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G-d rained on Sodom and on Amora brimstone and fire… He overturned all those cities and the entire valley, and all the cities’ inhabitants and all that grew (19:24-5).
The narrative of Sodom has striking parallels, in both content and use of language, with the story of the pilegesh be-Giv’ah – the Concubine of Giv’ah, related in the last three chapters of the Book of Judges. In both cases, strangers receiving a night’s lodging attracted the attention of physically abusive local people, and in the case of the pilegesh be-Giv’ah the rape actually took place – repeatedly (Jud. 19:25). In addition, both Sodom and the tribe of Benjamin were punished in the same way – death mainly by fire: in the former case directly from G-d, in the latter from the other tribes – G-d putting the Benjaminites in their hands (ibid. 20:28).
In terms of the actual consequences, the sin of the tribe of Benjamin at Giv’ah was much worse than that of Sodom, because the people did indulge their lust, abusing the concubine until her untimely death, whereas the Sodomites’ attempt to abuse the strangers in their community was unsuccessful. Nevertheless the punishment of Sodom was far more severe than that of Giv’ah. The former were utterly exterminated, but the latter, though severely decimated in battle and in the city’s destruction by fire, eventually regenerated themselves as a tribe. Moreover, the Israelites who attempted to punish the Benjaminites for not handing over the culprits lost the first two battles against them with forty thousand of their own people dead – successfully defeating the Benjaminites only on their third attempt.
Why was the tribe involved in the pilegesh be-Giv’ah allowed to survive whereas the people of Sodom were not? And why did the opposing Israelites suffer such huge losses? After all they were executing justice on a tribe that had refused to co-operate in removing a huge blot on the moral record of the Israelites.
Look carefully at the sources that describe the Sodomite way of life. They are described as being ‘very wicked and sinful’ (13:13) and because of that of that G-d decided to destroy them (18:21), despite Abraham’s entreaties on their behalf. By the time the people had unsuccessfully tried to rape Lot’s guests (19:4-11) their sentence had already been decreed.
The only Biblical source that throws light on the underlying character of the people of Sodom is where Ezekiel makes an angry comparison between the Jews of his time and the people of Sodom:
Behold! This was the sin of your sister Sodom: pride, an abundance of bread, an abundance of idleness in it, and in its daughters. They did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy (Ez. 16:49).
In other words the Prophet refers to the people of Sodomites as wealthy, lazy, and sordidly selfish. Their fate was not decreed for the single incident of Lot and his two guests, but because of the utter rottenness at the very roots of their society.
The Talmudic tradition shows the people of Sodom in a similar light – with the famous story of a young woman who was tortured to death under the legal code of Sodom for offering hospitality to strangers in their city (Sanhedrin 109). As R. Samson Raphael Hirsch derives from the text, the reason that the Sodomites were doomed was because their society turned wickedness into the law of the land, and cruelty into justice.
This contrasts with the pilegesh be-Giv’ah. The Book of Judges does not record anything wrong with the Benjaminites other that the actual rapes, and their refusal to hand over the perpetrators to the other tribes for justice. There is no suggestion that what happened was because of intrinsic evil in their society, but rather a very serious aberration on one occasion when there was no legal system: ‘in those days there was no king in Israel – each person did whatever was right in his own eyes’ (Jud. 21:25).
Looking further into the story, it may be broadly compared to the following. The morning newspaper prints big headlines sensationalizing the public with a well-known personality’s being involved in an adulterous affair or a financial scandal. The readers think: ‘Well! Who would have thought of it? A man like him! We trusted him, we voted for him, we gave him responsibility! And now this! What an example for our children! He should be ostracized / locked up / pilloried, and so on…
A wise old man taps him on the shoulder. He whispers to him: ‘Did huge sums of other people’s cash that you thought you could use with no questions asked ever fall into your hands? Do you have an attractive ‘come-hither’ secretary at work? Would you have behaved any better than he had?’
This is the message G-d gave to the other tribes. They were ready and eager to punish the tribe of Benjamin, but initially they did not ask themselves if they were any better than those they intended to punish. Indeed, the first time they did not even consult with G-d through the Urim and Tumim (the lights on the High Priest’s breastplate) whether to go to war with Benjamin over this matter. They took that for granted, just inquiring of G-d as to which tribe should lead the attack (ibid. 20:18). Only after they had been twice defeated did they take serious measures to repent: ‘they wept, sat before G-d, fasted, made offerings…’ (ibid. 20:26) – as the Metzudat David implies, the sacrifices were to heal the breaches between themselves and G-d. Only once they sincerely repented did their act of punishing the Benjamites succeed – as a sanctification of G-d’s name, and not as the self-righteousness of hypocrites. Indeed they would then have been on a comparable spiritual level of the angels who destroyed Sodom – whose desire was to fulfill G-d’s will – only!
We learn from here that before we criticize others, our own conduct must be beyond reproach. This must be to the extent that we elevate ourselves to a spiritual level that we can be certain that we would have acted correctly in similar circumstances.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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