: Give the woman to the one who struck her, so that she will be impregnated for you again. In a case of one who severed the ear of another’s donkey, they would say to the owner of the donkey: Give the donkey to the one who caused the damage, until the ear grows back. In a case of one who wounds another, they would say to the injured party: Give the one who wounded you a fee, as he let your blood.
And they instituted an ordinance: One who crossed the river on a ferry gives four dinars, and one who crossed the river in the water gives eight dinars. One time a certain launderer came and arrived there. The people of Sodom said to him: Give four dinars as payment for the ferry. He said to them: I crossed in the water. They said to him: If so, give eight dinars, as you crossed in the water. He did not give the payment, and they struck him and wounded him. He came before the judge to seek compensation. The judge said to him: Give your assailant a fee, as he let your blood, and eight dinars, as you crossed the river in the water.
Eliezer, servant of Abraham, happened to come there, and they wounded him. He came before the judge to seek compensation. The judge said to him: Give your assailant a fee, as he let your blood. He took a stone and he wounded the judge. The judge said: What is this?Eliezer said to him: The fee that is to be paid to me by you, give it to that person who wounded me, and my money will remain where it remains.
How the Sodomites treated guests
They had beds on which they would lay their guests; when a guest was longer than the bed they would cut him, and when a guest was shorter than the bed they would stretch him. Eliezer, servant of Abraham, happened to come there. They said to him: Come lie on the bed. He said to them: I took a vow that since the day my mother died I do not lie on a bed.
How the Sodomites treated poor people
When a poor person would happen to come to Sodom, each and every person would give him a dinar, and the name of the giver was written on each dinar. And they would not give or sell him bread, so that he could not spend the money and would die of hunger. When he would die, each and every person would come and take back his dinar.
There was a young woman who would take bread out to the poor people in a pitcher so the people of Sodom would not see it. The matter was revealed, and they smeared her with honey and positioned her on the wall of the city, and the hornets came and consumed her. And that is the meaning of that which is written: “And the Lord said: Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great [rabba]” (Genesis 18:20). And Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: rabba is an allusion to the matter of the young woman [riva] who was killed for her act of kindness. It is due to that sin that the fate of the people of Sodom was sealed.
Why the Sodomites did what they did
We see from the above how the Sodomites murdered, and stole. We also see how much they hated poor people and guests. The question is, why did they hate them so much? For that we have the next few sources, that explain where that hatred came from.
The following is from Talmud Sanhedrin, 109a.
The Sages taught: The people of Sodom became haughty and sinned only due to the excessive goodness that the Holy One, Blessed be He, bestowed upon them. And what is written concerning them, indicating that goodness? “As for the earth, out of it comes bread, and underneath it is turned up as it were by fire. Its stones are the place of sapphires, and it has dust of gold. That path no bird of prey knows, neither has the falcon’s eye seen it. The proud beasts have not trodden it, nor has the lion passed thereby” (Job 28:5-8). The reference is to the city of Sodom, which was later overturned, as it is stated thereafter: “He puts forth His hand upon the flinty rock; He overturns the mountains by the roots” (Job 28:9).
The people of Sodom said: Since we live in a land from which bread comes and has the dust of gold, we have everything that we need. Why do we need travelers, as they come only to divest us of our property? Come, let us cause the proper treatment of travelers to be forgotten from our land, as it is stated: “He breaks open a watercourse in a place far from inhabitants, forgotten by pedestrians, they are dried up, they have moved away from men” (Job 28:4).
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631), a famous Talmudic commentator, explains the above text as follows:
Most countries are not self reliant, and are forced to depend on other countries for some of their resources. Some countries grow a lot of grain for bread, which they then sell for money (silver and gold in ancient times), which they then use to buy their other expenses. Other countries have a lot of silver and gold (money), but don't grow a lot of grain. They take their gold, and travel to the country with grain to buy grain. Thus, these countries depend on people traveling between the two, in order to trade resources.
However, Sodom was a city of plenty. Their land was fertile, and produced grain, plus, their land also had gold. Therefore, they did not need travelers from other cities in order to have the resources they needed. In fact, if travelers would come, they'd only be draining Sodom's resources. And even though the Sodomites had so much plenty, that even if travelers would come (and drain their resources), it wouldn't change their quality of life, they still didn't want to share their resources. And in order to make sure no travelers would come, they decided to mistreat all travelers cruelly.
The Sodomite character trait
This character trait of not wanting to give something to someone else, even if you don't lose anything by giving it, is referred to throughout Talmud as the character trait of Sodom. This will be illustrated with the following source from Talmud Bava Basra, 12b.
It is reported that a certain person bought land along the boundary of his father’s property. After some time the father died. When they came to divide the estate, this person said to his brothers: Give me my portion of the estate along my boundary. Rabba said: In a case such as this, the court compels the brothers to refrain from conduct characteristic of Sodom. I.e. the court forces a person to waive his legal rights in order to stop him from acting in a manner characteristic of Sodom. Since it makes no difference to the brothers which portion they receive, since the parcels of land are of equal value, whereas it matters to this brother that he receive the area adjacent to the land he already bought, the court forces the others to give this brother his portion along his boundary.
We see from this source, that not wanting to give something to someone else, when you don't lose anything by giving it, is called the character trait of Sodom. Furthermore, we see how much we despise this characteristic. This characteristic is considered so reprehensible, that Jewish courts force people not to act this way!
The Sodomites were cruel and stingy. They had so much, to the extant that even if they gave to others, it wouldn't have effected their quality of life. Yet, they still didn't want to share it with anyone. They therefore hated having travelers and poor people around, and therefore made all these cruel laws that would discourage any traveler or poor person from coming.
Although the lessons from the above are many, I'll end off with just one question:
How can we be more kind and giving?