Sodom and Gomorrah in the Pseudepigrapha: A Survey and Analysis

James H. Charlesworth offers general readers four initial thoughts on the importance of the Pseudepigrapha. They deserve to be quoted in full:

First, there is the very abundance of the literature, although we possess only part of the writings produced by Jews during the period 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. . . .
 
Second, the Pseudepigrapha illustrate the pervasive influence of the Old Testament books upon Early Judaism. . . .1
 
Third, we learn from the Pseudepigrapha that the consecutive conquests of Palestinian Jews by Persians, Greeks, and Romans, and the intermittent invasion by Syrian, Egyptian, and Parthian armies did not dampen the enthusiasm of religious Jews for their ancestral decisions. . . .
 
Fourth [and finally], the Pseudepigrapha attest that the post-exilic Jews often were torn within by divisions and sects, and intermittently conquered from without by foreign nations who insulted, abused, and frequently employed fatal torture. . . . 2

Most of these early Jewish writers believed they were free to reinterpret the various Old Testament texts, but it seems quite appropriate to state that they offered very little in the way of a positive reading of the Sodom and Gomorrah (S&G) narrative in Genesis. Instead, they treat the story as it is: a revelation of God’s judgment upon a sinful city (or cities). For an excellent introduction to apocalyptic literature, see the work of John J. Collins and George W. E. Nickelsburg.3

The Pseudepigrapha

The pseudepigraphal texts are in no particular order, and the majority of these works can be dated between 300 BC and AD 300. Thus, they are all important for determining social context and location, especially for the early Jewish Christians.

3 Maccabees 2:5 (First Century BC)

When the inhabitants of Sodom acted insolently and became notorious for their crimes you burned them up with fire and brimstone and made them an example to later generations.4

The previous verses (3–4) provide a quick-clip recap of the judgment texts in Genesis, beginning with God as creator and ruler who judges (v 3). The exhortation of the high priest includes v 5, which indicts S&G as those who “acted arrogantly,” possibly echoing earlier Maccabean literature.5 The subsequent verse (v 4) alludes to the flood narrative (Gen 6–7), where God “destroyed [those who committed injustice] by bringing on them a boundless flood.” The narrative typology is intended to invoke the imagery from Israel’s mythic beginnings.

Verse 5 seems to predate the language of 2 Peter 2, utilizing the idiom “fire and sulfur.”6 The explanatory clause “you made them an example” is intended to clarify the intended meaning of the preceding phrase: the notoriety of S&G resulted in “consumption,” and this is an actualized example of what will happen “to those who should afterward” sin in the same way.

To be pithy: if you want to know what God did and what you can look forward to, see S&G. Any conception of restoration seems largely absent.

2 Enoch 34:1 (Late First Century AD)

God convicts the persons who are idol worshippers and sodomite fornicators and for this reason he brings down the flood upon them.7

The textual tradition of 2 Enoch is highly complicated and contains many interpolations and glosses. Andersen notes that the reference to the “Sodomites” is not only “a gloss” from a particular manuscript, but “is a later addition confusing the traditions from Genesis 18ff.”8 However, the reference does highlight the link early Jewish authors believe existed between God’s judgment of wicked humanity (34:1b) and the S&G narrative.

Greek Apocalypse of Ezra 2:18–21 and 7:12–16 (Second–Ninth Century AD)

This text is highly significant theologically, as God is in near constant negotiation with the seer. This reflects the ancient model of the patriarchs who argued with God:9

And the prophet said, “O my Lord, let us continue to a second judgment.” And God said, “I cast down fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah.” And the prophet said, “Lord, you bring upon us what we deserve.”10

This paragraph precedes judgment (2:26–32), and while there may be mercy at the end (7:13), the preceding verse asserts what will happen to those “who do not believe this book [a likely reference to the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra].” They “will be burned like Sodom and Gomorrah” (7:13). It is likely that this apocalypse has the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in view (Luke 16:19–31). The Trinitarian benediction (7:16) reveals that this is likely a Christian document.

Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs 4:1–5 and 9:1–3 (Second Century BC)

There are two references to S&G in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The first one occurs in The Testament of Naphtali in 4:1–5:

I say these things, my children, because I have read in the writing of Holy Enoch that you also will stray from the Lord, living in accord with every wickedness of the gentiles and committing every lawlessness of Sodom. The Lord will impose captivity upon you; you shall serve your enemies there and you will be engulfed in hardship and difficulty until the Lord will wear you all out.11

The text goes on to articulate a form of remnant theology through decimation (4:3b). Mercy does return Israel, but only to the remnant that survives the dispersion (4:4–5). S&G serves as an example of immorality, wickedness, and lawlessness; the result is captivity upon Israel for acting in the same manner, leading to their decimation and leaving only a remnant to return to God once God has decided upon mercy.

The next reference is in The Testament of Benjamin 9:1–3:

From the words of Enoch the Righteous12 I tell you that you will be sexually promiscuous like the promiscuity of the Sodomites13 and will perish, with few exceptions . . .14

Again, the emphasis on the remnant is a standard trope in the Old Testament and finds its way into the New Testament at times (Rom 9:27; 11:5).15 The reference to “perish” could be a narrative echo of the flood account in Genesis 6–7, where all flesh perished except for the remnant found in Noah and his family.16 There is a restoration of Israel that follows, but the text does not specify that all of the individuals who perished are going to be resurrected.

The Testament of Isaac 5:27–32 (Second Century AD)

Stinespring notes that the theological importance of the Testament of Isaac concludes with this axiom: “Men should set their houses in order for preparation for death, they should live good moral lives, they should remember the judgment, but they should forget neither the mercy of God nor the need that they themselves be merciful.”17 The emphasis on the mercy of God thus has significant precedence within the world of the New Testament (Rom 11:32–36).

Then I observed the deep river18 whose smoke had come up before me, and I saw a group of people at the bottom of it, screaming, weeping, every one of them lamenting. The angel said to me, “Look at the bottom to observe those whom you see at the lowest depth. They are the ones who have committed the sin of Sodom;19 truly, they were due a drastic punishment. Then I saw the overseer of punishment and he was all of him fire. He would strike the myrmidons of hell (his helpers) and say to them, “Kill them that it may be known that God exists forever.” Then the angel said to me, “Lift up your eyes and look at the whole gamut of punishments.” But I said to the angel, “My sight cannot embrace them because of their great number; but I desire to understand how long these people are to be in this torture.’ He said to me, “Until the God of mercy becomes merciful and has mercy on them.”20

Several things are to be pointed out. First, the vindictiveness of the New Testament is pretty tame compared to this. Paul has some interesting and harsh things to say to his churches (cf 1 Cor 5), but they pale compared to this. Excluding the vivid imagery of Revelation 14 and 20, the New Testament does not envision the eternal conscious torment of the individual in the afterlife.21

Second, the emphasis on mercy is based purely on God’s sheer generosity and goodness, and not on the continuous nature of human suffering in the afterlife.

Third and finally—though more could be said—the form taken by the mercy of God is not mentioned in the following sections, and the expected mercy does seem ambiguous given the nature of the punishment previously mentioned (5:28–29) of those in hell being “killed.” Does mercy remove them from life altogether, or are they removed from hell? It does not seem clear. The mentioning of the sin of Sodom illustrates the seriousness of sin and depravity, with the continually negative imagery that S&G evokes from the author.

Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers 12:61 (Second to Third Century AD)

There is no structure to these prayers, and there appear to be several Christian interpolations22 throughout this text though there are none in our section.

(You are) the one who kindled the fearful fire against the five cities23 of Sodom, and turned a fruitful land into salt because of those living in it, and snatched away pious Lot from the burning.24

Several things should be noted. First, what was once a living cityscape is now sown with salt. Salt, in this context, is clearly not a purifying agent, but a decisive destructive element, designed to keep the ground from sprouting life and thus preventing a return to the land that was once fruitful.

Second, it is curious that Lot is called “pious,” as his actions in the following chapters of Genesis seem to reveal a far more morally complex character.25

S&G is noted as being utterly wiped out, with the land said to be uninhabitable. The idea of S&G being inhabited now is not in the mind of the author, but rather he sketches out the totality of destruction as far as the author could conceive.

Jubilees 16:5–6; 20:6; 22:22 (Second Century BC)

In Jubilees, we have a retelling of the Genesis narratives. Specifically, in 16:5–6 we read:

And in that month the LORD executed the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah and Zeboim and all of the district of the Jordan. And he burned them with fire and sulfur and he annihilated them till this day just as (he said), “Behold, I have made known to you all of their deeds that (they were) cruel and great sinners and they were polluting themselves and they were fornicating in their flesh and they were causing pollution upon the earth.” And thus the LORD will execute judgment like the judgment of Sodom on places where they act according to the pollution of Sodom.26

The duration of the annihilation of S&G (and the surrounding areas) is seemingly quick. Unlike the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra, there is little existential torment or torture here. Rather, there appears to be a cataclysmic event that ends in extinction. The final verse illustrates the typology of how S&G is being used and how all people who embrace the cruelty and pollution of S&G will end up: absolutely destroyed.

This is followed in 20:6 with a brief admonition to “guard yourself from all fornication and impurity”27 and because of this, “all your sons” will suffer “a destruction by the sword, and you will be cursed like Sodom, and all your remnant like the sons of Gomorrah”28. This is concluded in the final reference:

Just as the sons of Sodom were taken from the earth, so (too) all of those who worship idols shall be taken away.29

The phrase “were taken from the earth” harkens back to the desolation of 16:5–6, and the annihilation of the cities and all of their inhabitants. These three references illustrate the utter ruin of S&G and do not suggest a restoration of these cities. Instead, they reside as a sobering reminder of the destructive consequences of sin.30

Conclusion

There are other references in the Pseudepigrapha to S&G, but these are simply mentions and the author moves on (cf Pseudo-Philo 45:2–3), offering little interpretation of the events.

What can be derived from all of this evidence is that S&G is viewed in universally negative terms, whether for sexual immorality, cruelty, or general depravity. In enacting judgment, God is said to wipe them out, annihilate them, and destroy them, and there does not appear to be any reference (barring the ambiguous reference in the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra, a second-century AD work) to there being any restorative nature to the destruction. Instead, S&G offers a sobering reminder to the power of God to overcome sin and destroy all of the evil within God’s good kingdom.

  1. We can see this is so because of the numerous “Testaments” dedicated to the various patriarchs. []
  2. James H. Charlesworth, “Introduction for the General Reader,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Hendrickson, 2013), 2:xxviii. []
  3. John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2nd ed. (Eerdmans, 1998); George W. E. Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Harvard University Press, 2006). []
  4. James H. Charlesworth, ed., “3 Maccabees,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, trans. H. Andersen (Hendrickson, 2013), 1:519. This section seems clearly to predate the language used in Jude and 2 Peter. []
  5. 1 Macc 1:21; 7:34, 47; see also Dan 7:8, 20. []
  6. Luke 17:27–29 specifies what “fire and sulfur” is intended to communicate, showing Jesus’ utilization of the imagery and result: “destruction” (ἀπώλεσεν). The idiom can connote torment in an apocalyptic (Rev 14:10; 20:10) and in a generally eschatological sense (Ps 11:6; Ezra 38:22). []
  7. James H. Charlesworth, ed., “2 Enoch,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, trans. H. Andersen (Hendrickson, 2013), 1:158. []
  8. Ibid., 1:158, n.a. []
  9. Abraham argues with God over S&G (Gen 18:16–32), Moses pleads with God over the idolatry of the Israelites (Exod 32:9–14), and Hezekiah begs God and is rewarded (2 Kgs 20:1–11). []
  10. James H. Charlesworth, ed., “Greek Apocalypse of Ezra,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, trans. M. E. Stone (Hendrickson, 2013), 1:572. []
  11. James H. Charlesworth, ed., “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, trans. H. C. Kee (Hendrickson, 2013), 1:812. []
  12. Kee notes that this reference is “not found in extant Enochic material” in ibid., 1:827, n9a. []
  13. The use of “Sodomites” is a reference to the inhabitants of S&G and likely does not reflect the modern debate or usage of the term, especially with the sexual connotations assumed therein. []
  14. Charlesworth, “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” 1:827. The rest of the text is considered to be textually suspect, due to the phrase, “the temple curtain shall be torn” (v 3) and the entirety of verse 3. Of course, it could be a genuine prophecy, but Kee considers it to be a Christian interpolation, though he acknowledges that The Testament of Levi 10:3 contains an allusion to the temple veil being torn. It seems that such an interpolation is unlikely, but because it is strongly disputed we shall not utilize it. []
  15. The remnant is also found in the Apocrypha in such texts as Tobit 13:16 and Sirach 44:17. []
  16. Cf 2 Pet 3:6: “They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished (ἀπώλετο; aorist indicative middle). But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction (ἀπωλείας; genitive singular noun) of the godless.” []
  17. James H. Charlesworth, ed., “Testament of Isaac,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, trans. W. F. Stinespring (Hendrickson, 2013), 1:904. []
  18. Stinespring notes that this term is likely better translated as “abyss” in ibid., 909, n.b. []
  19. The text does not specify the nature of the sin, and since S&G is a kitchen sink type of story in the Old Testament, one can assume immorality of all kinds is in view. []
  20. Charlesworth, “Testament of Isaac,” 909. []
  21. Cf E. Earle Ellis, Christ and the Future in New Testament History (The Netherlands: Brill, 2000), 180–99. []
  22. Specifically, some of the language echoes the gospel of John, though this type of language may be found in Philo, and this may weaken the interpolation hypothesis of various text stipulated by Darnell and Goodenough (a splendid last name for a scholar, if I may say so!). []
  23. A similar reference may be found in Wisdom 10:6–7. []
  24. James H. Charlesworth, ed., “Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, trans. D. R. Darnell (Hendrickson, 2013), 2:693. []
  25. For a fascinating and illuminating treatment of “patriarchs behaving badly,” see Fuller Theological Seminary professor of Reformed theology and church history, John L. Thompson, Reading the Bible with the Dead (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), specifically ch.4-5. []
  26. James H. Charlesworth, ed., “Jubilees,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, trans. O. S. Wintermute (Hendrickson, 2013), 2:88. []
  27. Thus, sexual misconduct seems to be an issue for the writer’s view of how God judged S&G. Not all New Testament writers make this point (cf Rom 9:29), but it is clear that the priestly author of Jubilees views it in such a manner. []
  28. Charlesworth, “Jubilees,” 2:94. []
  29. Ibid., 2:99. []
  30. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977), 365: “Thus idolatry is warned against or forbidden: 1.9 (the uncleanness, shame and idolatry of the Gentiles); 11.4 (the transgression and uncleanness of idolatry); 11.16 (‘went astray after graven images and after ‘uncleanness’); 12.2; 20.7 (‘walk not after their idols, and after their ‘uncleannesses’); 22.22; 36.5. Sexual sins are frequently warned against without being specified: 16.4-6 (the Sodomites and others defile’ themselves and commit fornication in their flesh, and work uncleanness on the earth’); 20.3-5 (Israelites should refrain ‘from all fornication and uncleanness’).” []
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